Environmental Classism in Karachi

It is no secret that environmental ruin, as well as, degradation does not affect everyone in the same way. Instead, it intervenes and impacts the lives of the lower middle class more so. Environmentalism isn’t just for affluent western liberals; environmental degradation has an even more immediate impact on the lives of the poor. Chavis, the African American civil rights leader, coined the term environmental racism, explained it as “racial discrimination in environmental policy-making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of color from the leadership of the ecology movements” (1982). This definition holds concrete relevance when it comes to applying the same framework to the social class disparity present in Karachi. The purposeful destruction and ignorance of the lands of the lower, underprivileged masses showcase how rampant classism is in play.

More often than not, the effects of environmental hazards are labeled as accidental. They are considered a sign of sacrifice for much-needed progress. The burden of this sacrifice mostly falls on the disadvantaged ones whose voices are drowned out by the obscenely rich corporations. If not that, then the corporations and governments use a different narrative of shoving that responsibility on the gullible citizens by reminding them of their carbon footprint and wastefulness, instead of holding the opportunist businesses accountable.

Nixon elaborates on this argument by explaining that poorer neighborhoods are often ignored and become dumping grounds. These areas become a provider of resources for developed economies, and very little attention is paid to the short or long-term impacts on the people who live there. He explains this slow violence as “violence that occurs gradually and out of sight; a delayed destruction often dispersed across time and space” (2011). Similarly, in Karachi’s context, many areas are considered disposable, they are treated as an available areas to destroy and exploit. The invisible, destructive impacts of neoliberalism stretch across vast spatial and temporal scales. In this way, profits are internalized and risks are exacerbated as they are offloaded on poor communities.

Image via Daily Times

Bahria town administration invaded the village of Ali Mohammad Gabol Goth. With heavy machinery and goons, authorities demolished the house of locals and assaulted villagers to illegally occupy their lands. Perhaps, a mainstream example is that of Bahria Town. The rightful residents of the area are tormented and bullied to leave their homes so that Bahria Town can be expanded and more gentrified spaces can be created for the upper-middle-class residents. Several entireties of villages are wiped out to give way to such construction and this is becoming a health hazard for the people refusing to move from their homes. This ongoing construction is a way of causing environmental harm to the people as the fumes, the pollution caused by motors and machines, as well as the constant upheaval of land cause irreparable harm to the rightful residents.

Industry and government which claim that the environment can heal itself ignore the longer environmental impacts of development. This argument only gives leeway to operators, regulators, and other actors to forgo any obligation to spend money or develop better regulations to clean up polluted sites. This is an ongoing problem around the world, as remediation activities are not keeping up with extraction (Worrall et al 1426–1434). Moreover, it is important to note that this degradation and pollution is purposeful in its nature. Dumping and destroying poor localities where people of different minorities reside can be because such residents are “politically powerless.” Therefore, they become easy targets, due to their vulnerable position in society. “These communities also tend to be more vulnerable to offers of compensation made in exchange for accepting hazardous environmental conditions” (Godsil, 1991). This rings true for the poor residents near Empress Market who faced losses, displacement of their businesses, and had to accept monetary compensation and relocations due to governmental pressure to beautify the historical place. “At Empress Market, one of the most well-known markets in Karachi, at least 1,700 shops and stalls were destroyed during the anti-encroachment drive” (Siddiqi, 2021).

Constant cutting and destruction of the mangroves in Karachi. Picture by DAWN.

Environmental concerns often take a backseat when it comes to development plans catering to the upper, affluent classes. A prominent example is the increasing encroachment of the Karachi mangroves. Mangrove forests are one of the most important wetland features of Coastal Karachi and provide sustenance to several thousand species of fish and birds. They directly contribute to the environmental growth and peace of the city. “There were once thick mangrove forests visible on either side of the Mai Kolachi Bypass. But now, while much of the land has been reclaimed on one side” (Hasan, 2019). If it is not the land mafia that is after the mangroves, then the timer mafia wants a piece of these trees. Mangroves heavily improve Karachi’s weather and are essential for the city. With the mangrove cover all gone, the citizens of Karachi may have to pay with their lives in case a natural disaster such as a cyclone or tsunami were to occur. “Reportedly, from Rs 200,000 to Rs 400,000 worth of wood is chopped down every day (Hasan, 2019).

