The Undercities of Karachi

Jan Breman in New Left Review [h/t: Tunku Varadarajan]:

The largest port on the Arabian Sea, Karachi today has a population over 20 million, on a par with Mumbai, and ranks as the world’s eighth biggest city. Commanding the north-east quadrant of the ocean, with a hinterland stretching up the Indus Valley to Afghanistan, it has been the principal entry-point for US arms and supplies in the ‘war on terror’, while refugees—and heroin—have flowed in the opposite direction. From the bloodstained birth of Pakistan with the Partition of British India, the city’s explosive growth has more often been fuelled by the ‘push’ of geopolitical, agrarian and ecological crises than by the ‘pull’ of economic development. Life in its sprawling katchi abadis, or ‘unpaved settlements’, has much in common with that of other giant undercities, such as Mumbai’s, with the exception that violence plays a significantly greater role here. The vast majority of Karachiites are not only entangled in competition with each other, in a desperate struggle for survival, but must also contend with a brutal climate of aggression fuelled by gangsterized political groupings, the most influential of which also control the armed force of the state. In what conditions do its inhabitants live and what could drive increasing numbers of newcomers to try to survive here?

On the eve of Independence in 1947, the seaport of Karachi had fewer than half a million inhabitants, mostly Hindus, living within the old city walls or in fishing villages along the coast. The British had built up the docks and warehouse districts, constructed a military cantonment and laid out tree-lined streets for themselves to the south of the ‘native’ city, areas still known as Clifton and Defence. Partition led to an exodus of some of the city’s Hindus to India, and the arrival from that country of a much larger number of Muslims: around half a million Urdu-speaking Mohajirs (refugees), who abandoned property and possessions south of the new border to flee to what was now the capital of Pakistan.