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Karachi’s violent cycle

When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif says the problem of growing violence in Karachi is a national issue — because without security you have no investment, and without investment you have no revenues, and without revenues you have no state, and without a state you have more violence — he has correctly identified half the problem.

There is another vicious cycle at play that nobody at the various meetings being held in the city over the past few days is willing to say aloud. And that is the role of turf in generating and sustaining the violence.

Crudely put, the other vicious cycle which grows from the ground up goes something like this: mafias fight over turf, or control of a patch of land. In order to wage their fight, they need funds. In order to acquire those funds they need to extort. And in order to extort, they need to control a patch of land, or they need turf.

This struggle over land and the growing demand for it coupled with a limited supply has driven violence and violent group formation in Karachi for decades. But there’s a little more to the story than just this.

It’s common knowledge that Karachi is a migrant’s city. What is less commonly appreciated is that migrants consist in large part of people displaced by conflict. The first refugees, or population fleeing violent persecution and conflict were those who call themselves Mohajirs today.

The next wave consisted of those referred to as the Biharis, who ended up in a patch of land outside Karachi at the time with little more than the shirts on their backs. That patch of land is today called Orangi Town, but at the time was an informal settlement outside the city limits.The next big influx of people fleeing violent conflict were the Afghans, in the 1980s, followed by another wave of Pakhtun migrants in the latest round of conflict in Afghanistan.

With each wave of migration, a new fault line was created in the ethnic constitution of the city.

Then there were the economic migrants, those displaced not by conflict but by opportunity. The largest such group in the city is from southern Punjab, which is why more buses connect Karachi and Sadiqabad than any other two cities in the country, and why the rail link between Karachi and Multan is the most heavily travelled out of all the rail links out there.

Due to this constant influx of refugees, the politics of the city acquired an indelibly ethnic colour, a legacy becoming a more and more visible and powerful in the city’s life with each surge of new immigrants.

This constant influx of migrants strained the city’s capacity to absorb them. The economy has been able to generate jobs fast enough to put this rapidly growing demographic to work, but the city infrastructure and its institutions for settlement and management of residential areas have not been able to keep pace.

The result has been large unregulated and purportedly illegal settlements springing up on the outskirts of the city, and eventually getting absorbed by the growing metropolis.

A large part of the violence plaguing the city today grows out of this process of absorbing unregulated settlements.

A hardy population, carrying the scars of conflict and violence, left to fend for itself with deep ethnic and linguistic divides, has had to fight it out to keep a place in the city Those successful in this fight eventually became regularised. Those who couldn’t muster the muscle or the nerve either had to move to the more expensive neighbourhoods where property tenure was secured by the state, or were weeded out.

Many of the residential areas that were built as part of the cities’ planned growth and expansion eventually came to have unregulated settlements nestled inside them, on land rejected by the Karachi Development Authority or discarded by the inhabitants.

Empty river beds from the older estuaries of the Indus river delta for instance made for excellent discarded land, and all along what used to be the Lyari river or in Korangi, or even along drainage nullahs, settlements sprang up in which the inhabitants clumped together in tough little groupings to secure for themselves what is one of the most precious commodities in the city: residential land.

Violence became a large-scale phenomenon in Karachi once this process of absorption of new settlements became politicised. Initially with the formation of the PPP, the first-generation Mohajir population gravitated towards the Jamaat-i-Islami, and in the second big burst of migrant influx, evolved into an overtly ethnic identity of its own.

The first Pathan-Mohajir riots in the early 1980s happened precisely along the fault line where an unregulated settlement of Afghan refugees sprang up right next to a middle-class Mohajir residential locality, and those riots played a significant part in giving birth to the MQM.

Significantly, those riots also played a big part in breaking up the momentum of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, and thereby helped a dictator prolong his rule.

Nawaz Sharif is right to point out that Karachi’s growing violence is a national problem. It always has been. He’s also right to emphasise that force will be required to deal with this problem.

But force alone will not work. For Karachi to find peace, the city’s institutions must be reformed to better absorb its migrants, to provide security of land title and contracts, to facilitate access to public goods like water and sewerage, to administer justice.

The city’s economy can create the jobs, as it has proven again and again over the decades, but if the city’s rulers do not disengage from the violence that grows as a necessary by-product of their own misrule, they will eventually be devoured by the very beast they are grooming.

The writer is a business journalist and 2013-2014 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, Washington D.C.

khurram.husain@gmail.com. Twitter: @khurramhusain

Khurram Husain, "Karachi’s violent cycle," Dawn. 2013-09-05.
Keywords: Social sciences , National issues , Political parties , National development , Society-Pakistan , Violence , Democracy , PM Nawz Sharif , Pakistan , Karachi , Afghanistan , PPP , MQM