Agreeing to Disagree

A meaningful dialogue between the people of Karachi and the ruling party is becoming increasingly difficult. Karachi’s population seems to have lost hope in the system as it stands and is now looking for alternative solutions…

“With the New Social Contract, local bodies will be restructured and reformed. Division will slowly be done away with, direct government at the grassroots will begin.” — Prime Minister, Mohtarama Benazir Bhutto, Manifesto 1993, An Agenda for Change.

All hope of a settlement between the two major actors in Karachi’s political drama is now dead – at least for the time being. The government has made t quite clear that it will not negotiate with “terrorists”. However, the majority of the people of Karachi have voted for these “terrorists” and their growing alienation from the political process in the country is pushing them further into the arms of the “terrorists”.

Even non-mohajirs, especially in the low income settlements that the law-enforcing agencies have placed under siege for over two years now, do not see the MQM as the major issue any more. Sectarian or ethnic tensions that existed earlier have been replaced to a great extent by mohalla solidarity and a sense that everything is wrong with the manner in which the leadership of the ruling party views the Karachi situation, and with the manner in which the city is governed. Years of suffering official corruption, exploitation and persecution, and mafia extortion which is widely believed to be officially supported, has created deep bonds.

Whatever little faith that a few die hard optimists still had in the system has been badly undermined in the last two weeks by a number of government decisions; the results of the administration’s anti-terrorist drive; and contradictory statements on the state of affairs in Karachi by representatives of the party in power.

One of the decisions has given the rangers extraordinary powers to deal with terrorists. Residents of areas that have been subject to their operations complain of brutality, extortion, arrogance and violation of laws and established procedures on their part. The residents are angry and humiliated and their fear is that the nature of this anti-terrorist drive is creating an increasing number of potential “terrorists”.

There is a need to establish a committee that is seen as neutral by Karachiites, to investigate these accusations by the residents and to take strict and highly visible action against the rangers personnel found guilty of misconduct. However, no one believes that this will ever happen.

Another government decision has led to an amendment in the Special Courts Act, 1992. Under this amendment, a confessional statement given by an accused under police custody would be sufficient evidence for conviction. Given the manner in which our law-enforcing agencies function, and the number of persons that die of police torture every year, this is an open invitation for more large-scale corruption, victimisation and political manipulation, and hence the creation of more potential “terrorists” and “enemies of the state”.

Residents of Karachi’s low income settlements know exactly what this law means and what its repercussions will be. But do the promoters of the law understand this, they ask. Or are they simply not bothered about the rights of constituencies that they know will never vote for them?

Residents of low and lower middle income settlements point out that the leaders of the ruling party have insisted that the drug mafia and foreign agents have masterminded the Karachi killings. Yet the drug dens continue to operate in their settlements as before, and the police continues to patronise them. None of the activists of these den operators have been arrested, and not a single person arrested so far has been accused of being a “foreign hand”. In addition, it is pointed out again and again, that the police findings implicate the SSP and MQM Haqiqi, and the rangers’ findings implicate the MQM (Altaf) in the Karachi killings. People see these different findings as a conflict of interests between different groups in the establishment, rather than the result of impartial investigations.

The chief of the ruling, party has said that the Karachi situation will settle down in a year and a half. But settle down to what people enquire? Conditions related to water, sewage, roads, transport, education, health, employment and crime are all growing worse in geometric progression and so is the helplessness and corruption in the agencies that manage and deliver these services. Things function somewhat only in areas where people have taken control of their mohallas themselves and bypass the state agencies. Even here the state agencies, in almost all cases, play a constructive rather than a facilitative role.

No reform or restructuring of the administration seems to be in the offing and nor is there a move to restore dignity, self-respect and security to the middle and lower level functionaries of government and the police, without which they can never serve the people. However, we are told that the energy crisis will be overcome, but by itself, electricity is no alternative to good government, employment, security of life, dignity and property, and a physical and social infrastructure that actually functions.

The events described above are having serious long-term repercussions. Karachi’s population has lost hope in the system as it is structured and there is a search for alternatives. Positions are hardening and although there are people who believe to the contrary, a “meaningful” dialogue between the people of Karachi and the ruling party is becoming increasingly difficult. Conditions are being created where even if peace is coerced into being, it can be devastatingly disrupted at any moment of crisis.

Perhaps the most serious repercussion is that a rapidly decreasing number of people tend to see and speak of the Karachi situation in the larger Context of Sindh. This is as true of the ruling party representatives as it is of the opposition and the press. It almost seems as if the de-facto separation of the city from its hinterland has already taken place. In political terms nothing could be more tragic and fraught with risks of further ethnic violence and bloodshed.

The people of Karachi have responded to the Karachi crisis and their alienation from the political process in a significant manner. Hundreds of peace rallies, meetings, seminars and/or workshops on the subject have been held across the city. Some in tin sheds in urban katchi abadis, others in NGO offices and business premises, and yet others in five star hotels. They have been arranged by people from all walks of life, and people of different and often conflicting political views and ethnic backgrounds. The organisers have included professionals, businessmen, mohalla and community organisations, religious tanzeems and women’s groups. In all these meetings, whether they were held in katchi abadis or in five star hotels, there has been one common demand: that the government immediately hold local body elections, and through their councilors involve the citizens in Karachi’s rehabilitation and development. Never before has a sense of belonging and attachment to this city been expressed so strongly, and never before, anywhere in Pakistan, has a desire to improve conditions through voluntary participation been advocated so passionately. And never before has the age-old rhetoric of our intellectuals and political representatives for decentralisation of government and power to the grassroots been expressed by people of all classes and walks of life and in no uncertain terms. But the intellectuals have not come forward to give guidance and the head of the ruling party has said that local body elections cannot be held for at least three years. Participatory democracy and decentralisation, it seems, is acceptable only in theory.

However, it has to be understood that local body elections by themselves are not a solution to the Karachi crisis and the euphoria during and just after the elections will end in disappointment. This is because local bodies under the present system do not have sufficient powers to act as a “city government”. They can only function effectively if they have a relationship of mutual trust and support with provincial development agencies and Tughlaq House, if they can raise their own revenues and if they have the support of the party in power in the province. Given the current political situation in Sindh, this is asking or the moon.

And again, if such mutual trust and support between the city and the province did exist today, there is no guarantee that under changed political conditions it would continue to exist. In addition, the local bodies do not have the technical, managerial, administrative and professional capacity and capability to plan, deliver, maintain and operate development or aspects of law and order.

And yet, the citizens of Karachi are quite right. Without effective local government and people’s participation, the massive social and economic changes that have taken place in the city cannot be consolidated and institutionalised.

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