There’s an intersection in Karachi where the road suddenly becomes smooth. I sit up and take notice whenever I’m driving on it because there’s an abrupt lack of potholes, and after jostling around the back of a rickshaw or taxi for most of my day, the unbroken surface is almost alarming. Unlike the rest of the city, the street lamps at this intersection glow bright at night, the asphalt always looks fresh, and there’s no trash on the ground. The walls of the underpass are inscribed with a circular logo that spells out “Bahria Town” in Urdu script. “This road brought to you by Bahria Town,” reads a sign as you leave it.
Bahria Town claims to be Asia’s largest private real estate company. It builds manicured planned communities outside of Pakistan’s three major cities, Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi, as well as some key properties in urban areas. Fundamentally, Bahria Town sells private solutions to the ills of a state-run Pakistani urban habitat, one in which rolling blackouts and flooded streets are common occurrences. The company’s images of life in one of its many planned communities — gated towns that appear to be a perfect blend of bland American suburbs a la Phoenix or Houston and the dumb opulence of Dubai — present an idyllic escape from the smog-filled urban decay of Karachi. “Amidst Soft Grass and Pure Class,” reads the company’s website, “Bahria Town is the force turning the vision of modern Pakistan into a reality.”
It’s easy to believe Bahria Town really is the force of modernity in a country rife with structural problems. Karachiites remark what a pleasure it is to drive through an intersection devoid of the usual urban mess. There’s no stopping or stalling because of broken or ignored traffic lights, so there’s none of the usual window tapping from beggars and hawkers. The intersection doesn’t even require the presence of uniformed traffic cop, the stalwart token of post-colonial megacities. For the few minutes it takes to drive the half-mile road, it’s easy to forget that you’re in Pakistan at all. And when the Pakistan around you is one of disrepair and conspicuous poverty, it’s not necessarily a bad feeling.
But the Bahria Town logos that run up and down the street remind you that it is not nice because of the Pakistani state. It’s nice because of Malik Riaz, the man who created it. He and his real estate company are the face of a changing Pakistan, one with a growing middle class eager for their middle class trappings, and more specifically, their desire for suburban living.
Karachi is not a city known for its urban planning. The Pakistani port of more than 12 million — 20 million if you count the vast sprawl that goes beyond the city’s official borders — is teeming with people that reside in tightly knit slums, save for the occasional wealthy neighborhoods where high walls and barbed wire give the urban elite an illusion of order. On the rare occasions it rains, half the city floods and raw waste and trash that normally rot in piles on the street become intermingled in a lovely stew that some 3 million cars wade through every day. When it’s not raining, piles of garbage burn alongside the roads, illuminating faces of trash-pickers at dusk like a scene from Dickens’ London.
This, of course, is par for the course as far as developing megacities go. Karachi is not special or unique for its filth and disrepair. Lagos, Mumbai, Cairo, Dhaka — they all carry the same marks of a cities stretched to their municipal limits: slums, crime, homelessness, congestion, pollution, shortages, crumbling infrastructures.
Those very megacities, though, are also undergoing the phenomenon of suburbanization, and fast. Maps of megacities from the developing world show that in the last decade population density has stagnated while cities have expanded. “The rich spread out,” reads one Economist report from 2014. And they’re doing it for the exact same reasons they did in London in the 1800s and in New York in the 1900s — they can afford to.
The majority of future entrants to the middle class will be from Asia. In absolute terms, too, the middle class is growing — 140 million join the category annually. This is a cause for celebration in the developing world, where decades of extreme wealth gaps have bogged down economies. In Pakistan's, the richest 20 percent consume seven times more than the poorest 20 percent, according to a 2016 United Nations report. Its implications on urban planning, though, mean the surface of the earth is becoming ever-developed.
For the same price as a modest-sized two bedroom apartment in Karachi — six million rupees, or a little more than $54,000 USD — Bahria offers small villas replete with a driveway and a garden. Their neat renderings show a life that doesn’t seem possible in Karachi proper. The homes aren’t surrounded by high walls like those in the city, because Bahria is far away from the kidnap and extortion rings and robberies easily orchestrated from slums that sit adjacent to the rich in Karachi, which was ranked dead last for safety in The Economist’s 2017 Safe Cities Index. The grass is green because Bahria provides its own water supply. The electricity never goes out because Bahria is on its own grid. “Candle-light dinners are most enjoyable when they are not forced,” reads their site. The idea of living in a functional city, where basic infrastructure is at least somewhat reliable, is a rare guarantee here.
