Archive for the ‘Cities’ Category

On Sustainability

January 31, 2019

By Anjum Altaf

The more I read about sustainability the more I am puzzled by what it reveals and what it hides.

At one level, this is a new buzzword in the global discourse that all sorts of shysters are milking for what it is worth while distracting the gullible into futile avenues and dubious career paths.

Take the endless refrain about sustainable cities. Every day one reads a scare-laden screed about how our major cities are unsustainable. But what exactly does that mean? Lahore has been around for many centuries — Al-Biruni referred to it in the 11th Century and Xuangzang identified it in 630 CE. Delhi is even older — its history goes back to 50 BCE. Despite their survival through all sorts of calamities and troubled times, we are being told that they are not sustainable anymore. What exactly has changed?

Many of the writers refer to a falling water table and extrapolate it to imply that cities would die for lack of water. Add to this the inane statement that very soon water would start selling at the price of gold.

Why should we place any credence in such claims? There are cities in the desert like Phoenix and Riyadh that continue to source water. It also stands to reason that as water becomes scarce its price would rise forcing both a curtailing of demand and innovations in supply. In all probability, almost all used water would be recycled and made fit for drinking when conditions warrant. This is already happening in many cities including Singapore, a small island serving a sizeable population.

As for those hyperventilating about water at the price of gold, they are of the same ilk as those crying hoarse about Pakistan’s overpopulation being the cause of its poverty. These wiseacres are quite oblivious to their next-door neighbour with six times the population yet growing at twice Pakistan’s rate for the last quarter of a century and now spoken of as an emerging global power. Nor have they ever reflected on the fact that Pakistan’s population was halved when it ‘lost’ Bangladesh but its economic growth failed to take off like a rocket from the unintended ‘benefit’. The population babble serves only as a convenient smokescreen to camouflage a history of atrocious self-serving governance.

Three-fourths of the earth’s surface is covered with water and so its price can never rise above that of desalinated water plus the cost of transporting it to wherever it is needed. And there is no reason that water cannot be transported over long distances. If an oil pipeline can run from Tajikistan all the way to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan, surely so can a water pipeline from Gwadar to Lahore. Of course, the water would be more expensive than it is now but it would be nowhere near the price of gold. The price would even decline over time with the increasing use of solar energy. Once again, many cities already use desalinated water. In fact there was once a plan for DHA Karachi to set up its own plant but like most schemes in Pakistan that too was most likely the victim of a scam.        

The bottom line is that we would be much better off focusing on concrete issues — like ensuring that the water presently supplied is clean — instead of hand-waving about vague and poorly thought through spectres of sustainability. It is undoubtedly true that cities in South Asia are poorly managed and can do with a great deal of improvement but poor management is nowhere the same thing as unsustainability.

But what intrigues me much more is our amazingly selective use of the concept of sustainability. While everyone and their aunts are free to pontificate about the sustainability of cities, and of the world for that matter, we are in a very different ballgame if we shift the discussion to the level of countries when there is no conceptual difference except that of scale. If we can talk of the sustainability of Lahore and be considered enlightened citizens, why do we suddenly become anti-national traitors if we talk of the sustainability of Pakistan?

Consider that there are many more credible reasons to talk of the latter. The Pakistan that was created in 1947 did not prove sustainable and collapsed within 25 years. Perhaps this might have been avoided had we been allowed to freely discuss the issues of its sustainability. Are we continuing the folly by stifling discussion given all the issues in Balochistan along with those of rising fundamentalism, intolerance and populism?

What this suggests is that the concept of sustainability is a highly politicised one. We are free to shout it ad nauseum where it makes no difference but whisper it at our own risk when it threatens the interests of the powers that be.

This opinion was published in Dawn on January 30, 2019 and is being reproduced here with the author’s permission.


Better Cities — An Argument and a Manifesto

August 8, 2018

By Anjum Altaf

What is to be done when we believe strongly that the present in which we live falls very much short of what it ought to be? Clearly, we don’t need to prove that that is indeed the case —  widespread poverty, hunger, marginalization, discrimination, and exploitation stare us in the face every day.

While almost everyone, especially in countries like ours, agrees on the discontents of the present, there is a very clear split when it comes to thinking of what is to be done. There is a segment of the population that believes the solution lies in going back to a past in which all these problems did not exist. And there is a segment that believes that such a return is not possible simply because one cannot step into the same river twice — too many things have changed to allow a reconstruction of any, let alone some very distant, past. This latter segment believes that the only recourse is to build a better future.

A further division occurs at this point. There are those who believe that this task is best left to the benevolence of a larger power. Others believe that the onus is on people to strive to make the future that they desire. They believe that human beings have the agency to change situations for the better.

Our task is not to convince those who believe in returning to the past nor those who wish to leave the future to supernatural intervention. It is their democratic right to act in accordance with their beliefs.

Our task is to craft a manifesto for those who believe in human agency. But here again we are faced with two perspectives. We can choose to conceive an ideal utopia and strive for a meta systemic change that yields that utopian future. Or we can choose to work within an imperfect present and attempt to redress it one flaw at a time — the outcome would still be less than desired but better than what we started with. The premise is that if this process is followed consistently over time many of the most egregious flaws would be addressed. More importantly, there could be a snowball effect in which, by virtue of its achievements, the movement for change is strengthened by the addition of those who were sceptical and sitting on the margins at the outset.

Based on our experience we advocate the latter course of action. Issues that require intervention at the national scale, e.g., foreign and security policies, notwithstanding the reality that they have an immense bearing on the state of the present, are beyond the scope of the individual to influence at this time. Coalitions to attempt such change are virtually impossible to build even if one subscribed to the opinion that the vote, the primary vehicle for change at the national level, represents a true expression of the popular will.

Any feasible manifesto must perforce be a pragmatic one. It must delineate a scale of action at which the forces that are confronted and challenged are reasonably proportionate to the strength of those striving for change.

I propose that the city offers just such a scale and therefore the manifesto for a better future must be crafted around an agenda of municipal activism.

I propose that we concentrate on attracting a set of core municipal activists in as many cities as we can. Each set would then identify a program of action for its specific city under a common umbrella, e.g., Behtar Sialkot, Behtar Mardan, Behtar Shikarpur, Behtar Zhob, etc.

The first task of municipal activists in each city would be to identify the set of municipal rules and practices that lead to the most egregious injustices for its citizens. As a further concession to pragmatism this list would be reordered to enable the formation of the widest coalitions possible across the spectrum of municipal residents. The activists would then formulate the possible remedies within the law and including advocacy and lobbying of various forms.

These lists of actionable items and possible courses of actions would then be the subject of deliberations at a national convention of municipal activists — Behtar Pakistan. A steering committee would be formed to link the city teams and it would engage like-minded professionals at think-tanks, law firms, and universities to act as advisors to the initiative. Based on the outcome of these deliberations and the resulting guiding principles, each municipal team would commence the program of action in its city.

This argument and manifesto is set out as a preliminary call for discussion. Those who subscribe to its fundamental premise are welcome to provide their input. Based on the feedback, the manifesto would be finalized and readied for implementation.   

Dr. Anjum Altaf was dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS where he pursued research on small cities. He has a PhD in Engineering-Economic Systems from Stanford University. His writings on urban issues can be found at

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Metropolitan Labour Markets and Urban Productivity

July 8, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

Urban productivity is determined by a number of variables, including population size and urban sprawl. With effective infrastructure investment, cities can enable more workers to access available jobs, creating integrated labour markets and increasing urban productivity.


From an economic perspective, the concept of a metropolitan area is related to the existence of an integrated labour market. If the labour market extends beyond the municipal boundaries of a city, it becomes part of a metropolitan labour market.

Metropolitan labour markets are important because output per worker increases with the size of the labour market; increased population density leads to a higher number of economic interactions per unit of area.

However, the population size of a city is only one determinant of its productivity. The other critical determinant is urban sprawl, which takes into account how far jobs and residences are located, and the speed of transport, which influences access to jobs. The speed itself is a product of the transport system and infrastructure investment management. In this framework, one key objective for an urban area is to increase the size of the labour market, which becomes a useful indicator to measure policy effectiveness for increasing urban productivity.

thumbnail_Fig 1.2-1

Factors Explaining Productivity of Cities

Source: Prud’homme, R. 1997. Urban Transport and Economic Development. Revue Region & Developpement.

One measure of the ‘effective size’ of a labour market is the average number of jobs available to city residents within a travel time of 60 minutes, using a mode of transportation available to the majority

Research suggests that the agglomeration effects on labour productivity die out almost completely beyond the one-hour commute boundary. Studies show that 100% of the total jobs in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, District of Columbia and Atlanta are accessible to every worker within a one-hour commute, i.e. these cities have fully integrated labour markets. This high access, despite the well-known sprawl of these cities, is due to the combination of high-speed public transit (DC, Chicago) or reliance on the personal automobile for commuting (LA, Atlanta).

One would expect the effective size of the labour market to be smaller in South Asian countries, where not all workers will be able to access every job easily, because high-speed public transit is limited and most households do not own motorized transport. This matters from a policy perspective since without an integrated labour market a city does not benefit from its large population size but only bears all the well-known disadvantages. In effect, a city with fragmented labour markets is really a set of smaller cities juxtaposed to each other. To access a higher paying job in a non-overlapping labour market, a worker would need to relocate.

