Arsam Saleem and Nausheen H. Anwar, Karachi Urban Lab, Pakistan
As the pandemic-induced lockdown of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city of 20 million people, enters its third week, we offer some observations about the rapidly changing urban terrain. Based on our earlier research on evictions and land displacements in income poor informal settlements spread across the city, we consider COVID-19 as a force that not only affects the politics and governance of everyday life, but also lays bare the socio-spatial inequalities that have been central to the workings of Pakistan’s postcolonial governance.
'We have been slated to die; the only question is whether will we die outside because of the virus, or will we die inside our house by hunger'.
- a wage-laborer in Orangi Town, Karachi
Since 20 March 2020, Pakistan's largest metropolis, Karachi, has been in lockdown to stem the local COVID-19 outbreak. The lockdown has been accompanied by a range of relief policies announced by the Prime Minister Imran Khan to mitigate an economic and public health disaster looming in the broader context of ongoing austerity measures that have placed enormous strain on the urban poor. As the number of infections across the country is expected to reach 50,000 by the end of April 2020, lockdowns are being enforced brutally in cities like Karachi with noticeable disregard for the rights of those living in income-poor neighborhoods: millions of daily wagers, laborers and informal workers whose incomes have vanished overnight due to the lockdown.
As we consider the present moment of a global pandemic emergency, we see COVID-19 as a force that brings three dynamics to the forefront. First, it affects the politics and governance of everyday urban life by making visible the temporal urgency of death and destruction. Second, it lays bare the socio-spatial inequalities that have been central to the workings of Pakistan's postcolonial governance whose historically contradictory urban planning missions and strategies - violent, authoritarian, extractive and benevolent - have served to exacerbate inequalities and vulnerabilities at the urban scale. Life for the urban majority has been conditioned by precarity and a permanent state of austerity, for instance crisis around matters of housing and infrastructures. This brings us to the third dynamic: COVID-19 not only extends these crises but also reveals a regime of bio-austerity (Abdoumalik Simone & Michele Lancione) in which self-incarceration and lockdowns to minimiae contamination profoundly alter everyday social life and livelihoods. Although, in the Karachi context, contamination injunctions are routinely flouted by young men and women who circulate freely in the inner-lanes of congested katchi abadis or informal settlements, where the state's capacity for everyday surveillance is limited. As an elderly man residing in Orangi Town, one of Karachi's largest informal settlements, asserts: 'These youngsters (nawjawaan) will kill us!'
The urban majority at the frontlines of the pandemic
'These relief schemes are barely helpful, it's like they are giving us a sip of water when we need a whole glass'.
- a resident of Mujahid colony, an informal settlement
Even as the lockdown starts its third week, government relief efforts in Karachi appear to be at a complete standstill, because reportedly the federal and provincial governments are in a perpetual tussle over data, logistics and target groups. Moreover, Karachi’s six district offices and 209 union councils that have been currently tasked with generating data on vulnerable populations in their areas are struggling with this activity. In such a vacuum, dozens of private welfare organisations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and individuals have stepped in to fill the gap by organising mutual relief funds and donation drives that specifically provide ration packs to those who need them most. The Sindh provincial government’s response to the appearance of this spontaneous volunteer army has been to roll out new impromptu guidelines that formalise their operations and bring it under their own purview to offset their own inability to meaningfully intervene at a grass-root level. Simultaneously, in the wake of a mobbed frenzy at an earlier ration drive and the daylight ransacking of a truck full of rations in a nearby city, Pakistan’s security apparatus has started to construe ration drives as a possible danger to law and order in Karachi. The security apparatus, Rangers, has inserted itself at the local level by directly ordering welfare groups to coordinate their activities with them. Yet, these are not the only hurdles Karachi is facing in regards to mitigating the effects of the COVID-19.
Akin to many cities across the global south, Karachi is marked by the makers of an accretive auto-constructed existence where the agency and capacity of poor, low-income and lower-middle income residents - to survive and flourish has become increasingly constrained. Informal/unplanned neighborhoods or katchi abadis, slums and jhuggies are the material markers of this accretive existence. This is buttressed by a diverse array of living arrangements that range from rent, informal contracts, paghri, lease ownership, to outright occupation of empty government land. This has led to the development of a complex web of land brokerage that spans many stakeholders such as landowners, real estate agents and speculators, land investment portfolios, the state’s own actors like land revenue officers, and of course Karachi’s ordinary citizens. In different temporal moments, the state has responded by simultaneously engaging in both periodic katchi abadi clearance operations and formalising some of those katchi abadis, with uneven outcomes. Fundamentally, katchi abadis denote the attendant vulnerabilities and inequalities that have excluded for decades the urban majority from access to decent housing, secure tenure, health, secure livelihoods and basic infrastructure services such as clean water, sanitation and electricity.
This dynamic is manifested in the 62% of Karachi's estimated 20 million population that live in a constant state of precarity and vulnerability; with many households facing the crisis of water provision as an everyday occurrence. This state of being, of the urban majority being relegated to the economic and material margins, has been the accepted status-quo in historical urban planning and development practices in Pakistan. The COVID-19 pandemic is not responsible for engendering a terrain of such vast socio-spatial inequalities, but rather exacerbates them to a nigh unbearable degree.
