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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Steve Inskeep - Instant City

‘Instant City, Life and death in Karachi’ is a non-fiction work by Steve Inskeep, the host of NPR’s All Things Considered. It offers great insights into how this Hindu majority trading port of 400,000 became a bustling Muslim metropolis of 13m and how its transformation offers lessons to other cities around the globe.

Inskeep begins by exploring the secular nature of the city. At the time of Pakistan’s independence, Karachi’s population was 51% Hindu. Most businesses were Hindu owned and the largest shipping company was owned by a Parsi, Dawn columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee’s father. Jinnah’s dogmatic belief that Muslims in India comprised a separate nation led to the formation of Pakistan. The economic reality of a city run by Hindus pushed him towards a more pragmatic compromise. This arguably led him to make the famous speech about his vision of a Pakistan as a secular and not theocratic state. However, Karachi’s minority population was at the mercy of the incoming refugees who were in no mood to heed to, what Inskeep termed in an interview, as the nuances of a lawyer. He quotes from various editorials by Punniah of the Sindh Observer who warned about the city being swamped by the onslaught of incoming refugees. The city was indeed, swamped, and Punniah had to flee to Bangalore. Cowasjee’s father was persuaded to stay.

The city became 90% Muslim overnight, but they newcomers unleashed other divisions to fight over. Whilst the city was relatively liberal during the 1970s, Zia’s policies changed its profile during the ‘80s. Bars and nightclubs were banned. Plans to make Karachi into a Macao for wealthy Arabs were shelved. The Pathan immigration during the ‘80s and ‘90s brought them into conflict with the Mohajirs with each group trying to defend its territory. Millions of illegal settlements were built, and then legalized by succeeding governments that were split along ethnic lines. The land mafia made a killing by capturing public land outside Karachi and settling refugees of their own kind. Public services such as electricity, garbage-removal and water were illegally tapped from government sources or were offered at a premium. Obviously, the poorest of the poor squatted in these to-be-made-pukka settlements. Homes were built on top of each other until they started to sink below the level of the roads. Sewers were blocked, leading to flooding during the monsoons. Interestingly enough, an NGO official is quoted as calling the political mafiosi as ‘land suppliers’. Efficient governance being absent, a bizarre spontaneous order has taken hold in Karachi with multiple parallel administrations that provide basic services to the illegal, semi-legal and newly-legal settlements. NGOs have resigned themselves to working with these ‘land-suppliers’.

Perhaps apocryphally, Jinnah is supposed to have said that every Pakistani government would be worse than its predecessor. Every administration, from Ayub Khan to Zardari, has attempted to solve the problem of Karachi, but have failed. They city was too fluid to govern in any organized manner. A Greek city planner was hired by Ayub Khan to build extensions to Karachi in order to house the poor migrants, but the adminstrators did not follow his plans for low cost housing. Daily wage workers cannot be ‘banished’ to the city’s boundaries since it costs them exorbitant rates in terms of time and money to make it to the center of the city for work. They soon migrate back to the center and prefer to squat.

The affluent have increasingly cordoned themselves off in Defence and Clifton. There are some notable idealists who believe in the city and its people and are trying their best to affect change. Inskeep befriends an affluent couple, idealistic architects who do not have a generator in their home. They prefer to suffer as the city suffers since they believe that their children should not be isolated from the less privileged. The mayor Mustafa Kamal, a MQM member, goes from project to project, country to country, to build infrastructure and attract invesment. A doctor, Shireen Jamali, works countless hours in her public hospital to administer medical aid to people who’ve been wounded in terrorist bombings and shootings. She gets used to the sight of severed heads being brought in ambulances every time a bomb explodes in the city. In fact, on one terrible occasion, a bomb explodes outside the emergency ward while she is receiving Shia patients who were bombed during an Ashura procession and were brought there by the admirable Edhi’s ambulance services. A second bomb that is placed inside a computer monitor outside the ward is diffused by Edhi’s son with a screwdriver. It is a bomb that is constructed with explosives surrounded quite beautifully by hundreds of symmetrically arranged metal nuts that aims to inflict maximum civilian damage. Journalists have to perform a tricky balancing act for fear of violent retribution. Thus, Cowasjee begins a column with the words ‘To digress’ and pummels Zardari for giving a high profile job to a relative, but in the succeeding paragraphs he suggests that a garden be named after Benazir.

Despite the violence, the city offers hope and employment to millions. Buildings are built, and workers are hired. The pathan who fled the violent northwest frontier, or the Mohajir whose grandparents fled India make do. They have ambitions for themselves and for the city. Cities around the world are undergoing such transformation. Cities such as Mexico City, Rio, Mumbai, Delhi, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Seoul have expanded miles beyond the limits that their planners envisaged. Cities burgeon as nations transform from rural economies to industrialized urban ones. No centralized government can hope to cope with the staggering rate of growth. The informal economy often laps the organized sector in providing vital services to the desperate migrants. They also create divisions to stay in power. Inskeep does not offer solutions. He is a journalist and not a policy analyst, and his focus is to highlight the stresses that a mega city undergoes during a few turbulent decades.

‘Instant City’ is a warning to other cities, such as Mumbai and Bangalore which are ethnic tinderboxes even if the divides are not in the same magnitude as those in Karachi. If efficient and firm governance that values law and order is not firmly established in these cities, the administration will surrender its basic responsibilities to parallel forces. If that happens, the very attributes that attracted investment and economic migrants to its bosom, will push them away.

You can listen to an interview with Steve Inskeep here.

(c) Arun Simha

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