The case of Lahore

This hypothesis was tested in the 40th largest city in the world, Lahore, which has a metropolitan population of 9 million. We limited ourselves to one aspect of the size of the labour market – access to the presently existing number of jobs leaving aside the equally important employment creation aspect, which aims to increase the total number of available jobs.

Formal estimation of the average number of jobs that can be reached by the typical worker in one hour requires sophisticated modelling and a rich data source. With sparse data and budget constraints, a proxy measure can be used – the population that can access a particular node in the city within a one-hour commute as a proportion of the total city population.

Taking Lahore city centre as the relevant node we first measured access to it from three small cities within a 30 mile radius of Lahore. We found none within a one-hour commuting distance to Lahore using public transport. Hence, Lahore does not have a metropolitan labour market. We then investigated the labour market within the municipal boundary of Lahore. Using the main industrial and service sector hubs and residential housing concentrations as relevant nodes, we confirmed that the Lahore labour market is highly fragmented.

Potential solutions to the fragmented labour markets

Increasing the economic productivity of Lahore requires the integration of its fragmented labour markets. A time-bound target would require strategic investments in high-speed public transit and improved traffic management along particularly congested corridors. The unambiguously measurable indicators of effective labour market size would allow progress to be easily monitored over time.

Such an intervention would simultaneously augment the metropolitan labour market, since our study revealed that the commuting time from the neighbouring small cities to the municipal boundary of Lahore was well within 60 minutes. The main delays occurred in the segments connecting the municipal boundary to the city centre.

Our study showed that the prevalent policy of road investments does not support the labour market integration; rather it enables the affluent to move out to less dense suburbs and commute back on new roads using private automobiles further congesting city centres. The mobility of the lower-income majority within the dense quadrants of the city continues to worsen. The perverse outcome is that while the area of some one-hour commute circles increases over time their population densities drop significantly.

thumbnail_Fig 3.2-2

A Typical Traffic Jam in Lahore

Such an infrastructure investment strategy caters to the convenience of the affluent and does virtually nothing for economic growth. It promotes a rapid increase in the number of private vehicles and prevents the city from staying ahead of the demand for road space. A strategy that is focused on urban economic growth needs to reorient itself to infrastructure and traffic management investments that positively impact the speed of movement in the dense areas themselves, rather than in facilitating access to the dense areas.

A unique approach for South Asian cities

While the focus should be on high-speed public transit in dense areas of cities, we do not recommend emulating developed cities by extending the network outside municipal boundaries (e.g. as in Washington, D.C., where outlying cities within 30 miles are a part of the metro-rail system). This is because the wage differential for the majority of workers between the outlying locations and the primary city is not sufficient to cover the incremental transport costs.

This conclusion raises the much bigger question of whether South Asian cities at their present levels of economic development and per-capita incomes should aspire to be compact or connected. This issue has not received adequate attention and real estate imperatives have caused most cities to spread out (sprawl) without adequate connectivity. They have become automobile-centric cities, even though less than 10% of their households own automobiles and compensating investment in public transport has been insufficient.

While it is too late for cities of the size of Lahore to undo their sprawl, the question should be taken seriously for smaller cities that are urbanizing rapidly, but still have time for intelligent spatial design interventions.

thumbnail_Fig 5.4-1

A Scene on the New BRT Line in Lahore

While recent investments in Bus Rapid Transit are ostensibly moves in the right direction (the completed BRT line in Lahore increased the size of the contiguous labour market by about a third), the orientation must be reassessed in the context of the compactness versus connectedness debate, necessitated by ability to pay realities. This would force much needed attention to issues of land use efficiency and how to enhance it using planning tools such as Floor Area Ratios, Transferable Development Rights, and Urban Growth Boundaries. These tools are currently not being leveraged at all in the urban planning of most cities in South Asia.

This article was published in City Voices,Vol 7, No 1, 2016 and is reproduced here with permission of the author. The article was written when the author was Vice-President and Provost at Habib University. Earlier he was Professor of Economics and Dean, School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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Faiz – 1: The City

November 30, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

I ‘wrote’ a poem, The City, which appeared on 3 Quarks Daily on Monday, 30 November, 2015.

The poem is reproduced below followed by comments on its genesis, connections with Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and some reflections on translating poetry.

The City

My city bedecks itself in fetters

The carefree walk
The careless talk

No more

The head held high
The feet unbound

No more

No more
I trust

Light from dark
Wine from blood
Joy from mourning

Flowers in my city
Wilt into the dust

After the Paris attacks, Brussels went into a lock-down that continued for a number of days. Faiz’s poem Yahan se Sheher ko Dekho (Look at the City from Here) came to mind and seemed to speak to the situation.

But how could one convey the sense of the poem in English? This brought forth the dilemma of translating poetry. Personally, I am skeptical it can be done especially if it were intended for an audience unfamiliar with the language of the original. (See this essay by Dick Davis on why this may be so: On Not Translating Hafez.)

A poem is not the sum of its words. It is not a vehicle to transfer meaning. Rather, a poem evokes feeling, sentiment, and mood. If I were to annotate the dictionary meaning of every word in a poem, the outcome would not be a poem. For a translation to work, it has to be a poem in its own right. And, this is what makes the task extremely difficult because the images, metaphors, idioms, and rhymes that work in one language do not carry over into another – they may for neighboring languages like Urdu, Hindi and Persian but not when the transition is from Urdu to English or Japanese. A translator must have near native proficiency in both languages to be able to find meaningful parallels. An example would be the metaphor of the owl which would make translating the following Urdu couplet into English very tricky:

har shaakh pe ulloo baitha hai
anjaam-e gulistaN kya ho ga

(an owl is perched on every branch
what will be the fate of the garden)

Going the other way, one could consider the opening lines from ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ by Keats:

St. Agnes’ Eve – Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl for all its feathers was acold;

The Urdu reader would certainly wonder what prompted the poet to choose the owl to open his poem with.

Recently I wrote a set of posts on Urdu (here, here, and here). In the commentary on the posts, I set out a challenge for the readers. It was to translate the following lines from Faiz into English for a reader not familiar with Urdu:

sabza sabza suukh rahii hai phiikii zard do-pahr
diwaaroN ko chaaT raha hai tanhaaii ka zahr

No one has responded yet but you can give it a try. Victor Kiernan has translated them as follows:

Listless and wan, green patch by patch, noonday dries up;
Pale solitude with venomed tongue licks at these walls

And Agha Shahid Ali, a very fine poet in the English language, has essayed the following translation:

On each patch of green, from one shade to the next,
the noon is erasing itself by wiping out all color
becoming pale, desolation everywhere,
the poison of exile painted on the walls.

Both these versions convey some of the meaning of the lines from Faiz but, in my view at least, they are literal translations and not English poems. What does ‘the noon is erasing itself by wiping out all color’ convey to an English speaker who does not know Urdu? And what does ‘Pale solitude with venomed tongue licks at these walls’ call forth as an image for the same reader? The intensity of loneliness is captured powerfully by the metaphors used by Faiz but English must have its own metaphors that better reflect the aesthetic of its history and culture.

As I see it, the self-inflicted problem of most translators of Urdu poetry into English is that they seem to be doing so for readers familiar with both languages and, furthermore, as if the Urdu readers were constantly looking over their shoulders to judge their faithfulness or lack of it to the original. This predilection, in my view, has limited the appreciation of as major a poet as Faiz Ahmed Faiz in the non-Urdu speaking world.

Why would an Urdu reader need to read an Urdu poem in English when he/she has access to the much richer original? A translation is meant for those who do not know the language of the original and for them faithfulness matters relatively little. What matters is if the emotion, the spirit of the original, carries over and gives some inkling of what the poet was trying to convey in the original. In order to do so, the translation into a foreign language has to be a poem in its own right, good or bad being a secondary issue, consonant with the cultural and literary aesthetic of the target language. The venomed tongue of pale solitude licking the walls stutters on this count. It only works for those who are familiar with the lines in the original.

For myself, one without native proficiency in both languages, I wouldn’t even try and attempt to translate a poet like Faiz whose poetry is laden with context-specific images which breathe life into the emotions he so successfully evokes. Rather, I do away with as much of the imagery as possible and convey the bare-bone skeleton which remains to be dressed with the clothing of images. Hopefully, the skeleton would suggest to the non-Urdu speaking reader what the poet is trying to do and his/her own imagination would furnish the appropriate images and metaphors from his/her particular aesthetic milieu.

This is what I have attempted with ‘The City.’ I would not be so bold as to claim it a translation of Yahan se Sheher ko Dekho. ‘The City’ is a poem in English inspired by Yahan se Sheher ko Dekho for which the latter serves as a point of departure. It is for readers to say to what extent I have succeeded in capturing the spirit of the original.

