Making Karachi

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Displacing refugees

Hamida Bano was twelve years old when her village, Narnaul in Patiala, was attacked. It was the day before Eid and just five days after Partition. Her mother, her brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles were all killed. She managed to escape with her sister by running to the railway tracks and jumping on to the first train she saw. Hamida Bano arrived in Pakistan orphaned, destitute, and traumatized. She was one of hundreds of thousands who had become homeless refugees because of the creation of a Muslim homeland in Pakistan. Instead of finding a home in the new country, she, like many other poor refugees, found only further displacement.

Hamida Bano spent two weeks in subhuman conditions in a refugee camp in Lahore. State officials then decided that there was no room for her in Lahore and boarded her on another train, this time going to Hyderabad. Hamida Bano and her sister were reunited with their father in Hyderabad, but unable to earn a living, they soon moved to Karachi. They settled in the informal colony of Quaidabad, which surrounded the grave of Jinnah.

According to a past resident of Quaidabad, Chiraghuddin, Quaidabad was already a thriving settlement in 1948, when his family came to Karachi from Fatehpur Sikri. There was ample open land where refugees could build their own jhuggis or huts. In the initial years, the government tried its best to deter poor refugees from entering Karachi. Those who managed to enter received minimal state support and no proper accommodation. As an alternative to permanent housing, the government actively encouraged poor refugees to squat on open land, distributing free hutting material and old army tents. Poor refugees were given no legal title and intentionally kept in an uncertain, vulnerable state.1


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It was refugee families like that of Hamida Bano and Chiraghuddin that built Quaidabad from scratch. These residents of Quaidabad invested great physical and emotional labor in making their homes, communities and neighborhoods. It took Chiraghuddin’s family an entire year to raise money to build their own home in Quaidabad. For them, Quaidabad was not a temporary arrangement, but became a place where they rebuilt a sense of community, of belonging after the trauma and loss of Partition.

Even as refugees were building the city home by home, Ayub Khan’s new authoritarian vision of the “modern city” threatened another series of violent displacements. Jhuggis and informal living, which until then had been a matter of convenience for the government, were now deemed unacceptable to modern living. Frequently described in official speeches as ‘eyesores’ that ‘litter’ the city, jhuggis were reframed in public discourse as ugly, filthy and a danger to public health. The Rehabilitation Minister, General Azam Khan described the existence of jhuggis as “the greatest problem facing the country” and ordered a detailed survey of shelterless displaced persons. The survey revealed 160,000 shelterless families living in 214 refugee clusters in Karachi.2

Quaidabad, the biggest refugee cluster with a population of atleast 90,000 people, was the first to be dismantled. Residents were given eviction notices just a week in advance, and forcibly removed. “Before Ayub, no politician would have dared to remove us,” Hamida Bano exclaims. “But Ayub had a new [kind of] power. He sent his military goons to force us to leave. In four days they evicted us. Loaded us on trucks and sent us to Korangi, miles away from the city, and gave us this single-room quarter.” Hamida Bano sees little benevolence in the government’s move. She warns, “Don’t be mistaken, this was not given to us for free. Nothing is ever free. We had to buy this quarter from the government. We paid 1,900 rupees for it back then.”

Mohammad, whose family had also settled in Quaidabad, explains that once plans for Quaid’s Mazar were made, the government decided to clear all the homes around it. “It was a strange situation,” he says. “Because of our beloved Quaid, we were all thrown to various outskirts of the city: some to Korangi, some to Malir, some to Shah Faisal Colony… After repeated clearances, the government arrived at the state of Quaid’s Mazar as you see it today.” A colony that had once received special status from its proximity to the grave of the father of the nation was now destroyed because of it.

Hamida Bano, Chiraghuddin and many other families settled in Quaidabad were relocated to the new township of Korangi. A Greek consultancy firm, Doxiadis Associates, was hired to plan out the satellite township of Korangi over 3,000 acres of land, ten miles outside the city. Funded by American aid, the project was touted as the largest mass housing initiative in Asia. However, it was also the largest slum clearance scheme of its time.

The showpiece of the new regime’s commitment to modernization, Korangi was built on the model of post-War European urban reconstruction efforts. Presidents of the United States, European royalty and foreign delegates were taken on tours of Korangi in the hopes of justifying its authoritarian bent to its western patrons by burnishing its modernizing credentials. As with the Raglan Squire design, Doxiadis’ Korangi betrayed the Ayub regime’s penchant for costly monumental projects aimed at securing international praise.

