Recipe for Disaster: The Link Between Urban Planning and Karachi’s Political Violence

349173356_f015a4dd65_b-940x400As Pakistan’s most populous city, Karachi elects the largest number of representatives to the country’s parliament. However, for this electoral influence, Karachi has also paid a price in the form of rampant violence in the past 20 years. Armed groups fight and kill members of rival groups for political power, and in 2012 alone, 2,124 people were killed in the city’s streets.

Political commentators, researchers, and security analysts in Pakistan have attributed political violence to tensions among the various ethnic groups that populate Karachi and want to gain maximum control over the city’s resources. The fact that at least one ethnic cohort repeatedly votes for a political group engaged in violence in Karachi supports this point of view.

Yet while Karachi’s ethnic composition has shifted in recent years, killings motivated by political incentives have continued unabated, raising the question of whether there is more to the violence in Karachi than just ethnicity. In the paper “Informality and Political Violence in Karachi,” Haris Gazdar and Hussain Bux Mallah attempt to answer this question by explaining political violence in terms other than ethnic tensions. The authors suggest that while it is true that the major players in Karachi’s violence have clearly identifiable ethnic bases, studying informal urban planning and land use in the city can explain the persistence and patterns of violence in the metropolis.

Using census data, polling station returns, and qualitative case studies, Gazdar and Mallah examine the relationship between unplanned urbanization and political violence in Karachi. With this information, the researchers map Karachi’s population in terms of migrant rather than ethnic groups and study the dispersion of these groups across the city’s neighborhoods since 1947. They categorize neighborhoods as planned, unplanned, or mixed (semi-planned) based on the level of access to formal urban planning structures such as policing, water, and sewage that each neighborhood provides for its residents. The studies were conducted between 2003 and 2011 on three neighborhoods—Lyari, Jacob Lines, and Kausar Niazi Colony—that started as unplanned residential areas and were eventually regularized.

The authors then describe two cycles of migration that substantially changed Karachi’s demographics. The first migration cycle occurred in 1947 when Karachi received a massive influx of migrants as a result of the partition of the Subcontinent and Pakistan’s creation as an independent state. As Pakistan rapidly industrialized, Karachi underwent a second wave of migration in the 1960s as people from other parts of the country moved to Karachi in search of employment. The authors call members of the first migration cycle “Partition migrants” and members of the latter cycle “post-Partition migrants.”

According to Gazdar and Mallah, with time, communities that had inhabited pre-1947 Karachi began to settle in the city’s oldest urban areas (District South) while suburbs (District Central and East) and industrial areas (District West and Malir) were converted into housing for Partition and post-Partition migrants. Planned low-cost housing schemes were launched in the Central and East districts to accommodate the poorest migrants but the superior planning of these neighborhoods began to attract more affluent Partition migrants who overwhelmingly belonged to one ethnic cohort—the Muhajirs. After analyzing census data, Gazdar and Mallah find that the settlement of Partition migrants in the well-planned districts of Central and East led to great social inequality in Karachi, one factor in the current political violence in the city.

Eventually, the number of post-Partition migrants in Karachi increased, landing them in unplanned settlements that cropped up close to planned settlements. As the political landscape became more accommodating of ethnic groups that inhabited unplanned neighborhoods, the government in the 1970s decided to regularize existing unplanned settlements, including ones that were seen as limiting growth of planned neighborhoods. The government’s action resulted in a sense of insecurity among the Partition migrants who would have benefitted from greater development of planned areas. Consequently, the Partition migrants chose to empower third-party intermediary groups against what they felt was a hostile state.

According to Gazdar and Mallah, the underlying ethnic tension in Karachi eventually turned violent and politically significant when the government began to develop planned housing for its employees (from non-Muhajir backgrounds) near Jacob Lines, an unplanned neighborhood populated by poor Partition migrants. The migrants were often harassed by police and threatened with eviction on the basis of complaints from residents of planned segments. Feeling insecure, the Partition migrants turned to third-party intermediaries—sometimes members of neighborhood gangs—instead of planning authorities, who the migrants felt were partial to affluent residents.

Through their research into the history of urban planning and growth in Karachi, Gazdar and Mallah conclude that violent political conflict in Karachi can be traced back to divisions between planned and unplanned districts. The authors’ research shows that urban planners in cities as socially diverse as Karachi need to carefully consider the unintended consequences of urban policymaking that can turn a city’s diversity into a threat rather than a strength. Karachi can be seen as a prime example of how urban planning may lead to many long-term consequences, even ones that can prove deadly.

