Activities that occur in Karachi’s empty lots while they await development have begun to define the city

Words by Kevin Shi | 04 Nov, 2019

It’s big and empty, what else do you need?” Zohaib says, shielding his eyes from the sun as he waits for his turn to bat. Known as one of the best bowlers in his neighbourhood, Zohaib was first brought to the weekly Sunday matches on this makeshift cricket ground by a neighbour a year ago, and he has been a regular since. “As long as we can use this ground, we will,” he says.

The piece of land that Zohaib and his friends use for their regular game of cricket is not actually an empty plot. Instead, it’s a large cleared piece of land, set to be turned into an upper-class housing development called Defence Housing Authority Phase 8. It is one of many in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and financial capital, where land is often considered to be in short supply. Before India gained independence from the British and Pakistan was partitioned from India in 1947, Karachi was a port city of about 500,000 people. Since then, the population has grown to around 25 million, due in large part to the flow of migrants and refugees from other parts of Pakistan and across south Asia.

In this enormous coastal city large swathes of land, sometimes in heavily trafficked areas, sit undeveloped and unoccupied. The piece of land on which I met Zohaib is bound to be developed relatively quickly in comparison to some that have remained empty for decades. Many of those are also used as makeshift cricket grounds.

Nadeem, a middle-aged shopkeeper, reminisces about his childhood when there were plenty of “nice” public maidans (open spaces) on which he and other kids across Karachi could play hard ball cricket. It’s a fast-paced, bruising game where batters require leg guards and helmets for protection. “Those grounds are gone now,” Nadeem says. Before Pakistan’s cricket boom in the late 1970s, the game had been the domain of the wealthy in elite schools and universities. Increased television access and successes by the Pakistani national team at around the same time meant the sport reached the masses. With that came the invention of “tape-ball cricket”, where electrical tape is wrapped around a tennis ball so that it can be thrown faster and behaves more like a hard ball. Tape-ball, unlike hard ball, was inexpensive and could be played without equipment on open plots and streets.

At the same time, Karachi was rapidly expanding, as it had been since the creation of Pakistan in 1947. As Pakistan’s first capital after partition, it instantly became the site of a mass migration of refugees from India and other areas. The government failed to handle the challenges presented by this rapid influx and the city quickly developed its reputation for violence and unrest. Protests rocked the young capital throughout the 1950s. In 1953, student-led demonstrations spread across the country.

After Field Marshal Ayub Khan staged Pakistan’s first military coup and became president in 1958, he shifted the capital to the new city of Islamabad—close to the army’s headquarters and far away from Karachi’s riotous population. The new regime moved Karachi University with its sizeable, restive student body outside city limits, where it still stands today. The enormous numbers of refugees, most living and working informally near City Centre, were meant to be moved into two large housing schemes, Korangi and North Karachi, both far away. Ultimately the new areas were meant to include industrial areas, schools, mosques, and other necessary institutions as a way of ensuring that these undesirable populations would not need to come back into the central city. However, these didn’t materialise. By the time industrial areas developed, it was too late. Many Korangi and North Karachi residents were commuting into the centre where there was economic opportunity. Some slept in their stores. The government had expected these first residents to pay instalments to fund further housing development, but many refused and resisted eviction attempts. Their reasons were clear: because they had been forcefully shifted away from their livelihoods, they claimed they had actually been made more destitute.

Kevin Shi is a writer and researcher based in Karachi