For those who are interested, the poem by Faiz is reproduced below in Roman script (it can be read in Urdu, Hindi, and Roman scripts here):

YahaN se sheher ko dekho to halqa-dar-halqa
Khinchi hai jail ki soorat har ek samt faseel
Har ek rahguzar gardish-e-aseeraaN hai
Na sung-e-meel, na manzil, na mukhlisi ki sabeel

Jo koi tez chaley rah to poochta hai Khayal
Ke tokne koi lalkaar kyuN naheeN aayee
Jo koi haath hilaye to Wahem ko hai sawal
Koi chanak, koi jhankaar kyuN nahiN aayee?

YahaN se shehr ko dekho to saari khalqat meiN
Na koi sahab-e-tamkeen, na koi wali-e-hosh
Har ek mard-e-jawaN mujrim rasn ba gulu
Har ek haseena-e-raana, Kaneez-e-halqa bagosh

Jo sayay duur chiraghoN ke gird larzaaN haiN
Na janey mehfil-e-ghum hai ke bazm-e-jaam-o-saboo
Jo rung har dar-o-deewar par pareshaaN haiN
YahaN se kuch naheen khulta yeh phool haiN ke LahU

– Faiz (Karachi, 1965)

A translation into English by Naomi Lazard is as follows:

If you look at the city from here
You see it is laid out in concentric circles,
Each circle surrounded by a wall
Exactly like a prison.
Each street is a dog-run for prisoners,
No milestones, no destinations, no way out.

If anyone moves too quickly you wonder
Why he hasn’t been stopped by a shout.
If someone raises his arm
You expect to hear the jangling of chains.

If you look at the city from here
There is no one with dignity,
No one fully in control of his senses.
Every young man bears the brand of a criminal,
Every young woman the emblem of a slave.

You cannot tell whether you see
A group of revellers or mourners
In the shadows dancing around the distant lamps,
And from here you cannot tell
Whether the color streaming down the walls
Is that of blood or roses.

(Source for the transliteration and the translation by Naomi Lazard is here.)

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Just Do It

November 21, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

Let me explain.

Imagine a number of you are in a boat out at sea and a hole opens up in the bottom. If everyone waits for another to do something, everyone will drown. Someone will have to do something for a chance of survival. Right?

Now extend the metaphor to your community or your country where a number of big holes have opened up in the bottom. And there is no one plugging the holes. In fact, there are a lot of people enlarging them instead. All of you are intelligent. What do you see as the likely outcome?

The point I am making is the following. Most societies have their share of activists motivated by all sorts of reasons. Their presence makes it possible for the majority to go on with their day to day engagements confident that even if they do nothing the boat would be taken care of and steered to safety

Pakistan, unfortunately, is not in that happy predicament which is why we cannot afford to be a community of consumers. A sufficient number of us have to take on a more active role to ensure we have the kind of future in which normal lives with friends and families can be lived and enjoyed.

You can, of course, choose the domain of your activism but let me be specific about what I am looking for at this time so as to provide a concrete possibility for consideration.

As some of you know, I have been interested in cities, especially small cities, for a long time (1, 2). There are two major reasons for this interest. First, more than half the world’s population now lives in urban locations and half of that urban population lives in medium and small-sized cities. So, from an economic perspective, small cities should have a major role to play in national development. What exactly is that role?

Second, a significant amount of extremist sentiments is coming out of small cities. So, from a sociological perspective, something is going on there that we need to understand. At this time, small cities are so little studied in South Asia that we cannot even hazard intelligent guesses without doing a lot more investigative work (3).

But what kind of work do we need to do? I realized quite some time back that we cannot follow the traditional modality of top-down studies carried out to publish papers or submit reports to government departments. In Pakistan, these can help one obtain academic promotions or earn consulting fee but they do not lead to any meaningful policy interventions in the small cities themselves.

So, while we have done some work (4), our approach has been very different. We have engaged with residents of small cities to listen to their narratives, we have visited the small cities to understand the context of those narratives, we have identified issues that are common to many of the cities, and we have tried to form an association of small cities that could articulate their needs and demands from a common platform.

At the same time, we hope to create an information and communication exchange that would connect activists in each of these cities so that they could learn from each other and mobilize together. In short, we aim to energize an urban movement from below that would highlight the importance of small cities, articulate their social and developmental needs, and give them political clout by facilitating a collective voice and platform for their residents.

We have completed quite a lot of the essential work and we now have the structure to move to the next stage of linking the residents of the cities in which we have carried out the pilot phase of our work. What we need now is a core set of lead metropolitan activists who would help to trigger the movement in the cities.

As part of the launch apparatus we have two websites (5, 6) that are designed to advance the movement. While I am very pleased that the membership of these sites has continued to grow, I am disappointed that most members have opted for the role of consumers of the type I mentioned at the outset. They passively read what is added to the sites and hopefully add to their knowledge.

But that is not what we expect of them at this stage. We need at least some of the members to be our lead metropolitan activists. So, for example, if we have a member from Jhang we expect that member to identify a few dynamic residents of Jhang, say a student, a college teacher, a lawyer, a labor representative, and a health worker. We expect the member to communicate to this group what we are trying to do, to familiarize them with the instruments we have developed, and to instruct them in how to become active participants in the information exchange as representatives of their cities.

Once the association of small cities becomes reasonably active we can think of hosting a physical get-together so the activists can get to know each other better and decide for themselves where next to take the movement. At that time, we will step back from our pro-active role and just become an advisory body that would provide the technical or research input the association might require for the advocacy of its interests.

This is an ambitious and exciting agenda but without this kind of an inclusive and collective effort we cannot hope to inject some much-needed dynamism in our society. And, for this to happen, we need some people to put up their hands and assume the role of activists for a limited period of time.

I hope you will agree with me that we are not in the position of all being a community of information consumers only. Some of us have to act on that information if we are to ensure the future that we desire.

Hence, this appeal to you to contribute a few volunteers. There are enough of you to take turns so that this does not become overly onerous. In fact, it can become a very exciting opportunity to learn about the economy and sociology of the country to which we belong and to contribute to a positive transformation of its future.

Please identify yourself as a volunteer and get in touch.


  1. What Is Happening in Small Towns? – Original
  2. What Is Happening in Small Towns? – Update
  3. Perspectives on Small Cities: Part 1 and Part 2 – Presentation at Cornell University
  4. Small Cities Initiative: Listen and Learn Phase. – Study
  5. Small Cities Initiative – Facebook Page
  6. Small Cities – Website

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Karachi: The City That Was – 3

September 24, 2015

By Ahmed Kamran

Among other many finer things of a city’s life that Karachi has lost over time, the greatest loss has been the disappearance of its book stores – the windows of Karachi’s reading and thinking abilities. These are now long shut and closed. Many of the good book stores, about 18, were located in Saddar, a kind of a cultural capital of Karachi. Starting from the well-known Thomas & Thomas Book Store on the Preedy Street, next to Irani Cafe George, there were many book shops on the Elphinstone Street (now Zaibunisa Street). There was Kitab Mehal (Book Palace) inside one of the market on Elphinstone Street, known for stocking good Urdu books. Kitab Mehal was owned by a fine gentleman with good literary taste who probably had a book store by the same name near Jama Masjid in old Delhi, before Pakistan was founded. A few blocks further up on the street, there was a book store by the name of Paragon Books. It was usually well stocked with books in English at reasonable prices. Almost diagonally opposite Paragon, there was Pak-American Books, a fairly big store with a large collection of titles on all subjects and Paramount Books. A few steps up on the street there had been a book Kiosk right on the footpath, owned by the Urdu writer and dramatist Hameed Kashmiri. I remember a jovial Hameed Kashmiri manning the book stall and talking to owners of other stalls selling other smaller items. These temporary shop stalls were later removed to clear the footpath. Further up, at the intersection of Elphinstone Street with Inverarity Road, taking right turn towards Alpha Restaurant, there was Almas Books, owned by an Irani (probably a Baha’i) gentleman. He always had a variety of good books in Persian, Urdu and English. A very talkative man, the owner always approached me and volunteered his comments in his Persianised broken Urdu on the books I used to select for browsing. In late 1970s, I had bought my four volumes of Farhang-e-Asifya, (a reference Urdu dictionary) published from India from Almas Books at Rs.250, a princely sum for me in those days, a little less than half of my then one month’s salary from a bank’s job in Saddar that I had recently got. Further up on the Elphinstone Street after crossing over the Inverarity Road, a little ahead of Rio Cinema there was the Sassi Books Store.

Almost none of these book shops exist today. With the changing demography and character of the city, these book shops closed down, one after the other, falling like nine pins. They have all slipped into oblivion, leaving only some fading memories in few people’s minds. Probably, the last to hold among them was the Almas Books. The last time I visited the store sometime in 2008-09, I met the Irani owner, now a fairly old man, and found him quite angry with himself. He complained that nobody visits the book store anymore; that all other book stores are closed in Saddar, and he spends his days in the store, sitting idle and alone. He told me that his sons were pressing him hard for selling the store to some jeweller or garment trader. But he had told them that they could do that only after he was dead. About a year later, I noted that the Almas Books was no more; it had given way to a garments label store. May Lord bless the soul of that last lone crusader!

