Cities beyond the law

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A neighbourhood in Karachi where homes were cut in half to build a new highway. ZACKARY CANEPARI

Nothing clarifies your thoughts on the role of government quite so much as visiting a place that isn’t governed.
I once visited such a place under construction in Karachi. A developer was building small concrete row houses on land he didn’t own. Electricity came from cables illegally hooked to the nearest power lines. Drinking water came not from plumbing but from delivery trucks. And the children told me they were not attending any school. The nearest thing to the rule of law were the police officers, who collected bribes to pretend that the neighbourhood didn’t exist.
Millions of people in the developing world live in communities like this, without security, infrastructure or other tangible evidence of the state. Such ungoverned zones have spread in many cities as the world’s urban population has exploded. They are not strictly a result of population growth, but rather of the failure to manage its consequences.
Nor are they strictly a product of poverty. Rising prosperity has actually accelerated their growth. The millions who migrate to cities in search of better jobs, schools and healthcare are making a reasonable bet. Growing cities are closely linked to the global economy, and they create their own opportunities as people demand more goods and services.
The trouble is that people are overwhelming the capacity and infrastructure of the state, even in rising economic powers like India and China.
New York once had its own ungoverned zones. But many decades of investment in infrastructure, education and policing slowly eased the city’s problems. Today’s rapidly growing cities face even greater challenges.
Karachi, Pakistan’s largest metropolis, has grown so quickly since the country gained independence in 1947 – to more than 13 million people, from about 400,000 – that it has become almost unrecognisable.
No single political ideology created Karachi’s ungoverned zones. Rather, they were spawned by decades of spastic government. National leaders veered from socialism to crony capitalism, from democracy to dictatorship. They made great plans and then lost interest, or lost their jobs, as aid from the United States came and went.
In 1958, Gen Ayub Khan took control of Pakistan in a military coup. Fearing riots, one of his first priorities was moving people out of central Karachi’s informal neighbourhoods – where many lived in appalling conditions in shacks or tents.
With American help, the dictator brought in Constantinos Doxiadis, then one of the world’s leading city planners. He designed sprawling new suburbs with subsidised homes along broad streets, intending to resettle half a million people – the rough equivalent of moving almost all of Washington’s population to a new location outside town.
During the construction, in 1959, President Dwight D Eisenhower visited Pakistan and was flown over the new suburb of Korangi in a helicopter, as children stood in lines below to spell out, “I Like Ike”.
Pakistan’s government soon turned its attention to other projects, however, and the suburban construction drive fell apart. New suburbanites were building unauthorised homes much like the inner-city hovels from which the state had evicted them.
Today, informal settlement has become an industry spread over hundreds of square miles surrounding Karachi. Politically connected developers seize sections of government land and subdivide them into lots for new homes – as many as 100,000 per year.
Some are sprawling South Asian McMansions. Most are tiny row houses, where poor residents are left to dig their own sewers and steal electricity. The police have worked out a standard payoff to look the other way. In 2010, the going bribe was Rs 5,000 per lot.
But there are consequences to moving the real estate market beyond the law. Greed and emotions run high. Land battles contribute to gunfights between Karachi’s political parties – shootouts that kill far more people than terrorism does.
Violence disrupts what few government services are available in some areas. At an empty school I visited in October, the writing on the chalkboard showed that no teacher had been there since May 31. The teachers came from outside the neighbourhood, and local gunfights made the commute too risky.
Walking past the stacked and dusty desks, and chatting with neighbourhood boys who are supposed to attend class there, makes you realise the value of simple, stable, boring governance that maintains basic law and order.
When governments turn instead to dreamy plans, ideological warfare or corruption, they make themselves irrelevant. As Nazim Haji, a Karachi businessman, put it, “We’re not a poor country. We’re a poorly managed country.”
Increasing wealth has allowed some people to insulate themselves from collapsing urban infrastructure. In Karachi, affluent families have hired private security guards, or bought generators to deal with daily electric blackouts. But it’s not easy to ward off the effects of a corroding public sector.
Last year I went looking for that Karachi suburb from the late 1950s, where kids had stood looking up at Eisenhower in his helicopter.
A friend helped me find one of the original houses in Korangi, and the elderly woman who was its first resident. But the old broad street had become barely wide enough for a single car. Long-time residents told me they had built new and bigger houses over the years. One had a redbrick front, a bay window and a second-floor balcony.
People made room for the larger houses by moving the front walls forward to capture part of the street for themselves. And something else was happening: Residents said the narrow road was rising. Garbage was often left on the street, which also flooded during monsoon season, and the nearby drain was clogged. Sediment had built up.
Residents said the floor of the old woman’s house from the 1950s had once been above ground, but was now about two feet below. She’d piled up a little dam of rocks in front of the door in hopes of keeping out the annual rains. Of course residents had built their newer homes even higher, but they said the street was still climbing.
Afterward, I thought of ancient cities like Babylon and Sirkap, a ruined city in northern Pakistan. There, a guide had shown me a hole where archaeologists digging many feet below ground had found the remnants of buildings long gone.
It had taken centuries for the city to rise, decline and disappear. I wondered if it had suffered from a failure to mind the public interest: cleaning the drains, picking up the garbage, respecting the rule of law. And I wondered if Karachi was now experiencing a high-speed version of the process that put that ancient city underground.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR’s ‘Morning Edition’ and the author of ‘Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi’.