Everyday life along the KCR tracks: uncertain futures and aspirations for mobility

Soha Machktoom Research Associate, Karachi Urban Lab

January 9, 2019

Hidden within the narrow lanes of Moosa Colony, in UC-35 of North Nazimabad, Karachi, one can find the material ruins of the Karachi Circular Railway (KCR), faintly discernible in the sand covered tracks and a few isolated posts bearing numeric markings. The KCR’s golden era of the 1960s can be traced in Moosa Colony’s residents’ accounts; an era when the KCR represented a vanguard of modernity and embodied high aspirations for the city’s landscape of mobility.

Houses built along the railway tracks in Umar Colony 1. Source: Author’s own

While operational inefficiencies eventually led to the KCR’s demise in the 1990s, with passenger traffic coming to a halt in December 1999, a plan is currently underway to revive it. Although the KCR’s revival was considered as early as 2008, the plan is now being fast-tracked under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and is aligned with the present government’s aspirations of building a Naya Pakistan; a collective nostalgia for a new nation with the KCR providing a new hope that directs itself to a new future. Planners estimate that over half a million passengers will be facilitated daily by the revival of the project. But this step to resuscitate the KCR is not only an attempt to modernize the city’s current transportation network; it also seeks to commemorate visions of Karachi as a ‘world class’ city.

While the KCR’s revival is being celebrated in public discourse for the broader good of the city and is itself associated with ‘progress’, the 28 informal settlements or nearly 45,000 people who have lived for twenty or more years along the KCR route, hold an ambiguous position in the city’s consciousness. Between the promise of modernization set out in the revival plan and a set of complex circumstances resulting from the city’s demographic, economic and social transformations of the past two decades, the KCR’s architectural and infrastructural ruins exist alongside the residents’ material and social aspirations for upward mobility, and new futures that pivot ultimately on the question of land ownership.

Land, Durability and Home

The process of land acquisition at the time of Partition was considerably different from what it is today. The influx of over 600,000 refugees in Karachi in 1947 meant that many had to find shelter on a self-help basis as the new government had failed to respond to the rising housing demands. While the city limits were restricted to the Jamshed Quarters, the resettling populations demarcated their territory in the land that was available to the North and West of the city. Today, the third generations of those refugees reside in the neighborhoods of the KCR along with migrants from other parts of the country, and collectively they claim ownership of the land in the 28 settlements. These ethnically heterogeneous neighborhoods have expanded considerably over the past fifty years, and that too on land that has become a matter of dispute between them and the Pakistan Railways. I spoke with Abbas, a middle-aged man who resides in Wahid Colony. He showed me his home and as he gestured to the walls, Abbas explained: “My grandfather purchased this land and since then, our third generation is residing here. This is home; no other part of the city feels the same to us. We wouldn’t want a single brick to be removed from its place.”

Over the past several decades, the architectural language of the houses situated along the KCR route has evolved considerably. Initially, the houses existed as temporary shelters; traditional tents and huts made of fabric or canvas for enclosure and supported by bamboo posts or timber with roofs of thatch and straw. These raw materials were readily available at that time to enable auto-construction.

From huts to sheds to mini villas: the material transformation of the KCR neighborhoods. Source: Author’s own

Over time and to ensure durability and permanence, the homeowners shifted toward using hard materials such as concrete for construction. This was not merely a step towards achieving a ‘modern’ appearance or a modern living standard, but also an assurance for right of possession: to reduce the risk of expulsion or at least to make the task considerably harder for local government if eviction became inevitable. The readily available cement-concrete block, metal sheet roofs for single storey construction and T-Girder roof with concrete floor for vertical construction, are materials that have literally sutured in place the identity and aspirations of the KCR neighborhoods. Hence, the process of development of these neighborhoods cannot be regarded as simply spontaneous. Rather, it has been a conscious effort that has materialized through purposeful changes to the built environment. In another conversation with Aafaaq from Mujahid Colony, I was told about his home’s architectural journey: "When I bought this place from the previous owner, I did not pay the price for the land. I paid the price for what was on it; this structure… this scrap. I have put in a lot of time and money to make it into a home."

Materials used in single and double storey constructions in Gharibabad Colony. Source: Author’s own


The term katchi abadi is used frequently to describe the KCR neighborhoods and this is misleading in the current context. The neighborhoods or abadis are as pakka and permanent as any other neighborhood in Karachi, and the residents’ lives are deeply integrated with the built environment. For the residents whose houses are situated in proximity to the main line tracks, they have become accustomed to the traffic of cargo trains, observing the movements as an inseparable part of the neighborhood’s physical landscape. Any activity that takes place on the tracks slowly disperses as the vibrations of the steel beams are sensed for an oncoming train; a signal that everyone is familiar with. For the children, the tracks are a ‘dangerous’ playground given the absence of any other open space. "We are used to the trains; we have heard this sound all our lives. It might be hard for a new person to adjust to this sound but not for us", a female resident of Gharibabad explained as she smiled and resumed conversation after a main line train had passed and the walls of her house had stopped vibrating.

For the residents whose houses are situated along the length of the track that is meant to connect the KCR with the rest of the city- referred to as the loop line- the daily commute over the buried tracks is a reminder of the past and an uncertain future. For them, what appears as progress for the city and the nation, is in fact a catastrophe; an impending threat of eviction and long-term displacement.