A shocking sight as the essential mangrove trees of Karachi burn away. Picture by DAWN.

Additionally, the mangroves near Hijrat Colony were set on fire a while back and everyone watched as the trees remained ablaze. These trees were home to many bird species but now the dwindling amount of trees has affected the wildlife as well as the environmental conditions. Some NGOs have realized the repercussions of the destruction of the mangroves, and now run several restoration drives with schoolchildren planting hundreds of mangrove saplings along the coast but the loss is unfathomable and cannot be covered by minor damage control.

Bundal Island is at risk, with Prime Minister Khan determined to turn it into a huge real-estate project [Rizwan Tabassum/AFP]. Picture from Aljazeera.

The exploitation and damage of the mangroves does not end here. Instead, right outside the shores of Karachi, there is an island that is covered by mangroves. There are twin islands, Bundal and Buddu, which are located near Korangi Creek. “Environmentalists say provides vital coastal protection to Pakistan’s largest city. However, Bundal Island is at risk, with Prime Minister Imran Khan determined to turn it into an enormous real-estate project to ease pressure on the expanding megacity, home to 20 million people” (Aljazeera, 2020). It does not help that such an unnecessary and environmentally dangerous project goes against Imran Khan’s environmental policies and promises, who spoke out about the perils of climate change and coal-fired power stations in favor of renewable-energy projects, mainly hydroelectric dams. The aim to plant 10 billion new trees does not hide the fact that the environmentally rich land is being targeted to cater to the rich masses. The aim is to cut the mangroves off as the development of the area starts, which is a counter-productive 10 billion tree plantation project.

Furthermore, critics argue that the islands are not the best investment as, “the islands have no potential for eco-tourism as they are already under threat due to sea intrusion, mangrove deforestation, growing pollution.” Moreover, “Article 8 (A) of the Convention on Biological Diversity to which Pakistan is a signatory and required to respect and protect social, cultural stakes of indigenous people” (Ilyas, 2020). It is worth mentioning that Korangi Creek is considered to be one of the worst affected water bodies in terms of destruction caused by the heavy discharge of hazardous effluent from Karachi’s industrial areas, including the export processing zone.

The encroachment and forceful control of these twin islands put the lives of the fishermen folks at risk, as these islands are a daily source of their sustenance and livelihood. The Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) raised their voices about the injustice of this land grabbing and complained about how they are being turned away from the islands, by the guards looming over the Bundal Island.

However, the government administration responded that the project will work towards creating new jobs, business opportunities, and the chaotic expansion of Karachi. “Additionally, President Arif Alvi had recently announced the Pakistan Islands Develop­ment Authority (PIDA) Ordinance, 2020 which would allow the federal government to take control of the two islands. The government will hold the responsibility to initiate and maintain a continuous process of urban planning, spatial planning and promote trade, investment and logistics centers and hubs, duty-free areas and international tourist destinations in the islands” (Noor, 2020).

The island will not only harm the environment but adversely affect the fishermen folk as well as put the lower class individuals at risk, after wiping the area clear from mangroves. Mohammad Ali Shah, the founder of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) stated that “the development of these islands will displace at least 2.5 million fishermen and their families” (DW, 2020). The island will not benefit the lower demographic in the slightest as the access to the island will remain with those who can afford it. The island city will provide an escape (for those who can afford it) from an increasingly polluted and congested Karachi.

“A 2016 study by the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) found that, in 2012, a staggering 55 percent of Karachi’s population lived in low-income, unplanned settlements that covered only 8.1 percent of the city’s land. The USIP study found that, by contrast, 27 percent of the city’s land was devoted to formal housing projects such as DHA where middle and high-income residents are likely to reside” (Farooqui, 2020). The difference between densely crowded housing and large bungalows suggests the housing problem in Karachi is first and foremost an issue of socioeconomic inequality. One wonders, then, how an island city on Bundal, with its world-class amenities and tourist attractions that “rival Dubai”, will take the pressure off Karachi if its viability as a profitable endeavor entails targeting a small segment of the elite that already occupies most of the share of housing land.

