Is ‘exposing’ Karachi’s flaws betraying it?

Published: November 15, 2012

In the search for solutions perhaps we have to face tough truths. PHOTO: FILE

In the search for solutions perhaps we have to face tough truths

I was dining on risotto by Lake Como at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio in Italy – and I wanted to cry.

My ‘tormentor’ was an erudite Canadian professor who is on a writing residency at the foundation’s retreat where she has come to work on an immigration project spanning several cities. I was there to cover a conference on cities and had just finished telling her, among other things, about traffic congestion in Karachi, my city of an estimated 18 million people where the car is a status symbol and red lights might as well be green.

I had just told her about our inability to properly ticket traffic violators.

Along the way a discussion of Karachi’s violence inevitably cropped up. As the plates were taken away and the salmon appeared, she said,

“So, you are living in a failed state.”

Suddenly, I did not want to eat any more.

I did not respond, except with a watery smile. What could I say? There was a measure of truth in that observation. How many times had I heard it before, read about it in the opinion pages of our newspapers and in international publications. The professor was just giving her professional opinion on the information I had just provided her.

Immediately, I felt guilty about giving such terrible examples, exposing Karachi, stripping it naked; ‘betraying’ it.

As it is, talking about Karachi is extremely fraught and painful. For a split second I scrambled to think of happy stuff I could have told her. But then I slumped back in my silk-upholstered chair. It felt cheesy to try to valiantly defend Karachi as a ‘vibrant’ city to try to counter the stories of the breakdown in the rule of law with ones of festivals (we really are a happy people… promise!) I am not comfortable with that approach either.

The four-day conference I was covering was precisely focused on this complex interlocking of resilience and liveability for cities. It was organised by the Municipal Arts Society of New York City (MASNYC) and supported by the Rockefeller and Ford foundations. And during each session, I was sorely tempted to keep pressing home a raw point based on my rudimentary understanding of resilience;

“Karachi is a resilient city; we go back to normal an hour after a bomb blast.”

After that dinner, which was partly assuaged by the torta mimosa, I retreated to my room to nurse my feelings. And over the next two days, for the remainder of the conference, I had time to reflect on my betrayal. I realised there was another reason why it hurt so much to hear from an outsider that I was living in a “failed state”.

That reason was the Indians.

There were two of them at the conference. One of them gave examples of how nine kilometres of beachfront had been rehabilitated in Mumbai with the celebrity support of none other than Shabana Azmi. The other talked about community and how they had set up the Indian Institute of Human Settlements to tackle India’s growing concerns. I realised that I would be hard pressed to remember any negative comment they had made about their country.

Yes, they mentioned problems, but only to talk about how they had been solved. They talked about the challenges, but only to showcase how they had been met. Perhaps it was just my interpretation of the way they communicated, because of the particularly vexed position I found myself taking vis-à-vis Karachi, but it felt as if they had a quiet pact not to mention India’s ugly side.

But I had a feeling that the group of urbanists and city planners, community activists, environmentalists and professors who had gathered for the conference must have been aware of the reality of India, its poverty, slums, failure in governance, violence and corruption.

Towards the end, as I packed to head home, I went through a catalogue of the first 50 years of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre where scholars, writers, doctors and poets had come to thrash out the world’s thorny problems – from nuclear warfare to genital mutilation.

I had been in the place where Susan Sontag, Joseph Heller, Maya Angelou, Anita Desai, Michael Ondaatje and Maxine Hong Kingston had all written part of their cosmic manuscripts as fellow residents. The Bellagio Centre was a space where the human condition’s complexities as they intersected with globalisation’s benefits had been painstakingly examined for half a century.

The MASNYC conference was particularly close to my heart as it problematised what constitutes resilience and liveability for cities. I will be writing in detail about what I learnt there. But this I will tell you for now; it became clear to me as an uncomfortable necessity that it was only by being nakedly honest about Karachi and searching for a vocabulary for its struggles that I would begin to understand where the solutions lie. And wasn’t the entire point of attending the conference sharing and soaking up solutions, approaches and ways to mend its broken parts.

I can only hope that the people who are able to effect the change are reading this.

