Karachi and Mumbai: A Tale of Two Megacities

BY Fred de Sam Lazaro  July 15, 2011 at 2:31 PM EDT


Abdul Sattar Edhi works with the poor in Karachi, Pakistan. Photo by Nicole See/NewsHour

It was a week that saw spasms of terrorist violence in the financial capitals of Pakistan and India, and quite by coincidence — on unrelated assignments — I found myself in both these “megacities.”

Karachi was brought to a standstill as more than 100 people were killed in ethnic strife over the period of five days. And 550 miles south in India’s commercial hub, bomb blasts in three crowded locations took 18 lives and wounded more than 130 on Wednesday. Each city has struggled for years with extremist violence that leaves a range of emotions — from despair in Karachi to a seething anger in Mumbai.

Karachi:

The city has long been defined by migration. Millions of Urdu-speaking Indian Muslims arrived in 1947 when India was partitioned at independence from British rule. Others followed from Punjab and other regions of the new Pakistan’s restless northwest along the Afghan border. That flow became a flood after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and during the post-9/11 period.

Today, neighborhoods in Karachi are largely divided along ethnic lines. And politics also have shifted from ideological to ethnic lines, said architect and social researcher Arif Hasan, with little of the trust and generosity it would take to govern a city of 16 million people. The result is a chronic pattern of street violence across the ethnic divides in turf wars for real estate and political power.

“In 62 years of Pakistan, we’ve not learned to become human beings,” said Abdul Sattar Edhi, an octogenarian often compared to Mother Teresa for his 60 years of work with the city’s poor. “Ethnicity has turned our people bankrupt.”

Edhi (who will be profiled in an upcoming NewsHour broadcast) took the controversial step of calling for the military to take over from politicians and to rule by martial law.
“The military is less corrupt (than the political leaders),” he added.

Others I talked to took strong exception to the idea but agreed it is a measure of the despair of so many ordinary citizens thoroughly frustrated at the failure of local government and law enforcement to protect them.

Mumbai:

That frustration was also evident in Mumbai the day after the bomb blasts. Unlike the 2008 siege at hotels and major foreign tourist hangouts, this week’s blasts were aimed at disrupting the lives of ordinary working people, to ignite sectarian tensions that have in the past torn this city apart with murderous violence. However, true to a more recent pattern, the bomb blasts have not provoked sectarian fighting. Residents were far more inclined to channel their ire at political leaders and law enforcement for failing to protect the city.

“Cops clueless as Mumbai seethes,” screamed the headline of this morning’s Times of India.

Amid wall-to-wall media coverage of wakes, funerals, political dignitaries of all stripes and general chatter, life has begun to return to its bustling normal in the nerve center of one of the world’s fastest growing major economies.

And that energy is also in Karachi’s DNA. Despite the siege in so many of its neighborhoods, the city springs vigorously to life between its turf battles. And the United States has a keen interest in keeping Pakistan’s major port city functioning, since it is through Karachi that so many supplies make their way north to the forces in Afghanistan.