Politics of Karachi’s population

Like most cities, Karachi had humble beginnings and the modern shape of it started off as a small fishing village on the Arabian sea coastline in the 18th century when the main port in the region became dysfunctional. A 18th century historian Seth Naomal recorded that:

20–25 huts were setup in the mid 18th century by Baloch settlers from Makran and Kalat along the harbour and the place was known as Dibro — literally, a place of entry.

The Arab historic records of the time also refer to a place called Dibro on the Arabian Sea, as a place of entry into Hind through the seas.

Skipping the history and demographics spanned over two centuries, there is absolutely no doubt that:

  • Karachi is by far the most densely populated city in Pakistan
  • Karachi experienced an unparalleled trajectory of population growth over a 100 year period leading to it being called ‘Instant City’ (see Steve Inskeep) and the fastest grown city on the planet, even surpassing Dubai.

However, there is no clarity on how many people actually live in Karachi? A question as important as this which helps drive urban policy and planning has largely been on-purpose ignored because the politics around population, demographics and area demarcations of Karachi troubles the land-grabbing and real-estate mafia which rules Karachi — as well as the ethnic politics which continues to divide Karachi.

While the official census of Pakistan in 2019 put the population of Karachi at 14.9 million (which I personally believe is flawed), you get to hear Karachi-walas boast about its population from 20 million to 40 million or even more.

Since data does not lie, I attempted to gather some data around area, population and population density of some major cities in the world and compare it with Karachi. Just like the population of Karachi, there is no agreement on the area of Karachi either. Over the years, the migration and high birth rate in Karachi has has meant that the city has swollen up adjoining towns, coastal regions and hundreds of goths leaving Karachi’s boundaries ever changing. Then, there’s real estate champs of the military and foreign investors who continue to take over marshlands, islands and coastal belts. The officially quoted area of Greater Karachi is 3780 square kilometers but I have also considered much higher figures of 4000, 5000 and even 6000 square kilometers.

Let’s take a look at the data analysis, sorted by the highest population density first:

World’s biggest cities and their population density

The key thing one notices in this data is that irrespective of what area or population we consider for Karachi i.e. official 3780 square km all the way up to 6000 sq km as some Karachi walas quote; or the official population of 14.5 million to the scary and ridiculous figure of 40 million — in all possible combinations, Karachi emerges as the most densely populated city in the world. So much so that…

The population density of Karachi at 5000 people per square kilometer (at 30 million population and a generous 5000 sq meter area) is almost the double of Shanghai — the second city on the list!

The population density for Karachi was documented as 164 people per square kilometer in the year 1998, as referenced in Arif Hasan’s report The Case for Karachi. However, the data I show represents it as anything from 2,417 to 10,582 — that is quite a shift, tens of hundreds of times more which is not humanely possible unless Karachi figured some out-of-the-world powers.

The usual argument thrown is that Karachi has vertical residential complexes and so a lot of population lives vertically, voiding the population density concern. This argument is flawed for multiple reasons:

  • According to Inspector General Mushtaq Mehar (source), approximately 65 percent of the Karachi population lives in a slums — they are ofcourse not high rises.
  • The Global Patterns of Urbanisation report (see bottom) from 2015 named Karachi has one of the top cities in the world with highest slum population with 10+ million documented citizens living there.
  • Widely cited as Asia’s largest slum, Orangi Town alone is believed to be home to around 2.4 million people according to the report although the exact figure remains unknown — then, there are parts of Machar Colony and Lyari Town to be considered.
  • Arif Hasan’s report The Case for Karachi also mentions that according to unofficial estimates, there are 702 katchi abadis in Karachi — ofcourse not high rises.
  • And finally, in the data presented above you will see some numbers on high rises — existing and in construction in all cities including Karachi. A cursory look at aerial images of these cities will reveal that Karachi is a low lying cities with absolutely no comparison to cities like Tokyo or Shanghai, the landscapes of which are fully dotted with high rises with buildings anywhere from 100 meter to even 800 meteres high. Karachi has a single building above 150 meters and has none under construction. The percentage land mass of Karachi which is covered with high-rises is negligible in comparison to other global cities.
Karachi’s slum population

The bottom line is that almost all the figures quoted for population of Karachi — from the official narrative of 14.9 million to 40 million plus as quoted by Karachi walas are all ridiculous. As the data above shows (a) it is humanely impossible to sustain this population density (b) this growth trajectory does not add up (c ) Karachi’s population density comparison with other cities on the list and its lack of high rises and vertical residential complex like other cities exposes the superficiality of those numbers.

What is the actual population of Karachi then? No one knows. But, it’s a lot, and it’s still growing. But it is definitely not what Karachi walas tell you or the State of Pakistan does.

What does Karachi need? An official census which is not politically motivated, and an end to these ridiculous and false narratives on population — as if a city of 40 plus million is something to be proud of.

blogger, technologist, foodie, vagabond, avid reader, cricket-lover, and an activist focused on human rights and the case for the environment.