Letter From Karachi: Pakistan's Urban Bulge

Can Pakistan Overcome the Violent Politics of Ethnicity and Land?

From a berm on the edge of the Korangi industrial area, green agricultural lands stretch north toward the Malir River. On the other side of the slope lies Mehran Town, a shrubby, sandy expanse of once empty public land that has been illegally subdivided into hundreds of residential plots. Beyond that is a sprawling patchwork of factories, sewage-treatment plants, and tanneries. The scene could inspire a Pakistani Diego Rivera: the history of Karachi's development telescoped into a single tableau.

Each year, an estimated one million people from across rural Pakistan migrate to Karachi and move into similar katchi abadis, essentially unplanned slums, which are growing on the city's periphery at a rate of 100,000 plots annually. The influx is fueling violent competition among the city's ethnic political parties, and the criminal elements affiliated with them, for control of lucrative and increasingly scarce land as well as over the new residents' electoral loyalties.

In Mehran, where only a handful of families have moved in, the unfinished housing units are covered in the flags of these political parties, and the boundary walls are slathered in graffiti. As the area is carved up, shoot-outs and killings between rival "land grabbers" have been frequent, a police official told me.

For Pakistan's poorest laborers, life in a Karachi slum allows for greater opportunity than one spent under the heel of an oppressive rural social structure in which the country's old feudal order mixes with the newer cash economy dominated by predatory middlemen. This dynamic is pushing the country's most important sociological trend: urbanization. Many estimates suggest that at least 50 percent of Pakistanis now live in urban areas, compared to under 18 percent 60 years ago. Many of them have come to Karachi, whose population grew by nearly 90 percent between the 1981 and 1998 censuses.

Karachi is Pakistan's largest city and its financial capital, providing the majority of the country's tax revenue and nearly a quarter of its GDP. It is a miniature Pakistan: every major regional ethnic group in the country is represented in substantial numbers. The city's politics are dominated by the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), a notionally secular party claiming to represent the largest "ethnic" group -- the Muhajirs, Urdu-speaking descendants of the refugees who left India during partition in 1947.

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