How to pull Karachi from the brink?

As the financial hub has become a failed metropolis

Dr Moonis Ahmar September 20, 2019
Karachi, Pakistan’s “jewel in the crown”, the financial hub and its most diversified city has become a failed metropolis. PHOTO: APP/FILE

Karachi, Pakistan’s “jewel in the crown”, the financial hub and its most diversified city has become a failed metropolis because of serious issues pertaining to governance, rule of law, infrastructure and lack of civic amenities. With a population of more than 20 million and crumbling institutions Karachi is fast turning into a huge garbage dump. The outbreak of lethal diseases like dengue and Congo fever due to unhygienic conditions is threatening millions.

The monsoon rains further exposed Karachi’s multiple disorders namely broken roads, electricity failure, choking of drainage system and a disease epidemic. The absence of a viable sewage and waste disposal system further hampered citizens. All three major stakeholders of Karachi i.e. the Sindh government led by the PPP, the city government controlled by the Mayor belonging to the MQM, and the PTI which won the majority of national and provincial assembly seats from Karachi, have failed to address these issues.

The recent debate about invoking Article 149 of the Constitution, where the federal government can direct the provincial administration regarding these issues, deepened the polarisation between the PPP, the MQM and the PTI. While the last two mentioned rendered their support for Article 149 as the only viable option to prevent a complete breakdown in the city’s system, the PPP-led Sindh government vehemently rejected any interference from the Centre and blamed PTI’s federal government and MQM’s city government for messing with Karachi’s issues.

No other mega city in the world is facing such a predicament as Karachi. The city which was the federal capital till 1959 suffered from neglect and injustice by those wielding power. Karachi is the only Pakistani city which has large segments of ethnic communities, including Urdu speaking migrants from India, Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B) and Azad Kashmir. The city also hosts millions of Bengalis, Afghans, and Burmese. Likewise, Karachi is notorious for crimes such as drug trafficking and target killings. Yet, it is home to all the social and economic classes. Contributing more than 50% of the federal revenue, Karachi is a hub of economic and business activities.

Why has then, despite being a lifeline of the country, Karachi in the past four decades succumbed to poor public transport and infrastructure, water crisis, land-grabbing mafias and a deteriorating law and order situation? Why have those with Karachi’s mandate failed to deliver? Why are its citizens cursing the city, provincial and federal governments for leaving them vulnerable to diseases emanating from heaps of garbage and filth which across the city? Karachi was never so neglected and helpless as it is today because those who represent the city miserably failed to deliver. They are, however, neither held accountable nor do they feel the responsibility to save the city from the brink.

Karachi has not degenerated in a day, week, month or a year. It has been a victim of criminal neglect, exploitation and corruption since the last several decades. One can figure out three major reasons regarding why and how Karachi should be pulled from the brink before it is too late and the city is exposed to large-scale violence and a total breakdown.

First, despite shifting the interim federal capital to Rawalpindi in 1959 and then to Islamabad in 1960, Karachi has not lost its importance. It remained a land of opportunities for people from across Pakistan to seek employment, education and a better way of life. But, when the city faces a threat of civic breakdown millions of lives are at stake. When citizens pay Rs20 billion annually to purchase water from the tanker mafia, one can understand the level of corruption and neglect of state authorities to provide water which is their duty. The only way such dangerous issues can be resolved is by introducing large-scale reforms in the city government and empowering the Mayor along with councillors to urgently resolve matters which are a threat to the peace and survival of local people. Availability of financial resources in order to better the city’s infrastructure should be subject to their judicious use, strict transparency and accountability. Both city and provincial governments are blamed for large-scale corruption, nepotism and looting billions of rupees for the development of the city to the extent that people don’t trust those who are supposed to deliver. So-called elected representatives have hurt more than those who are not elected. In all localities neither the councillors, nor district or city nazims are fulfilling their responsibilities.

Secondly, Karachi is the soft underbelly of Pakistan because of serious ethnic, lingual and sectarian divides. If civic and other trivial issues are not urgently resolved, mafias and anti-state elements will take advantage of the situation and try to destabilise the financial and economic hub of the country. In its essence, it is the prime responsibility of the federal government to resolve the issues which have transformed Karachi into a failed city. The President of Pakistan hails from Karachi and during his election campaign last year he used to go from pillar to post asking for votes. Unfortunately, after becoming President, he has forsaken his city and has not even bothered to console the people of Karachi when they were in a crisis following the monsoon rains. Likewise, the Prime Minister was also elected from Karachi. Yet, he did not have the courtesy to visit the city to personally review the deteriorating situation, despite Karachi providing 14 members of the National Assembly and around 30 to the Provincial Assembly to his party. Imran Khan and his party’s abandonment of Karachi will be counterproductive because in the next general elections, his party will face retaliation from voters who voted for his party in the past but got nothing in return. Compared to the President and the Prime Minister, Sindh’s Chief Minister bore more responsibility in handling the situation following the rains. He not only toured different affected parts of Karachi but also activated the provincial government to provide relief to people. Despite the fact that the PPP never got sufficient seats from Karachi in the general elections, the Sindh Chief Minister tried his best to support the citizens in their time of need. However, the provincial government should clarify the perception that it only cares for ethnic Sindhis as its vote bank is located in interior Sindh.

Thirdly, the city government and its PTI allies must not take Karachi for granted. PTI MNA and Federal Minister Faisal Vawda openly accused Karachi Mayor Wasim Akhtar of being corrupt. Ali Zaidi, another PTI MNA from Karachi and a federal minister, blamed the MQM-run District Central for re-dumping garbage, thus terming it a conspiracy to sabotage the cleanliness drive by him after the monsoon spell.

Bringing back the federal capital to Karachi is perceived to be the only viable option to save the lifeline of Pakistan from further degeneration. Karachi may get its lost glory back when the seat of power will revert back to Karachi after six decades and the city will be at least be owned by the Federation of Pakistan.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 20th, 2019.

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