KARACHI, Pakistan – Last month, police tracked down a man in Karachi named Mohammad Munaf and arrested him. They found him, with the help of his neighbors, on his roof preparing to jump and take his own life. His crime? Unemployed, overwhelmed by debt, and completely hopeless, Munaf had done the unthinkable. Extreme poverty had driven him to murder two of his own children: 3-year-old Amna and 11-year-old Hammad.
Munaf’s horrific and desperate act is just one of a myriad examples of the devastating landscape of Karachi. Pakistan’s economic hub, the southern coastal city of Karachi is massive. Estimates on its size range from 14 to 23.5 million, with a density of a whopping 6,000 people per square kilometer. Name an ill, and this South Asian megacity is plagued by it: extreme poverty, pollution, corruption, gang violence, robberies, human trafficking, drug wars, kidnappings, murder, terrorism.
The landscape of poverty in Pakistan overall is bleak. Ranked 146th out of 186 countries in the UNDP’s 2013 Human Development Report with 49% of its population living in poverty, life for the average Pakistani is not easy.
Yet, even in a country as troubled and poor as Pakistan, the poverty in Karachi stands out. According to some NGO reports, up to 40% of its population earns less than $1 a day. A family of two adults and two children living in one room together requires $120 to sustain a healthy caloric intake. Fifty percent of the city’s population lives in a slum.
As illustrated by Munaf’s actions, such poverty has devastating consequences. Stampedes at sites where charities have distributed food turn deadly. In one such instance in the neighborhood of Khori Garden, more than a dozen children and women were crushed and suffocated to death when a throng of hungry people clamored for food.
The poverty in Karachi is so stark as to drive parents to abandon their children. The Edhi Foundation charity has installed baby cradles throughout Pakistan where children can be left when parents are no longer able to feed and care for them. One or two children a day are left in Karachi alone.
Such poverty also exacerbates Pakistan’s sectarian violence, driving up crime rates. And the crime rates in Karachi are nothing short of astonishing. Of the world’s thirteen largest cities, Karachi is the most dangerous. Among megacities–cities with populations of 13 million or greater–no city’s murder rate comes within even 25% of Pakistan’s Karachi.
In 2012, the city saw a 50% increase in its murder rate. More than 2,500 people were killed. And 2013 is on track to beat this horrifying high with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reporting that 1,700 people were killed in the first half of 2013 alone.
The violence and social instability only serve to reinforce more of the same. Taken with Pakistan’s chronic electricity shortages, Karachi’s dangerous and unstable conditions drive businesses to other locations, like Bangladesh and Malaysia. Though the government has offered tariff concessions and other incentives in an effort to lure businesses back, these have largely failed.
In part, this is due to Karachi businesses facing the additional burden of gang extortion. Businessmen who refuse to pay protection money risk kidnapping, torture, and assassination. In the words of Atiq Mir, head of the All Karachi Traders’ Association: “The government has totally failed to protect us and it feels as if the whole city is falling into the hands of the gangsters.” The effect of the chaos and violence? Companies are being driven out of business, depriving hundreds of thousands of workers their livelihoods, worsening the instability, fear, and crime.
Huma Habib, a human resources manager in Karachi, speaks to the fear she faces on a daily basis. Concerning her two sons who attend university she says, “my heart stops every time they leave the house.”
“Life is cheap here,” the terrified mother says, capturing in one succinct phrase the terrible reality of what living in Karachi is like for the majority of its inhabitants.
– Kelley Calkins