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Old Wednesday, May 20, 2009
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Post Who owns Karachi?

Who owns Karachi?


Source: By Bina Shah of DAWN NEWS

I LIKE our city nazim Mr Mustafa Kamal’s ‘can do’ spirit with regard to his belief that it’s up to the citizens of Karachi to take responsibility for the upkeep and civic health of this city. Forward-thinking and progressive, the nazim has created a website for the project which boasts the tagline ‘My City — My Responsibility’.

The programme was started on Aug 14 this year, and the idea is simple: anyone can come forward and register himself or herself as a ‘city owner’. All you have to do is volunteer two hours of your time per week doing something “in the interest of the city”.

According to the website, on Independence Day, labourers, students, artists, members of the business community, government officers, elected representatives, taxi drivers, and even the pesh imams of mosques came and put their names down to become city owners. Although it’s still far too early to judge the success of the programme, the nazim has big dreams for Karachi, and envisions a whole cadre of city owners who will do things like plant trees, clear rubbish, inspect schools and hospitals, help with traffic (students of Karachi University and Sir Syed University did this in Clifton and Defence in the second week of September) and other civic duties of this nature.

All this got me thinking about the question: who owns Karachi? Is it the people? Is it the mafia? Is it the army? Is it the members of one ethnic group or another? The original inhabitants of the province? Immigrants of the old guard from India, or the new wave from the NWFP or Afghanistan? Is it the much-maligned ‘foreign hand’? Do I own Karachi? Do you?

Recently, I got a beautiful letter from a Mr Yusuf Dadabhoy, and many of the things he describes in it make this question even more complex. He defined old Karachi of the forties, fifties and sixties (the golden years, according to most people of my parents’ generation) as “the prestigious locality of Karachi: Garden East, bordering between Chowk Gurumandir on the south, Lasbella intersection on the north, [and] Soldier Bazaar on the west side”.

He went on to reminisce with great fondness how this area was considered the “gem of Karachi”, in which newly designed bungalows competed for grandeur with old mahals and havelis built by Hindu Sindhis in the thirties and forties, bringing to life with his vivid words a Karachi that most people in my generation and younger can’t even imagine in today’s Karachi of guns, drugs, crime and filth.

Mr Dadabhoy talked about the old Muslim Sindhi settlements around Lasbella Chowk, known as goths, and described a cheerful scene on Eid day as “little Sindhi children dressed in shining red, orange and yellow shalwar kameez with matching glittering gold and silver dupattas, golden and silver sandals with little heels and bands packed our houses in good cheer”.

In true Gujarati style, the grand houses of this neighbourhood would open their doors to the Sindhis and treat them to morning Eid feasts of Indian-spiced whole chickens, tomato-flavoured red mutton ‘champ’ qorma, Gujarati kofta with fresh baked naan, meethi roti, meetha paratha, coconut-filled samosas, and Gujarati mithai.

I learned more about Karachi from Mr Dadabhoy’s letter than I have from all my years living in this city, to be honest. He told me about the newly built universities in the Garden East area, the engineering schools, science colleges, the hospitals, the primary and secondary schools. I could close my eyes and envision wide boulevards lined with cherry trees that bloomed with hibiscus and gulhmohar in springtime. I could smell the chicken tikka as it was being grilled on the hot coals at Bundu Khan’s; I could hear the shouts of excited children as they stood in line at the Bambino, Lyric, Naz and Nishaat cinemas. And if I concentrated hard, I could hear the lions roaring from Karachi Zoo in the early mornings….

And that’s not all. Karachi at one point was considered to be one of the most exciting centres of industrial activity: crossing the Lasbella Bridge, you’d get to the Site Industrial Area, where large cotton mills, factories that produced ceramics, aluminum, plastics, cast iron foundries, cement plants, pipe-making plants, soap and detergent plants, all bore testament to the remarkable ‘can-do’ spirit that Karachi has always been known for.

At five o’clock, the bells and whistles would pierce the air, and Mr Dadabhoy told me that you’d see lines of disciplined workers changing shifts from their homes in Pak Colony, Nazimabad, Golimar and Lasbella. “We invested in businesses, industries, primary schools, hospitals, charities, banking and insurance … the urban Sindhi contributed greatly to making Pakistan a sustainable country.”

But as Mr Dadabhoy rightly points out in his letter, things are different today. “The plight of the urban Sindhi living in scattered goths around the old areas of Karachi is now [moving] towards despondency, helplessness, and misery…. What went wrong with the Sindh provincial urban planning commission?... why were they not given land to build new settlements closer to their goths, competitive primary schools, institutes to learn basic trade or the healthcare profession, Sindh government scholarships for the bright and able, community centres or government-funded programmes to uplift their goths?”

Some provincial planners, well aware of the plight of the urban Sindhi population, have decided to focus on Thatta as an option for a growing young population, and with development of both Thatta and the Keti Bandar area, the women legislators of Sindh are working on creating modern settlements with sound infrastructure to house the disenfranchised populations of the old goths of Karachi, as well as a restive interior youth who want to move from the rural to the urban areas of Sindh, but find it hard to succeed in Karachi.

Yes, I can’t help but wonder, does the urban Sindhi today feel that he or she owns Karachi? And if the new generations do find Thatta a viable alternative to the economic opportunities that once attracted people from all over Pakistan to Karachi, the gem of Pakistan, will they feel cheated of their inheritance?
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