Is There a Way Out?

(Completely alienated from the country’s political process and saddled with a corrupt and ineffective administrative set-up the city of Karachi has become a hotbed of every variety of violence and crime. Is the city doomed to remain trapped in its endless cycle of killings or is there a way out of this seemingly intractable situation?)

Most of the recent spate of writing on the Karachi situation has consisted of breast-beating and nostalgia. Other writers on the subject have presented a detailed social, economic and political analysis of the present situation and its causes, with some of them offering sophisticated suggestions for the restructuring of the city’s civic agencies, the judicial system and the local bodies. It is perhaps time now to look at the Karachi situation in more simple terms. And when one does that, three important issues surface.

First, the people of Karachi are completely alienated from the political process in the country and have no access to the corridors of power at any level. Many of their elected leaders are in prison and the political party they voted for has been, and in their opinion is still being, actively persecuted by the powers that be.

Second, the Karachi administration is corrupt and ineffective, and at best helpless. The civic agencies and their staff are subservient to contractors and the land mafia, whose activities they are supposed to control and regulate. Development agencies serve the interests of corrupt politicians and their cronies as well as of land-grabbers and developers, at the expense of the citizen. A battery of overpaid national and international consultants prepare grandiose plans for the city’s development that have no relation to the ground situation. As a result, these plans are either never implemented or are abandoned midway. The law enforcing agencies have been used for decades for political victimisation and as such they are no longer accountable to anyone. Apart from extorting money from helpless citizens and holding entire mohallas to ransom, they not only provide protection to every conceivable criminal activity, but are actively involved in it. They incite fear and hatred and not respect and confidence. All the above mentioned agencies, at various levels, are often manned by staff that have been appointed through sifarish and are not qualified for the jobs they hold. Since they are “political’ appointees, they cannot be disciplined.

And third, the city elite, its business and professional classes and its intelligentsia, have no interaction with the problem-ridden areas of the city and their residents. As a matter of fact, there is no space in the social, political and economic organisation and culture of the city for such an interaction to take place. As such, these classes, that are normally an asset to any city and a resource for tackling its problems, respond to the Karachi situation by holding well intentioned but meaningless peace rallies and seminars, and carrying white flags. In addition, in the absence of any respect for or application of rules and regulations, these classes are forced to defend their financial interests, which are considerable, by graft and PR. This makes them not only a prop to the system of crime and exploitation, but a party to the process of political manipulation and victimisation.

No city, however stable socially and demographically (and Karachi is not), can function if its population is alienated from the political process and denied access to the corridors of powers; if its administrative and civic institutions are corrupt and ineffective; and if its intelligentsia is helpless and isolated. In such a situation, extremists, that exist on the outer edge of all political thought, control the course of events, criminals usurp the functions of government, and the enemies of the ‘state’, both local and international, have a field day.

What has been described above has happened to many cities in history, and in more recent times a number of Latin American, Asian and African cities have suffered the same fate. So why should Karachi be any different? Again precedent tells us that this state of affairs can only be rectified if alienation ends, the administration and local bodies fulfill their functions once again, and if the intelligentsia and business classes can play a constructive role in the development and management of the city. Before we see how this can perhaps be achieved, it is important to identify briefly the genesis of the present situation in Karachi.

Karachi’s present chaos has been in the making since the creation of Pakistan. However, the present situation is very much the, result of what happened to this city during the eighties. With the Afghan war, this city became the regional headquarters of the drug and arms mafia. This mafia quickly established a major stake in the economy and politics of the city, and hence also in administrative matters. The mafia was heavily patronised by those in power. During the same period, the government of the day armed and financed all extremist political, religious and ethnic groups in the city who could be used to suppress dissent against it and help it remain in power. In addition, political loyalties were purchased by gifts and jobs, and if that did not work, through coercion and violence.

This phenomenon was nothing new for Karachi, or Pakistan for that matter, but in the eighties this process was institutionalised and began to dominate every aspect of life in the metropolis. In the process, a culture of political violence and ruthless manipulation was consolidated, and Karachi’s administration and civic agencies became its promoters and supporters. Unfortunately, even after the end of martial law, this process has continued, and not only the Karachi administration, but all the political actors in the Karachi drama, irrespective of their pretensions, have played their roles according to the rules that were developed by the Ziaul Haq regime.

No city, however stable socially and demographically (and Karachi is not), can function if its population is alienated from the political process and denied access to the corridors of powers; if its administrative and civic institutions are corrupt and ineffective; and if its intelligentsia is helpless and isolated.