Read more by Mahim here or follow her on Twitter @Mahim_Maher 


Mahim Maher

A journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan. She has worked as the city editor at The Express Tribune and Daily Times, and now writes long form investigative and explanatory pieces on Karachi’s civic and urban infrastructure with a focus on transport, public spaces and water.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • http://usa roger

    the right pic is of delhi 10 years ago…………..left pic is of karachi as of now…………dear author there’s a lot of difference…………u r comparison has miserably failed…………stay safe…byeRecommend

  • http://usa raj

    hahahah………………lol……..i really can’t control myself when a pakistani talks about poverty,slums,failure of governance,violence and corruption…
    dear author these problems are a part of every developing country….so quit the obsession with india……………….get ur house in order before pointing at others……………Recommend

  • Mustafa Moiz

    You were wrong to keep talking about Karachi’s flaws. Its the same thing our media does, always looking for the worst, while Indian media portrays it as Incredible India.Recommend

  • Parvez

    I don’t blame you for unburdening yourself but doing it on an open platform reflects poorly on you and obviously you realised that. But to say that there is much to be proud of in Karachi would be false and unless we don’t call a spade a spade, things will not improve.Recommend

  • Ameer,Chennai

    Dear Mahim Maher,
    We Indians unlike Pakistanis discuss our social issues and differences to the right forums in India to solve our problems ourselves .We do not blame the outside world for our problems or expect them to solve it for us. And so Indians generally take offence to Pakistanis who want parity with India on how the world looks at them.Recommend

  • BlackJack

    Madam, my sympathies. I am happy that my fellow Indians chose to present our problems in a positive manner; however, let me assure you that even if the Indians had complained endlessly about traffic problems in Bombay, they would not have faced the ‘failed state’ remark that triggered this poorly reasoned piece of work. It is rather presumptuous of you to think that your single monologue had any influence whatsoever on anyone’s picture of Pakistan, when Osama has been found in your backyard and someone has just been sentenced to death for blasphemy. Pls read the news, you know.Recommend

  • Indian Liberal

    Our Pakistani friends seem obsessed with the ‘image’ of their country. Sometimes one finds the subtext in their writings that but for the ‘image’ Pakistan would be just like India, or may be better.

    Were that really the case, that would be beneficial to all. Unfortunately, that isn’t so. Pakistan – the liberal dream of it – is in serious trouble, and the country is seen as a scourge by many – quite regardless of any defense that the author could have provided.

    The point here is – if you get rid of this India envy, you are more likely to do something constructive for Pakistan. Recommend

  • Vishnu Dutta

    Every country has problems but a real resilient country works on them and fights them. Surviving is no bravery, normal communities stand up to the challenges and work on the solution.

    You have rightly posted pic of commuter bus of delhi, 10-15 years ago that was really a commmon scene, it exists even now but as an exception and only in outskirts. People and govt decided that it was enough, so delhi worked on solutions. Since then it has got one of the fastest growing metro, BRTS system, freeways, low floor buses, circular rail and now working on monorail. If metro, BRTS and other new public transports didnt exist in delhi, it would have still survived. then it would make delhi an ordinary city.
    Delhi and mumbai have a different character and they never stop working.Recommend

  • Sudheer

    What are you really trying to say Miss? Do you seriously think that if you hadn’t talked about the traffic congestion in Karachi and instead glorified its positive aspects, your tormentor, the professor would have changed her perception about your country? No Ma’am the professor would have still carried the same opinion. That’s simply because it takes decades, if not centuries, for a country to create an image or perception for herself. More importantly, a positive or negative projection by an individual or two is not going make much of difference to the standing of a particular country.
    A country is an entity consisting of its people, geography, history, social/political structure, culture, languages, religion/s, music, literature, arts and above all her national characteristics. All these different aspects constitute a nation state, based on which an image is built. You can’t change it overnight. Therefore stop regretting about what you did, in fact, in my opinion, you did the right thing, you told the truth and by the way, you can’t hide it either!
    Forgive me, but let me tell you this, I laughed aloud when you confessed that, it hurt you more at India getting away without any bashing despite her being mired in poverty, corruption and other blah blahs… believe me lady, “Incredible India” has got nothing to do with her poverty. I can tell you this because I am closely associated with tourism industry. I had many opportunities to interact with visiting foreign tourists. I saw India through their eyes. Many a times I was shocked when some of them found something as “incredible”, “amazing” or “really innovative” and at the first glance I couldn’t find justification for those loud exclamations! But, later I realized and wondered as to why those little wonderful things stayed hidden from my eyes despite encountering them in my day to day life. “Incredible India is not Taj Mahal, not the magnificent palaces of Rajasthan or serene back-waters of Kerala. Incredible India are its people, its astonishingly colorful culture, its mind-boggling diversity of all kind, above all the tolerance, simplicity and hospitality of her ordinary citizens. Although, tourist fall under different categories, from medical to sex, drugs and so on but, for a real tourist India represents an exotic destination.
    Pakistan was no different from India in the past, but, sadly the misguided zeal to create an identity based on religion alone, destroyed and badly distorted every other beautiful aspect of nation’s life.
    Failed state’s tag is not far from truth, Pakistan keeps proving it everyday.Recommend

