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. 


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