Union Councils

According to activists who have participated in coronavirus-related relief measures, a number of learnings have surfaced from their work and from that of the NGOs they have been associated with and from government efforts. One, that the middle-middle and the lower-middle classes have shown enormous generosity but now a process of fatigue and absence of resources to support it has started to creep in.

Two, it is difficult to take relief to settlements and distribute it for one does not know who the households are who really deserve it. For this reason, there have been complaints that the rich households have also benefited.

Three, in settlements where rations could only reach a small percentage of households there were protests by the unserved population which in many cases turned ugly. As a result, some organisations decided to supply rations to mosques, temples, and churches and in some cases to schools, from where they could be collected.

Four, to access government aid one could apply to more than one source. As a result, apart from creating confusion, it is claimed that many persons were able to get aid from more than one location although there is a system of cross checking in place.

If upgraded, UCs can be at the forefront of relief efforts.

Representatives of hawkers who have been displaced by the Supreme Court judgement in Karachi have also contacted me as have the affectees of the Karachi Circular Railway demolitions. The hawkers have claimed that because of a loss of income, many members of their community are now living on the streets or are heavily in debt. Their children are no longer in school. The KCR affectees are still unhoused and the lockdown has impoverished them further. They claim that they have not received rations in proportion to their large numbers.

All complaints point to the necessity of having an institution to where households can walk and collect rations and that has details of the population regarding professions and income. The union council (UC) can be such an institution if upgraded. Right now, it is dormant, almost ineffective.

The structure of the UC is admirably suited for this purpose. It is divided into four wards each with councillor. In addition, there are two councillors representing women, and one each representing labour, youth and minorities. Then there is the chairperson, the vice chairperson, and a grade 16 government official is the secretary to the council. Documenting the UC population through councillors and computerising it can be a fairly simple affair though there will be problems related to computer literacy in some UCs. But given computer literacy among the youth they can be overcome easily.

However, Covid-19-related problems do not end with relief. The fallout of the virus is going to render hundreds of thousands of persons jobless in Karachi alone and this will also create serious health and education problems. The only way to deal with this issue is through a large public works programme at the UC and, if required, the district level. Through the public works programme, the local population will be employed on daily wages according to the skills they have and 10 per cent of their daily wage will be deducted and paid at the close of the programme so that they have capital which they could invest or save.

The problems that the public works programme could tackle would be the repair of roads and culverts, repair and laying of sewage and water lines, solid waste management, street sweeping, reactivating the street economy by supporting hawkers and inputs into health and education for which the UC will have to develop the necessary skills and connect with relevant NGO projects such as Khuda ki Basti and Imkan.

To make the programme successful and sustainable it is necessary to map the UCs, identifying their existing and missing social and physical infrastructure. This will help the UCs in preparing their annual development plan and budgets and relating them to the skills that exist among them. Such UC handbooks were prepared by the Orangi Pilot Project-Research and Training Institute in 2003 with the help of UC councillors and youth, and physical and social development programmes were developed around them. But unfortunately, due to political conflicts they could not be implemented.

Given the wealth of world-acknowledged experience in community processes in Karachi, a programme for converting UCs into planning and extension organisations is possible if there is political support for it. Senator Sherry Rehman had hinted in a statement that UCs should be in the forefront of the relief effort. If she can convince her party to support what is being proposed it will not only help in dealing with the fallout from the virus but also result in a more equitable and environmentally friendly city in the long run.

The article was originally published in Daily Dawn on April 29, 2020

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