In 2013, two factions of the Pakistani Taliban fought for control of Karachi's water infrastructure

Pakistani policemen carry an injured colleague after a clash between two political parties during a by-election in Karachi last week. Image: Rizwan Tabassum/AFP/Getty

With a population of more than 23m, Karachi, PAkistan is one of the world’s largest cities. It's also a hotbed of crime, corruption and militancy.

Omar Hamid was a police officer there for 12 years, before leaving to become a security analyst in the UK. In an event in Washington DC last week for the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21), he explained where it all went wrong.

Being a police officer means you really get to see the whole gamut of issues in Karachi. There are issues of sectarian violence; there are issues that any mega-city has. There are issues of political parties with the militias. There are issues of the growing presence of the Pakistani Taliban. And, of course, you have all of the regular crime.

With Karachi the commercial centre of Pakistan, control and influence within it is just too lucrative. In effect, the story of the past 25-30 years of the city is the struggle between various groups to squeeze that pie as much as possible. What you can learn from Karachi's example is exactly what not to do in any mega-city.

With the expansion of megacities, you have a situation where the central government – and in many cases the local government – has very little control. As these cities grow organically, control over scarce resources often ends up in the hands of non-state groups, political parties or organised crime syndicates. The challenge for urban governance this century will be how the state is able to impose itself, or how it can prevent resources from being taken over.

Karachi has large representations of all the ethnicities and nationalities in Pakistan. All of these various groups feel that they have a vested interest in the city, all of them have competed for that. The complex political environment comes from the fact that, over the past 25 years, Karachi’s ethnicities have been essentially pitted against each other. They form the basis for political parties.

Most of these political parties have also represented themselves through criminal militias. Those militia come to the forefront of organised crime and corruption.

What you can learn is exactly what not to do in any mega-city

As these parties fight for control of the city, the infrastructure of government – whether it’s the municipal operation of the city, or the police force – has become almost hopelessly politicised. Civil servants or police officers go to one party or another to vie for lucrative postings. The objective is to get in the good books of a certain local party, to get a good posting and to be able to recoup your expenses by making that a poster revenue generating tool. 

Everything is for sale in Karachi. The way that it filters down to the micro level, for instance, is illegal land grabbing. Political parties and religious groups, like the Taliban, indulge in illegally occupying or squatting on pieces of land. They carve slices of land up to create new squatter colonies, then they subsequently sell it off.

There is a shortage of water in the city, so control of the city's water hydrants is a very key tool in corruption. In 2013 rival elements of the Pakistani Taliban fought over control of water supplies in parts of the city. At one point last year, as the Pakistani Taliban was splintering into various groups, two of them were fighting against each other, essentially for control of water. It had nothing to do with religious ideology. It had to do with the cash that could be gained through the water.

For some time now there has been, it seems to people in Pakistan, a kind of understanding that the west was all right with the excesses of political parties as long as they were secular and talking the right talk. The fact is that the presumption ever since 9/11 has been that it was important to back groups that were opposed to religious extremists. On paper that makes a lot of sense – but the problem in Karachi is that lots of those groups are equally involved in criminal activities. 

It runs part of the city as virtually a parallel state with an extensive armed wing

The MQM, the largest party in the city, is an extremely secular party, totally opposed to the spread of religious extremism. Yet the MQM operates the largest criminal-political Mafia nexus in the city. It runs part of the city as virtually a parallel state with an extensive armed wing that has regularly taken part in politically targeted killings murders of police officers and government officials.

Something that has really turned around over the last five or six years is the growth of civil society. When you're sitting in Pakistan it feels like civil society does not necessarily have a direction. It's putting its head everywhere. But the fact it has found its voice is very important. The other thing that's aided the growth is the expansion of the media in Pakistan. The media too, at times, seems like it's a lot of heads shouting at each other nonsensically – but it has meant that, unlike in the past, the media is no longer a creature that can be controlled by any particular political party, or the country's political or military establishment.

