Karachi's Growth Fuels Demand for Illegal Housing Karachi, Pakistan, is choked with people and getting more crowded all the time. In one of the world's largest cities, millions of people must live in houses that were built outside the law.
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Karachi's Growth Fuels Demand for Illegal Housing

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Karachi's Growth Fuels Demand for Illegal Housing

Karachi's Growth Fuels Demand for Illegal Housing

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne at NPR West.


And I'm Steve Inskeep in Karachi, Pakistan, where you can listen to one of the world's largest cities getting larger.

(Soundbite of machine)

INSKEEP: That's a cement mixer spinning in a dusty lot. And while it's spinning we have a moment to explain that we are reporting this week on one of the world's growing cities. It's the start of a series we call The Urban Frontier.

This cement mixer is on Karachi's frontier, near the farthest reaches of this city. This is the place where brand new neighborhoods are being built as quickly as people can pour the concrete.

A workman lets a little of it drop into a wheelbarrow. He dumps that load onto a metal frame, pulls down a handle, and a steel mold stamps out eight more concrete blocks for one more Karachi home. Many of these neighborhoods are built without permission on vacant land. Millions of people find homes this way. They generate an entire off-the-books economy, which we will explore this morning.

We spotted a few houses under construction on a barren patch of desert. Our interpreter read an Urdu-language banner advertising a model home.

Unidentified Man (Interpreter): A complete house only 350,000 rupees.

INSKEEP: Three hundred and fifty thousand rupees - that's about $5,000, a little more.

Unidentified Man: Yes, exactly $5,000.

INSKEEP: The contractor who built this house was working nearby and he agreed to show us around inside.

Unidentified Man #2 (Contractor): (Through translator) It has two rooms, (unintelligible) two bedrooms, tile floor, a washroom. It's not very much spacious but it's good.

INSKEEP: Next to this house we see a few girders, concrete roof joints. Take a look across this nearly-dry stream, which will be the closest thing this neighborhood have to a sewer. On the other side you can see the tents, the rag tents where some people are living now before they're able to build up a house of concrete blocks. And beyond that, more houses with concrete block. Laundry hanging out; in the distance, the power lines for the legal neighborhoods.

Before long, hundreds of houses likely will squeeze into this dusty patch of ground. They're built of a few simple materials, most of which can be purchased from a single dealer nearby. You could think of it as a sort of extralegal Home Depot. What it's called locally is a thalla, and the boss of that business is called the thallawalla.

His name is Wahab Khan. We found him dropping off a truckload of concrete blocks from his store.

Mr. WAHAB KHAN (Thallawalla): (Through translator) Do you want to visit there?

INSKEEP: Yeah, but can you take us there for a new minutes?

Wahab Khan is one of Karachi's newcomer. He comes from northern Pakistan, in the tribal areas near the border. Half his family still lives up there. Two years ago, he joined the other half of the family that has moved to Karachi. Now, he rents a tiny patch of dirt by the road, which is where he has set up that cement mixer.

Wahab Khan's employees are rural men who came to Karachi just a few months ago. They're living under a little thatched roof a few feet from the cement mixer. The concrete blocks cost the equivalent of 14 cents each. A bag of mortar...

Mr. KHAN: (Through translator) Three hundred.

INSKEEP: Three hundred rupees for a bag. Okay.

That's about four bucks. Throw in some concrete roofing material, hire some workers for about $3 a day, and you're on your way to building and selling a house. Nobody has any money saved, so everything is sold on credit. The electricity, at least, is free. Through our interpreter, Wahab Khan shows us how you tap into nearby power lines.

Mr. KHAN: (Through translator) You can see the main line going there.

INSKEEP: Oh, we're looking on the horizon and seeing electrical lines.

Mr. KHAN: (Through translator) Yes. So we, what we do, we put our own hooks on those main lines, and you can see a web of lines...

INSKEEP: When we look on the horizon over here we see these smaller lines. Those are the...

Mr. KHAN: (Through translator) They have planted the bamboo...

