Karachiites – hope for the best (13/05/2009)

Karachiites are on tenterhook. Everybody is afraid about tomorrow that is the 12th May. They have seen unabated killings on the same day in 2007. But more than the first anniversary of the bloody day last year, this year people fear that the on-going exchange of hot words between the leaders of MQM and ANP might lead to a showdown tomorrow. Their fears are not misplaced because as a prelude to the 12th May, some people from both sides of the divide have lost their lives. The Sindh government which could have diffused the situation by announcing local holiday has not budged till the writing of this column on Friday. Let’s hope the sense prevails.

Both the parties do not claim that they represent a particular ethnic community, and they shouldn’t as political parties should cut across the ethnic divide in a democratic society. But unfortunately the reality is that a conflict between them is likely to take an ugly ethnic colour, though the colour of blood of all human kind is same.

The MQM says that it believes in the pacifist teachings of Bacha Khan, the great leader of Pakhtuns. ANP claims that they are real descendents of Bacha Khan and believe in non-violence. Then the question is why people fear bloodshed? Who are the people who want to destroy the peace of the city? Why there is a turf war between the leaders of the two parties? Is there a third party who MQM says are Taliban? Or is it the Afghan immigrants?

While almost everybody supported MQM on their stand against Taliban, the fact is that over 100 leaders of ANP have been brutally killed by Taliban in NWFP. Asfandyar Wali missed death by 10 feet only when attacked by a Taliban suicide bomber. They have lost most of the area from where they were voted in to the bullets of Taliban. So they should be the one having an alliance with MQM on Taliban issue, instead of conflict in Karachi. Then why it’s not happening?

Is the present tussle between the two parties is mainly a prelude to the forthcoming local bodies’ elections? That looks like most probable reason. Like all major cities of the world, Karachi has been going through a constant phase of linguistic demographic changes. The city, according to international figures, has the total population of 15.7 million people and ranks as 13th biggest city of the world. Although, if one extrapolates its 1998 population as reported by the Census and on the basis of official 3.5% growth rate, it should be 14.3 million. But the MQM maintains that the city population is much larger. How they calculate higher figure is not known. By and large the urban population’s growth rate has two components: natural growth which is close to 2% as its usually below the national average; and by way of immigration which in Karachi’s case is estimated to be 1.5%. So the rate of growth given in 1998 looks quite realistic.

Like all mega cities of the world Karachi has also the pull of the people from all corners of the country. Previous trend has shown that the flow of immigrants from rural Sindh to Karachi has been much lower than the inflow of people from Punjab and Pakhtunkhawa. This is notwithstanding the immigration of Urdu speaking in the first few years of the inception of Pakistan. Interesting statistics has been included by Arif Hasan and Masooma Mohib in a study conducted in the nineties: In 1941 when Karachi population was around 400,000, Sindhi speaking were 61%, but after the partition it was reduced drastically to only 8.6%. Reason: As the result of the advent of immigrants from India the population of Karachi swelled to over 1.13 million. In the meantime, Urdu speaking population grew to 50% in 1951 from the mere 6.3%.

While the flow of Urdu and Gujrati speaking immigrants from India continued till late fifties, it also attracted inflow of streams of people of all nationalities from within the country. First because it was the Federal capital till 1962; and second because it is the commercial and financial hub of the Pakistan. The inflow was much higher till mid eighties. After that it has slowed down but there is no study to my knowledge on this subject. Main reasons of drop in immigrants inflow was that Karachi industrial growth slowed down in the last two decades mainly because of ethnic riots between the locals and the immigrants from upcountry. This discouraged people to come down to the city.

In spite of these factors according to 1998 survey demographic linguistic break-up is as following: Urdu speaking 48.52%; Punjabi 13.64; Pushto 11.96%; Sindhi just 7.34%; Balochi 4.34%; Sariaki 2.11% and the rest 12.09%. The rest includes Gujrati and other languages.

Now the present tension between the two ethnic groups it seems is more in preparation to the forth-coming local bodies elections this year. ANP had managed to win two provincial elections seats in Sindh in the 2008 elections. Their claim is that they could have done better had all the Pushtons in the city would have registered as voters and the polling stations for their women were conveniently placed in their vicinity. They are preparing for the forthcoming elections by registering voters and are hoping to get more seats in the City Government.

On the other hand Katachi Abadies dwellers say MQM is afraid that the inflow of people from Swat and FATA area is likely to one, raise the voters number of ANP if they are registered; two, it would result in increased land grabbing by the immigrants aided by their brethren in the city; and three they may bring the Talibanisation virus with them.

Now the dilemma of the MQM is that it should accept the changing linguistic profile of the city open heartedly, which was done by the Sindhis when they accepted them with open arms. (it’s another story that they regret losing their most prosperous city to immigrants in the game of Pakistan).

What is happening in Karachi is not peculiar. Look at Mumbai, where Bal Thackeray is desperately trying to resist the dilution of Marathi control on the city, even Bollywood icon Amitab Bachan is not acceptable to him. Look at New York where continuous influx of Puerto Ricans and other Latin Americans agitates the earlier Italian and Anglo-Saxon immigrants. In Bangkok rural immigrants are challenging the political control of urban elite.

The problem is that as long as the push factors in the rural areas of the country would remain strong and pull factors in the big cities attractive, nobody can stop the movement of people even from other countries, leave alone from within the country. Haven’t we seen influx of Bengali workers to Karachi, who have to cross two borders illegally to land here? Much to their resentment Balochs have seen their demographic profile changing after the Afghan refugees started coming to Pakistan, never to go back. They are now afraid that if the Gwadar Port develops it would bring another lot of internal immigrants.

So the question before planners and sociologists has always been what is to be done. One view is that uneven capitalist economic development which leads to immigrations would naturally find its equilibrium because eventually capital will disperse in view of rising cost of production. But this view of market-economy Taliban, who we have seen fail miserably recently, is based on their assumption that market forces have inbuilt mechanism to correct the inherent class and regional inequalities.

The fact is the state has to intervene to balance the growth and hence the population growth and its migration. Affirmative actions are required by way of forward looking planning. Absence of such an approach will continue to create tension points. Karachi is bursting at the seams. Ethnic strife, rising street crimes and riots for demanding basic civic amenities are all loud and clear indicators of this. But we have yet to see any comprehensive policy to manage this explosive situation from any government. So Karachiites sit tight and hope there is more bloodshed in the city. Am I hoping beyond hope? (ayazbabar@gmail.com)

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