Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi
Steve Inskeep
The Penguin Press
375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014;
2012 (paperback edition).
304 pages. $16.

The story of modern-day Karachi, the largest city in Pakistan and the seaport gateway to Central Asia, is a traumatic tale of high expectations, grand plans, and acts of admirable sacrifice and humanitarianism torn asunder by greed and corruption, land mafias, political upheaval, religious factionalism, and government incompetence. It is a familiar saga common to the emerging urban Third World of swelling supercity immigrant populations fleeing the crushing misery of the countryside. Authored by the cohost of National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, Steve Inskeep, the text is an account of his firsthand experience reporting on the daily tremors in one of the world’s fastest-growing megacities numbering well over 13 million residents—a population 33 times greater than it was in 1947, the year of Pakistan’s founding.

The dismal failure of Korangi, a huge new suburb planned for 500,000 residents in the late 1950s and envisioned by famed Greek city planner Constantinos Doxiadis, is one of many examples Inskeep reveals that track the downward spiral from noble intention to tragic outcome. Early on, Doxiadis became aware of the ominous risks posed by the Korangi assignment. The remote site chosen by the government would make it impossible for residents to commute to jobs, and meager per-capita incomes called into question whether new residents could afford to participate in the government-subsidized rent-to-own housing program. A worst-case scenario ensued within a few years as new residents chose to piece together unauthorized shacks wherever they could grab a sliver of land. “Nobody was interested in keeping up with the project,” according to a postmortem; city government “does not have the capacity to do anything.”

Nawaz Khan, an ethnic Pashtun immigrant, fits the profile of who the key Karachi players really are and how they effect positive trade to finance housing change, however marginal. In the chapter titled “Self-service Levittown,” Khan outperforms Doxiadis by using his meager earnings in the fabric smuggling trade to finance housing for the poor. Starting with a few hundred Afghan nomad families building on his squatter site, his business grows as, unbeknownst to government authorities, he hustles up more plots of public land. As his success continues, Khan seizes an opportunity for support by joining the popular Pakistan People’s Party—a move that lends crucial political cover to his land-grabbing enterprise.

Perween Rahman, in an interview with Inskeep, puts the workings of people like Khan into perspective. Rahman directs the Orangi Pilot Project-Research and Training Institute, named after a section of northwest Karachi sometimes referred to as “Asia’s largest slum.” She notes with a mix of sympathy and ambivalence that Kahn and the grass-roots forces he represents constitute “a new form of alternative government” in which “land suppliers” provide water, electricity, roads, and even sewage systems. But there is more at stake. Water piped in from the Indus River is stolen by tanker trucks and sold to squatters at premium prices, and parts of Karachi are flooded regularly by monsoon rains—the flooding. A tragic consequence of illegal development within the very marshlands that are intended to serve as holding zones for storm drains or sewage discharge.

If the tenacious will to overcome inordinate odds represents the “life” of Karachi, its ongoing religious and political factionalism is a hallmark of its “death.” Despite the efforts of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding statesman and a Karachi resident, to preserve the rights of religious minorities in a Muslim nation, the newly dominant Muslims, writes Inskeep, “found divisions among themselves . . . divided by ethnicity, language, class, and Muslim sect . . . and with catastrophic consequences.” Karachi has been wracked by riots, bombings, and arson on a continuous basis for decades.

Inskeep’s focus is not always as clear as it should be, and the reader is never quite sure how much hope he really harbors for Karachi. His moribund writing style, save for a few select passages, fails to capture the hyperbolic tensions inherent in his subject matter. Karachi continues to grow at an alarming rate, Inskeep says. It is a “destination of pilgrims and home of the poor, a field of operations for the makers of buildings and bombs … battering people with the impartiality of a typhoon.”