The view from the ground.

City of the Future

Karachi is violent, unhealthy, and unequal. Is that so bad?


KARACHI, Pakistan — Karachi may be a city in crisis, on the shore of a country in crisis, but people find ways to make money. If religious conservatism is spreading, that's no problem; new ads outside the airport promote "Pakistan's First Shariah Compliant Credit Card."

KARACHI, Pakistan — Karachi may be a city in crisis, on the shore of a country in crisis, but people find ways to make money. If religious conservatism is spreading, that’s no problem; new ads outside the airport promote "Pakistan’s First Shariah Compliant Credit Card."

Karachi’s political parties intensified their war for power this summer, killing well over 300 people in gun battles and assassinations — but that’s no problem either. The red flags of one ethnic party, which adorned light poles on a highway into the city’s center, were recently replaced by banners promoting cell phones.

Along the seashore, where skyscrapers and a shopping mall are under construction even in this time of war, I went for dinner on a pier known since British colonial times as the Native Jetty. It was recently remade as "Port Grand," a row of upscale restaurants and stores on the water, like a Disneyland vision of Pakistan. I sat with friends outside Shaikh Abdul Ghaffar Kabab House, where smoke from the grill drifted across the jetty, and loudspeakers played a Muzak version of the theme from The Godfather. The kabab was excellent.

Karachi is the economic heart of Pakistan, its main port and financial capital, and an industrial center for everything from textiles to steel. Home to about 400,000 people upon Pakistan’s independence in 1947, the city has since expanded to more than 13 million souls by the most conservative estimate, having taken in migrants from every corner of Pakistan and beyond.

The city has grown so swiftly that it evades all efforts to control it. Millions live in illegal neighborhoods, where developers seize and subdivide government land, bribing police not to notice as they sell tiny homes to the poor. Many residents get electricity by tapping power lines, adding stress to a grid that’s already overwhelmed, with hours of blackouts every day. Karachi’s Lyari River, which used to be a seasonal stream, now flows year-round with untreated sewage. Ultimately, the waste reaches fishing grounds in the Arabian Sea. "Thirty years ago you could drop a coin in the water and see it below the surface," a Karachi fisherman told me this month. "Now the sea is like a gutter." Local politics encourage even harsher metaphors. The city faces a political crisis so severe that it has gone more than a year and a half without an elected mayor or city council.

All this makes Karachi an especially vivid place to test some theories about the world’s growing cities. The planet’s urban population has increased by more than 2.7 billion since the end of World War II. Expanding urban zones are the engines of the global economy and also showcases for inequality.The gap between rich and poor, a focus of protests last weekend in the U.S. and other countries, is spectacularly on display in a swiftly expanding city in the developing world, as I could see without leaving my restaurant table at Port Grand. I noticed that the signage was not in Urdu, Pakistan’s most common language, but in English, spoken by the globalized elite. Across the water to my right stood harbor cranes, the kind that unload billions of dollars’ worth of supplies bound for U.S. forces in Afghanistan; to my left I saw a bridge with a new metal wall running its length. The wall keeps ordinary people on that bridge from gawking or taking potshots at the affluent at Port Grand. It costs 300 rupees to pass the armed guards at the gate of the jetty — the equivalent of about $3.50, more than many Karachi residents earn in a day.

Yet two recent books argue that for all their flaws, growing cities offer unmatched opportunity for the poor. After all, cities grow in part because millions of people migrate from the countryside, note Triumph of the City, by Edward Glaeser, and Arrival City, by Doug Saunders. Whatever problems they encounter, these migrants more easily find jobs, schools, and hospitals in cities than in their poor home villages.

Could this optimistic view possibly hold true? Even in Karachi?

Having explored this troubled city for the book Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, I have to say yes — on average. Pakistanis live better in Karachi than elsewhere, according to the U.N. Human Development Index, which measures cities and rural areas according to health, education levels, and income. When the UN used the index to rank different Pakistani districts, Karachi did better than almost anywhere else in the country. Not only do medical centers and universities exceed what’s available outside the city: the potential employers range from tanneries to towel manufacturers and real estate developers, and from hypermarkets to the dozens of newspapers and TV channels that chronicle the city’s distress.

Much of the benefit goes to Karachi’s elites, the kind of people who can afford to pay admission at Port Grand. But Karachi also has a visible middle class, which new arrivals strive to join. Their aspirations are key to understanding Karachi and other cities in the developing world. Consider the young men I met in a dusty industrial zone well inland from Port Grand, where I stepped into a warren of buildings and climbed the wrong stairway by mistake. I found a concrete hallway lined with storage lockers — a fabric wholesaler, where men were folding blankets and sheets from textile mills. Everybody working there had arrived in Karachi within the last decade.

A 20-year-old named Afridi ran the business from a glass-topped table. He wore trendy glasses and held a cell phone, much like those advertised on the banners along the highway. A cell phone is one of Karachi’s passkeys to the global economy, as is the knowledge of English, the language in which Afridi, imperfectly but expressively, spoke to me.