Another centre of book shops in Karachi was the Urdu Bazaar, near Burns Road and Eidgah on Bunder Road. It had innumerable book stores, printers, publishers, and stationery sellers, spread over in many adjoining streets. The offices and stores of Urdu Academy Sindh, Sheikh Shaukat Ali & Sons, and other well-known publishers were located there. The Urdu Bazaar is still there but its character has significantly changed, clearly reflecting the transformation that the society has undergone in the last about 35 years. Apart from a few book stores like Welcome Book Port and Fazli Sons who are still selling Urdu literature books, the entire Bazaar is transformed into a large centre of well-stocked, colourfully bound books on Islam – Quran, its various translations, books on Hadis (Cannon), Tafseer, Fiqh, and Jurisprudence.

The main sources of obtaining Chinese political literature in those days was the Chinese Consulate located on the south-end of Elphinstone Street, in front of the then Rio Cinema, a little ahead after crossing the Inverarity Road, going towards the Flag Staff House and today’s Avari Hotel. Here, the famed ‘Red Book’ and the selected works of Mao Tse Tung and the weekly political journal ‘Peking Review’ were available for free. The ‘Great Helmsman’ and the capital of China were still not officially renamed as ‘Mao Ze Dong’ and ‘Beijing’. Similarly, the political literature published from Moscow was available from the Soviet Union’s ‘Friendship House’ on Drigh Road (renamed as Sharea Faisal in 1974). Here only small booklets and pamphlets and the weekly political journal ‘New Times’, published from Moscow, were available. Most of other Soviet literature was available from the Standard Books, an exclusive book store that was run and supported by the pro-Moscow faction of the Communist Party of Pakistan. This book store was managed by Kabir, a lean and talkative Bengali. The Standard Books Store was on the first level of Marina Hotel & Bar, situated on the corner of the intersection of Elphinstone Street and Inverarity Road. This hotel & bar in a colonial structure building was operated by Mohammad Hussain Ata, a co-accused in the famous Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, involving Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Syed Sajjad Zaheer, together with some Pakistan Army officers, including General Akbar Khan. The Marina Hotel & Bar is also no more. It was closed, among other Bars in the country, after the alcohol prohibition orders of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the spring of 1977, in a desperate attempt to save his government from the onslaught of a united front of nine political parties espousing the demand of establishing an Islamic political and social system. In late 1980’s, the building was eventually demolished and a shopping centre, Atrium Mall, is now built on the site. The Friendship House’s activities also gradually died down; first it moved out to a smaller premise in a back alley in PECHS Block 2, before it was finally closed down. Now, in its place on main Sharea Faisal, a large IT firm’s offices and US’s multinational software giant Oracle’s training centre is located.

Many of the City’s public libraries today are dysfunctional and dilapidated, including its oldest and largest, Khaliqdina Hall (1856), Frere (now Liaqat)) Hall Library (1865), KMC Library, and the Liaqat National Library (1950). The culture of visiting libraries and Reading Rooms is also evaporating. In Karachi neighbourhoods there was a strong tradition of one-anna-a-day lending libraries, offering mostly fiction to reading hungry youth and elders alike. An interesting aspect of current state of public libraries in Karachi is that according to an official undated (most likely sometime in early 2000s) list of city’s small and large public libraries prepared by the City District Government is that of its about 55 listed libraries, 23 (42%) are located in Lyari Town and its adjacent Old Town areas whereas only 7 are in in Nazimabad & North Nazimabad, 3 are in Federal B Area, 2 in Liaqatabad, 1 in Gulshan-e-Iqbal (excluding libraries of Karachi University, Aga Khan University, NED University, and Liaqat National Library Complex) and 1 in DHA & Clifton.

The steep fall of Karachi’s cultural life is again not limited to callous displacement of its minorities, disappearance of its book stores, and disuse of its public libraries but many of the city’s public entertainment mediums have also been eradicated. Of its 119 cinemas till 1970s, about 89 of them (75%) have been closed down. Only about 30 of old cinemas in Karachi are running, none exists in Saddar today. Of late, however, there has been an addition of 5 new multiplexes mainly in Clifton, Defence, and one in Saddar to cater to the entertainment needs of city’s growing elite. Karachi’s well known and prestigious music schools and art schools have long been closed and forgotten. Like city’s cinemas, its numerous theaters, auditoriums, and public halls that were frequently used in the past for social, cultural, political, and trade union activities in Karachi, are all closed down and have given way to commercial buildings, plazas, markets or shopping malls.

The city of Karachi has clearly lost its soul. It has been torn apart and is reduced to its ashes. The dynamic of Karachi’s social and political life is dramatically changed. The wistful mourning of the dead and the past long gone alone will not remedy the situation. The key drivers and contributing factors of this change are several. Some of them are inexorable forces of history, totally oblivious to our pious or wishful thinking. The tsunami of migration rising from predominantly rural hinterland of the country has practically run over Karachi– an island of suave, urban liberal and tolerant culture with a western outlook in a rapidly encroaching sea of conservative, retrogressive society that is still struggling to free itself from the tightly binding traditional tribal, biraderi (communal fraternity) and religious sectarian bonds. This organic and natural force, once let free from the steel frame of the colonial bondage, has risen and hit the city hard and has destroyed its social fabric and cultural structures. But, clearly, some of the catastrophes contributing in the havoc, playing their devastating roles had been man-made disasters and could have been avoided. Both these organic and man-made calamities needed to be managed well, at which, unfortunately, our rulers, elite, and intellectuals alike have singularly failed. It is a task waiting for a new generation to be taken up with extra-ordinary courage and determined resolve.

… to be continued

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Karachi: The City That Was – 2

September 16, 2015

By Ahmed Kamran

In spite of a sudden influx of immigrants pouring into the city in large numbers in the wake of partition of India, Karachi’s social and cultural life remained progressive and liberal in its outlook. The influx of new population, mostly coming from other urban centres of British India, the city life quickly adjusted to the thriving commercial and business activities of the city, regaining its cultural life. Founding of the new country with its capital at Karachi brought in large number of Muhajir Intelligentsia – well trained civil servants, skillful traders, successful businessmen from Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi, and Kanpur, teachers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, clerks and office workers, well known progressive and some radical poets, writers, journalists, and intellectuals from all over India. These people were already steeped in urban culture of British India and were long ago freed from the traditional static bonds of feudal relations, otherwise dominating in most parts of the new country. In both social and economic sense, Karachi reinforced its position as an isolated island in a predominantly rural and feudal surrounding.  The new wave of immigrants in Karachi, after initial adjustment with the life in a new country, further enriched the generally liberal and cosmopolitan character of the city built over the last 100 years. During British colonial administration, Karachi was divided in about 20 towns called Quarters e.g. Lyari Quarters, Old Town Quarters, Market Quarters, Serai Quarters, Artillery Maidan Quarters, Preedy Quarters and Saddar Quarters. After the founding of Pakistan and as Karachi became its capital, Saddar remained its cultural hub. According to the research of Architect & Town Planner Arif Hasan’s Urban Resource Centre, Karachi had a roaring night life. Saddar alone had about 10 cinemas, 17 bars & billiard rooms, 5 night clubs & discotheques (2 of them offering striptease shows), 4 music schools, and 18 book shops.

Inside the main Saddar area, bounded by and along Frere Street, Mansfield Street and Inverarity Road, there were, and still are many, albeit sadly dilapidated, multi-story old buildings with flats having balconies with decorative wrought iron or wooden railings. Here, mostly Christian Goanese, Anglos, Hindus, and Parsees were living. They were essentially fun people. Sometimes, in the evenings, especially on weekends, restricting the vehicular traffic, a part of the street used to be converted into lively fun place where amateur music bands comprising of mostly young Goanese and Anglo-Indian boys used to play pop, jazz, and rock tunes on guitars, drums, and boards placed on make-shift stages. Young boys and girls, and elderly couples, putting on nice western evening dresses used to stroll on the sidewalks, as if these streets were converted into some public social club. Young Christian and Parsee girls and women wearing skirts freely strolling on the streets in Saddar was not an uncommon sight. These carefree festive sights are now a long forgotten dream on today’s overcrowded and dirty streets of Saddar.

The heart and soul of this vibrant street culture of Karachi were Anglo-Indians and Goanese, together with a dash of Parsees and occasionally Hindu youth. Threatened by the rapidly changing demographics and the transformation of the city’s social and political dynamics into an overly aggressive and non-tolerant amalgam, most of the Goanese, Anglo-Indians, Parsees, Baha’is, and the few remaining Hindus and Jewish families have simply vanished from the streets of Karachi; most of them have quietly emigrated and took refuge in India or in countries of more tolerant societies in the West.

As Masood Hasan, a Lahore based journalist, wrote in one of his writings, “The Anglo Indians were particularly fun people. But more than the singular expertise they brought to the jobs that became traditionally their forte, they added a swing, vibrancy and a sheer joy of living spirit to our society that in many ways epitomised the new, fresh spirit that was Pakistan. That was then. Now it’s a fading sepia tone picture. Those of us who grew up with them, watched with considerable sadness as family after family left this country to go and live in alien climes. There was nothing left for them. They were wise in retrospect. Look at our bestiality towards our minorities. But while the Anglo Indians were here, they gave us a unique gift. The joy of living and of being alive.”

