NPR's Steve Inskeep has written a fascinating and analytically acute book about the Pakistani mega-city of Karachi. "Instant City" (the title is a reference to Karachi's quick and steroidal growth) takes its readers deep inside an ordinarily-impenetrable city. Inskeep is a brave reporter for working in such a combustible place. His story is not merely about the manifold woes of a single city, or a single country, but about the terrific challenges facing the developing world from rapid population growth, urbanization, sectarianism and corruption. All of this is embedded in a fast-moving narrative (a catastrophic bombing of a Shi'a religious commemoration sets the book in motion). Readers of Goldblog know that its proprietor considers Pakistan to be America's second-biggest foreign policy challenge (after the country just to its west), and Inskeep does a very good job of making the place understandable. What follows is an edited transcript of my interview with him:
Jeffrey Goldberg: I'm sometimes amazed that you turn on a faucet and water comes out in a developing world mega-city. Karachi comes to mind, Cairo comes to mind. We only hear about Karachi when it's dysfunctional. But what keeps it working to the extent it works?
Steve Inskeep: The answer, is it's a massive improvisation. You mentioned water: There's not a lot of running water in neighborhoods that probably house millions of people. You have water delivered by water trucks, you have people steal water, liberate water, the same way they steal electricity. It's a city that has totally outgrown the infrastructure in way that Cairo has, maybe even to a greater degree, because Karachi was a smaller city to begin with.
JG: Why is the government unable to provide basic resources in a reliable way?
SI: You have a country that is focused on external threats. The elites are focused on external threats. They don't necessarily have the resources to deal with internal problems, and with a government that keeps turning over between civilian and military leadership, they don't have the head space or the planning space or the money or the attention span to deal with basic problems. What people do is they improvise their way through the day, improvise their way through their lives. They will dig their own sewers if they don't have them. They will hook up to the nearest power line. Maybe they would pay the utility, but it's not going to get to them anytime soon. This is the sort of thing that gets people through the day, and it makes them feel as if the city isn't going to completely implode.
JG: The Shi'a-Sunni split in its most violent manifestation is the launching-point for your book. Could Karachi ever devolve into a Sarajevo?
SI: You have the religious division, the ethnic division, which to some degree have become geographic divisions. People will tell you there were more ethnically-mixed neighborhoods then than there are now. That does raise the possibility of some kind of warfare of the kind you are describing. And you have all of these tensions that grow out of the way the country was formed in the beginning, unresolved questions about how the country is supposed to be organized, how it's supposed to be run, and in an intense city like Karachi these things are exacerbated by all the things you have reported on. You have elites who are focused on external threats, and they don't have time for internal threats. When you have elites who are devoting their resources to nuclear weapons, they don't have the resources to deal with infrastructure.
JG: Imagine if the nuclear program was devoted to building nuclear-powered desalinization plants.
SI: Right, if they had nuclear power plants generating electricity that would be a huge change for the country. And on top of that - and this gets to the divides in society - when you have a government using extremism as an instrument of foreign policy, that is friendly to any number of Islamist groups, you end up having massive side effects of the sort that are visible on the streets of Karachi. Pakistan is a country, long-time residents say, and history will bear this out, that has always had a strand of religious intolerance, but it was a more tolerant place, a more cosmopolitan place, than it was 30 or 40 or 50 years ago. It's more intolerant now.
JG: One of the most interesting aspects of your book is your exploration of the societal tensions caused by real estate competition and acquisition of land. It's a common perception that all tension is religious or ethnic in origin.
SI: People are fighting more about power, money and land than necessarily fighting over religious ideology.
JG: But religious differences will be employed to advance these arguments?
SI: It may ostensibly be about that, but it's really about power. In a growing city like this one, the most obvious expression of power is land. And in fact those other issues can get tied up with your neighborhood, your own home. We attach some of our identity to the property we may own or the neighborhood in which we live, and in who is moving in and who is moving out. And you have this city where there are these same kind of anxieties and issues but they play out in an atmosphere in which there is very little law and order, and many parts of the city have no law and order at all. And so the conflicts that would bedevil any city to a degree become massive and destabilizing.