Posts Tagged ‘Cities’

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.

 

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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 https://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/#Cities

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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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Comparing Small Towns in South Asia

May 26, 2013

A Citizens’ Initiative

By Anjum Altaf

The presence of international borders that are closed is unfortunate in many ways. However, to a social scientist they present the possibility of fascinating natural experiments in which locations close to each other but separated by the border can be studied to advantage. For example, the Punjab border separates Kasur in Pakistan from Ferozepur in India by a distance of 39 miles. One would not expect much to change over such a short distance except for policies that are decided at the national or regional levels, e.g., those related to land, taxation, subsidies, etc. If we study the two cities in depth perhaps we might be able to infer the impact of such policy differences on the prospects of the cities and the lives of their residents.

It was such a thought experiment that prompted me to propose a study along these lines. The study could include small cities across any or all of the following international borders in South Asia:

Indian Punjab – Pakistani Punjab
Rajasthan – Sindh
Gujarat – Sindh
Indian Occupied Kashmir – Pakistan Occupied Kashmir
Bengal – Bangladesh
Meghalaya – Bangladesh
Tripura – Bangladesh
Uttar Pradesh – Nepal
Bihar – Nepal
Assam – Bhutan
Tamilnadu – Sri Lanka
Kerala – Maldives

The exciting aspect of this proposal is that the academic motivation is only an incidental part of the exercise. We wish to build knowledge slowly from the bottom up leaving behind a lot of interest, awareness, and capacity for sustainability. What we are hoping to do is to link college students and instructors who would carry out the studies in these sister cities over an extended period of time. The students and instructors from paired institutions would use the Internet to participate in each other’s work. In this way we will diversify the development of people-to-people understanding away from metropolitan centers and elite institutions, something which is essential if the movement has to build an appeal with broad support.

At the same time young citizens would go beyond the stage of expressing good intentions and be involved in collaborative work accumulating useful information for research and teaching purposes. In the process they would get to know each other in more intimate ways.

The study of matched pairs of cities would yield comparisons across international boundaries and across regions within some countries as well. We will draw up simple baseline profiles of these towns using a few key indicators to be spelled out later. The preparation and regular updating of these profiles would be assigned to local academic institutions that would integrate them as class assignments for students of these institutions. The capacity of a core group of teachers would be enhanced to manage these profile updates over a five-year period.

At the end of the period we would know better what is going on in small towns and why. We would understand what are the commonalities and differences and what might account for them. In the process we would have built up a lot of local capacity and involved local students in research on local issues. Based on these profiles we would put together an informed research agenda for the future. What we are looking for now are suggestions from readers on how to finalize such a study and to put it into practice. It can be started with just one matched pair so we are looking for individuals who would volunteer to take charge in individual cities. As soon as we have a matched pair, we will specify the details of the next steps.

Note: The original idea for such a study was proposed in this post: What’s Happening in Small Towns? We have already carried out a pilot study of small towns in Pakistan centered round Lahore – see schematic below (click to enlarge). Some of the readers might be surprised to know that Amritsar is just 30 miles from Lahore, an easy drive for lunch! Small cities map

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. Students have set up a Facebook group to share their research findings: http://www.facebook.com/groups/smallcitiesinitiative/

Also, there is now a website with details of the continuing research on small cities: http://www.small-cities.com/

Here is a link to a presentation on small cities in Pakistan at Cornell University in September 2014: https://vimeo.com/user34890344

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The Politics of Urbanization

May 20, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

The politics of urbanization could be less or more important than its economics.

It depends on the context. In relatively stable societies, economics shapes politics – these are places where one can meaningfully say “it’s the economy, stupid.” Even seemingly bizarre foreign policies can be related to economics as one might infer from the title of Lenin’s classic text Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.

In less stable societies, the economy is hostage to politics. Think of Pakistan’s quixotic foreign policy adventures that have no conceivable relationship to national considerations and have driven the economy into the ground. The politics, in turn, is orchestrated by narrow, parochial and privileged economic interests as those who can discern can readily make out.

It is in this framework that the politics of urbanization in Pakistan is more fascinating than its economics. (more…)

The Economics of Urbanization

May 7, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

We ought to care about urbanization because it will shape our lives, for better or for worse, and often in surprising ways.

An obvious starter is that all developed countries are predominantly urban. Of course one can ask whether it was development that led to urbanization or the other way around. The historical evidence is clear: cities produced jobs that pulled less productive labor from rural areas. That, in a nutshell, was the story of the Industrial Revolution.

The most unremarked replication in recent times has been in South Korea, going from 5 percent urban in 1925 to 80 percent by 2000. At the same time the country transitioned from an aid recipient to a member of the industrialized world, a donor in its own right. (more…)

The Great Cities: A Pakistani Jeremiad

April 10, 2012

By Hasan Altaf

When I was in graduate school, in Baltimore, one of the poems I had to teach my own students was Robinson Jeffers’s “The Purse-Seine.” Among both my classmates and the undergraduates it was one of the least popular poems, which should perhaps have been no surprise, since we were encouraged to use it as an illustration of the term “jeremiad”: “a long literary work… in which the author bitterly laments the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective, and always contains a prophecy of society’s imminent downfall.” My reaction was more mixed – I liked Jeffers’s long lines; I liked his voice; I liked the imagery, the parallel between the phosphorescence of the shoals of fish and the lights of the city. The first two stanzas are seductive, almost hypnotic (“the crowded fish/know they are caught, and wildly beat from one wall to the other of their closing destiny the phosphorescent/water to a pool of flame, each beautiful slender body sheeted with flame”) – and then, in the third stanza, comes this: (more…)

The Meaning of Mumbai

July 16, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

There are incidents in the lives of big cities that call for sorrow, but once the dust clears, no lamentation and no expression of sorrow can really do a city justice. A place that is home to millions deserves better. I aim to explore the meaning of Mumbai and then return to the salience of this latest incidence of violence in the frame of that larger context.

The meaning of a city like Mumbai is mirrored in a million stories. Take one, that of the renowned music director Naushad. Born in Lucknow and obsessed with music, he was given the choice between his home and his passion by his father. Naushad ran away to Bombay; the rest is history. (more…)

What’s Happening in Karachi?

November 16, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

What’s happening in Karachi is obvious for all to see. Why it’s happening is less obvious and, for that reason, the cause of much speculation.

Karachi’s ills are complex in nature and beyond the stage of simple prescriptions. This article looks at only one dimension of the problem: Why and how have conflicts in the city taken an increasingly religious form? For that, it is necessary to look at events that took place many years ago outside the city itself. It is often the case that the present cannot be explained fully without recourse to seemingly unrelated events that occurred in other places in the past. (more…)