Recently, I had an amazing opportunity to meet a group of few hearty Anglo-Indian families of Indian and Pakistani origin in Australia and spending few wonderful nights with them on a hunting trip during an Easter holiday. After a day’s full of hunting and roaming, gathering every night around a bonfire and barbeque in pretty cold nights, deep in Australian Outback, those fun loving Anglos displayed their indomitable characteristic jovial disposition of enjoying life. They all loved playing jazz music, dance, and drinking to the bottoms up, after midnight, till they almost drop dead, with a nonstop chatter, turning into mere mumbling towards the end. After over 30 years of living in Australia, almost all of them spent much of their time, after a few drinks in the evening, talking and reminiscing about their childhood or adolescence in Kanpur, Agra, Lahore, and Karachi. Jane, Bruce Blanchet’s wife was born and lived in her young age in Lahore and had fond memories of her childhood. Their children were equally fascinated with the stories of back home that their parents had to tell them. I was particularly moved when one morning, a duo of Anglo friends, Ken and Sheridan, staying together in one of the many camps we had erected along the side of a dried up lake, specially invited me to their tent to feast on delicious and spicy Qeema and Paratha, freshly made by them on the portable stove. To top it all, after the breakfast, they even offered me Qalaqand (a typical Indian sweet), which they had brought with them from a shop in Melbourne. Surely, they enjoyed and relished the taste of the Indian food that morning far more than I did.

In the wake of partition of India, most of the Hindus had taken refuge and migrated to India in the same way as hundreds of thousands of Muslims were driven out from India towards Pakistan. But a handful of Hindu families remained in Karachi. I still relish the food that, on innumerable occasions, I had had at a small eatery attached to the Swami Narain Mandir on M.A. Jinnah Road, one of the main Hindu temples in Karachi, opposite Karachi Municipal Corporation building. In fact, whenever passing by that area in the afternoons, I preferred going to the Mandir because firstly, the food there was available at a very nominal cost, and secondly, it was clean and had good homely taste. This small eating place beside the Mandir was operated by a Sindhi Hindu family. Having a plate of Tamata or Patata or some other vegetables, with home cooked chapattis (plain thin leavened bread) was always a treat. Never ever the staff asked me or my colleagues about our religion, although, I always suspected that they knew that we did not belong to the Hindu religion. There was a Hindu-owned Shahbaz hotel in a back-street, behind Tariq Road that was a favourite joint for our meals in the evenings. The Shahbaz hotel is also no more. The Swami Narain Mandir is one of the few Hindu temples that have, so far, survived in Karachi, as, perhaps, to its good fortune, it is almost hidden behind a busy market for decorative lights and lamps on the main road. From outside, perhaps, only a few people walking by the busy M.A. Jinnah Road would know that there is a major Hindu temple of Karachi behind these high walls.

Many Hindu temples have slowly disappeared from Karachi in my memory, not to speak of the ones that were occupied and converted during the heat of the charged atmosphere of the partition in 1947. One of the most ancient Hindu temples in Karachi, the Ram Bagh Temple was occupied and converted conveniently into ‘Aram Bagh’ Mosque in the heart of the old city on Frere Road near Burns Road by the faithful, probably in 1948. The Ram Bagh temple was specially revered by the Hindus because of their belief that the God-incarnate Ram and Sita stayed there on their way for pilgrimage to the Hinglaj Temple, another even more ancient but lesser known Hindu temple, located near the coast of Makran in Baluchistan.

Till as late as mid-1970’s, there was a Hindu temple in a grove of trees behind the well-known Guru Mandir bus stop on M.A. Jinnah Road. The area was, in fact, named after this Mandir in New Town. The Mandir was at a stone’s throw from the New Town (now Binnori Town) Mosque, a well-known centre of Taliban-supporting seminary of religious education, one of the largest in the country. One day, the Guru Mandir temple simply disappeared, and now few people, especially of younger generation, wonder why the area was known as Guru Mandir whereas no Mandir exists there!

A pleasant memory of the Saddar of those days that is still lurking in my mind are the colourful chalk patterns skillfully made at the entrance of many houses that I occasionally noticed while walking on some streets of Saddar in the morning. These intriguing brightly coloured beautiful geometrical patterns on the door slabs, I learnt later, were Rangolis or Kolams or Alapnas that have ancient religious and cultural origins. These are usually made by the women and young girls of Hindu families on their entrance door slabs as auspicious and lucky signs and as marks of welcome for the deities and the equally revered guests. Parsees also make the colourful chalk powder Rangolis, especially on wedding occasions for welcoming the bridegroom’s family. For some Hindu families it is a daily routine, while for others Rangolis are drawn on certain festive occasions like Diwali. Admittedly, the Rangolis I had seen were not as large, intricate and elaborate as are now often shown in soaps on Indian Satellite TV channels. These soap TV Rangolis are commercially made for a much wider TV audience. But the Rangolis that I remember seeing on the door steps of lower middle class ordinary Hindu or Parsee families in Saddar area were simple but still very elegant.

I remember often walking past by the last Jewish synagogue – Magain Shalome Synagogue – in Karachi at the intersection of the Lawrence Road (now Nishtar Road) and Barness Street (now Jamila Street) at Ranchore Lines bus stop near Ramswami. The synagogue was commonly known in the area as ‘Israeli Masjid’. The Magain Shalome synagogue in Karachi was built by a philanthropist Jew, Solomon David Umerdekar in late 1890’s. It was a two story stone building of attractive colonial architecture with intricate facade, arched windows and sloping roof of red tiles. Till recently, there was also a Solomon David Street named after him in Ramswami area. Now it has been renamed as Suleman Dawood Street to probably give it a more acceptable Muslim accent. There is also a long forgotten Jewish cemetery with about 400 graves in the Mewa Shah graveyard at Rexer in Trans Lyari and there were about 40-50 graves in a section of the Kutchi Memon graveyard in the old Lyari Quarters. Earlier, there is said to be another Mt. Sinai synagogue in Karachi, behind Spencer’s Eye Hospital, near Lea Market on Harchand Rai Road (now Siddique Wahab Road). Reportedly, the last Rabbi of the synagogue placed the ark and the Teba in the personal custody of a local Muslim friend before fleeing from Karachi. These articles, together with holy Torah scrolls and synagogue archives covering the period from 1961-1976, were subsequently rescued by a Jewish wife of an Australian counselor posted in Pakistan in 1970’s and these items were eventually donated to the Ben-Zvi Institute Library in Jerusalem, Israel.

The Jews living in Karachi were of Beni Israel denomination observing Sephardic rites who were originally settled in the Kokan district of Maharashtra and Bombay in India for the last many centuries. A few also lived in Afghanistan, Peshawar, and Lahore. Old Bollywood Indian actresses Salochna (Ruby Meyers), Firoza Begum (Susan Solomon), and Nadra were Beni Israel Jewesses. There were about 2,500 Jews living in Karachi in early 20th century, mainly in the Ramswami and Ranchore Lines area. Abraham Reuben, a local Jew in Karachi was also elected a counselor, in 1936, in the town’s municipal committee. Most of the Jews, however, migrated to India, Israel or USA after independence of Pakistan in 1947. The last Jewish Synagogue had come under attack quite a few times after Pakistan was formed. First, it was ransacked and partly burnt in 1948 when the state of Israel was created and was immediately recognised by the U.S.A. Later, during each successive Israel-Arab wars in the Middle East in October 1956, June 1967, and October 1973, its existence was threatened. For many years, since sometime in 1960’s, the synagogue was in disuse and remained locked when I saw it. Most of the Jewish families – they were Marathi and Gujrati speaking Beni Israel Jews – in Karachi had migrated to safe havens. The last caretaker of the synagogue, Mrs. Rachel Joseph, an old primary school teacher, was still holding the fort till as late as July 1988 when the synagogue was finally demolished to give way to an ugly looking, badly constructed, multi-story shopping centre called ‘Madiha Square’. According to the journalist Akhtar Baloch – the ‘Karachi Wala, quoting Rachel’s lawyer, she finally migrated to London (DAWN, October 3, 2013). This must be sometime after May 2007 as another journalist, Reema Abbasi seems to have met Rachel, 89, in 2007, while she was still in litigation against the property developer of the shopping mall. Reema Abbasi describes Rachel as “frail and almost destitute” and refers to her conversation with the Baloch keeper of the Jewish cemetery in Mewashah when the keeper informs her that “Rachel is still a regular [visitor to the cemetry]” (DAWN, 6 May, 2007). Rachel was, perhaps, the last of the Beni Israel Jews in embarking on her Aliyah from Karachi.

The wrath of the faithful has not been limited to the Jewish synagogues or the Hindu temples. I have witnessed a Shia Imam Bara being ransacked at the intersection of the Court Road and the Frere Road (now Sharah-e-Liaqat) near Burns Road (now officially Mohamad Bin Qasim Road, but hardly anybody knows and, thankfully, cares about the change). One evening in mid-1977, before my eyes, while visiting a friend, living in a flat in the adjacent building, a functional Shia Imam Bara was forcibly occupied by a jubilant crowd, and, overnight, was converted into today’s Ahle Hadis Mosque standing in its place. Surely, there would be many other similar incidents with Shia or Qadiani mosques, Hindu temples or Christian churches elsewhere in the country.