INSKEEP: Bamboo poles with these lines.

Mr. KHAN: (Through translator) And when the government comes here, they just, you know, remove these lines. And when they go back, we again put the hooks back.

INSKEEP: Isn't it dangerous to go put a hook on an electrical line?

Mr. KHAN: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: What can we do, says Wahab Khan. We have no choice.

Because this whole system is illegal, builders say they have no choice in another matter. Police have a way of dropping by. They threaten to tear down illegal houses unless they're paid a few dollars. Occasionally they throw a whole construction crew into jail and it takes a couple hundred dollars to get them out.

After hearing that story, we told the provincial police chief that his men take protection money. Inspector-General Muhammad Shoaib Suddle was not even slightly surprised.

Inspector-General MUHAMMAD SHOAIB SUDDLE: Of course we all understand that without, you know, protection, these things cannot prosper.

INSKEEP: The inspector-general says he just suspended three mid-level cops for their alleged involvement in land deals. It's widely assumed that corrupt officials play a role in most of these deals.

This illegal housing system has its defenders. A leading urban planner here told us it does provide homes for millions of poor people. Nobody else does. Still, the settlements cause anxiety. Many of Karachi's new arrivals come from the north - from the border with Afghanistan. That's the region that supports the Taliban.

And Karachi's mayor considers these ethnic Pashtuns a mortal threat. In the mayor's eyes they are plotting to take over his city.

Mayor SYED MUSTAFA KAMAL (Karachi, Pakistan): These Pashtuns (unintelligible) Pashtun means like fundamentalist - religiously fundamentalist, religiously extremist. They are coming in, and when it comes to ethnicity, when it comes to Islam, they all are the same.

INSKEEP: The mayor took us for a drive past squatter neighborhoods and Islamic schools. He passed the area where the journalist Daniel Pearl was found dead, and he pointed out the window at a bearded man.

Mr. KAMAL: The man who's coming in front of you, look at him, look at his face.

INSKEEP: The mayor says he is convinced the Pashtuns are plotting the locations of these settlements. He thinks they're choosing strategic spots that block his own plans for the city.

Mr. KAMAL: It's a very strategic location, you see? The superhighway is there. They can control the whole highway.

INSKEEP: When you say strategic location, it sounds almost as if you're concerned that somebody on their side has a master plan like you have a master plan.

Mr. KAMAL: Yes, yes. They do have - they had this master plan before me. And they definitely have a master plan.

INSKEEP: While moving about Karachi in recent days, we met several residents of this city's new settlements. They weren't always Pashtuns and they seemed to have no master plan beyond their next meal.

This is nowhere. We're on a sandy plain, almost nothing seems to grow except a little bit of scrub. Dust is blowing in the wind. A bunch of rectangles here marked out by piles of dirt, each one of them will become a house. Here and there a house has already been built of simple concrete blocks.

We found two of this neighborhood's first residents outside on their knees chopping firewood.

(Soundbite of chopping)

INSKEEP: They hacked it out of scraggly bushes that they'd found. Shinaz Begum and Razia Begum live side by side with their families.

One, two, three, four, five, six...

Ms. SHINAZ BEGUM: (Through translator) Nine children.

INSKEEP: Nine children?

Ms. S. BEGUM: (Through translator) Yeah.

INSKEEP: Nobody goes to school?

Ms. S. BEGUM: (Through translator) No.

INSKEEP: One woman's husband is a fisherman. The other's husband runs a fruit drink stand. Both women work cleaning homes. Each earns about 2,500 Pakistani rupees per month. The monthly installment payment on each houses is 2,000.

Ms. RAZIA BEGUM: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Look at our children's faces, they say. Don't you think they're underfed?

Even so, the women say their precarious life in this sandy lot is better than what they had before.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: We're on The Urban Frontier, and tomorrow we'll visit a new waterfront development in Karachi. Same city, different world.

MONTAGNE: And there's more coverage from Karachi at NPR.org, including photos of a neighborhood where children attend school on rooftops to avoid stray bullets from the street.

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