The role of the state agencies and the PPP in the MQM (Altaf) and MQM (Haqiqi) divide and conflict is just one example. The MQM’s unprincipled support to the Jam government and participation in its activities is another. The flooding of Karachi’s civic agencies with superfluous employees, all appointed as favours by every government, is yet another. The list is endless. Coinciding with this was the emergence of the mohajir identity during this period and the resultant rural-urban divide in Sindh. Instead of taking a principled and realistic stand on the issues that surfaced as a result of this divide, all the actors involved, including the MQM, behaved with absolute opportunism. The result is that the issues that surfaced have been left to fester and extremist positions have been consolidated to an extent that people do not even question them anymore.

And finally, any hope that Karachiites had for a larger political understanding of the issues that have tormented their lives for so long were set aside by the action of the law-enforcing agencies against “terrorists”. Almost all the residents of Karachi’s low income and lower middle income settlements, irrespective of their ethnic backgrounds, have suffered as a result of this action, and many of them have paid for it with their lives. The insensitivity with which this action was conducted, along with the statements of the PPP leaders regarding the Karachi situation, have added a very large number of die-hard, extremists to Karachi’s political arena.

However, all is not lost and the situation can still be salvaged. Four steps need to be taken to achieve this. But these steps can only be taken if the political leadership of all the relevant parties is able to rise above their petty personal and party interests, in the larger interests of the city and of Pakistan itself.

First, a climate in which a PPP-MQM dialogue can take place will have to be created. The government will have to initiate this and the MQM should respond in a big hearted way. If this means dropping cases against MOM leaders, then this should be sympahtically considered. It will not be the first time, and certainly not the last, that those who have been dubbed as “terrorists” and “criminals” have negotiated with “legitimate” governments.

In the ensuing negotiations, the MOM-PPP leadership should concentrate on either bridging the rural-urban divide or on institutionalising it. All else are secondary issues. Institutionalising the divide does not mean the division of Sindh. It can also be achieved by giving greater autonomy and power to the local bodies. The decisions that are arrived at as a result of these negotiations should be politically realistic, administratively achievable and economically and demographically sustainable. For instance, Karachi is a predominantly mohajir city today, something it will not be after 15 years, given rural- urban migration; and it will never be a predominantly Sindhi city either.

Second, the Karachi administration should be rehabilitated and restructured, for unless this happens no PPP-MQM agreement is worth the paper it is written on. A number of senior Pakistani administrators have given their views on how such a rehabilitation can be achieved. The government should appoint a chief secretary, a commissioner, an IG police, a KMC administrator and a DG KDA and for a period of at least five years they should not be changed. These officers should be chosen with the concurrence of the MQM. They should act as a team and should be given full responsibility of revamping the Karachi administration and civic bodies. For this they should be given sweeping powers, the possibility of choosing their own officers and lower staff, and the right to hire and fire. The government and the MQM must guarantee that they will not bully or pressurise these officers. At every level, the work of these officers should be assisted by citizens’ committees consisting of representatives of NGOs and community organisations and professionals who have experience and understanding of the grassroots situation in the city. The whole process must be monitored by a non-partisan national committee which should also oversee the implementation of the PPP-MQM accord. Thus a system of accountability, monitoring and transparency, in which the people of the city will be able to participate, can be established.

Third, local body elections should be held as soon as a new revamped administration is in place and no later than 18 months after the rehabilitation process is undertaken.

Four, changes in the local body structure should be undertaken over a three-year period to give local government the power to plan and implement development, raise revenues for it, and to be an effective party in the maintenance of law and order. The institution of the local councilor should be strengthened and it should be made directly or indirectly responsible for the planning, operation and maintenance of the civic services in its ward.

The above agenda is achievable if the actors in the Karachi drama sincerely wish to bring peace to this unfortunate city. The agenda has to be implemented in toto. A PPP-MQM accord without a revitalisation of the city administration will not solve the problems the city is beset with, and government attempts such as cracking down on illegal immigrants or establishing armed mohalla committees will not only fail but backfire. The former will lead to large-scale extortion of money from helpless citizens, alienating them further; and the latter in most cases will result in the emergence of new neighbourhood level mafias who will have the support of corrupt law-enforcing agencies. Meanwhile, the PPP’s foreign funded development projects will end up as a bad joke.

Similarly, local body elections are the only way in which the people of Karachi will have access to the corridors of power, but with the present chaos in civic agencies, this access to the corridors of power has little meaning. In the same way, unless the powers of the local government are increased and a capacity and capability developed to exercise them, it will remain impotent and ineffective.

In many ways, the Karachi situation exists all over Pakistan. Everywhere you have a politically alienated population and a corrupt and ineffective administration. As such, in a moment of crisis, the Karachi situation can develop anywhere in the country. If the attempt outlined above at tackling the Karachi situation is successful, it can become a model for the whole of Pakistan. Whoever undertakes this attempt before the state collapses, and collapse it will if this state of affairs continues much longer, will be long remembered in history. Those who choose to blithely carry on as before risk being buried in the debris when the entire structure comes crashing down.

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