Karachi is one of the world’s most violent cities. In 2013, the police documented 2,715 murders, putting it ahead of Latin American hotspots like Rio de Janeiro and Juarez. 191 police officers and Rangers were killed on duty. More people were killed in 2013 in Karachi than there were civilian casualties in all of Afghanistan.
It is, not coincidentally, also one of the world’s largest and fastest growing cities. From a town of half a million prior to the partition of British India, it has grown to an estimated 20 million, placing it among the world’s great megacities. As much as half of that expansion has occurred in the past 15 years, spurred by two cataclysms: the renewed war in the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands and the great floods of the Indus River basin in 2010 and 2011, which together afflicted nearly 30 million people. At this rate, Karachi may surpass Tokyo by 2030 to become the world’s largest urban concentration. In addition to population’s high birthrate, every year, hundreds of thousands of rural migrants arrive, many fleeing feudal bondage in the villages of Sindh or warfare and stark poverty in the mountainous tribal areas. They pack into the city’s slums, known as katchi abadis, joining the desperate scrabble there for space and survival—half of Karachi’s population lives in illegal and unplanned housing. The city is growing in every possible direction; in seaside shanty towns like Machar (Mosquito) Colony, residents dump garbage and landfill into the harbor, expanding their slum year-by-year into the Arabian sea.
The latter half of the 20th-century saw the rise of the megacity, defined as metropolitan areas with more than 10 million inhabitants. Today, the world’s urbanization is shifting to the global south at a rapid pace. By 2025, the UN predicts that the world will be home to 37 megacities, with all but eight located in the developing world. In countries where the state is unable or unwilling to provide adequate infrastructure and services, the growth of the megacities has been accompanied by intractable problems of housing shortfalls, traffic gridlocks, environmental crises, and violent criminal networks.
Of course, urban disorder and crime are an old story—there is plenty in Karachi that is reminiscent of 19th-Century New York City, where street gangs and the Tammany Hall machine controlled city politics. But the intersection today with global currents of migration, trafficking, and terrorism have given the chaos of developing megacities a new level of complexity and geopolitical importance. Moreover, in their growing disfunction and hyper-violence, they suggest not a backwardness that will be inevitably overcome in the great march of development, but rather that enduring pockets of disorder and drastic inequality are inextricably bound up in contemporary global capitalism.