Sketches showing the integration of the tracks in the everyday lives of the residents of Kashmir- Mujahid Colony. Source: Author’s own

In a conversation with Mr. Muhammad Younus from the Urban Resource Centre that has been working with the residents on a compensation plan, he made a significant point: "In official documents, references to the KCR colonies are often accompanied with images of children playing in or around sewerage water near empty plots of land. This is an attempt to show the inhumane living conditions of the neighborhoods. But what is always lacking is an understanding of the on-ground realities or any attempt to humanize the settlements."

Tracks passing over the Gujjar Nala in Wahid Colony, Nazimabad. Source: Author’s own

Certainly, the KCR neighborhoods are embedded in a complex cultural habitat with livelihood patterns based on historically situated social networks and capital, something that is indispensible to the residents’ way of life. Whether it is active street life or community spirit, the concept of shared public space for work, domesticity and leisure is best understood in these neighborhoods that exemplify the everyday life of the city’s urban majority. The residents’ familiarity and the relatable human scale of these neighborhoods also enable new migrants – majority from Punjab and KPK – to find home in an otherwise rapidly expanding and unfamiliar city. I came across several migrants living in Gharibabad Colony who often stated: “It feels like I am back in my village” and “I forget we are in the middle of the city!"

Even though a considerable number of working-class and low-income people live in the KCR neighborhoods, through their struggles they have managed to invest in their children’s education to ensure a better future. There is an emergent generation of young adults who are receiving professional medical and Chartered Accountant (CA) degrees, with aspirations to find jobs in the private sector. In my conversations with young men and women, they expressed a desire for upward mobility: better material conditions, bigger houses and improved aesthetics, and all these elements are visible in the evolving architectural patterns of these neighborhoods. But a current barrier to upward mobility is the fear of uncertainty; the impending eviction due to the KCR revival plan that is feeding a sense of averseness to further invest in houses that will be demolished soon.

Negotiating Uncertainty

In response to an uncertain future due to threat of eviction, residents have devised strategies to mitigate risk. In some houses, a segment located at the front of the concrete dwelling is constructed from materials that can be easily taken apart; fabric or metal sheets that can be quickly disassembled. This is found primarily in those homes that are situated on the overlapping boundaries of private and public land ownership. Residents explained that if there is an eviction operation, this type of construction material will ensure minimal damage to the owner. To secure political support, certain neighborhoods have even been named after patrons from political parties. A case in point is Umar Colony 1 that is named after the son of a prominent PPP politician; or Moosa Colony named after the famous General Musa, who served as the Commander in Chief during Marshall Ayub Khan’s era. These toponyms or place names confer a sense of identity and chronicle the history of the diverse 28 KCR settlements, many that will soon be pushed off Karachi’s map due to the KCR revival.

House extensions built from provisional material in Wahid Colony, Nazimabad. Source: Author’s own

Planning and development’s violent history in Pakistan

Pakistan's history of internal displacement due to urban planning and development is stained by tragic stories such as the construction of Mangla Dam and Tarbela Dam, and even the planning of the capital city of Islamabad. In addition to these and numerous other infrastructure projects, the human rights of ordinary citizens have been continually violated with respect to planning for just compensation and resettlement. Evictions and displacements not only marginalize poor populations but also further impoverish them. In Pakistan, the resettlement practices of such projects have seldom seen successful outcomes, with assistance limited to cash compensation only for registered properties and a complete disregard for the irreversible effects on the displaced community. With the government's age-old expression of "someone has to suffer for the nation to prosper", data regarding displaced persons is also manipulated and often undocumented.

According to an estimate, worldwide over 25 million people per year are forcibly dispossessed from their homes due to the construction of dams, mining activities, infrastructure development, and conservation projects. Urban and transportation infrastructure projects account for six million of those who are displaced. Accurate figures of such development-induced displacement are almost impossible to find in Pakistan. Projects like the construction of the Lyari Expressway and Bahria Town are replete with stories about communities whose land and homes have been appropriated by the government or private developers. The consequences for those who are evicted and displaced are extensive; loss of home, livelihood and a sense of belonging. This holds true for the neighborhoods demolished during the construction of the Lyari Expressway. The residents were resettled on Karachi’s periphery and onto an unfamiliar terrain where they have had to rebuild lives. The story for the affectees of the KCR may prove to be no different.

Towards a Just City

In the Global South, violent planning regimes and infrastructure development projects have almost always, contributed incalculably to the process of overwriting identities of marginalized communities. Consequently, obliterating their history together with all traces of their legitimacy and belonging; literally pushing them off the map of the city. The loss for them, hence, is not merely economical, rather the individual is left socially and institutionally bankrupt and marginalized. While the benefits of a project like the revival of the KCR may be deemed as one that facilitates a much larger population, and resolves the ever-present transport problems of Karachi, the destruction of everyday lives of those affected by it will be colossal. It can only be with community involvement and participation in resettlement policies that the underlying issues of loss of social support networks, livelihoods and workplace patterns can be successfully accommodated as part of resettlement and compensation; a process that, at present, seems nothing more than wishful thinking.