Cities: Life in the world’s 100 largest metropolitan areas

By Zubeida Mustafa

The most significant modern day demographic phenomenon is the growing level of urbanisation in this century. In the year 1901 only one in ten of the global population lived in cities. By 2000, nearly half of the world’s people will.

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What is more important than the level of urbanisation is its rapid pace. Take the case of Pakistan. In 44 years the urban population has grown from 15 per cent to 28 per cent of the total.

This change in demographic composition has had a profound impact on society, the national economy and the political culture of the country. It has also affected the quality of life in the cities in a big way because the municipal authorities have failed to keep pace with the growing population in providing the most basic civic amenities to the city-dwellers.

The economy has also not grown rapidly enough to provide jobs to the ever-widening stream of entrants to the urban labour market.

As a result, our cities have emerged as an explosive mass of humanity seething with discontent.

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The Washington-based Population Crisis Committee recently studied the world’s hundred largest cities, ranging from Tokyo (population 28.7 million in 1989) to Pune, India (population 2.3 million).

The Committee looked into the key indicators which determine the quality of life in a city, namely, public safety, food costs, living space, housing standards, communications, education, public health, noise level, traffic and clean air. Cultural activities, employment and nutritional status were omitted because the data were either inconsistent or carried aclass or regional bias.

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Pakistani cities cut a rather sorry figure in this survey. Karachi and Lahore which rank 22nd and 48th population-wise in the world are among the last fourteen in terms of urban living standards. Karachi is 87th and Lahore comes further down at 91st.

Karachi fares most poorly, according to the PCC report, on three counts: living space, communication and health. It could not have scored any less. Lahore’s score is equally bad in respect of the first two. Healthcare-wise it is better off but in terms of education it is worse.

The next two banes of Karachi life are noise pollution and traffic. Surprisingly, air pollution (on the basis of measurement of ozone concentration) is not considered to be too bad which makes one doubt the accuracy of UNEP’s standards that form the basis of the PCC’s assessment.

Another area which makes one sceptical about surveys that depend exclusively on government sources for their data is that of crime. Karachi emerges as a relatively safe place to live in, with only 5.7 murders per 100,000 people a year. Lahore is safer still.

Compared with Cape Town (64 per 100,000), Cairo (56) and Alexandria (49) which have the highest homicide rates, Pakistani cities might be rated as havens of security.

But those who live in perpetual fear in Karachi, know that the police are not always overly cooperative in recording FIRs for murder. Moreover there are crimes other than murder which also make life insecure.

What is certain is that the situation in our cities is definitely not better than what the PCC report calculates it to be. What is to be expected next? With an annual growth rate of seven per cent, Karachi’s problems will only multiply.

The city owes its expansion more to migration than natural increase. The people who are now moving over to the urban areas are being forced out of their homes by the growing impoverishment of the countryside.

The pattern of agrarian holding with its bias towards large landlords has left over four million rural households (nearly 24 million people) living below the poverty line because they are landless, are tenants on very small farms or their land has been fragmented because of the inheritance factor.

In the absence of land reforms, this pattern is unlikely to be broken. With no alternative source of employment generation in the rural areas, the exodus to the cities is there to stay.

Additionally the growing insecurity in the interior of Sindh born of rampant crime and lawlessness is uprooting people from the countryside.

What will be the future of this metropolis? If present trends are an indicator, Karachi will be a split city. On the one side will be the millions mired in grinding poverty. Three million of them live in kachchi abadis in conditions of crowding and insanitation. Their number will grow and by the turn of the century half of Karachi’s population will be living in illegal squatter settlements.

At the other end of the scale are the affluent classes. For them life in Karachi has its paradoxes. But their wealth enables them to buy all those facilities the civic authorities fail to provide — water (through bowsers), electricity (through generators), healthcare and education (through private hospitals, schools and universities) and transport (through their own fleet of cars). \

But their insensitivity to poverty notwithstanding, the rich cannot escape the reality of the misery of the have-not. Apart from the ugly sights of kachchi abadis creeping up to the walls of the mansions of the rich there is also the congestion on the roads which reduces the flow of traffic to a crawling 17 miles per hour in rush hours (according to the PCC report) and makes the rich rub shoulders with the poor, albeit in different modes of transport.

Most significant is the growing crime rate which should come as a stark reminder of the insidious erosion of urban life. In spite of the protection they seek to buy through private agencies and guards, the fact is that the affluent are more vulnerable to crime because of their wealth. This vulnerability is the price they have to pay for the comforts they can afford.

This class disparity, which is growing and will increase further with the government’s privatisation programme, has emerged as the hallmark of Karachi’s population.

The civic bodies’ failure to provide the basic amenities of life is giving rise to violent discontent. Water riots have become a normal feature of Karachi life in summer and the KESC staff has had to suffer physical attacks from a public suffering from the discomfort of prolonged power breakdowns.

Add to these the problems generated by unemployment and rising cost of food (even daal and roti, the poor man’s standard ware is exorbitantly priced) and you have an explosive mixture.

The ostentation of the rich only helps to fuel the seething dissatisfaction of the poor. The vulgar display of wealth by a few is bound to compound the unrest among the many, especially when they find themselves being progressively denied even those basic needs that they could take for granted as their right at one time.

Marx might be dead in Eastern Europe and dying in Soviet Russia. But the class conflict he wrote about continues to live and flourish in Third World cities bursting at the seams..

Source: Dawn 03-05-1991