Right to the City

Published in Dawn, March 7th, 2017

“Contemplating those essential landscapes, Kublai reflected on the invisible order that sustained the cities, on the rules that decreed how they rise, take shape and prosper, adapting themselves to the seasons and then how they sadden and fall to ruin.” — Italo Calvino

KARACHI is a city of incongruities and contradictions. Every morning as you leave your habitat, be it a palatial place, modest abode or a makeshift hut, and negotiate the space to reach your workplace you confront a city that lies in ruin: pot-holed roads, pools of sewage, garbage heaps, snarling traffic. But amidst chaos, disorder, missing rule of law and inequity, there is palpable energy, dynamism, a certain hope, a cosmopolitanism, that constantly draw people to this city to find work and a living. Karachi is ranked near the bottom — 134th among 140 cities in the Global Liveability Ranking 2016. The cities of the world are assessed on this index according to five key criteria: stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure.

While many of us think the city is the least liveable, a greater number of people, particularly the poor and the marginalised, think it is the most liveable city in the country. Three aspects that make the city most liveable for them are concentration of economic activities hence livelihood opportunities, education facilities for children and health provisions no matter how meagre and inadequate. In the bargain, they somehow put up with instability and pathetic infrastructure.

Constraints to smooth living in the city cut across class but the worst affected are workers who daily commute from settlements deprived of decent basic services to unsafe workplaces via collapsing public transport.

Can the situation be turned around and Karachi made “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” as stated in Goal 11 of the Sustainable Development Goals? Affordable and accessible housing, basic services and transport system for all are the top requirements for making the cities inclusive and sustainable in the SDG 11. The government committed to the SDGs a year ago in February 2016 and also declared its intent to make its cities more liveable by signing the New Urban Agenda of the UN Habitat III in October 2016. Before making these commitments, the government had pledged in its policy document Pakistan Vision 2025 to transform urban areas into sustainable cities through “…improved city governance, effective urban planning, efficient local mobility infrastructure (mass transit system)”.

No doubt the government’s intentions are good and the commitments made are the shared aspirations of the people. But are words being transformed into action? Though the air is abuzz with news of projects — the Green Line Bus Rapid Transit Service, the CPEC-funded Karachi Circular Railway Revival, the World Bank-funded Karachi City Diagnostic, solid waste management system to be installed by a Chinese firm — it is not clear how these projects will turn Karachi into an “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable city”. What is missing is an integrated, holistic view of the city that is expected to emerge after different infrastructure interventions are completed. This brings us to a question: are the federal and provincial governments and the cities’ authorities really aspiring for well-integrated and inclusive cities? Or do they want to maintain the status quo ie a divided city, bursting at the seams and falling to ruin?

Many policies, development plans, strategic documents and specific projects currently in place impinge on urban development just as a number of institutions at the federal, provincial and city levels are mandated to implement the same. Yet, the government does not have a national urban policy framework that would establish a set of principles for urban rules and regulations, urban governance and municipal finance.

Often disparate interventions, programmes and projects do not produce the desired results due to lack of coherence and coordination among national, provincial and city-level policies and institutions. The problem worsens when local municipal powers are limited, as in Karachi where these reside with the provincial government, not with local representatives. National urban policy is essential to establish the basic rules of urban governance and local fiscal systems framework, and to provide checks and balances against power politics and wrangling between provincial and local governments.

Pakistan is urbanising at a great speed and the government must ensure the right to the city of every citizen whether migrating from rural areas or born in the cities. According to David Harvey, a well-known anthropologist and geographer, the right to the city is “far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanisation.”

View the article on Dawn’s website: https://www.dawn.com/news/1318872/right-to-the-city

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