In most modern societies, bureaucratic state institutions can’t function at the speed private entities like Bahria Town. The tedious nature of zoning laws and construction permits serves a purpose: the deliberate pace allows for a community to weigh the consequences of construction, however small. Shifting or building places where people live at a mass scale is often an inherently violent undertaking, regardless of how noble the cause.
Cities that have undergone major structural renovations or rapid spread don’t construct into a void; it’s usually at the cost of whomever was living there before. The backdrop for a perfume ad that is modern-day Paris was constructed after hundreds of thousands of slums were demolished in the late 19th century to make way for picturesque boulevards and avenues. Olympic cities almost always forcibly evict residents to make way for grand stadiums and tidy Olympic villages.
Bahria Town Karachi is no different: it has been embroiled in scandal since its inception in 2014, the complexities of which Pakistanis love to gossip about. “Please be very very careful before investing in any venture of Bahria Town,” reads one emoji-laced mass WhatsApp text I’ve received from my aunties and uncles. “The corruptin [sic] tycoon MALIK RIAZ is playing with the hard earned money of innocent and poor Pakistani nation.” “Let’s raise voice against this gangster, befooling poor and innocent people of this sentimental and emotional nation in the guise of a maseeha (prophet),” reads another.
Cities that have undergone rapid spread don’t construct into a void; it’s usually at the cost of whomever was living there before.
The warnings reflect largely unreported allegations of illegal land grabbing and occupation on Bahria Town’s part, others accusing the real estate developer of falsely advertising plots being sold so prospective residents are scammed out of thousands of dollars. The occasional Pakistani op-ed names him among the “culturally corrupt, morally malicious” because of Riaz’s comments on bribery: “Every person in society has their price.”
Riaz is among the 10 wealthiest people in Pakistan. In a country where class and family define just about everything, his rags-to-riches story rings as more American than Pakistani. His father’s business, once a successful contracting firm, collapsed when Riaz was a teenager. It’s unclear exactly how it fell apart, despite many being familiar with his father’s initial fortunes. He was forced to work as a clerk for a civilian wing of the army, a lowly position in the post-colonial bureaucratic hierarchy. It was there, according to local lore, that he learned the ins and outs of conducting real estate and construction in Pakistan, a lucrative but often unscrupulous business.
Riaz was awarded a contract in the mid-’90s by a faction of the Pakistani Navy, called Pakistan Bahria in Urdu, to build housing in Islamabad and Lahore. Although originally hired as a contractor, Riaz took over the housing schemes entirely, eventually taking the Navy’s name and creating Bahria Town, his own private real estate company. Despite serious allegations of corruption and controversy — illegally evicting residents of the land where he builds his towns, teaming up with powerful political elite for clout and protection — Riaz reached his celebrity mogul status by successfully remaining one step ahead of an increasing number of Pakistanis wanting to leave the country’s cities for a suburban life.
The company’s inner workings are shrouded in mystery. Several deaths that reportedly took place at Bahria Towns were barely covered by the local media. Last May, a local TV station was filming at Bahria Town’s Islamabad neighborhood when the stage they were filming on collapsed, trapping dozens of people underneath and killing several, according to the handful of bloggers and Twitter users that posted about it. Bahria Town’s team was said to have immediately shut the lights off, packed up, and left, all while people struggled under the collapsed stage. Major TV news channels, usually intent on tragedy of the scandalous kind, suspiciously didn’t give it any coverage. This could be because of Riaz’s alleged media manipulation: he was accused in 2012 of bribing journalists for positive coverage of Bahria Town; also that year he was caught on video negotiating for a pre-planned live interview with two Pakistani TV anchors.
A little more than half of Karachi’s Bahria Town plots have already been sold, even though the community isn’t halfway built.
In my repeated attempts to get even one representative from the company on the phone, I got trapped in an endless loop of operators and hold lines. I was referred to one desk that sent me to another; I was told to call phone numbers that were off or busy for most of the day. I mention this not to complain — being sent on a run-around is par for the course reporting almost anywhere — but to convey that Asia’s biggest private real-estate company had zero interest in speaking with a reporter even to give a standard quote about commitment to “turning the vision of modern Pakistan into a reality,” or whatever.
Whether Riaz paid for them or not, Bahria has seen a lot of positive headlines on major Pakistani news sites in the last few months: “Bahria Town hosts grand celebrations in three cities,” “Bahria Town achieves another milestone to serve masses,” “Bahria Town opens modern organ transplant center.” And the positive coverage of his planned communities seems to be working. The average Pakistani’s view of Bahria Town also appears to be wholly positive. Riaz is often cited as the only person bringing an international level of infrastructure to a country otherwise lagging in that category, and despite the dire messages I’ve received on WhatsApp, third-party real estate agents have said sales and interest in the development has been consistently high. Reportedly, a little more than half of Karachi’s Bahria Town plots have already been sold, even though the community isn’t halfway built.