Now, in a culturally denuded city of Karachi, all signs of peaceful and joyous traditions and cultural refinements have been wiped out over the last about 30 years. Today, there are no more ravishing Anglo-Indian and Goanese dusky maidens strolling in the evening, no more jazz and rock music being played on the streets to the groups of merry-making, carefree young boys and girls, elegantly dressed men and women, no more any Rangolis or Alapnas on the door slabs of houses in Karachi, welcoming equally the benevolent Gods and the wedding guests in the peaceful houses, and no more smartly turned, efficient, and attractive young and old Anglo-Indian and Goanese secretaries greeting the guests in corporate executive offices. Days gone past were, indeed, another country!

The markers of rapidly transforming cultural and social life of Karachi are not limited to the gradual eviction of the religious minorities from their traditional abodes but these are also visible in other aspects of city’s cultural life.

An interesting facet of Karachi’s social life was the Irani tea houses, with their typical dark polish chairs of curved backs and flat wooden seats with some designs engraved on it. These were made of special wood and a wood bending and making process. These tea houses were mostly owned by Iranis of Baha’i faith who had, years ago, taken refuge in the cosmopolitan cities of India to escape persecution of their faith in Iran. The Irani hotels in Karachi used to have a long list of tea options on their menu, usually placed on a large board prominently hanging on one of the walls. I remember seeing at least 8 or 10 types of tea on that menu e.g. qahva, karak, double, aadhia, lamba paani and order size measurements like full cup, set, half-set etc. An aadhia was a tea with half milk and half black tea, and lamba paani was diluted with extra water for those having taste of lighter tea. There were also many Malabari hotels in Karachi. These hotels of a different genre were owned by immigrants from western coastal region of Malabar in south India, today known as Kerala. These hotels were especially known for good, spicy, low cost food. I remember my favourite anda ghutala, made of whipped egg prepared with fine broken potato slices. The cheapest food I ever had in early 1970s was a plate of Nihari with two fresh Roti for 6 aanas only ((one aana was equal to 6 paisa and 4 aana was equal to 25 paisa) that is, the total cost of meal was about Pak Rs. 0.38, less than half a US Cent). In those days, the usual cost of my daily lunch meal was about 8 aana i.e. 50 paisa, but off course, it was in low cost eateries. The Irani and Malabari hotels had given a characteristic feature to the cultural landscape of Karachi. A cup of tea was available in these hotels at a nominal cost of two aanas. The Irani and Malabari restaurants in Karachi were convenient rendezvous, and acted as sort of social clubs for both young and old, middle class students, journalists, political activists, intellectuals, poets, and writers. Cafe George, Coffee House, Café High School, Qaisar hotel, Kwality, Zelins, Puff, Pehlawi, Durukhshan, Kali Muslim, Cafe Jahan and later Shezan Ampis, Alpha, and Jabees in Saddar, and Cafe Al-Hasan in Nazimabad, among others, were well known small restaurants serving as common eating places or meeting points in Karachi and had a long association with many groups of people.

Most of these hotels have now disappeared, leaving no trace behind them. Today, few people realise that for students or a person of modest means finding a decent place for having tea in Karachi is almost impossible. There is practically no choice except for either an expensive coffee shop in one of the expensive 4-5 star hotels or a few cheap tea khokas (kiosks without seats or at best a few benches in the open) in some back alleys. Probably, together with the Irani and Malabari tea houses, the culture of sitting over a cup of tea and discussing everything under the sun has also evaporated from our cultural life. In contrast, however, bazaars in every locality, lower, middle class, or upscale, are filled with scores of Chicken Karahi & Tikka shops in a row. Obviously, the public tastes have greatly changed!

… to be continued

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Karachi: The City That Was – 1

September 7, 2015

By Ahmed Kamran

Yeh laash-e be-kafan Asad-e khasta jaan ki hai
Haq maghfarat kare ajab azad mard tha! (Ghalib)

If Karachi could be likened to a man, with a little liberty taken from Ghalib, this couplet could be a very appropriate epitaph for the tombstone of Karachi, the city that was! This is a series of some musings on the social and cultural aspects of the history of Karachi; how the city’s life was developed and transformed over time. It focuses on the period of 1960s and 1970s when I was young and had many dreams. What was the Karachi that my generation had inherited and what it is today? These writings have a clear ring of nostalgia. Paul Getty said, ‘Nostalgia often leads to idle speculation’. Indeed, nostalgia is distractive, breeds inaction, and, often, depression. But like some sweet-bitter memory of childhood or a sad song or a symphony that touches chords in your heart one must some time indulge in it. Nostalgia isn’t necessarily always depressing. As Seneca says, ‘it is the recognition that a wasted life is short, that is the starting point for enjoying a long and full life’.  It is because beauty fades, that we treasure it.  It is because beauty exists, that we mourn it when it dies. As long as we can later recover from it to find causes of a loss of beauty and move on to some action for its remedy, a little nostalgia will not harm us. 

In today’s world of striding globalization, many cities, especially in the developing world, have rapidly changed themselves, and considerably. But, perhaps, none has changed as much, in as little a time, as Karachi has changed, nay, it has metamorphosed itself into a whole new existence. It is hard to believe that Pakistan was once a gentle, tolerant country. It is even harder to believe that Karachi was once a vibrant and fun loving town where streets were washed by municipal services every morning and where the civic sense was developed to an extent that a well-managed Society for the Prevention of Animal Cruelty, with a functioning veterinary clinic on Bunder (now M.A. Jinnah) Road was in existence! Karachi of 1950s and 1960s was a different world!

I remember growing up in Karachi of 1960’s and 1970s, seeing the vibrancy and amazing ‘fun culture’ in the Saddar town. It’s a sad story of how my generation lost an entire world that we grew in. Finding myself as an alien in the town of my birth and being unable to reconcile with the new aggressively intolerant world was the main driver for me to take my family to a refuge overseas. It is not easy to uproot oneself from where you belong. It causes a lot of internal pain and anguish. But, at least, I can see my children living in a society that allows freedom, albeit within certain boundaries, to think and express independently.

The Karachi of my adolescence has long gone, swallowed up by the mists of time, many of its children driven out to fend for themselves. But in their extinction lies a bigger tragedy. Saddar of Karachi today is exceedingly overcrowded place, where streets are choked with smoke-fumes belching rusty buses and equally worn out mini-buses jamming into each other, especially in the peak hours. The footpaths are filled with tens of thousands of people milling with each other, especially in the evenings, leaving literally no place to walk.

It is now almost unimaginable to visualize Karachi of 1960s with its quiet, peaceful and lively neighborhoods, children playing without fear, and, at least, in some localities, young girls enjoying taking bicycle rides. I had two Goanese brothers as friends, Jerry and Jacob, living in our neighborhood in Nazimabad. I used to sometime accompany them to Saddar to meet their friends. Saddar, the downtown of Karachi, mostly inhabited by the Goanese, Anglo-Indians, Parsees, Baha’is, Chinese, Hindus, and a few Jewish families, was the most happening place in Karachi. It was a highly cosmopolitan, liberal and tolerant district in Karachi, a last remnant of the old British colonial times. In front of the Empress Market, across Preedy Street, there was a dense, but still peaceful, neighborhood. From both sides of the Empress Market, two main arteries of Frere Street and Mansfield Street, together with Napier Street running parallel in between the two, ran upto Inverarity Road, which cut across these two main streets. Clarke Street, Church Street, and some smaller streets like Belfast Street, Cunningham Street, and Wellington Street were connecting horizontally these main streets in between. Now, with almost a complete change of the body and soul of this area, the names of the streets are also changed. Preedy Street in front of the Empress Market is Sharah-e-Liaqat. Frere Street is Allama Daudpota Road, and Mansfield Street is Syedna Burhanuddin Road. Napier Street is now Mir Karam Ali Talpur Road and Clarke Street is Sharah-e-Iraq. Inverarity Road has taken the name of Sarwar Shaheed Road whereas Church Street is taking refuge in the name of Mubarak Shaheed Road. Queen Elizabeth of U.K. may thank her Lord that the name of the Empress Market in Karachi, built in memory of her ancestor, Queen Victoria, during 1884-1889 is not yet changed. I suspect that smaller internal streets of Saddar like Belfast Street, Cunningham Street, and Wellington Street have so far escaped attention of the exalted faithful and patriots of the land. By one count, the names of not less than 51 streets in old Karachi have been renamed on record. Detailed field survey of Karachi’s landscape may produce a much higher number. Besides those mentioned above, a few of the old names such like Atmaram Street, Bonus Street, Connaught Road, Commissariat Road, Harchandrai Road, Havelock Road, Ingle Road, Queens Road, Kingsway, Queensway, Princess Street, Ramchandar Temple Road, Somerset Street, Victoria Road, Wood Street, Vishwanath Patel Road, McLeod Road, Lawrence Road, Grant Road, and Hiralal Ganatra Road are no more.

