Making Karachi

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Displacing natives

Ayub’s efforts to ‘beautify’ the city center through slum clearance were complemented by plans to lay down industrial areas on the peripheries of the city. Through these twin moves, Ayub planned to realize his vision of modernization and industrialization. The working class refugees displaced from the city center were to provide captive labor to new industries that would propel the country into modernity. What Ayub needed for his new scheme was land.

It is thought that Karachi expanded into open uninhabited land, but in fact the sprawling industrial megacity that we know today cannibalized rural land around it, forcibly destroying the way of life of numerous indigenous communities, which had ancestral ties to the land. Not far from the Korangi residential quarters where Quaidabad refugees were shunted to, lived rural and pastoral communities with deep historical attachments to the land, which, too, faced the threat of dispossession.

Initially, when the government had planned the Korangi township, only 300 acres were reserved for industry. By 1966, that area had increased fivefold to 1,500 acres. Much of this land was forcibly acquired by the Karachi Development Authority from indigenous agricultural communities under the Land Acquisition Act of 1894. This colonial act entitles the government to acquire any private land for “public purposes”. The definition of “public purpose” is so broad as to place no real limits on government acquisition. The indigenous communities of Korangi were not given any choice in the matter, but were offered monetary compensation.


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Today, the Korangi Industrial Area is spread over 8,500 acres, carved out by steady encroachment of agricultural lands. Driving down the Korangi Industrial Road, the main artery bisecting the area, it is hard to imagine life before industrialization. The broad six-lane road is crammed with trucks heaving under the weight of goods. The sky is streaked with smoke that billows out of tall grey factories looming on either side of the road. Organized on a grid, divided into sectors, Korangi wears a look of drab monotony. The only memorable landmarks are garish roundabouts on Korangi Industrial Road, sponsored by and named after large factories.

Rural Korangi, out of which the industrial area has grown, is divided into five dehs, Sharafi, Phihai, Dih, Drigh Road, and Rehri. Each deh is further divided into goths or villages. While none of these areas have escaped the effects of industrial development, Deh Dih, Phihai, and Sharafi have been most affected.

Karim, whose family has been living in Haji Gul Mohammad Goth in Deh Sharafi for over three generations, remembers a time when Deh Sharafi was all agricultural land. “Korangi was not banjar (barren) as people like to believe,” Karim emphasizes, “It was abad (populated).” There were hundreds of acres of rolling orchards. Trees laden with mulberries, mangoes, guavas, dates, melons, papayas, and grapes dotted the landscape. Streams branching out of the Malir River braided between fields of crops. “Korangi used to be like heaven,” Karim recalls.

These rivers and trees were Korangi’s landmarks. Karim remembers a stream called Natha Wangi that ran by his village. It was the lifeblood of their village, providing water for agriculture and amusement for children. Today, there is no trace left of Natha Wangi. Even Karim and his cousins could no longer remember where it flowed, unable to discern its meandering route under the tarmac and concrete of contemporary Korangi.

It was not only the physical landscape of Korangi, but also its economy that was drastically transformed. Rural Korangi used to enjoy a symbiotic relationship with Karachi. Along with the adjoining area of Malir, it was the vegetable patch of the city. Camel carts loaded with fruit and vegetable would be sent off to Lea Market. Fodder for camels and horses was also grown. “Our whole life and culture revolved around agriculture,” Karim explains. “We worked hard to provide the city all its essentials—fruit, vegetables, milk and meat.”

That rural Korangi is now irrevocably lost, but that loss was neither natural nor gradual. It was founded on the unjust expropriation of indigenous land. Karachi Development Authority (KDA) began to snatch land immediately after the industrial zone was founded in 1960. Karim’s grandfather was dispossessed of all 1,200 acres of his farmland. Many others suffered similar fates. All the government left to indigenous communities was the land on which their houses were built.

Today, 35 of such clusters of houses, which are called goths still exist. However, without land to till, their old economy and way of life have ended. Rich landowners were able to buy new agricultural land in Thatta and other parts of Sindh. Poorer folks, including non-proprietary farmers and peasants, had no choice but to labor in the factories that sprouted on their lands. The new generation in these communities has had to face the added problem of overcrowding. Unable to build new houses on agricultural land, they are forced to live within the demarcated limits of the goths, even as their families increase.

While they could not legally stop the usurpation, some indigenous families have instead attempted to seek remedy to this historic injustice in the courts. Karim’s family was compensated a mere 3,000 rupees per acre, while KDA resold their land at a manifold higher price to factory owners. His family filed a joint appeal in 1960. After pursuing the case for over forty years, in 2002, the court finally ruled that KDA owed Karim’s family 88 million rupees. Yet, Karim sees little reason to celebrate. “Who will give us this money?” he asks. “KDA has only given 2 crores [20 million rupees] and refused to give the rest.” The other problem is that as the case has stretched across generations, the number of claimants today stands at over 200. This leaves a mere 440,000 rupees on average to each claimant, if KDA were ever to pay the full amount. No one has even attempted to calculate the cost in terms of quality of life and lost opportunities from being deprived of a fair compensation for over fifty years.

