A pool hall is constructed on a Karachi roadway median. Courtesy Steve Inskeep

An estimated half of the population of Pakistan's largest city lives in unauthorized homes

Karachi, Pakistan is an example of the global cities that have grown since World War II like exploding stars. From Sao Paolo to Istanbul to Shanghai, cities have taken in millions of migrants. The cities' power, their diversity, and their disorder are constant themes underlying today's news; it is here that the global economy is being reshaped, and that economic inequality goes spectacularly on display. All this is especially true in Karachi, a megacity of at least 13 million and a microcosm of Pakistan, a nation beset by wars and crises with global implications. In his new book “Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi,” Steve Inskeep of NPR’s Morning Edition explores a single violent day in the city—and also the way the city evolved. In Karachi, as in many developing cities, millions of people now live in unauthorized neighborhoods. Residents or developers seize vacant land, parks, railway rights of way, streets, and other property to build homes. Karachi’s first large informal neighborhoods were tent cities, home to Muslim refugees, fleeing the carnage during the partition of India in 1947; and as Inskeep writes, the settlements have only grown:

Irregular neighborhoods of the sort that grew in Karachi, Pakistan from 1947 onward were commonly called katchi abadis, which translated simply as “temporary settlements.” That proved to be a euphemism. There was nothing temporary about them. Rather than try to move people to new locations, the government settled for a more modest solution. Residents campaigned to have their existing settlements brought within the law. From time to time the Pakistani government approved sweeping legalizations of katchi abadis, like the one that proclaimed an amnesty for unauthorized neighborhoods whose residents could prove their homes existed as of March 23, 1985. Yet it took many years to register the neighborhoods, and new settlements constantly appeared. They became such a permanent problem that the provincial government of Sindh included a Minister of Katchi Abadis.

When I sat with the man who was serving as minister in 2010, a gregarious People’s Party politico named Rafique Engineer, he handed me results of the most recent survey available. His paper showed 539 irregular neighborhoods in Karachi that were home to about 2.5 million people. And as Rafique knew, his numbers were almost two decades out of date. Some of those settlements had since been brought within the law, but more were appearing constantly. It was commonly estimated that something around half of Karachi’s people lived in unauthorized homes.

In other words, half of the inhabitants of the largest city of the nation founded by Muhammad Ali Jinnah—a lawyer by profession, whose portrait hung in buildings all over Karachi, his hometown—were now living in the realm of the extralegal. This was typical of cities across much of the developing world. Karachi’s katchi abadis were rough equivalents of the vast settlement called Kibera that was growing at the edge of Nairobi, or the crowded slum of Dharavi in the heart of Bombay, or the favelas that climbed the steep hillsides of Rio de Janeiro. Governments were struggling, and often failing, to deal with social and economic change. Western advice frequently went astray, as in the exploding Nigerian city of Lagos, where one study reported that United Nations–led efforts to create a city plan “had no tangible results.” A study of Lagos in the early 1970s produced a description that could have applied, with only minor revisions, to Karachi and many other cities around the world—and that in many cases would still apply today:

Chaotic traffic conditions have become endemic; demands on the water supply system have begun to outstrip its maximum capacity; power cuts have become chronic as industrial and domestic requirements have escalated; factories have been compelled to bore their own wells and to set up stand-by electricity plants; public transport has been inundated; port facilities have been stretched to their limits; the conditions have degenerated over extensive areas within and beyond the city’s limits, in spite of slum clearance schemes; and city government has threatened to break down amidst charges of corruption, mismanagement and financial incompetence.

Every one of these problems was only going to get worse, because Lagos kept attracting people. For all its problems, the city remained a better place to make money than the impoverished countryside, with its hollowed-out economy. A more recent study found the poverty rate in Lagos to be less than half that of the countryside.

For many people around the world, life in urban slums meant survival. But in the scramble for even the most basic resources, observance of the law became a luxury.

The instant city was going off the books.

Whenever I wondered what was happening in the far reaches of Karachi—and the spring of 2010 was such a time—I met with a woman who understood as well as anyone how the city was changing. She was the person to whom other experts deferred; if I started asking detailed questions about illegal housing they would say, “You should talk with Perween Rahman.” She was thin and raven-haired, with a musical way of speaking and eyes that lit up when she spoke. She had a priceless quality that I often found among people in Karachi: the worse the situation became, the more amused she seemed.

I found Rahman at work inside the largest informal settlement of all, a section of northwest Karachi that is sometimes referred to as “Asia’s largest slum,” but is known locally as Orangi, pronounced oh-ran-gee, with a hard “g.” Here she worked for one of the few organizations that seemed to have adapted to the realities of Karachi’s unauthorized neighborhoods, and even transcended them. She directed the Orangi Pilot Project–Research and Training Institute. The Orangi Pilot Project, or OPP, was by far the most famous slum development organization in Karachi, and well known overseas; the Research and Training Institute, or RTI, evolved from it. Rahman knew the katchi abadis so well because the OPP-RTI helped people obtain services for their irregular homes.

Rahman’s job required her to keep track of land developers and other characters who were, to a greater or lesser degree, criminals. She had developed a unique perspective on these men, whom government officials angrily denounced as “land grabbers” or “land mafias.”

“Everybody says land mafia, land mafia,” Rahman told me with a characteristic smile. “We call them land suppliers.” Why be judgmental? The government officials who attacked “land grabbing” were often grabbing land themselves.

Rahman did not necessarily condemn unauthorized housing. The situation was too far gone for that. “We are looking at it from the point of view of the poor—where can they settle? We’ve seen that, for the poor, this land is the only option they have in this city.” At the same time, she appeared startled by the many square miles of public land being chopped up into little plots for sale, beginning around 2006. “Now everybody is a land supplier,” Rahman said. “The government, the political parties, the police, the members of the national assembly, the members of the provincial assembly, the councilors, the nazims”—that was the word used for what Americans would call the mayor of Karachi, as well as the leaders of the eighteen municipalities, or subdivisions, of the city. “Everybody is a land supplier.”

Rahman led the way into a corner office, where we talked by the light from the windows; the power had gone out, and most people had gone home, as it was late on a Friday afternoon. She showed me a printout of a Google satellite image of the far north fringes of the city. I saw villages, fields, and here and there a crowded neighborhood. Then she began placing layers of colored tracing paper over the image. Each color illustrated the widening sections of land that had been subdivided or built upon, year by year. An estimated one hundred thousand plots of land were being subdivided annually. About a third became houses right away, while speculators bought the rest.

She said the activity had gone beyond the scale of mere corruption. It had spun beyond the authority of the state.

“This,” she said, “is a new form of alternative government.”

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