Brutal urban planning interventions and fractured neighborhoods in Karachi
'First the bulldozers tore our home down, then the police kept harassing us, and now we have to sell our family jewelry just to buy food. It just never ends'.
- an affectee of the city government’s anti-encroachment drive
Since July 2018, we have been working in 12 low- to lower-middle income informal settlements in Karachi, where we have been investigating the brutal impacts of Supreme Court-backed evictions or anti-encroachment drives. To get a sense of the impacts on the ground, we have been interviewing residents (teachers, drivers, laborers, household servants, factory workers and housewives), community activists, NGOs and government officials. Our findings reveal that about 40% of households from these settlements have at least one family member who requires special medical and social care and about 70% of the people who need care can be categorised as persons with chronic illnesses who are facing a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19. Notably, people are living on plots as small as 20 square yards. Households have an average family size of eight to nine people, but barely accommodate a single room with a slab for a kitchen and a toilet. In locations where people have expanded vertically, household sizes go as high as 30 people per 80 square yards of plot. These household numbers are higher than the average represented in the 2017 census, which itself was highly contested, and to date has not released district-level data because of enormous discrepancies. The reality is that for those living in dense informal settlements and in other inadequate housing conditions, contamination injunctions such as 'social distancing' is rendered a meaningless term.
This kind of population density rings alarm bells for the safety and security of these urban residents and for the spread of COVID-19 across Pakistan. Coupling this constriction of available space for the vast urban majority with a city-wide curfew or extended lockdown hours spells disaster for people forced to confine themselves to tiny, dense, interior spaces. Some studies show that 88% of the housing stock in Karachi consists of plot sizes of 120 square yards or less, a reality that lies in strong contrast to people living in houses sized 400-2,000 square yards constituting only 2% of the housing stock. Hence, the WHO's stringent guidelines that the Pakistani state is following regarding extreme social distancing and self-isolation can only be followed by a minority of the city’s population.
These are not the only matrices which engender vulnerabilities in informal settlements across Karachi. The state’s own planning interventions in 2019 have been singularly brutal in the form of an eviction drive along the outskirts of these settlements which resulted in the demolishing of over 565 buildings, which included both residential and commercial structures, and the subsequent displacement of about 1,000 families. Even these figures had to be collected and verified painstakingly in the weeks following the operation through a coalition of affected communities, researchers and other activists. Although the demolition operation itself was well controlled with the presence of riot police and paramilitary officers, the local government itself eschewed from making any official lists of affected people. This is the same practice we saw a year earlier in November 2018 when over 1,700 shops were torn down all over the city without any documentation by the same officials in a bid to clamp down on 'illegal' commercial activity, pushing several thousands of people into precarity. All these operations were well executed but abysmally documented, and we believe this was not by accident. The lack of documentation serves to hide the extent of the ruthlessness embodied by the postcolonial state’s planning paradigm, and subsequently becomes an arduous hurdle for people looking for justice or recourse. Now, in an entirely foreseeable ironic twist, this very lack of information is making crisis response and relief operations a logistical nightmare for the provincial and local governments.
New futures necessitate new solidarities for a just city
'Things are bad and getting worse, but we do what we have to do. It’s not like we can do anything else, right?'
- a resident of Orangi Town, Karachi’s neighborhood with a population of 3 million
In this exceptional moment of the COVID-19 pandemic, the future remains uncertain for a city as unequal as Karachi. But despite the ambiguities and fractures there are moments that offer hope. A hopeful moment is the mushrooming of civil society groups such as Karachi Bachao Tehreek that are collaborating with welfare organisations to provide support for income-poor, vulnerable communities, and share and distribute resources. These emergent networks of solidarity in which members of our own Karachi Urban Lab are involved are connecting over social media to open possibilities for a just city. We might be retreating into our interiors but are also becoming attuned to the city's unequal socio-spatial dynamics that demand an enhanced sensitivity that can contribute to a 'renewed sense of intimacy' (Abdoumaliq Simone & Michele Lancione) with our extended and interconnected urban world. Will these networks of solidarity survive beyond COVID-19? Only time will tell.
We would like to make a final point: the destitution that is occurring in this viral moment is not of a material kind that targets buildings and machines. Hence, the Pakistani state’s recent attempts to discursively construct the pandemic as a war, and the military’s interventions in taking responsibility for relaying related information, are both severely misplaced. A war necessitates tightly-controlled information, uncritical obedience and singular-minded machismo; in essence, a war generates its own fog. What we have instead is a humanitarian crisis, and it needs to be treated as such. Our response needs to be based on transparency, goodwill, building broad coalitions, networks of solidarity, being receptive to critique and, above all, being radically empathetic to a wide host of people from all sorts of backgrounds without erasing or minimising their peculiar histories or circumstances.
Arsam Saleem and Nausheen H. Anwar
Arsam Saleem is a Research Associate at the Karachi Urban Lab (KUL), Pakistan where he studies displacement, vulnerability and structural violence.