Karachi’s Godfathers

If their statements are to be believed, it seems that leaders of public opinion, political parties and ethnic groups all agree that the real cause of Karachi’s recurrent ethnic riots is a lack of civic amenities, particularly transport. Consequently, in the aftermath of the riots a number of suggestions are regularly made by these gentlemen for effecting an improvement in Karachi’s transport system, and in the manner in which the city is administered. After last year’s riots the government even constituted a Commission of Enquiry into Karachi Affairs, and it has been rumoured that this commission made a number of important recommendations. Unfortunately, the report has not been made public.

However, more disturbing than the riots themselves is the fact that in spite of the findings and recommendations of peace committees, citizen’s committees, enquiry commissions and political and community leaders, nothing changes. In fact, conditions get worse, and each conflagration is bigger than the previous one.

It is important, therefore, to understand the reasons for the impotence of the Karachi administration. Recommendations and suggestions which do not take these factors into account cannot be practical or workable.

Karachi’s population increases at the rate of 6 percent per year (officially 4.8 percent). Civic amenities provided by the state increase at 12 percent per year. The remaining 4.8 percent are taken care of by what is termed the “informal” sector in development. This informal sector has been active for years in illegal grabbing and subdivision of state lands, provision of loans at exorbitant interest rates for house-building and business, and collection of protection money from low-income areas. Privately-owned public transportation, though not an illegal activity, has become closely linked with this informal sector over a period of time.

Because of the political power that settling people and catering to their needs creates, the informal sector operators have long been a parallel government in Karachi, though a junior one. However, in recent years, this informal sector has expanded rapidly due to a large influx of officially unexplained money into the city’s economy – an expansion which has brought about major changes in the relationship between it and the state. It is these changes that are responsible for the impotence of the administration, and hence for the continuation of Karachi’s ethnic strife. It is important, therefore, to evaluate these changes, and see how they have affected Karachi’s administration.

Land developed by the Karachi Development Authority for the lower income groups has always been inadequate in quantity, and too highly priced for them to afford. Consequently, this land has been taken over by the middle classes, and the poor have been forced to live in squatter colonies with no security of tenure. In the early sixties, the Ayub government launched a crusade against the squatters, and it became almost impossible for the poor to find land.

Some enterprising state officials saw in this situation a way of becoming rich quickly. They gave encouragement and protection to operators or ‘dallas,’ who illegally occupied state land, subdivided it, and sold it to the poor at a price which they could afford. These operators were nothing more than the agents of the officials, and few of them became rich from these operations. No money was required to carry out these schemes. The officials received a modest share when the plots were sold. However, they made big money on prize plots which were held by the dallal for speculation on their behalf.

After the squatters moved onto their newly-acquired plots, the dallal continued to be of service to them. He lobbied with the authorities for the sanction of water tankers to the new abadi, for commencement of transportation, and for protection from eviction. The population paid him a regular tax for these services, and he in turn paid a major part of it to the state officials.

The position of the dallal thus became one of a go-between for the state and the poor abadis which needed security and amenities. He became politically powerful and was wooed by the administration, yet at the same time he was subservient to it, as his popularity depended on how much assistance the local administration was willing to provide to his abadi. The leadership of most ‘60s and ‘70s remains solidly in the hands of the dallals who developed them, and many of them have been returned as councilors from their areas.

In the ‘70s the local leaders of the PPP replaced the administration, to a great extent, as the protectors and promoters of the dallals. In many cases the dallals themselves became members of the party in power, and there are even instances of government machinery, equipment and manpower laying out plots, leveling land and making roads for new illegal katchi abadis! Although this change took place in the dallal-establishment relationship, the dallal remained entirely dependent on the administrative and political structure of the city.

Finance for building a house was one of the major problems that the poor faced after acquiring their plot of land. Here again the informal sector came to their assistance. Materials of construction were given on loan to them by a ‘thallawala’ (building component manufacturer). He chose his creditors only on the basis of the social pressure he could exert on them for recovery of the loan. Cash loans for house building or for setting up of business were rare, small in quantity, and could only be had from a few ‘soothkhors’ who employed muscle-men to bully their creditors. However, the majority of these muscle-men did not carry or even own arms. Only those who were in dire need of money made use of these loans, as the rates of interest were extremely high: between 20 to 30 percent per month. The actors in this settlement drama, including the soothkhors and muscle-men, were ethnically a mixed lot, the majority of them being mohajirs and Punjabis.

Private transport, in its turn, expanded in Karachi during the tenure of the Ayub government. The Pathans were his main political support in Karachi, and so the majority of route permits were given to them. However, there were mohajir and Punjabi route permit holders as well, and a sizeable number of operators and cleaners came from these communities. They were, over time, pushed out of this activity. A host of reasons are given by the bus owners for this. The Pathan was willing to work longer hours for less money, and was less interested in forming trade unions and bargaining associations. He was also more honest in financial matters, and his loyalty to the bus owner could be counted upon. On many occasions attempts were made to form associations or unions of bus operators and cleaners, so as to lobby for a minimum wage, shorter working hours, and a weekly holiday. The individuals behind these moves were invariably non-Pathans and they were unsuccessful because the Pathan operators did not join them.

The minibus was introduced in Karachi during the early years of the Bhutto era and route permits for its operation were handed out as political bribes or favours mainly to non-Pathans. However, as Pathans were firmly entrenched in the transport business, a handful of them were able to purchase these permits from the original owners.

In the early years of the minibus, most owners operated their own buses through hired operators. The system of the permit holder advancing a loan to operators for the purchase of the bus, and recovering it in monthly installments, along with a high rate of interest, was introduced later. The main advantage of the loan system was that the permit holder no longer had to haggle with his operators over financial matters, or feel that he was being cheated. In addition to these advantages, his earnings also increased. With the switchover from hired operators to prospective owners operating this transport, the Karachi minibus mafia was born. The majority of its leaders, financiers, operators and cleaners were Pathans.

However, this mafia had limited power as public transport and private transport companies still catered to Karachi’s needs in a big way. Although the demand for more minibuses was there, loans for their procurement from the transporters were not easily available. In the seven-year period between 1973 and 1979 itis estimated that loans for only-600 minibuses were advanced by the financiers. This total loan works out to a mere 90 million rupees.

Since the minibus operators could not bring life in Karachi to a standstill, and since they could not expand due to severe financial constraints, their political power posed no threat to the administration, and this factor defined their relationship with the state. Thus speeding was not as common as it is today; accidents were rare, perhaps because licences were not as easily purchasable as they are today; traffic laws were obeyed and passengers were not maltreated.

The influx of heroin money into Karachi’s economy in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s changed all this. New patterns of illegal land development emerged; new systems of informal banking came into being; the transporters’ mafia expanded to control the city roads, and the older squatter settlements came under attack.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

site design by iMedia
Mobile Menu
Responsive Menu Image Responsive Menu Clicked Image