Finding Method in Madness: Understanding Urban Violence

Posted: March 27, 2013 at 2:22 pm, Last Updated: April 11, 2013 at 9:26 pm

by Nazia Hussain

It has taken the life of Parveen Rehman, director of the Karachi-based NGO, the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP), to demonstrate to policy makers that urban violence in Karachi is more than a law and order problem that can be addressed by effective policing or rigorous punishments to wrongdoers. Violence in Karachi for a very long time has been attributed to ethnic and/or political grievances. Rehman’s death proves that if people threaten or obstruct the different crime groups or “mafias” in their pursuit of controlling Karachi’s resources, they will be killed.

Rehman was a high-profile community worker who had garnered respect of the city’s population due to her work for people living in informal settlements in Karachi. She was targeted due to her work on documenting illegal land grabbing, as well as managing OPP, a community of around 1.5 million people. OPP has been working since 1980 with low income and poor people for provision of housing, sewerage, water supply, schools, clinics, solid waste disposal and security. In a city where at least half of the total population lives in informal settlements, the OPP provided inspiration and hope that people can take charge and improve their lives.

Her murder stands out for at least three reasons. First, she was not spared despite being a woman (her death building on the new trend of targeting women as well, as highlighted by Bhutto’s murder in 2007).

Second, she could be deemed as a neutral player. Rehman had no known affiliation or identity stronger than that of a widely respected social worker. She worked selflessly on behalf of, and with the poorest communities in Karachi, as the director of OPP, to improve their living standards, provide them housing, water and sanitation. In a city where almost half of the population lives in informal settlements, the OPP’s work was not only needed, but groundbreaking. It provided a model that was replicated in Pakistan, as well as set an example for other countries in the world.

Third, she was a community worker, who as a rule, are supposed to stay unharmed due to their utilitarian work. However, because of the very nature of her work, that of empowering local communities to solve their own problems, and resisting the “land-grabbing mafia” to take hold of the land, her existence became a threat to those who sought to profit from the lucrative real estate in Karachi. As one obituary observed, “Rehman was also known for her meticulous compilation of land records in the city and became an expert of sorts on such records. As a friend of hers told the newspaper Dawn on March 14, “She documented everything about the lands that had been grabbed.” It is widely believed that she received death threats from the land-grabbing mafia in Karachi, a powerful entity with strong backers that is viewed as untouchable.”

Her death is important on many levels, but perhaps most significant for explaining the complexity of urban violence- a global phenomenon. For instance, journalists in Mexico have been frequently targeted because of their documentation of crimes of drug cartels. As Rehman’s example demonstrates, violence is not a monolithic phenomenon that can be controlled through legal measures alone. There is a need to understand the various aspects of urban violence, in order to formulate requisite policy responses. Traditionally, urban violence has been linked to poverty. It has also been attributed to exclusion and marginalization of sections of society. For instance, Muggah and Doe note regarding violence in Latin America and Caribbean, that,

“Social and economic inequality and exclusion, youth unemployment, rapid and unregulated urbanization, weak police and justice institutions, and the widespread availability of alcohol, drugs, and firearms are more tightly associated with lethal outcomes.”

However, violence against those persons or groups who stand in the way of emerging stakeholders in the urban resources of any city, is seldom talked about, if at all. In rapidly urbanizing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where state authority is either weakened or compromised by alliances between crime, politics, and business, such an omission regarding violence cannot be made.

Policy makers throughout the world have considered violence in cities as a law and order problem. However, the policy response to such a trend, of targeting those practitioners who by the very nature of their work endanger the interests of stakeholders in the city’s resources, can hardly be through punitive measures. Policy makers need to acknowledge first that operators of violence cannot be dissociated from the wider political economy of state and society. Thus crime cartels or mafias in any city cannot be operating in isolation. They operate with ease as they have links and affiliations with political parties, state machinery such as police or judiciary or both, and other players who can be useful in facilitating their business. In such an understanding of violence lies the solution. In today’s world, urban violence has become increasingly political as well as motivated by crime, and signifies ground realities regarding failing governance. Therefore, political solutions in consonance with policing measures might prove more effective than complete reliance on legal measures.

Karachi, or any other large city’s streets will not be safe through presence of more police or strict punishments alone. The need for policy makers in these cities is to understand the intent and purpose of violence that has a method in its madness. In doing so, they will address the changing landscape of power and influence through emergence of stakeholders who wield an important say in whether there will be a surge or dip in violence in these cities.

Write to traccc at traccc@gmu.edu