Instant City

WHENEVER I WONDERED what was happening in the far reaches of Karachi – and the spring of 2010 was such a time – I met with a woman who understood as well as anyone how the-city was changing. She was the person to whom other experts deferred; if I started asking detailed questions about illegal housing they would say, “You should talk with Perween Rahman: She was thin and raven-haired with, a musical way of talking and eyes that lit up when, she spoke. She had that priceless quality that marked so many people in Karachi: the worse the situation became, the more amused she seemed.

Perween front cover

I found Rahman at work inside the largest informal settlement of all, a section of northwest Karachi that is sometimes referred to as “Asia’s largest slum,” but is known locally as Orangi, ‘pronounced oh:rangee, with a hard “g.” Here she worked for one of the few organizations that seemed to have adapted to the reality of  Karachi’s unauthorized neighborhoods, and even transcended them.

She directed the Orangi Pilot Project-Research and Training Institute.  The Orangi Pilot Project, or OPP, was by far the most famous slum development organization in Karachi, and well known overseas; the Research and Training Institute, or RTI, evolved from it. Rahman knew the katchi abadis well because the OPP-RTI helped people obtain services for their irregular homes.

The Orangi Pilot Project, or OPP, was by far the most famous slum development organization in Karachi, and well known overseas; the Research and Training Institute, or RTI, evolved from it. Rahman knew the katchi abadis well because the OPP-RTI helped people obtain services for their irregular homes.

“Everybody says land mafia, land mafia;’ Rahman told me with a characteristic smile. “We call them land suppliers.” Why be judgmental? The government officials who attacked “land grabbing” were often grabbing land themselves.

Rahman did not necessarily condemn unauthorized housing. The situation was too far gone for that. “We are looking at it from the point of view of the poor – where can they settle? We’ve seen that, for the poor, this land is the only option they have in this city.” At the same time, she appeared startled by the many square miles of public land being chopped up into little plots for sale, beginning around 2006. “Now everybody is a land supplier,” Rahman said. “The government, the political parties, the police, the members of the national assembly, the members of the provincial assembly, the councilors, the nazims”-that was the word used for the leaders of the eighteen municipalities or subdivisions, of the city. “Everybody is a land supplier.”

Rahman led the way into a corner office, where we talked by the light from the windows; the power had gone out, and most people had gone home, as it was late on a Friday afternoon. She showed me a printout of a Google satellite image of the far north fringes of the city. I saw villages, fields, and here and there a crowded neighborhood. Then she began placing layers of colored tracing paper over the image. Each color illustrated the widening sections of land that had been subdivided or built upon, year by year. An estimated one hundred thousand plots of land were being subdivided annually. About a third became houses right away, while speculators bought the rest.

She said the activity had gone beyond the scale of mere corruption. It had spun beyond the authority of the state. “This she said, “is a new form of alternative government.”

PERWEEN RAHMAN KNEW all about alternative government. It could be argued that the OPP institutions had become an alternative government for Orangi.

True, they gave no orders, and had no police. Still, they were doing what Ayub Khan, his Athenian planner, and many well-intentioned officials and consultants since then had failed to do – improve people’s living conditions on a vast scale.

Rahman was educated as an architect, and found a job at an architectural firm after graduation. The job didn’t work out. “I was designing a hotel,” she said, “and I didn’t understand what I was doing.” She had an epiphany: there was too great a distance between the upscale hotel and the poor districts of her city.  She didn’t know whom she was helping. She was wasting her time. “I ran from the office without taking my pay”, she told me.

She fled to Orangi, about as far as possible from upscale hotels. Her base was the OPP-RTI office in the heart of Orangi, around the corner from a dusty and ramshackle market street, at least an hour’s drive from the center city and sometimes two. Orangi was a sunny and welcoming and pleasant pIace to work, except for the days when it was not. Days after the Ashura bomb of December 2009, a deadly gun battle took place a few minutes’ drive from Rahman’s office. On another day a group of armed men burst into the office, demanding that the OPP give over some of its space to allow them to open of all things, a karate studio. “It was the start of a land grab,” Perween explained. The gunmen were linked with the major political party of ethnic Pashtuns.