After British occupation of Sindh in 1842-1843, Karachi became its capital city. The British had conquered Sindh to clear the way for their undisturbed approach for military expeditions in Afghanistan and Iran via Baluchistan for countering the threat of Russian Czar’s southward thrust in the Central Asia. First, the British military vessel Wellseley took control of Manora and the small harbor at Karachi on 1 February 1839, without a gunshot being fired. Manora had a small mud fort fitted with a few rusty canons, brought from Muscat. But the fort capitulated without offering any resistance. For the Talpur rulers of Sindh at Hyderabad (160 Km away), Karachi was an insignificant fishermen’s settlement, too far from their seat of decaying power. The Talpurs were sunk in deep torpor, perhaps, unable to even fully comprehend the implication of the British occupation of Manora and Karach harbor. Since the end of Sindhi ruling dynasty of Kalhoras (1701-1783), Sindh had been essentially a lose confederacy of powerful Talpur Baloch tribes with three seats of power at Hyderabad, Mirpur, and Khairpur. For centuries, the Sindhi society was stagnating under decadent but highly oppressive class of big landlords, tribal leaders, Syeds and Pirs (revered religious leaders who had acquired large tracts of land in grants from corrupt rulers). Most of the Sindh’s big landlords were the descendents of Baloch or Pathan tribal chiefs who had, over a period of time, entering into Sindh from North-West, occupied lands and were permanently settled here. Unlike Punjab, there were not multiple rivers in Sindh except for the mighty Indus and its few rain collecting tributaries. Sindh is almost at the outer edge of the Monsoon rains system. Most of its population lived along the Indus, cultivating in the silt brought in by yearly summer floods when the river regularly overflows during Monsoon season. Indus River empties itself into the Arabian Sea, forming a large delta near Karachi in the south-east.

Sindhi rulers didn’t have a trained army worth its name. They only had some ill-equipped Lashkars (armed bands) of unruly tribesmen, primarily for settling scores among themselves in their unending tribal feuds or to suppress their Haris. No wonder, in the final battle with the British at Miani, near Hyderabad, in February 1843, the British General Charles Napier was able to rout Talpur’s Lashkar in one day with over 5,000 Baloch killed against only 257 casualties on the British side. Karachi was made an army town and military cantonmet was established and lines were laid to bring water supply from Damloti wells in Malir to Karachi town. Basic modern police and judicial system was built for the first time. After four years, in 1847, the strategic administration of Sindh was appended to the British Residency at Bombay. The extremely conservative tribal-feudal Sindhi society outside Karachi was, however, initially left practically undisturbed in its harsh traditional bonds.

In mid 1850s, from a purely military perspective plans were made to lay a railway line from Kotri to Karachi, connecting its small sea port with the nearest inland waterway on the Indus River, flowing down from Punjab and north-west. The Sindh River upwards from Kotri was then still navigable. The Karachi-Kotri rail link was completed in 1861, after a brief interruption due to 1857 mutiny in the northern India. On a short inaugural drive of a locomotive engine carrying departing Sindh Commissioner Bartle Frere to Keemari port for his voyage to Calcutta, John Brunton, the Scottish Chief Engineer of the ‘Scinde Railway’ wrote in his diary, “The native of Scinde had never seen a Locomotive Engine, they had heard of them as dragging great loads on the lines by some hidden power they could not understand, therefore they feared them supposing that they moved by some diabolical agency, they called Shaitan (or Satan). During the Mutiny, the Mutineers got possession of one of the East Indian Line Stations where stood several Engines. They did not dare to approach them but stood a good way off and threw stones at them!”

At this time, due to an event, otherwise entirely disconnected with Sindh or India, taking place in faraway America, the Karachi-Kotri rail link turned out to be an extremely useful and timely investment for the British Raj. The far reaching impact of the American Civil War played a crucial role for a paradigm shift in the life of Karachi and consequently of Sindh, which remains largely unnoticed or is ignored. The American Civil War (1861-1865), in which seven major cotton producing southern states of USA rose in rebellion and declared independence from the northern federation, caused a major disruption in the supply of American cotton to the thriving textile industry of the Great Britain. Over 80% of cotton for the British textile industry was imported from the USA. The British textile industry (the world’s largest at the time) faced a historic ‘cotton famine’ and faced closure of over 2,000 mills, threatening employment of over 360,000 textile workers in Lancashire alone. Alternate sources for immediate supply of cotton were identified in Egypt and India. While Lancashire industry focused more on the Egyptian supplies, the Scottish textile industry in Glasgow relied heavily on Indian cotton. The Glasgow and Lancashire Chambers of Commerce jointly demanded from the Secretary of State for India that “India make good the [cotton] shortfall to protect the livelihood of the 4 millions of our people who are directly or indirectly dependent for their daily bread on our cotton manufacturers”. In addition to supplies from Surat, the cotton produce of recently conquered Sindh and Punjab regions was critical. For supply of Punjab and Sindh cotton via shortest route from Karachi to quickly reach England, logistics arrangements were to be made immediately. Cotton from Sindh and Punjab was brought on barges via Indus River up to Kotri and thereafter transported by train to Karachi for swift shipment to the ports of England. The opening of transport route via Karachi substantially reduced the transit time for other agricultural produce from Punjab compared to the long and arduous transportation across whole of vast India to Calcutta in the north-east or Bombay in the south-west. The critical, time sensitive commercial export needs necessitated rapid development of logistics and trade services infrastructure in Karachi. The Government of India directed “those provincial governments with substantial cotton-producing regions to report immediately on what needed to be done to improve the lines of traffic between the cotton producing districts and the ports of shipment.” This development suddenly catapulted Karachi’s sleepy town and essentially a military station to become a key port in the modern commercial sea lanes.

The Karachi-Kotri railway link was to be extended up to Quetta in Baluchistan. The Karachi harbor at Keemari was improved; it was connected with the mainland by building a Mole (causeway) across Chinna Creek. Later, Manora Breakwater, Native Jetty, and the Napier Mole Bridge were built in 1864. By 1868, Karachi had become the largest grain exporting port in the British Indian Empire. Accelerated foreign trade operations from Karachi brought in their wake significant growth in port assets and a network of leading British (mostly Scottish) trading companies, banks, clearing & forwarding agencies, stevedores, civil contractors, food and commodities supply contractors, whole-sellers and retailers in the market. Karachi and Bombay were connected with a direct telegraph link via a new sub-marine cable laid to link with an Aden-Malta cable to London. The first telegraph message from India to London was sent from Karachi in 1864. With the opening of Suez Canal in 1869, the sailing time from Karachi to European ports was significantly reduced from a long three-month journey around Africa via Cape of Good Hope. Within a short period of about a decade, an obscure and sleepy fishing Goth (hamlet) of Karachi grew into an important commercial town where hundreds of Europeans, Marwari, Hindu, Parsee, Jewish, Memon, Khoja, Bohra, and Chinioti investors and traders from London, Calcutta, Kanpur, and Bombay and thousands of Anglo-Indians, Jews, Goanese, Punjabis, North Indians, and Gujaratis had flocked in to service the unprecedented rapid growth of a small town into a thriving modern city. From a base of less than 20,000 by late 1850s, the population of Karachi surged to over 60,000 by 1870, tripling the number roughly in a decade. But this sudden rushing in of people from outside of Sindh caused a significant transformation in its demographic composition. Old inhabitants of Karachi—the Kutchis, Baloch, Makrani, and partly Sindhis were simply overwhelmed and marginalized by the new wave of energetic and skilled ‘foreign’ settlers. This unprecedented phenomena of massive migration from other urban centres of India, which took place in Karachi on the outskirts of Sindh’s traditional rural life was to be repeated again, on even larger scale, in next about 90 years.

In 1878, the Karachi-Kotri railway line was extended to connect with Delhi-Punjab rail link at Multan in a north-western railway system. Karachi Port Trust was established in 1886 and an East Wharf was built at Keemari port and a public tram service was started from St. Andrews Church, Saddar to Keemari harbor in 1885. Initially, steam powered and horse driven carriages were used and then gasoline powered engines were introduced in 1905. The Karachi tramway was extended to serve Frere Street on one hand and on the other to Chakiwara in Lyari Quarters, Lawrence Road in Garden Quarters and Soldier Bazar. The first aerodrome in India was built in 1924 near Malir making Karachi, for a long time, till 1970s, the first airport of call for entry into the Indian subcontinent. Karachi was the final destination of the famed journey of Zeppelin like British airship R101 in October 1930, which took off from Cardington, England to reach Karachi via Ismailia in Egypt. A special high-rise hanger was built at Karachi airport to receive the huge airship. The flight, however, proved fateful as it crashed on its way in France due to bad weather, effectively putting an end to the then ambitious British trans-continental airship service from Britain to India and Australia. The special structure built at Karachi painted black was visible from a distance on the Drigh Road and remained there till probably early 1960s and was commonly known in the town as Kala Chappra.

The first modern but informal schooling was initiated for the children of few English families in Karachi in 1847 and the first formal English school was opened in 1854. St. Joseph’s Convent School for girls was established in 1862. With the spreading influence of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s Muslim educational movement at Aligarh, Syed Amir Ali, the president of Mohammaden National Association of Calcutta arrived in Karachi in 1882 and a Mohammaden National Association of Sindh was established with a Sindhi Muslim lawyer of Turkish origin, Hasan Ali Effendi, as its first president. This Association established the first school for natives— Sindh Madarsatul Islam in Karachi in 1885. The Sindh Arts College was established in Karachi in 1882 (later converted into Dayram Jethmal (D.J.) College in 1887). The Prince of Wales Engineering College was founded in 1922, initially to train engineers working for construction of Sukkur Barrage. The college was, later, renamed as N.E.D. Engineering College in 1924 in honour of its biggest benefactor, Nausherwan Eduljee Dinshaw. Dow Medical College was founded in Karachi in 1945.