Pakistan remains a very violent place, and in Karachi there have been a number of cases of journalists being murdered by all parties. But if there is hope, it is in this: these things are no longer controllable. The crimes or misdeeds of various groups become very public, and the growth of civil society, the growth of social media, means that the contrarian view gets out more often.

Omar Hamid is head of Asia Pacific Risk at IHS, and the author of a novel, "The Prisoner". 

He is also a global fellow at PS21, the Project for the Study of the 21st Century.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Copenhagen puts cyclists at the top of the social hierarchy

A cyclist in Copenhagen, obviously. Image: Red Bull/Getty.

Have you ever wondered why Britain is not a nation of cyclists? Why we prefer to sit in traffic as our Dutch and Danish neighbours speed through the city on bikes?

Forget about hills, rain, and urban sprawl: the real reason we aren’t cycling is much closer to home. It is not just lack of infrastructure, or lack of fitness, the reason that 66 per cent of Brits cycle less than once a year, is because of status.

An obsession with social status is hard-wired into our brains. As we have built a society that relies on cars, the bicycle has slipped to the periphery, and gone from being regarded as a sensible mode of transport, to a deviant fringe-dwellers choice.

Even though cycling to work has been shown to be one of the most effective things an individual can do to improve health and longevity, researcher David Horton thinks that there are a set of collective anxieties that are stopping us getting in the saddle. These include not just an unwillingness to be made vulnerable, but fear of being thought of as poor.

A quick look over the North Sea shows that there is an alternative. Danish culture has elevated cycling to the point of reverence, and the social status of cyclists has followed. As we have busied ourselves building infrastructure that testifies to the dominance of the car, Denmark has been creating magnificent architectural features, aimed specifically at bike users. The Cycle Snake, or Cykelslangen, literally suspends the cyclist above the city, metaphorically elevating the cyclist and creating a sense of ceremony.

In doing so, they are subtly persuading people of all backgrounds to see past their prejudices or fears and take it up as the clearly better choice. This means there are more women cycling, more older people cycling, and more ethnic minorities cycling. The activity is less dominated by comfortably middle class white males: there are cyclists from every side of the community.  

The Cykelslangen, under construction in 2014. Image: Ursula Bach and Dissing+Weitling architecture.

Despite abstract motivations like getting ripped and conquering global warming, it is only when the bike path becomes the obviously better choice that people will start to cycle. It can take years of traffic jams before people try an alternative, but if you make motorists jealous of cyclists, then the tables can quickly turn.

Another way that Copenhagen has done this is by taking privileges normally afforded only to the motorcar, and given them to the bike. The city has ensured that cycle routes do not include blind corners or dark tunnels, and that they form a complete, coherent network, and a steadily flowing system – one that allows cyclists to maintain a reasonable pace, and minimises the amount of times you have to put your foot down.

The ‘Green Wave’, for example, is a co-ordinated traffic light system on some of the main thoroughfares of the capital that helps minimise the amount of cycle congestion during peak times. It maintains a steady flow of cycle traffic, so that there is no need to stop at any point.


Small measures of prioritisation like this one increase the sense of safety and consideration that cyclists experience, making it natural for the citizens of a city to act in their own self-interest and get on their bike.

As well as redefining the streets around the bicycle, the Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog positively fetishises cyclists. The tagline “dress for your destination, not your journey” depicts the social fashion life of the cycle lane as a “never ending flow of happy people heading from A to B”. Its writers are  literally making cycling sexy, dispelling the idea that going anywhere by bike is odd, and helping the world to see that the bicycle is actually the ultimate fashion accessory.

So unlike in London, where cycling is still a predominantly male pursuit, Copenhagen sees a more even split between men and women. Not just because they feel safer on the roads, but because culturally they are comfortable with their appearance as part of a highly visible group.

So while our low level of cycling is partly due to our physical infrastructure, it is also due to our cultural attitudes. The mental roadblocks people have towards cycling can be overcome by infrastructure that is not only safe, but also brings old-fashioned notions of dignity and grace into the daily commute.

Of course, office shower facilities might stop cyclists being ostracised, too.