by Arif Hasan

11[2]If the 2011 pre-census house count and its analysis for Karachi is to be believed, thenKarachi’s population increased from 9.8 million to 21.2 million between 1998 and 2011. This makes it the fastest growing city in the world. Researchers also claim that no other city has grown so much in so short a time. This growth also makes Karachi the most dense mega city in the world after Dhaka and Mumbai.

Apart from the political ramifications of this growth, two things are of concern. One, that this density is unevenly distributed with high income areas, such as Defence having a density of less than 100 persons per hectare and with areas like Nawalane in Lyari having densities of over 4,000 persons per hectare. And two, that unlike for the rest of Pakistan, where household size has decreased between 1998 and 2011, the household size in Karachi has increased by 10 per cent, from 6.7 persons to 7.3 persons. This increase is not because of higher fertility rates but because of a lack of appropriately located affordable accommodation for low-income families.

According to the Karachi Strategic Development Plan 2020, Karachi requires 80,000 housing units per year for its expanding population. However, building permits are issued for only around 30,000 units a year and about 32,000 units are built informally. The rest of the population is not catered for. It is because of this unmet demand that the household size is increasing and because of which the number of families sleeping on pavements is multiplying. There are many reasons why this demand is not being met even by the expansion of informal settlements. One reason is that the cost of land on Karachi’s periphery has increased. In 1992, one square metre’s cost was 1.7 times the daily wage of unskilled labour at that time. Today, it is 10 times the cost of unskilled labour. In addition, the cost of constructing a semi-permanent house has also increased.

The other reason is that it is becoming cheaper to rent within the city rather than own a house on the periphery. There are a number of reasons for this. Travel costs have increased by over 100 per cent since 2000. The time taken in travelling in uncomfortable conditions is increasing as a result of which working parents seldom see their children during the day. Women cannot get work near the periphery low-income settlements and without working women, the kitchen can no longer function. The number of seats for women in buses, in relation to their population, has decreased by over 35 per cent since 2000. Also, living on the periphery restricts upward mobility. Education, health facilities and places of entertainment are far away. As a result, a demand for cheap housing within the inner city or its vicinity has been created.

17This demand is being met by informally densifying the existing formal and informal settlements by converting their 60 or 80 square yard single-storey houses located in narrow lanes into multi-storey flats. This is being done in two ways. One, by families building upward to accommodate the families of their children. Two, by informal developers purchasing land from the owners and converting it into high-rise apartments. The owner gets some money and a couple of flats in exchange.

There are problems with this form of development. Over time, the units are becoming smaller so as to make them affordable for rent, purchase or pugri, with the result that whole families of eight to 12 people live in one room. There are no lifts in these buildings with the result that old people and children are handicapped. Toilets are insufficient and this is a major problem, especially for women. Young couples complain that they have no space for themselves and everybody complains that increasingly, their neighbourhoods are being inhabited by people whom they do not know. Rentals are increasing and in the absence of any controls, renters, who are the most vulnerable category of residents in these settlements, can be evicted at a day’s notice. The buildings are of poor construction and will just collapse in an earthquake. In addition, there is conflict because the developers want land to build at all costs and the owners wish to protect their assets.

It is a well-established fact that beyond a certain limit, high-rise high densities, especially if unplanned, lead to physical and social degradation and conflict. This is already happening in Karachi and is likely to increase unless remedial measures are taken quickly. It is also a well-established fact that a city with Karachi’s layout and typology cannot develop a sustainable, affordable and comfortable mass transit system without a major subsidy. In the absence of such a subsidy, motorbikes and Qingqis remain the only option.

Politicians and planners have to realise that the traditional katchi abadi of friendly neighbourhoods is fast becoming history and that there is a major crisis in the offing. To overcome this, it is essential that the 4,000-plus hectares of vacant government land that is available with cantonments and other government agencies be set aside for high density low-income housing; a 15-year loan be provided for the purchase of land and/or apartment to low-income families; a transparent system of identifying potential owners be put in place; and that these housing schemes be subsidised by high income real estate development. Land at the junction of the circular railway and major roads should also be set aside for low-income housing. These proposals should be made a part of the Karachi Strategic Development Plan 2020 and the mechanisms and institutions to make them transparent should be developed. This will, at least, take care of the needs of the better-off poor and the rapidly being impoverished lower-middle class. If not, we will pay a higher price in conflict and environmental degradation than what we are paying today. Let us preserve land and have a land ceiling act limiting the maximum plot size to 400 square yards and a non-utilisation fee on land that forces land into the open market. Can this be done? One does not know but it is something to aspire and work for.