Rahman’s colleagues called for help, and eventually another group of gunmen arrived from the People’s Party, offering their support. “If you start, we start the People’s Party men said to the rival gunmen in front of the OPP’s front door. In time everyone calmed down and went home.

The OPP had good relations with many people, because it operated on the principle of self-help. It didn’t wait for the government to provide the poor with basic services like sewers. Instead its employees met with residents and explained how their lives might be improved if they chose to lay sewers themselves. The OPP, and the community activists who worked with it, moved lane by lane through Orangi, a district whose population was swiftly surpassing one million people. If the residents of a particular lane decided that they wanted to build a sewer, the OPP and the activists lobbied the government to build the major sewage artery to which the local sewer line would connect. Then the OPP provided technical information, like the angle of incline necessary for the sewage to flow downhill. The street-by-street digging was left to the people.  Thousands got sewers this way.

This method was the brainchild of Akhtar Hameed Khan, a former civil servant and social scientist who made the OPP the final project of his long and creative life. Perween Rahman remembered him as the elderly man who’d hired her: “He was a man who would say, ‘I’m your grandmother, not your grandfather. Why? Because the grandmother gives love. The grandfather scolds, and he’s aggressive. But the grandmother loves, and through love, she’s able to encourage and make people grow.”

Hameed mixed that gentle approach with pragmatic thinking.

He started the Orangi project in the early 1980s with grants from the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, or BCCl. The bank and its founder would soon become notorious in the West for allegations of massive fraud, but Akhtar Hameed Khan made sure that some of the profits went to a good cause.

By the time of his death in 1999, the OPP had evolved into three separate institutions, and expanded its services well beyond sewers. It was part of a network of experts and activists who gave advice on building homes with solid walls and strong roofs. One day I visited the home of an OPP-affiliated activist named Shamsuddin, who recounted the decades – long saga of how he and his neighbors maneuvered to get their homes hooked up to electricity. He organize people to put up their own poles (“I became a state within a state,he said), and finally persuaded the electric utility to string the wires. We spoke of this while sitting on the carpet in Shamsud- din’s living room, beneath his electric ceiling fan. The only chair was covered with papers and books, but it was a solid house, a “pucca house” in the local parlance, far better than the huts where so many people lived and died in decades past. I didn’t know what Constantinos Doxiadis would have thought if he had toured the local streets, but the lane outside Shamsuddin’s door was straight and orderly. On the commercial streets  in his neighborhood, little shops alternated with storefront English schools, every school a sign of people’s desire to get ahead.

Such results seemed almost inspiring under the circumstances – but they took decades to achieve. And the city was spiraling further out of control, as Parween Rahman was forever learning. In her work, she met local residents and government officials. She asked simple questions, and often heard jaw-dropping answers. What happened to all the water that the city piped in from the Indus River? Rahman wrote a paper documenting that much of it was stolen with tanker trucks and sold to citizens at premium prices. Why did monsoon rains cause such floods in the city? Rahman showed me a massive wall map that the OPP-RTI had prepared, illustrating how many storm drains and sewers emptied into a marshland that was now being clogged with development.

Illegal developers, Rahman reported, were sweeping across the far reaches of the city like prospectors in a gold rush. The poor people who moved into these neighborhoods were entirely at the mercy of their local land supplier. If he was humane and delivered what he promised, they might grow to love him like a father. If he took their money and failed to deliver, they had no recourse.

This was what Perween Rahman meant when she spoke of “a new form of alternative government.”  She said of the construction projects at the city’s edge, “They are self-governing systems. Because nowadays the land suppliers have started providing water, started providing electricity, road, sewage systems. So then what is the role of the municipality?

“And the question comes, where are the planners of this city?” she asked, before answering her own question: “They are redundant:’

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