Afridi, an ethnic Pashtun, told me he was born in the Swat Valley in Pakistan’s northwest. As a teenager, Afridi begged his parents to send him to stay with relatives in Karachi, where he thought he could get an education. "I forced them," he said. He was disappointed with the quality of the government-run secondary school he found in Karachi, but he learned enough. Village elders back in Swat were impressed and gave him money to start this firm. It was an investment for the elders, who now called Afridi whenever they needed a little money. And Afridi employed other young men from the same village, who told me that their daily wages of about $4.50 per day, at most, were higher than they could earn in Swat. Afridi was planning to get married, and his children would have a chance to take another step forward.

"In the last two years, there are more people coming," Afridi said when we met in 2010. Those two years had been a hard time of fighting in Swat between Pakistan’s army and insurgents. "So they are migrating to Karachi. Everybody knows the reason behind it. First one person from a family comes here, and then they call to the others, ‘We have got opportunity for earning money or the peaceful life,’ so they also come here." Is it a peaceful life in Karachi?" Yes, he answered, and then reconsidered. In Pakistan, there isn’t any city which is peaceful. Of Karachi he said, "I cannot say it’s peaceful, but it may be better."

Of course, "I cannot say it’s peaceful, but…" is probably not a good slogan for Karachi civic boosters. Karachi looks good to migrants, in part, because rural areas are so bad, often underdeveloped or unstable. The city degrades many of its own advantages — its education system, its infrastructure, its cultural diversity. Karachi lurches forward at a dreadful human cost.

Karachi is by no means the world’s deadliest city — Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez and many other places have experienced murder rates far higher — but the battles between its political parties feed spasms of killing that can shut down whole sections of the city. Last summer’s killings disrupted life near a dusty ridge, covered on both slopes with low-slung homes made of concrete blocks. Years ago a road cut was blasted through the ridge, connecting two vast sections of the city-and also connecting mixed neighborhoods of ethnic groups who’ve migrated from different regions, speak different languages, and are dominated by rival political parties. The road cut, Kuti Pahari, has become a battlefield.

On Oct. 4, I visited a government primary school in sight of the cut. There had been no school that morning, or any recent morning. Trash bags filled the schoolyard. Dusty desks were stacked in a corner of a classroom. Writing on the blackboard said May 31, 2011, as if time had stopped.

A 10-year-old boy approached. He said this was his school, but wasn’t sure when he’d last attended. We studied the blackboard, chalked with English letters and numbers — a passkey to the global economy that was not being handed out. A provincial education official later said violence had made it hard to open the school for four years. Even the May 31 date might have been written during a teacher’s furtive visit, creating an illusion of teaching to stay on the payroll.

Abdul Waheed Khan, who operates a teacher-training program near the dormant school, said it was normal: "Urdu speakers are good teachers. Pathans are good learners. They can’t come together." Many ethnic Pathans, or Pashtuns, are part of migrant families from the far northwest who need education the most. Many "Urdu speakers" are Mohajirs, migrants from India who’ve been here longer. They’re more likely to be educated and hold government teaching jobs, but may not commute to Pashtun areas during violent periods out of fear they could be shot. Officially, the government operates 3,314 primary schools in Karachi, but it makes no pretense of keeping them open in conflict zones.

Not far from that derelict government school, private schools offer a sliver of hope. I visited the Guiding Light School, where everyone I met was Bihari — people from eastern India and Bangladesh. These schools also close on the deadliest days, but they can freuqntly stay open; teachers are drawn from the neighborhoods where they work, meaning they’re the same ethnicity as local thugs.

Students sat in dim but cool classrooms, open to a tight little courtyard. An English sign on the wall declared: "Good behavior can cover the lack of good looks, but good looks can never cover the lack of good behavior." The children were courteous. Their fathers worked in textile mills and laundries. The kids seemed to be in good health, though one, an 8-year-old girl, had had her right eye shot out by a stray bullet fired during a festival. Primary-school students are charged 250 rupees per month — less than $3 — and older students a bit more. For this, the children learn to read in Sindhi, the language of this province, and Urdu. They are also supposed to learn science, computers, and English.

American education experts have become enthused about these cheap Pakistani schools, which fill some gaps in a country with an illiteracy rate over 40 percent. As the experts know, however, there is a tradeoff for such low tuition: Teachers are barely paid and lightly trained. One teacher, 22-year-old Shazia, said she was paid the equivalent of $14 per month. Why not find a better job? "My qualifications are not too good," she answered. "Also, my parents will not allow me to go to a faraway place." She was unmarried, and her father felt more secure with her working near home. Later I met an English teacher who said she was 19. We needed some assistance from an interpreter to communicate.

But the Guiding Light School’s floors are clean, the kids wear crisp green uniforms, and they’re exposed to books. Around 1 p.m., when schools across the area let out, I saw many kids in colorful uniforms walking home or riding bikes.

In a zone like this, you take whatever good news you can. Among the political graffiti that covers area walls, I saw a message celebrating Bhalo Bhai, a Pashtun rickshaw driver who, according to local legend, was beaten by Urdu-speakers and responded by going on a murderous rampage.

The graffiti celebrating Bhalo Bhai was written in English. In some parts of the world’s growing cities, that will have to count as progress.

Steve Inskeep is co-host of NPR's Morning Edition and author of the new book Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi.

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