Planning for Karachi: An Agenda for Citizens and NGOs

It would not be out of place here to mention that 470 million rupees were spent on the preparation of the Karachi Development Plan 2000. It was not implemented for a number of political and technical reasons, which should have been foreseen as they were by certain observers and evaluators of the plan. Similarly, the Greater Karachi Sewage Plan has ignored existing ground realities. It has not even documented the community and councillor built infrastructure that serves the needs of the majority of Karachiites. As a result, the treatment plants function at only a fraction of their capacity and implementation of the Baldia project, which is part of the Plan, has been a failure. As a result, 400 million rupees have literally gone down the drain. NGOs and professionals have presented alternatives to the Plan that would bring down costs to 15 to 20 per cent of the current estimates simply by catering to ground realities. Large water schemes are also being developed but so far no serious attempt has been made to plug the major leakages in the system through which 40 per cent of Karachi’s water is lost. And then there are a number of flyovers that have been, or are being constructed, which make no sense to a number of private and government employed traffic and transport specialists. Most of these grand projects have been designed by teams of local and foreign consultants and have received technical assistance from donor agencies. Many also have large loans attached to them.

From the above discussion, it seems that contractors, consultants and loan pushing agencies are determining Karachi’s physical and hence social development, or lack of it. Even if well-intentioned, they have powerful financial interests in this development game. Karachi’s concerned citizens, NGOs, CBOs, interest groups and service providers have at various times objected to many of these projects but often not at the initial stages of the project and seldom collectively. Their involvement at the conceptual stages of the project is essential so that the projects can be compatible with reality. Also, to give seriousness to their objectives, they should be technically sound and for this they need professional assistance.

The third reality is that land in Karachi is treated unashamedly as a commercial commodity and not as an asset for the benefit of the city. A powerful informal politician-bureaucrat-developer (“formal” and “informal) nexus gobbles up not only all state land, legally or illegally, but also land in ecologically sensitive zones. This deprives the city of space for recreational and cultural activities and for infrastructure for its transport, cargo and storage related requirements. It also deprives the city of its natural environmental assets. Communities and NGOs are constantly struggling to protect open spaces, prevent the misuse of amenity plots and stop natural drainage channels from being encroached up. Many lives have been lost in this struggle and many NGO activists have been threatened, beaten and wounded. Where the title and land-use of the land under dispute has been clear, NGOs and citizens’ groups have had greater success in protecting land.

The fourth reality is that no radical institutional reform for Karachi is possible unless there is a consensus between the different political groupings and the establishment which are all pulling Karachi in different directions. This consensus relates to Karachi’s position in Sindh and the relationship of the provinces with the Centre. It must also be understood that while a metropolitan government is preferable for a large city, we cannot wait for it indefinitely. Also, that a metropolitan set-up does not necessarily mean a solution to Karachi’s problems. Many Third World cities have metropolitan governments, but conditions in many of them are worse than in Karachi, with little hope for the future.

However, one thing is clear from examples from all over the world that if what is now called civil society, can be involved in planning and its implementation for its city, conditions and institutions improve. But for this civil society must have an agenda that strengthens its negotiating power with the establishment and makes its relationship with the powers that be more equitable. To this end, Karachi’s citizens, NGOs, CBOs, professional organisations, service providers and those government agencies that are already involving interest groups in their work (such as the Traffic Engineering Bureau of the Karachi Development Authority) or supporting the work of communities (such as the Sindh Katchi Abadi Authority) should come together to promote and institutionalise the following four point agenda. One, a space for interaction between government agencies, interest groups (formal and informal) and communities must be created, nurtured and institutionalised over a period of time. This means that citizens and interest groups have to be supported by scientific research and the media so as to interact effectively with government agencies and deeply entrenched vested interests in the development, consultancy and real estate business. Two, all plans at city, sector and or neighbourhood level must be publicised at the conceptual stage and objections and suggestions should be invited especially from formal and informal interest groups, professional and academic institutions, and from the beneficiaries and victims of the plans. All costs should be stated upfront. Only after this process, should detail work on the plans be undertaken. Three, steering committees for various policy decisions, plans and implementation processes must be created. These steering committees must have a representation of NGOs, relevant formal and informal interest groups (for example, transport related plans, representatives of the formal and informal transporters must be on the committee) and professional expertise in them. In addition, these committees must have executive power. And four, all public sector institutions must prepare and make public a list of their real estate holdings, its current and proposed land-use and market value. Such real estate holdings should by law only be used for the benefit of the city and its poorer sections of the population strictly according to a master plan and not as a commodity or for the development of ad-hoc commercial complexes. In addition, no land-use change should be permitted without proper public hearings and again decisions on them should only be taken by committees of interest groups, NGOs, concerned professionals and representatives of communities which are likely to be affected.

The implementation of this agenda will go a long way in promoting institutional reform and city plans that are realistic and doable. It will promote transparency and accountability and at the same time it will strengthen the movement for a politically acceptable local government reform.

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