Land Ownership a Root of Many Problems in Karachi

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As part of the "Urban Frontier" series, Steve Inskeep reported last week from Karachi, Pakistan — one of the world's largest cities. He found problems there familiar to cities around the world: from ethnic, religious and political strife to water shortages and pollution — and land ownership was a common undercurrent.


Steve, welcome back.


Oh, glad to be back, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And Steve, as many listeners well know, has just returned from Karachi, Pakistan. And over a couple of weeks, he did some reports to start a series called The Urban Frontier. And we're going to report on a number of cities at home and abroad. And of course, Karachi being one of those megacities that we'll be talking about in the future - Steve, it raises a question, now that you're back: Do other cities look different to you, having just spent this time in Karachi?

INSKEEP: Oh, they do, Renee. And this is a subject that I've been fascinated about for years. I've read a lot about different cities around the world, and we shouldn't compare them too much. Every city grows in a unique way. And yet listen to this piece of tape that we played last week from the mayor of Karachi, one of the world's largest cities. The mayor is Syed Mustafa Kamala.

Mayor SYED MUSTAFA KAMAL (Karachi, Pakistan): My city is a dirty city. It's not clean. The garbage is the main problem.

INSKEEP: But think about that for a minute. We've got this huge city with huge problems, huge ethnic issues, religious issues, in a country that's concerned about democracy and dictatorship, concerned about the future of Islam. And yet when you get down to the city level, it gets down to the same question that people often face in Chicago: who's picking up my garbage, and am I going to be happy with the government if they're not picking up my garbage?

It's a very familiar discussion to a lot of people. And as I've studied this, I've begun to see many more parallels. I came home from this trip and opened my newspaper, and there I am reading about water shortages in your state, Renee, in California, that are impeding development in many cities, and it turns out Karachi is facing the same problem, only in a more extreme way. They've had to build a huge desalination plant, use salt water, make it drinking water, and they're considering more. And so you have this situation where cities around the world are facing similar problems.

MONTAGNE: Now, one thing about Karachi that came out in your reports is the ethnic politics of that city. There was also political violence there. How much of that felt familiar to you?

INSKEEP: Well, I mean the ethnic politics, the identity politics certainly feels familiar. That's something you get all over the world, including the United States. And you also do get a reminder in a place like this that it can go too far. And one of the many people we heard from was an ambulance driver who was nearly killed because he was just the wrong shade of person in the wrong place during a gun battle.

Mr. FAISAL EDHI (Ambulance Driver): They took him, you know, out of the ambulance for shooting purpose. They wanted to kill him because of his appearance. And I yelled at him, do not shoot, he's our man.

INSKEEP: And there you go, Renee, the contrast of the challenges for this city. They can devolve into group identities and ethnic politics and tear each other apart. And I should mention that there are efforts, even in the last few weeks, in Karachi to avoid that, to make sure the different political parties and ethnic groups come together at least a little bit, at least have a truce.

They can devolve into that or they can concentrate on making a living or, if you like, making money. Each one of those issues gets right back to the question of land and who controls it, who controls the real estate, who gets to live on it. That's a fundamental question that people are battling over or arguing over all over the world. And how we decide those questions could have a lot to do with our future.

MONTAGNE: And in the future on this program, we will be looking at some of those questions in other cities. Really good to have you back, though, Steve.

INSKEEP: In Washington, D.C., a city where everything works.

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