Goth Shahli in Deh Phihai, which neighbors Deh Sharafi, is in some ways the exception to the grim rule of property expropriation. The people of Goth Shahli managed to retain part of their agricultural land. Yet, even Goth Shahli has not been able to escape the impact of industrial development.

Goth Shahli and the adjacent rural areas are tucked away from the bustle of Korangi Industrial Area. Walls keep it entirely hidden from commuters on Shah Faisal Road, which runs along it. It is only on turning off the main road, just before the Shah Faisal Flyover, that one realizes there is a rural world hidden away in the middle of Korangi. The first thing that one notices is the green fields with a narrow brook making its way through. Its quiet solitude stands in sharp contrast to the cacophony of vehicles and people on the main road beyond. Past the fields is the goth itself: a cluster of houses and shops, a school, and a football ground. Beyond Goth Shahli, the road leads to a handful of other goths of Deh Phihai, whose agricultural lands are still partially intact.

Goth Shahli, Deh Phihai

Goth Shahli, Deh Phihai

Haji Malik’s family has lived in Goth Shahli since 1935. His father moved from Malir, where his family had been living for generations, to work as a peasant on the land of the powerful Gabol family. When KDA acquired agricultural land for the industrial zone, the Gabols saved their own 300-acre property by convincing the government of the need for a “greenbelt.” The land, however, was taken by the bank to cover a debt in 1968. Bhutto’s government nationalized the bank and redistributed the land to the peasants in the 1970s. Malik’s family received 55 acres. Today, he and his brothers live with their families in an expansive bungalow in Goth Shahli, which gives an indication of the kind of future that other indigenous families have been robbed off.

Yet Malik is far from sanguine about his family’s future. Where once his fields yielded vegetables and fruits in copious amounts, now it can only support fodder, which brings poor returns on the market. He lays the blame on urban and industrial development.

Development has destroyed our river,” Malik says. “The river banks used to have sand and gravel before. But this was all removed and used to build the city of Karachi. Sand and gravel used to absorb water. When it would rain, the river would flow and the sand and gravel would store the water. Now the land is unable to do that.

Arif Hasan explains that 60 billion cubic feet of sand and gravel has been illegally lifted for construction purposes from seasonal riverbeds in Karachi’s rural areas. This illegal practice of sand and gravel mining dates back to the construction boom caused by the building of Gulshan-i Iqbal and DHA in the 1970s and has led to irreparable top soil erosion. Where the Karachi Development Plan of 1975-85, envisioned 85 percent of Karachi’s agricultural needs would come from its immediate hinterland, today those lands can barely sustain fodder. Urban development in Karachi was built not only on expropriated rural land but also out of it. The river and the land became the very raw materials needed to construct the city. Rural communities and land were cannibalized by urban and industrial expansion.

The Malir River today is no more than an open sewage line. It not only bears waste from residential areas, but is also the dumping site for toxic industrial effluents from Korangi and Landhi Industrial Areas. The water flowing in the Malir River past Goth Shahli is a seething putrid black, whose stench assaults the senses from a considerable distance. Agriculture in Goth Shahli no longer depends on the river. Instead, water is pumped out of the water table, which recedes further with each season. Goth Shahli is a living example of the multiple threats that urban development poses to indigenous agricultural communities.

Malir river flowing past Goth Shahli

Malir river flowing past Goth Shahli

However, the declining quality of the soil is not Malik’s only concern. Expropriation of land continues at a slow but steady pace. In 2006, when the government built the Shah Faisal Flyover, it took an acre of his land. Once again, Malik was powerless to stop the government.

New development projects continue to threaten the precarious existence of Goth Shahli. Defence Housing Authority has recently surveyed their land and intends to build a park with a walking track here. Its residents suspect the real reason for DHA’s interest in their land is to build a road to connect DHA Phase 9 outside Karachi to the city. “Development,” Malik says, “did not happen for us. It was always in the name of the nation but it was never for us.”

On displacement

Displacement, the original trauma of Partition, has become institutionalized in Pakistan. It is the ignored cost of the desire for industry, modernity, and development. It is a cost that poor refugees and disempowered indigenous communities disproportionately bear. The refugee and the indigenous are not viewed as rights-bearing citizens by the state but rather as dispensable lives. Over time, both refugee and indigenous communities have been strategically excluded from the modern city, caught between forces of constant unsettlement and precarious resettlement. Their eviction by the state is not only an indication of the (non)value placed by the state on their lives, but also proof that there was no place for them in the ideal city of Pakistan. If displacement is a strategy targeting de facto non-citizens, then upper-middle class urban Muslims emerge as the true citizens of Pakistan. They not only remain safe from the threat of displacement, but also reap the lion’s share of the benefits of its better know twin, development.

Ayub’s era is remembered both for rapid economic growth and entrenched economic inequality between classes. However, it was also the time when industrialization and modernization were valorized as unquestionable aspirations for the nation. As the dispute over the design on Quaid’s Mazar shows, in urban Pakistan vociferous debate can be had on the form of this modernity, but never on its costs. Displacement, the dark underbelly of development, continues unabated and unexamined today.

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Shahana Rajani is an artist and curator based in Karachi. She is a co-founder of the Karachi Art Anti-University. Shayan Rajani is a PhD candidate in history. His research is on the social and spatial history of Sindh.

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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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