A Karachi Conservancy Board created in 1846 to look after some municipal services was upgraded to Karachi Municipal Committee in 1853. A City Municipal Act was passed in 1933 and the Municipality of Karachi was given the status of a Municipal Corporation with Jamshed Nausserwanji Mehta as it first Mayor. Mehta had earlier served as elected President of the Karachi Municipal Committee for about 20 years.

This was the Karachi with a strong heritage of modern infrastructure, thriving commercial life, and educational institutions of long standing that was chosen to be the capital of new Pakistan coming into being in August 1947.

… to be continued

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Megacity Narratives

March 2, 2015

By Anjum Altaf


The discussion of megacities has drifted into a combination of oh-my-god and pie-in-the-sky narratives displacing potentially sensible and useful analyses.

As an example of the first, consider how often one hears that Karachi had a population of 11 million in 1998 and is twice that now – as if that was enough to clinch the argument that we have a mega-problem on our hands.

My response is: So what? I am not particularly bothered if the population rises to 30 million. What matters, and this is the real question we should be asking, is whether Karachi is well managed and whether its management is improving or deteriorating over time.

Suppose the answer is that Karachi is not well managed. If so, does that have anything to do with its size? As a test, I would ask the proponents of the size-is-the-problem argument to go live in Mirpur Mathelo and confirm if the latter is much better managed because of its much smaller size.

Simple observation should convince people that size is irrelevant to the argument – there are examples around the world of well-managed large cities and poorly-managed small ones. In that sense, Karachi having over 20 million people is nothing more than a statistic.

Another oh-my-god narrative pertains to the dominance of mafias in Karachi. Once again, there is no correlation with size. Trudge around a few villages to see how land and water are controlled in small places. The brutal truth is that scarce resources everywhere in Pakistan are controlled by mafias. Some go as far as to say that the entire country is run by mafias of various sorts and if that is the case why would Karachi be an exception?

Now consider the pie-in-the-sky narrative – the mantra that cities are the engines of growth, the bigger the city, the bigger the engine because of bigger labor markets, etc.

Once again, a little questioning would dent this argument. Suppose, we could double the population of Karachi overnight, would the city become much more productive? Most likely not.

The more sensible question is the following: What it is that makes some cities more productive than others? As an example consider Mumbai and Karachi – they have about the same number of residents but the output per person is roughly three times higher in the former.

Why might that be so? Mumbai is not immune to mafias or political groups adept in the use of violence. Nor is it claimed that Mumbai is managed all that much better than Karachi.

The one stark difference is that Mumbai’s labor market is actually much bigger than Karachi’s, a result of the fact that its suburban railway – reputedly the busiest transit system in the world – transports over 7 million commuters per day while Karachi lacks any public transit worth the name.

Raw numbers tell us very little. In this case, the critical analytical question relates to understanding the labor market. Intuitively, if a worker cannot afford to reach a job within a travel-time of one hour, the job is located in a separate labor market. It is quite obvious that Karachi’s labor market is fragmented because of constrained mobility. In actuality, Karachi is made up of five or six labor markets adjacent to each other – it has all the disadvantages of a large population and very few of the advantages of an integrated labor market.

Given the impact of labor market size on economic productivity, it would make sense to consider ways in which to overcome fragmentation. The most obvious connector is increased worker mobility. An example from China should drive home the point: In 1990, the number of people who could reach Shanghai port within an hour was 4 million; by 2007, it was 12 million, a result of conscious and well-planned efforts to increase mobility within dense parts of the city.

Such an increase in mobility does not come about simply by making traffic flow more smoothly for people who own automobiles in cities like Karachi where the majority does not own private vehicles. The imperative is to increase the mobility of workers without motorized transport living in dense and congested parts of the city. For that, investments need to be directed towards rapid public transit, a focus on facilitating bicycling and walking, and better traffic management in general.

In this perspective, investments in under-passes and fly-overs are not necessarily growth-enhancing; they are convenience-enhancing for automobile owners who move further out into less-dense residential areas and commute to work into more-dense employment zones using a means of transport that is grossly inefficient. The private car transports one or two persons per trip, uses the largest road-space per capita, and consumes valuable city-center land for parking.

Much is required to improve city management and economic productivity but a transition to a sensible discussion requires moving beyond simplistic narratives fixated on size.

Anjum Altaf is the provost at Habib University and was formerly dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on March 1, 2015 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Urbanization: The Big Picture

September 4, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

Anyone wanting to understand urbanization needs to get past two major misunderstandings.

First, urbanization is not about individual cities – neither solving their problems nor enhancing their potential for growth. The end result of urbanization is indeed an increase in the population of cities but the term itself refers to the movement of people from rural to urban locations.

But which urban locations do (or should) people move to? That is a more important question.  What are the choices that exist and what determines the attractiveness of one location over another? Should public policy attempt to influence the spatial distribution of population by altering the attractiveness of different types of locations?

Second, the pattern of urbanization is not predetermined. People move primarily to seek work and therefore any change in the distribution of employment opportunities should alter the pattern of migration. Different industrial or economic policies should lead to different patterns of urbanization.

For example, an export-oriented industrial policy favors coastal locations; one based on high-end services might best be centered in big cities; labor-intensive manufacturing for the domestic market is suited to medium-sized cities; a big agro-industrial push strengthens the role of small towns.

It should be obvious that urbanization cannot be divorced from a discussion of industrial policy. But what exactly is our industrial policy and what role does it envisage for the various categories of urban locations – the big, medium, and small-sized cities and towns? Never having considered this explicitly, we have unplanned urbanization with suboptimal results – the big cities are overwhelmed with the influx of people and the majority of medium and small-sized cities are stagnant.

Eighty percent of Pakistan’s population lived in rural areas in 1950 when the economy was dominated by agriculture. Industrialization began to draw people into cities primarily because urban wages exceeded rural wages and better access to services added to the attraction.

The structural transformation of an economy – the transition from agriculture to industry – is accompanied by urbanization because most industry is located in cities. South Korea and Pakistan shared the same level of urbanization in 1950 but the structural transformation in the former is complete – in 2010, 80 percent of its population was urban.

The structural transformation in Pakistan and India has remained stunted by contrast – by 2010, only about 40 percent of their populations were urban according to official statistics, the consequences reflected in their much lower living standards compared to South Korea.

The stunted transformation in the subcontinent is both a source of opportunity and a cause of concern: the former, because the majority of the population is yet to migrate and therefore their choice of locations can be influenced by intelligent policy interventions; the latter, because there is little serious thinking on industrial policy that will influence people’s choices over locations.

The concern is compounded by the fact that arrested industrialization does not forestall urbanization. There might be no positive incentive to migrate but if rural poverty deepens desperate people would be pushed into cities. Such a poverty push has swelled a number of megacities in Africa. A similar push drives the export of labor from many regions in South Asia skipping domestic locations and moving directly to employment-generating cities abroad.

Poverty-driven urbanization is a consequence of weak industrialization. Employment shifts directly from agriculture to low-level services in informal sectors. The results are visible in slums in the big cities.

Healthy urbanization is not possible without industrialization whose policy parameters impact the choice of locations. This connection is ignored in the subcontinent. When challenged, policymakers are likely to argue that economics ought to be left to the free market which would best determine the locations of jobs and people would move accordingly.

This is contrary to experience. God did not create markets, human beings did. Almost all major markets in the subcontinent are outcomes of public sector investments (railways, canals, roads, villages) made by the British for objectives that are hardly relevant today. Opening up the Pakistan-India border or linking Kashgar to Gwadar would strengthen some markets and create others where none existed before. Each would affect the choice of destinations for rural migrants.

This raises a policy question: Where should jobs be located to yield an urbanization pattern that makes people better off? The question assumes that policy makers have a free hand in choosing locations and types of jobs. Unfortunately, that is not the case –one cannot, for example, relocate an impoverished farmer and expect him or her to adapt seamlessly to modern industry in a mega-city.

The reason is simple. Pakistan and India have not invested adequately in the health, education and skills of their rural citizens. Weak social and labor policies have severely limited the ambit of industrial and urbanization alternatives. Abstract theory might suggest that mega-cities are the most efficient engines of economic growth but with the existing endowment of human capital one might just end up with a transfer of rural poverty to urban locations.

The more realistic question is to ask what kinds of urbanization patterns are compatible with existing socioeconomic conditions. Should an informed policy favor rural industrialization? Should there be a phase of skill enhancement through agro-industrial development in small towns? Should medium-sized cities serve as intermediaries in a staged urban-industrial strategy?

These longer-term perspectives may appear suboptimal from the viewpoint of abstract growth theory but economists tend to forget that life is real and not abstract – one can only assume away reality at great cost to human beings.

The key takeaway is the following: Cities are not going to drive growth; rather, different types of growth will energize different types of cities – provided there has been adequate investment in human and physical capital.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on September 3, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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