  • guy


    The reasons you mentioned (ie sentence to death for blasphemy, etc) are not the reason for pakistan being labelled a failed state. If that were the case the world would call saudi arabia a failed state which no one dares to. The problem of pakistan is poverty and lawlessness, if pakistan were doing well economically and implemented the law (just like Saudi Arabia) then all these blasphemy punishments would not cause any problems. Pakistan can only be saved if a powerful authoritarian comes in power and roots out corruption and lawlessness and implements islamic laws as Saudi has implemented them, with an honest religious police. Even if Pak were to become the ‘poor saudi arabia’ of Asia, more than 50% of its problems will be solved.Recommend

  • http://usa raj

    what has traffic jam to do with traffic jams??? …sao paulo (brazil) has the worst traffic flow in world………….huge jams for hours are a regular phenomenon… doesn’t make it failed state…does it??Recommend

  • Critical

    But I had a feeling that the group of urbanists and city planners, community activists, environmentalists and professors who had gathered for the conference must have been aware of the reality of India, its poverty, slums, failure in governance, violence and corruption.

    if Poverty, failure in governance, violence and corruption are the marks of a failed state then USA should also be one,as Detroit is in US and they have many problems which Karachi has….

    Deep in your heart,you know the real reason why Pakistan is mentioned as a failed state unlike India,but your false bravado of patriotism makes u thump ur chest and point out the problems in India to relieve yourself and other Pakistani readers of ur blog….Recommend

  • Prerna

    A Canadian calls your country a “failed state”,and you get annoyed at the Indians.
    Weird mind-set.Recommend

  • gp65

    @Author: “Yes, they mentioned problems, but only to talk about how they had been solved. They talked about the challenges, but only to showcase how they had been met. Perhaps it was just my interpretation of the way they communicated, because of the particularly vexed position I found myself taking vis-à-vis Karachi, but it felt as if they had a quiet pact not to mention India’s ugly side.”
    Seems like a contradiction when you talk about the pact to not mention the ugly side when a sentence prior you admitted that ‘they mentioned problems’. If they also mentioned how they are trying to solve them, what is so strange? The notion that there is a pact among Indians is very similar to the accusation we have seen from some senior OpEd writers here that Indians commenting on these blogs are paid by RAW to do so and provided talking points. PArt of the unending conspiracy theories about India.

    “But I had a feeling that the group of urbanists and city planners, community activists, environmentalists and professors who had gathered for the conference must have been aware of the reality of India, its poverty, slums, failure in governance, violence and corruption.”
    Yes Indeed. 6 million tourists come to India each year and see for themselves our wonderful country – warts and all. India makes no attempt to hide its problems. India did not prevent SlumDog millionaire from being screened in India the way Pakistan banned Saving Faces. Most countries where youtube is not banned can see Amir Khan’s satyamev jayate or any of our English language TV news channels where Indian problems are discussed threadbare with a view to find solutions.

    The only possible difference could be the level of optimism that you saw in your Indian counterparts which perhaps you were not feeling. They have seen things getting better – big problems getting solved (polio, out of school children etc.) even as equally large problems still remain to be solved. They, like me, believe that tomorrow will be better than today and are working to make that happen. Try that approach and you will feel better about yourself and your country.

    In any case, if the Indians did not say anything negative about Pakistan, I am not sure why you blame them for how you are feeling.Recommend

  • vivek

    A poorly researched article.Agree, In India there is poverty and mismanagement but it has many good things to show.Also you gave photograph of “än Indian city” in comparision of your biggest and business capital city.I challenge you to visit Delhi, Mumbai, Banglore today and find out a single helmetless biker.You cannot even find a helmetless pillion.The overcrowded bus cannot move in any major Indian city as you tried to show.This problem still lies in medium and small cities including rural area.
    We are not claiming that we are best but atleast we are moving ahead inch by inch.And do not forget all major Indian city has its own business activities, places of tourist importance and contribution to national GDP.Now compare with Mumbai ,It has GDP of $230 bn (still 10% of India) which is greater than whole Pakistan’s GDP and incrasing by 8-10% annually.Crime rate is much lower and no widespread killings.Last terror attack happened a year ago. In Karachi 1850 people died this year alone and it contributes 40% of Pakistan’s GDP.The rest of world is not fool enough to ignore these facts and no matter what Indians portray or comment.
    I request you to stop cry baby attitude and compare honestly with data of killings,mayhem,terror attacks in equivalent Indian cities. Then try to address problems of Karachi.Recommend

  • http://usa afzal

    hey author??? whats with the indian obsession………..we r different …u r different… stop the obsession………..u should be mad at bangladesh…they got freedom in 1971…still they aren’t consider failed state…………dont be mad at us and get over with ur stupid and meaningless obsession……………….Recommend

  • http://gujrat Zalim singh

    @ Mahim meher

    I will give you simple comparison of Karachi and Mumbai.

