Today, I discovered that the world’s largest slum exists in Karachi, the city I live in. Ashamed as I am at my own lack of knowledge, I feel I must also draw attention to an alarming general lack of awareness, media coverage, and representation for Orangi Town and its residents. The slum’s current population consists of approximately 2.4 million residents (Saeed, 2016). The sheer number of marginalized voices whose stories and struggles never seem to reach us is truly shocking. It is imperative that we do our part to ensure these voices are heard and represented. In doing so, we must learn and acknowledge the problems these slum dwellers face on a daily basis.
Orangi Town, as a major slum in Karachi, is faced with multiple pressing social, environmental, and economic issues. Amongst these socio-economic issues is that of a shortage of job opportunities for the massive and ever-increasing population of slum dwellers. This results in a struggle to maintain income, often leading slum residents to turn to desperate, ‘criminal’ sources of income (Khan et al., 2019). Furthermore, the fact that this slum lies within Karachi makes it subject to the consequences of misplanning, ‘rapid urbanisation’ (Khan et al., 2019) and other general dilemmas faced by the city itself. Areas like and including Orangi Town are hit hardest, facing a scarcity of basic necessities, including food and fuel, whilst also enduring gradually worsening environmental conditions for which the residents’ lack of economic resources to combat their situation leaves them trapped within a vicious cycle of poverty and injustice.
Overpopulation within the city, as well as the slum itself, exacerbates the difficulties faced by slum dwellers. For context, Orangi Town’s population expanded significantly after the war of 1971, when thousands of refugees fled from East Pakistan in pursuit of shelter (Saeed, 2016). Their burdensome living conditions are further weighted because of issues affiliated with health. Slum residents are often subject to inadequate housing conditions involving high-density settings and heavily congested living environments, consisting of entire families being stuffed into single rooms. This, in combination with the inaccessibility of basic sanitary conditions, results in the rapid development of diseases and health conditions, such as malaria, dengue fever and tuberculosis (Khan et al., 2019). The slums themselves have been termed an ‘environmental and demographic time bomb’, demonstrating the pressing urgency of all the problems faced by its inhabitants.
Recently, in a course that closely examined urban landscapes and informal settlements, I learned about patterns of language that create a kind of synonymy between the miserable living conditions of slums and the lifestyles and characteristics of people living there. This is one of the many ways in which powerful groups are able to further marginalize and invalidate the residents of informal settlements, shifting the blame of their predicament onto the residents themselves and assigning labels such as ‘criminal’. However, the cause of this economic instability and misrepresentation of the rights of the marginalized lies in the existence of unequal power relations. Furthermore, the majority of action taken by the government and those in power to ‘improve’ the living conditions of slums has mainly enforced superficial changes of land titling and allocation. Nevertheless, inequality continues to operate under the guise of programs of ‘upgradation’, which ultimately favour the powerful and marginalize slum inhabitants.
The people of Orangi Town themselves are outraged, exasperated, and devastated at their living predicament. After receiving minimal to no help or governmental support, they decided to take matters into their own hands and independently redevelop their sewage system. The Orangi Pilot Project, launched in 1980, was a successful attempt at the ‘DIY’ improvement of sanitation within Orangi Town, where slum residents themselves invested in the development, installation, and maintenance of sewage lines (Saeed, 2016). While this has lowered chances of diseases and has bettered Orangi Town’s environmental health, the slum still severely suffers from the government’s poor contribution and lack of interest in informal settlements and their people. Long-term maintenance and improvement depends upon governmental support, such as a lease to protect residents from eviction, which has already been unfairly denied by the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation on numerous occasions. It is vital that slum dwellers are promised an equal sense of stability in their homes as is given in other areas within the city. The government is also responsible for providing access to basic amenities and further developing the sewage and sanitation system to avoid damage and flooding as a result of unstable weather conditions. While the resilient efforts of the people of Orangi Town are admirable, they will not be enough to ensure access to basic necessities or sustainable, healthy living conditions.
Now, we must ask ourselves, what can we do? Deep-rooted power dynamics certainly cannot be shaken by immediate, short term action. Perhaps a better question is, where do we start? It is important to acknowledge that many of us occupy the tools, resources, and privilege even to be reading this blog post. We occupy certain positions of power, in having access to this knowledge, and it is our responsibility and duty to stay aware, educate ourselves and show up, for those who cannot. We must hold our government responsible for the visible injustice we observe and read about as well as what we experience ourselves. Layers of ignorance and power relations shroud our city and it is time we read, recognize, and react to these cries for help.
Khan, M. U., Abbasi, H. N., Ahmed, W., & Nasir, M. I. (2019). Slum Settlement Problem and Solution: A Case Report of Karachi. Biomedical Letters, 5 (1), 27–32.
Saeed, A. (2016, October 16). Pakistani Slum Takes On Sewer Problem. Gandhara. https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/pakistani-orangi-slum-residents-take-on-sewer-problem/28057080.html