Courtesy Reuters

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

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