Environmental Racism Protest. Picture by Bustle, 2016.

Environmental racism can also “refer to any environmental policy, practice or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups or communities based on race or color” (Bullard, 1999). Due to this, there are uprising grassroots movements as well as growing environmental activism to counter and resist the discrimination. Rallies, conversations, and protests have been started for the people of Bahria Town. Civilians are condemning the construction and organizations like Aurat March are supporting the grassroots movement of Karachi Bachao Tehreek (KBT). KBT is created to spread awareness and commotion for the people who are politically powerless and cannot gain momentum to speak up against their exploitation. KBT is consistently at the forefront to speak out against the environmental hazards and destruction caused by Bahria Town for years and is prompting citizens to unite and speak up against the powerful land-grabbing mafias.

KBT Protest over Gujjar Nala and Bahria Town evictions.

KBT, an alliance of local activists struggling against evictions and illegal land grabs, reported that “Bahria Town personnel, the town’s private guards, and Sindh province’s police entered various Goths [small neighborhoods populated mainly by Sindhi people] May 7 [2021] with heavy machinery, intending to further encroach on poor Indigenous people’s lands” (Siddiqi, 2021). The guards and police attempted to destroy crops with bulldozers in “Kamal Khan Jokhio Goth.”

KBT also reported the insidious attack on the streams of Orangi and Gujjar Nala. Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) claimed that interfering with the infrastructure will help in draining and managing floodwaters but this was just an excuse to encroach on the land and capitalize on it. This act did not go unnoticed by the civilians who decided to rebel against the action. “A human chain was formed alongside the Gujjar Nala, from Liaquatabad Daak Khana to the Khamosh Colony graveyard. The demonstration was organized by the victims of illegal evictions in the Gujjar Nala and Orangi Nala areas” (Dawn, 2021).

Land grabbing and stealing from the poor farmers is another clear instance of environmental racism. Numerous black people faced an enormous loss when they lost their hands due to racist policies and the “long history of outright discrimination” (Pinon, 2020). The rural areas of Pakistan are not left unscathed from this similar pattern of environmental racism. Land grabbing mafia with enormous power often overrides decisions and leaves poor farmers with nothing at all. The governments of developing nations claim that there exists vast agricultural land for investment which are ‘idle’ and can better be managed by foreign investors with sufficient capital resources and advanced technologies without hindering smallholder farmers’ livelihoods. Contrarily, these lands have long been used by local communities for the purposes of farming, grazing, and/or settlement. “Consequently, the government’s agricultural land investment policy is capable of marginalizing rural farmers by depriving them of an important productive asset which is their main source of livelihoods” (Alhassan, S.I., Shaibu, M.T., Kuwornu, J.K.M. et al, 2021). These instances of injustice do not only affect the people living there but also their future generations. Impoverished children are more likely to live in environments with heavily polluting industries, hazardous waste sites, contaminated water and soil, old housing with deteriorating lead-based paint, areas with limited access to healthy food, and more. “Poor children residing in these toxic environments are either at risk or suffer from a myriad of health disparities, such as asthma, cancer, lead poisoning, obesity, and hyperactivity” (Cureton, 2011). Due to this, environmental racism does not just impact present families but all of their future generations, it harms the areas, the land, the people, and their mode of sustenance.

Pollution and trash collection in ignored areas. Picture taken by DAWN.

Environmental racism is more relevant and visible in the world than it seems at the first glance. It is not limited to theories or expected in the foreseen future. Instead, the dystopian nightmare is already here and apparent to all. The idea of putting progress and pitching development, new job opportunities, and promising growth has proved to be barren and empty. The continuation of these ideas can be devastating for everyone but specifically for the poor, unprivileged, working-class folks.

Conclusively, all citizens are certainly not equally exposed to environmental hazards as the burden falls on the ones who are not the perpetrators of the induced mess. Instead, through political force, influential power, and monetary power, the real culprits reap the gains and leave the burning fumes, polluted water, and unhygienic surroundings for the powerless poor.


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Author : Amna Ashraf