BEFORE the coronavirus arrived, the directions for the development of Karachi had already been set in keeping with neoliberal thinking. The city was going to be ‘gentrified’, which meant taking away space from the poor both within the built city and in the rural areas for the use of elite functions. This also meant the development of fancy public spaces, parks and other follies that require heavy investments, both in terms of construction costs and subsequent maintenance, as well as create difficulties for poor communities in accessing these facilities.
Gentrification has also meant the removal of Karachi’s street economy, which provides incomes to about 80,000 families and serves the needs of almost the entire city population of 16 million. It meant the demolition of over 15,000 homes and small businesses without compensation or relocation, and along with this the demolition of schools, madressahs and ancestral graveyards. It meant the capture of heritage for elite purposes and the eviction from it of people who have lived there for decades. With their departure, the intangible heritage of the communities that lived there would also be destroyed. It meant the continuous expansion of ‘semi legal’ elite gated settlements, mostly for speculative purposes at the cost of weak rural communities who are the original owners of this land.
In promoting this form of development, capitalists, their architects/planners and dependents have come together and parts of the academia have unwittingly supported the process. Those who have opposed this development have been dubbed by the powerful government-capitalist-architect/planner nexus as ‘enemies of development’.
However, the pandemic has taught us that this inequitable development in the post-Covid-19 period will only increase poverty, crime and social unrest, especially when according to official estimates 18.5m jobs will be lost. Given these figures, it is easy to appreciate the dangers of living in a world of increasing poverty and deprivation.
So what should be the objectives for the future planning of our city so as to promote a better physical and social environment? First, the ecology of the region in which Karachi is located has to be respected, which means the protection of its natural drainage system, its water bodies (especially its coastline and its flora and fauna), expansion of its existing green areas, limiting extraction of water from its aquifers, and disposing of its sewage and solid waste. All of this can be done in a low-cost manner without large foreign loans and expensive consultants. The concepts for much of this, and in some cases details, already exist. This will also give our institutions a sense of pride in their work and establish a culture of self-sufficiency.
Second, there should be no demolitions of existing settlements without relocation in areas near to their original places of residence. Land for this already exists: it has to be clearly identified and surrendered for this purpose. Also, a policy for regularising the street economy of the city should be framed in a manner that strengthens its role since it is the only way in which the jobless can provide for themselves in the immediate future.
Without the protection of land from the greed of the developer and speculator, equitable development for Karachi is not possible. Policies to kill speculation would include a non-development fee on vacant land and property, and the enforcement of an urban land ceiling act preventing an individual from holding more than 500 square yards of urban land.
The virus has also identified the weaknesses of our public and curative health services. The location of hospitals has to be closer to low-income groups, with health centres within the settlements, and school curriculums have to be devised to promote a scientific understanding of preventive health methods. Light, ventilation, density and hygiene-related building regulations need to be reviewed keeping in mind the lessons that the virus (and climate change) has taught us.
So far, we have not had any people’s participation in the planning of our cities. It is essential that such participation is developed by meaningful public hearings, display of all plans for the city at a public space, leading to comments and suggestion from citizens and interest groups, and inclusion of a majority of civil society and community members on all the city’s planning, management and utility boards.
But this cannot be done without the political will to develop the institutions required for it: institutions where decisions are not taken on the basis of nepotism, and which do not promote a culture of wastage of public money in extravagant offices and vehicles. But is this possible given the present culture of governance? If it is not, then we will go back to a situation far worse than before the virus, and await the consequences that follow.