Crime & slums: Growing cities present new challenges


Masud Khabeki


Street crimes have plagued our large and small urban cities for decades with entire population is controlled by the powerful street criminals – apparently maneuvering on bikes and drifting cars who use mugging, sexual violence, drug trafficking, human trafficking, extortion and death threats to cement their grip over communities. Even for the aid workers and service providing agencies like vaccinators, fire brigade, ambulance services and so much so for the police working in slum neighborhoods in parts of Karachi and other big cities the street criminals have become the main challenge since decades. Usually, police and service providers stay away and back off for days when the atmosphere is tense in a neighborhood and come in again when things calmed down and normalized.

A common sight on any street corner in the poor neighborhoods of Karachi and other big cities of Pakistan is a teenage delinquent controlling territory by standing guard with a mobile phone in his hand, checking people and cars that enter and leave. These poor neighborhoods have a history of settlements and brooding crime around the world and never been a new phenomenon. Due to increasing urbanization of the general populace, slums became common in the 18th to late 20th centuries in the United States and Europe. Since ages it has become a permanent feature in developing countries. According to a report around 33% of the urban population was in the developing world till 2012, or about 863 million people, lived in slums, furthermore, the proportion of urban population living in slums is 35% only in South Asian countries.

Resultantly, these poor and unplanned neighborhoods are found predominantly in urban regions of developing countries. These slums differ in size and characteristics, most lack reliable sanitation services, healthcare, education, supply of clean water, reliable electricity, law enforcement and other basic services. Slum residences vary from shanty houses to professionally built dwellings which, because of poor-quality construction or provision of basic maintenance, have been on constant deterioration and posing threats to the residents, law enforcement agencies and the service providing agencies.

Slums growth and formation occurred in different parts of the world for many different reasons. Causes include rapid rural-to-urban migration, economic stagnation and depression, high unemployment, poverty, informal economy, forced or manipulated ghettoization, poor planning, politics, natural disasters and social conflicts. Strategies were adopted and tried to reduce and transform slums in different countries with varying degrees of success achieved with positive results. These strategies include a combination of slum removal, slum relocation, slum upgradation, urban planning with citywide infrastructure development and public housing. We have to learn from these experiences and have to follow a program to upgrade such neglected urban dwellings to save the future of many. In fact, the residents of such urban areas are living in a humanitarian crisis that is further plagued due to the excessive street violence. Street gangsters create terror and the people live in these slums are paralyzed with fear. A key issue in our big cities is the need to adapt to fast-changing realities in mushrooming cities as being done around the world.

We have to find better ways of responding to extremism, drug trafficking, floods, earthquakes, armed violence, migration and other problems faced by our cities. We need a thorough and comprehensive program to tackle the urban crises, need to formulate and implement it without further delay by bringing together all concerned agencies, international aid groups, the private sector and researchers. Gaining acceptance and trust from the local people would be the key in the success of such effort, which involves speaking to religious and community leaders, it could be a prolonged rigorous task and can take years. The service providers and aid agencies including city planners have to negotiate with residents to get permission to enter their areas and work.

The basic necessities and provisions like healthcare, education and other essential services to poor slum communities in such risky urban conditions is a challenge. Many humanitarians – who traditionally experienced working in disaster effected or rural areas – are still ill-equipped to tackle these slums due to their unique structure and mindset. But the urgency is growing as the problem has spread beyond Karachi, Lahore and beyond, affecting cities in other parts of the country. There are numerous places where these kind of alternative forms of criminal governance have established roots, creating tremendous humanitarian issues – in some cases profiting from them in shape of ransom.

The criminal governance of these poor neighborhoods has altered all methodologies of crime prevention. It has brought a new face of criminal intent and one cannot distinguish between a civic problem and crime. If you don’t go into those contexts with a very good sense of the lay of the land especially when it comes to the impact of illicit groups and street criminals of these dwellings you cannot enforce law or even provide humanitarian aid to the residence who need badly these services even to run their routine work.  We had witnessed that vaccinators are shot dead, the law enforcers are clue less when they enter to apprehend drug traffickers in such neighborhoods and the situation is giving rise to huge problems down the road.

These neighborhoods are caught in a toxic mix of violence, inequality, natural disasters and poverty. These are the most fragile communities in our country as our municipal governments lack capability to resolve these huge problems. The unplanned and rapid urban expansion is further adding to the problems while on the other hand, the law enforcement and aid agencies are increasingly required to respond are seemed to be unprepared and without advance knowledge to tackle the already existed crisis in our cities.  It’s too late for the humanitarian sector to get ahead of the urbanization curve, but we can certainly catch up. We need to adapt our tools, approaches and ways of partnering. All the aid agencies and workers along with law enforcement agencies have to cooperate far more closely not only with each other but with the people who run cities – from mayors and urban planners, to architects and companies supplying water and electricity and waste management companies etc.

In our disaster-hit urban areas, we have to adopt an approach that could enable the relief workers to bring in emergency relief supplies. We have to change our strategies as in cities, we don’t provide aid to people – we need to facilitate access to aid. For example, it doesn’t mean trucking in food and water bowsers it means helping markets get back and working. The humanitarian system across the world is gradually learning from mistakes made in previous disasters that have struck cities and so we have to. We don’t have to rush in without consulting local governments, the federal, provincial, local and municipal government alliance aimed to rectify the mistakes already committed, would provide solutions and answers to the crisis faced in poor neighborhoods in Pakistan and particularly the one being faced in Karachi. This requires innovation, for example, we could provide guidance and experience to our youth in managing solid waste and recycling materials. It would help them to bond and acquire skills, while improving local public health and municipal infrastructure. We have to serve all the different groups because if we help only a particular group, it would lead to harm by causing more social tension and conflict in a city.