Land and the politics of ethnicity

Politically motivated targeted killings, sectarian violence, forced occupation of other people’s property, illegal bulldozing of poor settlements, an increasing crime rate and an increasingly helpless and corrupt administration, are making Karachi ungovernable. There are many local, national and international causes for this state of affairs. However, a major cause is the politics of ethnicity and the close link it has unwittingly acquired with the trillions that can be made from the land and real estate business.

According to the 1998 Census, 48 per cent of the city’s population is Urdu speaking, 14 per cent is Punjabi speaking, 12 per cent is Pashto speaking and about 9 per cent is Sindhi speaking. The rest of the population speaks all the remaining languages of Pakistan.

Almost 75 per cent of the city’s population lives in settlements or neighbourhoods segregated on the basis of ethnicity. This is not just true of low income settlements but also of lower middle income and some middle income settlements as well. As such, the city is physically divided along ethnic lines, and in an increasing number of cases, along religious lines as well. Crossing from one ethnically defined neighbourhood to the other is, in many cases, no longer possible.

Ethnically homogenous settlements exist in many global cities. However, unlike these cities, the state’s service and justice delivery institutions in Karachi have become weak and corrupt due to helplessness in the face of an ever-expanding population, and more so due to neglect by an unconcerned and self-indulgent social, bureaucratic and political elite.

Today, in Karachi, if a person needs a job, or wants to get his child admitted to a school, wants a domicile certificate, wishes to get an FIR registered, or get a friend released from legal or illegal police custody, he will go to his ethnic organisation or networks. He may also have to pay some amount of money for this service but it is easier and cheaper to do this than go to a state agency. In recent years, it has also become common for ethnic networks to resolve family and property disputes.

As a result of the above mentioned realities, Karachi today votes on ethnic lines. By and large, Pakhtoons vote for JUI and ANP. Sindhis and Baloch vote for the PPP, middle class Punjabis vote for the Muslim League and the Urdu speakers for the MQM. Before 1992, this was not so. People, voted along ideological and class lines, although there was an ethnic element in the choice of the ideologies.

Different ethnic groups today toe their party lines which divides Karachi further. Mohajirs feel that the Talibanisation of Karachi is a real threat and that the Pakhtoons are responsible for it. Similarly, the Pakhtoons feel that target killing is carried out by the Urdu speakers and is aimed at ousting them from Karachi. The Sindhis and Balochis feel that the MQM is responsible for the Karachi conflict so that it can use it to strengthen its negotiating position with the PPP and ANP. What is serious about this situation is that at the local level, there is no communication between these differing points of view.

Meanwhile, in the last 12 months, 17 estate agents and 3 land rights activists were murdered in Karachi and an unspecified number of estate agents have disappeared. Conversations with estate agents in locations where these killings took place reveal a situation not too different from other global cities such as Mumbai and Seoul, except that in these cities, unlike Karachi, killings are rare.

A research into the Karachi situation shows that before deregulation of the economy as a result of the WTO regime, there was a powerful underground economy based on contraband goods, gold and foreign exchange. This was controlled by “criminal gangs” who had the active support of the rogue elements in the Police and customs. These gangs were subservient to these elements and as such, kept in check. After deregulation, except drugs and alcohol, all other contraband goods became legalised and the nexus between the police, the custom officials and the criminal gangs was no longer effective. The gangs, independent of police and custom officials and with a lot of money and muscle power at their disposal, have gone into land and real estate for which they need the support of the political establishment which is ethnically divided. In addition, after devolution, local leaders in Sindh, as in the rest of Pakistan, have acquired considerable executive authority.

As a result of these changes, a nexus between certain rival ethnic elements of the political establishment and the gangs has been established leading to a booming formal and informal real estate business, much of it on illegally or coercively occupied land and properties in complete disregard to existing byelaws and zoning regulations. Violence, targeted killings and kidnappings of opponents, rivals and social activists are an essential part of this development process.

The land related law and order situation will get much worse, and the gangs much stronger, unless the Sindh politicians can rise above their ethnic and vote related interests to negotiate the creation of effective state controlled urban governance institutions. Such negotiations will have to be for promoting universal principles of justice and equity. However, so far all negotiations and agreements between them have been on the basis of ethnicity which merely strengthens the ethnic divide and makes effective governance difficult.

It is unfortunate that the only urban governance related consensus that the politicians have managed to achieve is the recent enactment of the Sindh High Density Development Board Bill as a result of which a non-technical committee of the political establishment will be able to determine urban density and hence  land use. Thus, the political establishment has the potential of becoming a legalised godfather of those currently involved in the coercive land and real estate business at the expense of the citizens of Sindh and the physical and socio-economic environment of its cities.

By Arif Hasan (published in Dawn on 16 June 2010)

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