    Karachi; Pop : 18 Million. GDP: 70 Billion USD. (Doubtful claim, as it is 40% of Pakistan’s GDP).
    Mumbai : Pop : 14 Million. GDP: 180 Billion USD.

    You cannot compare apples to oranges. Mumbai and other Indian cities will open up the gap much more in comparison with Karachi.Recommend

  • Utkarsh

    That picture you posted of an Indian city, which some here are saying if of a red-line bus in Delhi, is old because red-line buses were removed from service more than 10 years ago. All large Indian cities and most smaller cities have high-capacity buses for more than two years. The larger cities also have government run AC buses.
    You won’t find the situation you see in that picture in any city bus today, though it probably still happens in those state roadways buses in the rural areas.Recommend

  • asad

    I accept your feelings that, when you are abraod, when you see all thier mass developments in all sector, when you see your own country where you see all kind of probelms, you cannot explain in one breath or you have no idea how to explain it. every pakistani goes through this matter when he interduces him self as pakistani.

    what I suggest those people who really whishing to change pakistan, they must not limit them self only edge of writing. they must come on the street. they must educate people. they must help in terms of education in rurals areas. they must help them in terms of health activities. what I see in Pakistan that, there is volenteerism work is missing. nobody is ready to work with out mony in terms of it developments. we must scrifice our self. we must give time and dadication ot our country. with out, it, I don,t think so, we could bring such develpment in Pakistan. Recommend

  • shuja ul islam

    stop blaming the city for the troubles…we and we alone are responsible..we rightfully deserve cell phones..thats the DEMOCRACY we DESERVE..stop whining people..if u want a change..CHANGE YOURSELF..!!Recommend

  • http://Karachi Zaheer

    I completely agree with you. Your reply was too long but your made point effectively.Recommend

  • Muhammard Rizwan Ali

    The people from other Cities come to Karachi, Travel on the roof top of Buses
    The people from Karachi, Travel inside the BusesRecommend

  • Saeed swabi

    Every nation faces challanges,its upon them how they face it and overcome it,india too had threatening issues as poverty (though it still make her countable for third world country),corruption,favourtism,nepotism,might’s right-phenomena,voilence and other issues,but they,seems,overwhelming it.
    And we pakistanis would vote on gunpoint upto when we will die for not voting.Recommend

  • Mustafa Moiz

    Or about migrant workers from UP and Bihar being beaten up by Shiv Sena, raids on hospitals, book burning, I’m sure even then questions of a failed state wouldn’t come up? There are more problems in Mumbai then just traffic jams.Recommend

  • http://usa afzal

    @Mustafa Moiz: dude this migrant workers being beaten up is now a 3 year old story………u guys always take past cases… gujarat…..i donno why to bring past again and again when u know we r talking about present……..karachi doesn’t have decent buses ….there is cng shortage and lahore too is seeing cut in few cng buses it had earlier………though i know that this doesn’t mean pakistan is a failed state…………Recommend

  • Gratgy

    @Mustafa Moiz

    You are comparing a few migrant workers in Mumbai getting beaten 3 years back to scores killed every week in Karachi. Seriously!!Recommend

  • Nishant

    Karachi Circular Railway – established 1969 , shut down in 1999
    Lahore– no mass transit
    Islamabad/Rawalpindi – No mass transit
    Now talking about cities of the “poverty stricken nation with an ugly face”
    Mumbai suburban railways– 1st line established in 1958, 2nd line in 1928 and “rapid” expansions in the 80s and 90s
    Mumbai Monorail – construction began in 2009 …testing of line1 began in november 2012
    Mumbai Metro – Construction began in 2008
    Bangalore metro construction began 2007…line 1 started october 2011
    Kolkata Metro– operations began in 1984,(1line)… extended further in 1995 and 2010(3 new lines construction began)

    Chennai Commuter Train: Opened in 1995 and extended twice in 2004 and 2007
    Chennai Metro – Construction began June 2009
    Hyderabad Suburban Rail– Line 1 operational since august 2003, Line 2 and line1 expansion began March 2012
    Hyderabad Metro– Line 1 construction began April 2012
    Jaipur Metro– Construction of line1,started on November 13, 2010.

    Delhi SubUrban Rail– Local Trains connecting delhi with neighbouring cities with a intercity circular railway running since 1975.
    Delhi Metro– Construction started in the 1998, and the first section, on the Red Line, opened in 2002, followed by the Yellow Line in 2004, the Blue Line in 2005, its branch line in 2009, the Green and Violet Lines in 2010 and the Delhi Airport Metro Express in 2011.

    Poor…yes!….Failed …NORecommend