Urban Resilience and The Struggle for the City in Global Cities

Imaan Azeem Uqaili
As the sixth largest city in the world and the largest city in Pakistan as well as its financial hub, Karachi has often been at the center of political turmoil and sensationalism through media journalism and how it often fails to meet the criteria of perhaps a developed city. Known as the “City of Lights” and located on the Arabian Sea, its title presents a dichotomous reality in terms of its actual physical state, however, the light of the city continues to emanate in the diversity of the people that inhabit the most populous metropolitan city in Pakistan. The 2016 population for Karachi is estimated to be 16.62 million (World Population Review) and as of now, it is estimated to be around 18 million. The large multiethnic population and the city’s urban landscape, put it at an interesting apex of development in reverse and non-conventional forms of historic and present urban resilience.
Usually, we read about and partake in discussions surrounding urban resilience that denote sustainable cities that involve tangible development, as in the case of Karachi – in this review paper, I attempt to shift this focus from that to the people that occupy these cities and their struggle, resilience and adaptation to tough political, economic and social climates that make global cities such as Karachi more resilient than imaginable through adaptation, activism and initiative.
Through Laurent Gayer’s ethnographic account of Karachi’s population managing violence through its continual transformation and fear in the 1980s and those threads manifesting in the present, I would draw comparisons and contrast how this management of urban political warfare by citizens in cities across Turkey, such as Istanbul in the event of the Gezi Park protests, struggles for environmental justice as an example of successful grassroots mobilization in the Brazilian Amazon, resistance and the politics of dissent between police and drug dealers in urban Argentina, the resistance of non-white people in their struggle for the provision of home buyout programs, manifests in the development and making of resilient urban spaces that have sustained through their struggles.
Karachi as an Urban Metropolis and the Struggle for the City
According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Livability Report 2017, Karachi is one of the ten least livable cities in the world. The report includes stability, environment and culture, health, infrastructure including public transport and affordable housing and education as its markers for measuring livability. In Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City, Laurent Gayer mentions a pamphlet distributed to American soldiers in World War II that presented Karachi as the “Paris of the East” and the “cleanest city in all of India”. As of now, around seventy percent of Karachi’s 18 million inhabitants are below the poverty line with the city’s ethnographic description ranging from garbage heaps lining city streets, open sewage lines as commonplace, bumpy roads and pollution with unreliable mass public transport system and, failure to meet the demand for a substantial portion of housing.
Despite the normalizing of terror during the 1980s in Karachi and apparent chaos, social life in Karachi continued with regulatory mechanisms. According to Gayer, four events have reinforced sustainable political strife in the city and leading it to a fragile equilibrium – the emergence of the MQM amid a lack of a political party’s monopoly, MQM’s rule through disruption and spreading of lack of control, rise of coalition politics that led to identity politics with political parties representing distinct ethnic groups and constant state intervention.
Karachi can be seen as a city of migrants from its origin. It has been lamented and turned as a social genre by renowned poets as a specific genre, “sheher-e-ashob” (The city’s misfortune’). As Parveen Shakir wrote, Karachi
Ek aisibiswahai, Jiskesath, Paharon, maidanon aur sahraon se anewalah. Har size kebatwey ka admi Rat guzartahai Aur subheuthte hi Uskedahnerukhsar par Ek thapparrasidkartahai Aur dusregaal ki tawaqohkarte hue Kam par nikaljatahai Agli rat kenashemeinsarshar”(“Karachiis a whore, with whom every eligible man, descending from the mountains or emerging from the plains and deserts, with wallets of different sizes, spends the night. In the morning, slapping her on one cheek, he expects the other one, and leaves for work, drunk in anticipation of the night to come.”)
Parveen Shakir (1952–1994)
The sexualization of Karachi and contrast to that of a prostitute are indicative of the notion that the quality of life for its residents has been far from achieved and Gayer goes on to connect it to Bombay’s similar history and struggle, wherein the ‘two megacities had to cope with the crisis of their cosmopolitan ideal, in the last decades of the twentieth century. This form of a lament to the city was also a means of resistance and denouncement of the army’s intervention in the city in 1992.
The history of the founding of modern Karachi was that of an ‘open city.’ The everyday struggles of Karachi’s residents amid this political strife and ordered disorder, have showed that a large part of its urbanization has been left on its ‘unofficial sector.’ The unofficial sector comprises of any entity besides the government or the establishment. It is this sector that this essay attempts to unpack through the lenses of social and political activismand social mobilization, in Karachi through Gayer’s account to the other global city centers around the world.
Parween Rahman was the late director of Karachi’s most influential postcolonial NGO – the Orangi Pilot Project. She would emphasize a more heuristic distinction is between actors operating in their official and unofficial capacities as a shift from the informal to the unofficial implies that the proper boundary of split in the context of Karachi’s poor urban development and planning is not between state and society or between public and private, but rather as Rehman used to say “even the official is illegal.” This could be seen in the form of illegal buying through bribery as those buying plots from the termed formal sector have to pay bribes to public officials involved in these exchanges.
Rehman was brutally murdered on March 13, 2013 for her tireless efforts in exposing city and urban life, and trying to raise awareness. In Karachi’s development sector, she is continued to be seen as a powerful figure of resistance who helped reorient urban landscape around Karachi through her activism and active citizenship, via documenting land use around the city, which some believe antagonized the city’s powerful land grabbing criminal agencies. She was killed as a result of ethnic, sectarian and criminal violence which is reflective of the increased level of violence in the country’s largest city (BBC News) (To be Continued)

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