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GLOOM AND BOOM IN THE CITY OF LIGHTS

  • Pervaiz Asghar
  • Jan, 2018
  • 292
  • National

Despite the city's decaying infrastructure and civil services, it has not only maintained a lively facade, but has lived up to its reputation as a city of lights

Karachi is in many ways a microcosm of the country itself. One finds all religions, nationalities and ethnicities represented here. There is no dearth of good entrepreneurs, businessmen, traders, transporters, educationists, artisans and other professionals, and no shortage of skilled labour either. So why doesn't the city click? An avid follower of the Karachi scene would perhaps frame the question differently: How has the city managed to survive and thrive despite the adversities it is pitted against?

Prior addressing the issue of reinvigorating the socio-economic dynamism of Karachi, it is useful to understand what the city has gone through and is going through and what are the major impediments in its path to glory?

At the time of partition, Karachi was a thriving metropolis with a natural harbor. The harbor had been constructed by the British in the mid-nineteenth century to primarily facilitate the export of Punjab's cotton at a time when the world's global supply of the commodity had been throttled by the American civil war. The rail network that the British also developed led right up to the berths from where the cotton could be directly loaded onto ships through cranes. It's still a most cost-effective method, yet it is a further sign of the city's stagnation that it has hardly been used since. I however did see it in action in the mid-1970s, but only for the purpose of embarking and disembarking ammunition onboard warships. The city also hosts an international airport, still the busiest in the country, which used to be a regular pit stop for many foreign airlines; it's a pity that it yielded its position of primacy to Dubai, and later to many others.

Karachi had everything going for it and yet after a brief period of resurgence, it all started going downhill from there. The problem was that the city had a mind of its own, because of which it always ended up on the wrong side of the political divide. The first sign of trouble arose when it was stripped of its status as the country's Capital. The post-1971 nationalization policy, owing to which the city's elite businessmen were reduced to non-entities and management passed on to inept bureaucrats, also hit it hard. The unique quota system introduced was presented as sort of a temporary golfing handicap for the city urbanites to enable the rural areas to catch up. The problem again was that since it was a political ploy, no effort was expended in the catching up part and the system has kept on being renewed ad nauseam.

When the town of Kolachi was annexed by the British after the historic battle of Meani in 1843, the Mithadar-Kharadar area constituted the town's core. The city's population of 400,000 at the time of partition kept swelling as waves after waves of immigrants from undivided India, Bangladesh, Burma, Iran, Afghanistan and even from within all corners of the country, most lately from FATA, filled its ranks. The city has even attracted refugees from Poland during the Second World War and job seekers from Central Asia, Sri Lanka and Philippines. The communities which came in significant numbers in search of livelihood formed their own squatter settlements which badly strained the city's planning and organizational capacity.

The Karachi of the sixties was still a very different place, serene and yet lively, with a bustling nightlife. People were polite, traffic was orderly with a tram line operating throughout the length of Bundar Road, streets were clean, neither graffiti nor any disorderly public conduct was visible.

If I were to put a timeline on when the city changed for the worse, irretrievably rather than gradually, that would be the period soon after the eastern wing broke away from the Federation. A host of factors like the sudden inflation generated in the wake of the disastrous '71 War, rampant unemployment and most notably, the opportunities the city presented, attracted a lot of people into its fold. The rickety and slow moving public buses got replaced by the recklessly driven minibuses nick-named 'yellow devils'. While a lot of construction and manufacturing activity was taking place all around, the soul of the city got transformed for the worse. Graffiti, dirtiness and ethnic fault-lines all became a part of the city's landscape.

If we trace the city's history since partition, one lesson comes across very clearly: whatever the city has been able to achieve has been because of its people and conversely, whatever evil has befallen, it has been because of political machinations. The resilience of its people alone has warded off the severest of advers...

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