Hindsight is 20/20 but political hindsight tends to be 20/200. This much became apparent at an event organised on Wednesday to discuss party manifestos ahead of the September city government elections. Representatives from Karachi's three political parties were skewered by a roomful of residents for only dwelling on the past and not talking about the future.
The discussion was organised by Shehri-CBE, a non-profit organisation that has been crusading for Karachi for 26 years, with Friedrich Naumann Stiftung. The interaction between the politicians and the people was moderated by Shehri's Amber Alibhai, who in the best of schoolteacher tones had to repeatedly remind people to be polite. She rescued the debate from descending into anarchy a few times over the three topics of water, public spaces and encroachment.
"The local government elections are around the corner but how are the political parties preparing for them, if at all," she said to start off. "Are they going to consider what people want for the city?" The outnumbered politicians who had to answer were the Muttahida Qaumi Movement's MPA Khalid Ahmed (standing in for Sardar Ahmad), Pakistan Peoples Party's Najmi Alam (standing in for Taj Haider) and a former Jamaat-e-Islami representative, Zahid Saeed, who was twice elected Jamshed Town nazim. However, while Alibhai clearly laid out what was expected from the representatives, they didn't quite impress.
Zahid Saeed gave perhaps the better of insights into what it was like when he was town nazim. For starters, he went over the problem of city government's sources of income. In 1996-7, Nawaz Sharif agreed to the demands of the business community in Karachi and stopped the Octroi and Zila tax, which was levied on the movement of goods between the districts. This tax gave Karachi considerable income. In its stead Nawaz increased the sales tax from 12.5% to 15% with the promise that Karachi would get back the extra 2.5%. But that never happened and Karachi has been broke ever since. To make the problem worse, the 2001 local governments brought in by Musharraf never gave the union council, the smallest tier, power to generate its own resource through fees. All they could do was charge a nominal fee for death and birth certificates. The UCs had to rely on the largesse of the city government. It didn't help that budgets have always been inflated but it didn't mean that the money was spent or allocated.
Saeed did, however, come up with one solution that should be replicated throughout Karachi. He was able to reduce his diesel bill by Rs100 million by putting trackers in all his garbage trucks. They discovered with the trackers that the trucks were not even leaving Jamshed Town let alone going to dump the garbage in the landfill site at Deh Jam Chakro. "In one week we found out that the garbage was just transferred to one place," he said. "We sat with the drivers and the union came. We showed them a satellite report." They couldn't argue with it.
Saeed also dwelt at length on the need for vigilance — but that which is not selective. "Go outside your house and dig a hole and see if the water board staff doesn't turn up in half an hour," he challenged. But if someone [powerful] wants they can build a 10-storey building and a blind eye will be turned."
Such is the state of the city's management that when the city nazim was once asked what is the population of Karachi he said between 15 million to 20 million. "So we have five million missing people," Saeed quipped. What a far cry from the days when Pakistan was made and a daily record was kept of exactly how many people entered the city, migrated here, left, were born, died. Saeed saw the archives from 1946. "There is an entry for every day," he said. You could tell the opening balance of people on, say, May 20, 1946 was exactly 287,432. But things are so badly managed today that in city government a grade 7 employee can be turned into a grade 17 officer overnight because of a data entry error, he added.
Najmi Alam of the PPP was perhaps the weakest speaker, not just because he failed to explain any party manifesto but also because he pitched the idea of solving the water crisis with desalination plants.
"That time is coming when you won't get any more water from the Indus," he said. "The only choice you have is to get it from the sea." Alibhai pointed out, however, that since we dump untreated sewage into the sea any desalination plants would have to be build far out where the water is cleaner and that would significantly increase the cost of an already expensive technology.
Khalid Ahmed of the MQM fared no better. He just focused on the old rhetoric of the jagirdari system. "Local government doesn't suit any big party because our design of politics is based on family dynasty," he said, taking a jibe at their old PPP rival. But this argument doesn't hold weight given the entry of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. Similarly disappointing was Ahmed's counter-argument to the allegation that the water board had hired too many people who were not qualified. All he could do was respond that the Sindh government had hired too many people in the education department.
Ultimately, Alibhai had to conclude that, "There isn't a plan, it seems. We citizens now need to truly examine our representatives when we vote. What are they going to offer us?"
When the audience members were given one minute to speak resident Mateen Ghani asked: "What is the vision for tomorrow? [All you are saying is:] We did this yesterday, we did this five years back. But what are you going to do tomorrow?" For example, no party is giving the concrete solution of installing water meters in a bid to solve Karachi's water crisis.
Resident Syed Mateen asked what were their plans to stop corruption? "If a shehri gives tax, what does the city government give us?" Another resident, Farahnaz, sort of summed up everyone's anger by asking why these representatives kept opening their sentences with 'badqismati se' [unfortunately] when they were the ones in power? "It is our badqismati that we voted for you," she said.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 22nd, 2015.
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