Feature Photo: cc/(megabeth)

Published in Chicago Policy Review on February 12, 2014. 


The myth of female representation in Pakistani politics

Benazir Bhutto

Benazir Bhutto

Last week, I got the opportunity to hear a short lunch-time talk by former US Congresswoman Sue Kelly. A member of the Republican Party, which I am not generally a fan of, she was remarkably impressive in her scathing criticism of her own party and of the other lot, the Democrats. Her knowledge of the subject matter was very impressive and the anecdotes she shared from both her campaign as well as tenure in the House of Representatives made for a highly inspirational talk. A friend described her, very aptly, as a firecracker.

The session was organized by Women in Public Policy, a student group at The University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, so naturally when the floor was opened for questions from the audience, the conversation turned to women in the legislature.

It was a frank, candid conversation where everyone agreed – including the male participants, one of whom was Kelly’s co-speaker for the talk – that although a lot more women were now in the US legislature, Washington was a long way from being considerate and accepting of women legislators. Kelly shared an anecdote of when, during her first term in office in the ‘90s, she asked to be assigned to the commerce committee of the Congress, the then chairman said “Like hell will I ever allow a woman to be on my committee.”

In her concluding remarks on the discussion, Kelly said something that particularly stuck with me. She said: “The glass ceiling has been broken [with Nancy Pelosi becoming the minority leader in the house]. The challenge now is how to keep your head above it.”

As I gathered my belongings, I was reminded of a conversation about Pakistani politics I had had with an American female classmate just when we were starting our term. After a brief conversation about our long-term goals of running for office, she told me that she was fascinated by the fact that Pakistan has had a female head of state and that too not once but twice. She almost keeled over when I told her that we have also had a female speaker of the lower house of parliament (Fehmida Mirza) and a female foreign minister (Hina Rabbani Khar), leaving out former central bank governor Shamshad Akhtar and ambassadors Sherry Rehman and Maliha Lodhi who did not serve in elected office. My classmate assumed that somehow this recognition for women politicians in Pakistan encouraged me to harbor the dream of being a member of parliament someday, and wistfully commented how the US was yet to elect a female head of state and how much of a pipedream that seemed to be sometimes.

I wanted to tell her then as I wanted to tell her after Kelly’s talk: don’t be wistful, because what you have is sustainable. What we have, on the other hand, is something of a charade.

The female head of state we talk of, Benazir Bhutto, was only able to become the prime minister because she was her father’s daughter. The reason she was nominated for prime ministership was because she was the chairperson of a national party that swept the elections, a party also inherited from her father.

To give credit where it’s due, what makes Benazir an iconic Pakistani female politician is the admirable fact that she campaigned, not only for herself but for her party. Although her ascent was in part because of the man her name and thus identity was associated with (her father), she is the only woman politician in post-1980s’ theocratic Pakistan to have addressed massive rallies where men and women listened with rapt attention.

That is more than can be said of Mirza and Khar, who both have influential men in the family who practically campaigned on their behalf. In fact, Khar rose to prominence in 2002 when she was a proxy candidate for her father’s seat which he was unable to contest for failure of possessing a bachelor’s degree which had become a requirement for running for office that year.

The one big difference between the US and Pakistan when it comes to women’s role in politics is not that women have had a more successful run in Pakistan than in the US, rather it is that the trend of increased female representation in US politics is of a much more sustainable nature than that in Pakistan.

Pakistani women parliamentarians have almost always run second-fiddle to men. In the most recent election (May 2013), an overwhelming majority of election rallies were addressed strictly by men. In none of the mainstream political parties is a woman in charge of anything remotely important, and a large majority of the women who are now members of Pakistan’s National Assembly have made it there on the reserved seats for women, not the competitive ones that are open for contest among genders. Unfortunately, that is also true for some of the most promising women leaders and former parliamentarians like Sherry Rehman and Bushra Gohar whose election rallies would be something to attend.

In the US, unlike in Pakistan, women politicians are no longer thinking about winning a seat in the parliament on equal terms. Their energies are now focused on working to build on the gains made by women politicians who beat the competition to make it in. In Pakistan, we have a long way to go until a woman can be elected on to a non-reserved seat or without a family lineage of politically influential men. And having a quota of reserved seats isn’t doing us any favors.

Photo credit: Reuters