After chasing around PR reps and real estate agents for a few weeks, I drove to Bahria Town Karachi to see it for myself. I didn’t have high expectations, considering most of the promotional material for it consists of architectural renderings that seem impossible to execute in reality.
I was wrong. As soon as the car turned towards the massive gates of the planned city — which looked like the wings of a cartoon spaceship — my taxi driver exclaimed, “Driving on these roads gives me such a calm feeling!” The statement felt so canned and pre-planned I began to get nervous he was somehow working with Bahria Town to sway my opinion of it. But after spending an hour navigating smog-filled Karachi traffic to get to Bahria Town, the roads gave me a sense of calm too.
That feeling gave way to incredulity when it dawned on me just how big Bahria Town Karachi is. I felt as if I was in the ghost-pepper episode of The Simpsons: I’d look to my left and see a seemingly endless row of identical houses emerging from the desert, then to my right see a giant flower drooping over a tea cup. Every major roundabout in Bahria Town was adorned with either golden galloping horses or an unexplained surrealist interpretation of seemingly random objects: a golf ball, lions, flowers, and at times, plaques of Malik Riaz’s face. The roads, often six lanes wide and perfectly painted, stretched deep into the desert, splitting off into subdivisions of half-built homes that could have been plucked from any suburb in the U.S. Eerily, the entire city was virtually empty save for construction workers squinting into the sun.
I pulled into one of the subdivisions and saw a group of workers, the biggest I’d seen in one place since arriving in the community. “We’re caulkers,” they said. Their only job was to caulk between the tiles in every house; they did the same job down the line of houses. “We have about four more today,” one of them told me. I looked down the row and counted at least 20 houses on the street, half of them still in need of a paint job. I walked into one of the half-built homes and immediately felt the familiarity of the suburban layout I grew up with in the middle of Indiana. One bathroom here, a kitchen there, the door to the backyard here. Though we were only an hour outside of Karachi, where the average family can barely afford a single-room house, I was standing in the middle of some twisted version of the American suburb.
Each subdivision had a mini-mosque, space for parks and small public squares, signs for schools and hospitals. But perhaps the most unbelievable structure in the city is its massive mosque, called the Grand Jamia Mosque. It is staggering in size — Bahria’s site claims when completed, it will be the third-largest in the world, after the two holiest mosques in Saudi Arabia. “With respect to their sanctity, no masjid can be holier than these Holi Masajid,” reads the site, as if to say, “We could’ve made it bigger but we are God-fearing people. But we could’ve made it bigger.”
By the time I’d driven the length of Bahria Town Karachi, it was nearing dusk. The community is mostly under construction, which explained the lack of actual residents, but the combination Pizza Hut and Burger King near a large replica of the Parthenon seemed to be buzzing with activity. I popped in for a fountain soda, loudly announcing, “This place is really something else!” in Urdu to no one in particular, hoping to catch the attention of a family ordering next to me. It worked. They didn’t live in Bahria Town — “Far too expensive for us,” said the father, a middle-aged civil servant — but lived nearby, in one of the last neighborhoods of Karachi proper. He explained his family liked coming to Bahria Town in the evenings to eat and walk around the Parthenon, especially because the green lawn surrounding the replica. “The park near our home is dirty and broken. Here, the kids can play in a big open space,” he said.
Outside, in the lawn by the Parthenon replica, families and groups of young men were taking selfies, posing next to the fountains and perfectly manicured landscaping. Their joy was palpable. One acclimates to daily stresses of living in a megacity until an alternative reminds one that there is, in fact, a version of a life devoid of them. Though the majority there didn’t seem to be residents of the community, their excitement at seemingly banal aspects of living hinted at some sort of aspiration forming. This is Pakistan’s answer to the home with a white-picket fence, without the mid-20th century American middle-class emphasis on transparency, a free press, and anti-graft.
The trade-off, given Bahria Town’s track record in its already short existence, is losing certain freedoms in exchange for stable and safe living. Living in Karachi, for all its decaying infrastructure and filth, affords some autonomy in the chaos, a chaos Bahria Town explicitly shuns. The question becomes: is it worth it? For the majority of the developing world, it seems the answer is a resounding “yes.”