Amid Threats, Activist Fights Karachi Development As big-money developers flock to Karachi, Amber Alibhai is one of the few people to openly question the development. In a city where millions of people live in poverty and clean water is often scarce, the activist asks, who needs golf courses? Alibhai's work has provoked threats against her and her family.

Amid Threats, Activist Fights Karachi Development

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/91135737/91143007" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We go now to one of the world's largest cities, a city debating its future, and those political debates keep returning to one subject: real estate.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Developers are flocking to the gigantic city we're profiling this week on MORNING EDITION…

Unidentified Man: Karachi: Once an ancient community of fishing villages, today, it's the second-largest port city on the Arabian Sea.

MONTAGNE: MORNING EDITION's Steve Inskeep has been spending time in Karachi -not to invest, as a matter of fact, but for what you might call The Urban Frontier. And that's our series on the world's expanding cities.

And Steve joining us now from Karachi. What is drawing foreign developers to that city?

STEVE INSKEEP: Renee, at least two factors, and one of them is demand. Pakistan may be a poor country, but it has a lot of well-off people and developers believe that they will pay a lot of money for expensive waterfront condos. And the other factor is that there is Persian Gulf money looking for a place to be invested. And for developers in Dubai, say, Karachi looks like a great investment, even though people in the West, they may associate Pakistan mainly with violence. People in Dubai see money.

MONTAGNE: And that accounts for that rather slick video we just heard.

INSKEEP: Yes, which came from a firm in Dubai. And it shows the idea, at least, of a new city beside the old city - a new harbor, new parks, and a tower that commemorates the year of Pakistan's independence. It would be 1,947 feet.

Unidentified Man: A bright new city, a dynamic waterfront district with a sustainable environment plan - this is where world-class master planning and imaginative architecture combine.

INSKEEP: When that company brought the idea from Dubai to Pakistan, there was a meeting in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, and then something happened. Word of that meeting leaked out. It leaked to a public interest lawyer named Amber Alibhai.

Ms. AMBER ALIBHAI (Pubic Interest Lawyer): Somebody sent us the minutes of the meeting that took place in Islamabad in the mail. We have, like, I would say (unintelligible).

INSKEEP: Now, as soon as she saw the minutes of this meeting, Alibhai questioned what that development would do to Karachi's environment. She does know a few newspaper reporters, so maybe it's not surprising that word soon hit the public of this planned development. That is what Alibhai does for a living, as the general secretary of a Pakistani group called Shehri.

Now, the United States, when people are unhappy about a land deal or a land development, people sue all the time.

Ms. ALIBHAI: So do we. Shehri is very much into public interest litigation.

INSKEEP: And you don't have to know her very long to think that if you're developing the waterfront in Karachi, you might think twice about a battle with Amber Alibhai.

Ms. ALIBHAI: All the housing that you see, all the development that you have seen in my city, it's only for the rich. If you have apartments there for the rich, if you have houses there for the rich - why does Karachi need a golf course, for God's sake? In a city of 11 million people, who the hell - how many of those people are going to be able to own a golf club and take membership into a golf course? This is madness. I don't have drinking water, and I want to be watering the turf?

INSKEEP: Amber Alibhai is still enthusiastic about this work after 17 years. We caught her on what appeared to be a normal day. Electricity was out in her office, she had a water bottle on her desk because the tap water was contaminated.

Ms. ALIBHAI: I know four people in my immediate surroundings that's come down with typhoid. It's bad water.

INSKEEP: And she's just been dealing with what she called a false complaint against her in court. Alibhai remains one of the voices in a rich debate over Karachi's priorities and over its future. That debate continues even in a city that has trouble with law and order.

Is this dangerous work?

Ms. ALIBHAI: Yes, it is. Of course it is. Anything that you're going to stand up for is dangerous. We get threats. We have regularly had when we were saving a park last year - Kidney Hill - and they were all after my blood and the blood of my family, and we had a lot of threats and all and…

INSKEEP: What sort of threats?

Ms. ALIBHAI: Well, obviously, to kill us and this time they even wanted to kill my father, my brother, my son and my husband and the usual.

INSKEEP: She makes it sound so normal, and it is. We spoke with a Karachi architect and urban planner named Arif Hassan, and he points out that fortunes are at stake in the city's development. He's often heard of people threatened, even killed, if they stand in the way. So, we asked for specific stories of people killed, and he hesitated.

Mr. ARIF HASSAN (Architect, Urban Planner): Let's say it depends on how you use this information. I don't know how you're going to use it. So…

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: This is a place where people speak carefully, but after a moment, Arif Hassan gave the story of one case from a few years ago. A local leader was fighting the building of an expressway that threatened to force thousands of people to relocate.

Mr. HASSAN: He was threatened regularly, and his 21-year-old son was found dead. He had been thrown off a six-story building. This I can give you as one case.

INSKEEP: Does knowledge of those cases stop or slow down the debate?

Mr. HASSAN: Surprisingly not, surprisingly not.

INSKEEP: Cases like that did not stop Amber Alibhai of the public interest group Shehri. A few years after the expressway battle, her group filed a lawsuit to stop a subdivision from being built in an area that was designated years ago as park land. Her husband then started receiving threatening calls from a man he didn't know.

Ms. ALIBHAI: And he told my husband that, look, this is your daily routine and these are the names of your children and these are their ages and this is where they study. And this is the name of your father-in-law and this is his age and this is where he goes for a walk in the evening. And I have a photograph of all three of them in front of me. And do you want me to fax it to you so that you understand what I'm saying to you?

INSKEEP: Possibly the caller did not anticipate that Amber Alibhai would go to a citizen's organization that helps with law enforcement. She had these phone numbers traced, and in time she called back.

Ms. ALIBHAI: And then I rang up those people and I said, listen, I'm fed up of this cat-and-mouse game. Stop threatening. You really want to kill me, I'm standing on the road outside my house with my children. And you come and you kill us and you get it over with, 'cause we were fed up of it. And let me tell you, my city is run by gangsters. My city is run by the mafia.

INSKEEP: Which explains why Amber Alibhai's husband urged her to leave the country.

MONTAGNE: And, Steve, did she leave?

INSKEEP: No. She eventually complained to the provincial governor instead, complained to anybody that she could, and somehow these threats stopped. I can tell you that the newspaper columnist that we profiled yesterday, Ardeshir Cowasjee, wrote up this story and, despite the risk, readers who lived near that open land stepped forward to join the lawsuit, which is still before Pakistan's courts.

MONTAGNE: You know, some people may listen to your reports this week about Karachi and wonder, given the city's problems, people do what seems like almost a luxury, and that's to bring a lawsuit or mount a protest.

INSKEEP: You would think that people would be concerned with more immediate things like survival, but it's not always the case. And Amber Alibhai insists that it's worth fighting for what she describes as the rule of law when it comes to development. Of course, we have to mention that not everybody does, Renee, and tomorrow we're going to hear about people building thousands of homes outside the law.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Our own Steve Inskeep coming to us this morning, as he is all this week, from Karachi, Pakistan. You'll find more stories from The Urban Frontier at npr.org.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.