Sunday, 21 October 2012

Reflections from my stay in Pakistan III: Karachi is Pakistan

Karachi, the City of Pakistan's founder Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, has come a long way since Pakistan's independence in 1947. A population of approximately 400,000 citizens at Partition in 1947 has grown to an estimated 21 million people today. Contemporary Karachi is now home to over ten percent of Pakistan's population. Despite the development of other areas of Pakistan, Karachi remains Pakistan's economic and financial powerhouse.
Karachi is a city with its own culture and lifestyle, a melting pot of Pakistan's diversity. Other than the Urdu speaking migrants from India, the city boasts the largest population of Pashtuns of any city in the world. More Pashtuns live in Karachi than in Peshawar or Kabul.
The city is a magnet for economic immigrants from across the country. All Pakistanis have a stake in Karachi's future. Virtually every family has friends and relatives living in the city. An immigrant arrives in Karachi on Monday and becomes a Karachite by Tuesday. There are no socialization programs or cultural sensitivity classes for a 'New Karachite' to attend before proclaiming oneself a Karachite.
To some, Karachi is a 'free for all' city. Crime rates are high – though not nearly close to the levels associated with some African or Latin American cities such as Johannesburg or Rio. If there are racial tensions in any part of Pakistan, the stresses will certainly surface amongst Karachi's diverse communities. Add to this mix gangland style violence over gambling, narcotics and related crime syndicates and Karachi's reputation for violent crime is sealed.
Part of the problem is that the majority of Karachi's residents lack any roots in the city. These economic migrants are only in the city for economic reasons and perceive their stay as temporary. Of course, temporary sometimes stretches into a few generations. Nonetheless, people refer to their homes in villages and towns in other parts of Pakistan only being 'Karachites' for convenience.
Karachi has a buzz which can neither be replicated nor found in other Pakistani cities; a kind of 'creative chaos' which brings out the best (and sometimes the worst) in people. Financiers, conmen, professionals and the 'down and out' share the city's congested streets. Bearded mullahs throng the same streets which house restaurants where wine and liquor flow freely, albeit quietly. (I had my best steak in recent memory at just such a restaurant in South Karachi.)
Despite or because of the 'mess,' Karachi is Pakistan's most entrepreneurial city. If something can be done, made or copied, then rest assured somewhere in Karachi some Karachite is doing, making or copying. Small businesses thrive alongside the largest corporate multinational structures. The 'parallel' economy probably provides more employment than the 'organized' sector, i.e. the unregistered car workshop versus the detergent factory operated by a multinational corporation.  
Karachi is a mother to all Pakistanis, rich or poor. The poor arrive to set up stalls, shops or simply to commit crime. Rich businesspeople set up shop to milk the country's wealthiest and largest consumer market.
Nevertheless, like any good mother, Karachi accepts and loves her children no matter what shape or form they reach the city's shores. Karachi, in turn asks her children to be gracious about the city's faults. Once the relationship is thus established, then all falls into the boiling cauldron called Karachi.  
Karachi symbolizes the best and the worst of Pakistan. Class mobility is a given. Old money has been overrun by new money.  The city's civic infrastructure is bursting at the seams. Massive investment in roads or electricity does not come close to meeting the demands of the daily increasing population.
Like any Megacity in the developing world, problems are endless. To Punjabis, Lahore may be Lahore; to powerbrokers Islamabad may be the Federal capital; but there is no denying that to many Pakistanis, Karachi is Pakistan.

Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

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