To the home audience, the Aruba regime proclaimed that this “self-contained satellite township” solved two biggest problems of Karachi.3 It provided decent living quarters to refugee families who are “huddled up in filthy slums” and cleared congestion from the center of the city. What remained unstated was the fact that this clearance made available economically valuable land that could be used more profitably by the regime. The military-state also saw the potential for political trouble in such settlements, especially as the working class began to organize against state ineptitude and violence.4 It was decided to isolate them in ‘self-contained’ satellite townships away from the city center. Jhuggi clearance became integral to the aesthetics and political stability of the modern city.

Image from Mirza Ali Azhar, "Three stages in the life of DPs", Dawn Revolution Day Supplement, Oct. 27, 1959.

Image from Mirza Ali Azhar, “Three stages in the life of DPs”, Dawn Revolution Day Supplement, Oct. 27, 1959.

By August 1959, the first phase of the Korangi town project was completed with 15,000 quarters ready. However, behind the row upon row of neat and tidy concrete houses, there was a complete absence of all basic necessities of life. The schools, parks, hospitals, sanitation, and roads promised by the regime were nowhere to be found. Korangi was a place that no one wanted to go voluntarily; compliance had to be enforced by the military.

In August 1959, trucks were shifting 200 families from Quaidabad to Korangi every day. Upon arrival, housing units were allocated at random, breaking up family units and networks of kinship that had existed in Quaidabad. There was limited water supply in communal taps, and electricity was not provided for years to come. A resident of Korangi, Jameel remembers that when officials had arrived to evict them, they made his father wear a placard around his neck like a prisoner. The placard included his father’s photograph and the randomly assigned plot number. Although unwilling to move, they were given no choice.

When they arrived in Korangi, they found it a jungle with wild bushes and animals everywhere. No basic amenities were provided. Work for many continued to be in the city, which was not connected to Korangi by any robust public transport system. When people realized the implications of long and expensive commutes to work, many abandoned their plots and went back to jhuggi living in the city center. Jameel’s father chose to stay in Korangi. He left for work early in the morning and came home extremely late. It became a running joke in Korangi that children could no longer remember their absentee fathers.

Shamsuddin, whose family was also relocated from Quaidabad to Korangi, explains that his father, who had been running a thriving business distributing kerosene oil, lost his livelihood after shifting to Korangi. Quaidabad’s central location had been key to his success and Korangi’s isolation his undoing. He remembers that some people were so desperate to leave Korangi that they sold their quarters to anyone interested for the price of a bus ride back to the city.

It was under these harsh realities that Quaidabad was forcibly dismantled and Korangi populated. Poor refugees who had lost their homes in Partition were displaced yet again. Pakistan was built on the backs of multiple displacements of Hindus and Sikhs but also of poor Muslim refugees. This process of evictions, which forced the people of Karachi into distant class-based neighbourhoods, produced what urban planner, Arif Hasan, calls “a fragmented city.” The Quaid’s Mazar, which was to be a symbol of a decolonized democratic future, ended up institutionalizing an authoritarian relationship between the state and the people. The government could destroy people’s homes and lives in the name of the country, modernization, and progress.

To many such victims, Pakistan as a homeland for Muslims was a dead letter. Hamida Bano says, “We kept having to change houses. My whole life, I have been shifting from one place to another. What is this question about ‘home’? Home means nothing to me over here. Home is just temporary four walls that I sooner or later have to move out of. My actual home is what I left behind in India.”


  1. Anam Soomro and Shahana Rajani, “Karachi: A Geography of Exclusion,” in Exhausted Geographies, ed. Zahra Malkani and Shahana Rajani (Karachi: 2015). []
  2. Mirza Ali Azhar, “Three stages in the life of DPs”, Dawn (Karachi, Pakistan), Oct. 27, 1959. []
  3. Azhar, ” Three stages in the life of DPs.” []
  4. Soomro and Rajani, “Karachi: A Geography of Exclusion.” []

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One Response to Making Karachi

  1. Hasan on Jun 2016 at 3:25 AM

    Really great article. Looking forward to more from your team. Thank you

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