What is Karachi Really Fighting For?

The fundamental cause of the alienation among Karachi’s lower middle and working class population does not lie simply in the ‘deprivation’ suffered by the mohajirs and the absence of an effective local government for the city. Nor is it solely the consequence of a gullible populace led astray by an ‘evil’ leadership. In fact, Karachi’s descent into violence is due to a major conflict between the evolving urban, capitalist culture of the city and the nature of the Pakistani state…

“Karachi is ringed with volcanoes”. Akhtar Hameed Khan, referring to Karachi’s katchi abadis in 1983.

According to press reports on the Karachi situation some 20 persons died in police custody last year; an unaccounted for number were shot dead in what are increasingly considered to be fake police encounters; and well over 50,000 persons, between the ages of 12 and 70, were blindfolded, kicked and abused by the law enforcing agencies while being taken to police stations and maidens to be identified by masked men. In the majority of such incidents, the people were asked to take off their shirts (irrespective of their age) which were then used as blindfolds. Some of the detained persons claim that they remained blindfolded for hours and during that period they were denied access to water, food and toilet facilities. It is said that many urinated in their shalwars, some, undoubtedly, out of fear. In addition, over 100 policemen have also been killed in Karachi alone this year.

In the localities where a mohasara was carried out by the law enforcing agencies, the stories people tell are identical. These stories have already been related in great detail in the Karachi press. Briefly, law enforcers kicked open the doors of people’s homes they humiliated and abused the inmates of the house and in many cases, carried away their valuables along with their family members. Many claim that they have paid bribes of between 5,000 and 50,000 rupees to tire law enforcers to get their family members released, and in innumerable cases, these family members had been tortured to such an extent that they could hardly walk home.

A number of persons who claim to have given bribes to the law-enforcement officers or their touts say that they raised this money by selling their valuables (mostly jewellery of their womenfolk), mortgaging their homes or by borrowing money at 10 to 15 per cent monthly interest rates from the open market. They do not know how they will repay this debt.

In addition, locating their detained relatives was no easy job. It involved days of discussions with middlemen (who have suddenly cropped up as intermediaries between the law enforcement officials and the people and who try and extract as high a price as possible for their services); constant fear of being arrested beaten or otherwise humiliated; groveling before policemen, and losing precious daily wages without which the kitchen does not function.

In addition, family members were constantly told by the administration and its touts that they had absolute proof that their detained relatives were terrorists and would probably be sentenced to death. These tactics increased the “ransom” price. Residents claim that the bribe value for getting a detainee released is determined by the ethnicity of the detainee, the wealth or poverty of his family, and the connections he might have in the administration or with pro-government politicians.

Then there are those who are still desperately and agonisingly looking for their relatives who disappeared during the mohasara and those who have given up looking and have “put their fate in God’s hands”.

Each mohasara is followed by a large number of dacoities. Armed men, sometimes wearing hoods, break into people’s homes and carry away their valuables or extract money at gunpoint. The people insist that the police are involved in these dacoities as all the other possible suspects are no longer in the area. Out of fear, they do not report these incidents, just as they no longer report any crime or injustice they may suffer, however horrible, unless they are backed by a powerful patron. To add to their predicament, they can no longer tell who is or is not a policeman, since armed policemen are now often on duty in plain clothes while neighbourhood mafia toughs are sometimes seen roaming around with fully armed and uniformed men from the local thana. As a result, for the people the criminal and the law enforcer are one, they simply wish to stay as far away from the thanas as possible. If the purpose of the mohasara was to frighten the people out of their wits, and to finish off whatever little faith they still had in the city administration, it has been remarkably successful.

The settlements where these mohasaras have taken place constitute the vast majority of the working class area of Karachi. They have no MNAs and councilors and their MPAs are either in prison or underground. Unlike the other areas of Pakistan, they have no clan chiefs, no chaudhries, no tribal jirgas, no panchayats or other remnants of the feudal system that can act as intermediaries between them and the state agencies. Thus, they have no access to the corridors of power and decision making.

Due to the police-ranger action, the richer and more influential residents of these settlements, who due to force of circumstance acted as intermediaries have moved out or are in the process of doing so. They are going away to the more privileged areas of the city, hoping to save themselves the torture of living in a perpetual state of insecurity and anxiety. Real estate prices have fallen sharply (while they have escalated in the more affluent areas) and in some settlements people claim that up to thirty per cent of the houses are now lying vacant. With the exit of the more influential residents, people feel that they are more vulnerable to police harassment and extortion, mafia exploitation, KMC, KDA, KESC indifference and corruption as well as middleman and contractor bullying. They mourn this exodus by pointing out that, “ab to koi firyad sunnay ko bhi nahin raha.”

There is an important body of opinion in Karachi, both within the government and outside it, that fully supports the police-ranger action. They feel that this action has broken the back of political terrorism, and if continued, will wipe it out altogether. The people of Karachi will then heave a grateful sigh of relief. In addition, they also point out that the localities where mohasaras have taken place are areas from which political terrorism draws popular support and so these areas have to pay a price for it. There are also those who go as far as to condone extra-judicial killings. They argue convincingly that if legal niceties are adhered to, most of the arrested criminals would be acquitted by the courts due to the inefficiency and corruption of the prosecuting agencies and the close link between the underworld and the political establishment. They support their arguments with numerous precedents.

However, this form of thinking overlooks two important factors. One, given the political and administrative culture of the Pakistan state and the conditions of anarchy in Karachi, this freedom to kill people is bound to be misused for political purposes, settling personal scores and extortion of every conceivable nature, making a total mockery of all existing judicial and administrative processes.

Media reports and stories circulating in the peri-urban katchi abadis of the city, indicate that this misuse is increasingly taking place. If this is true and this process continues, then history tells us that only a major political change or a revolution will be able to reverse it. And two, that the fundamental cause of the Karachi situation does not lie simply in the “deprivations” suffered by the mohajir community and the absence of an effective local government for the city (as some quarters would have us believe) or in the lunacy and gullibility of the mohajir youth and the evil but superman qualities of the mohajir leadership (as others would have us believe). Nor does it simply lie in the manipulations of ruthless dictators and politicians; the leftovers of the Afghan War; Indian interference; or the greed and power of the numerous mafias that operate in the city.

It is true, however, that all these factors have contributed to the Karachi situation and some of them have acted as major catalysts. This is only because there is a major conflict between the evolving urban capitalist culture of the city and its development plus operations and maintenance requirements on the one hand, and the nature of the Pakistan state and the system of patronage, nepotism, ad-hocism, corruption, parochialism and exploitation that are integral to it, on the other hand. This conflict is responsible for a deeply felt sense of alienation in the lower middle and working class people of the city. This same sense of alienation is sweeping the other urban areas of Pakistan as well, but has yet to be expressed in political terms. To address this sense of alienation, the Karachi’s young people, mohajir and non-mohajir, will follow anyone who supports them in attacking this aspect of the state, or in extreme cases, the state itself. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on where you stand politically, the ethnic nature of the MQM has prevented most non-mohajirs from identifying with, or being identified with, the violent political culture of the city. Yet, it is important to note that the non-mohajir communities of Karachi are increasingly unwilling to come forward and support the police and ranger action against the MQM.

The ethno-political aspects of the Karachi situation have been discussed from different points of view in the press and in numerous seminars, and it is not the purpose of this article to engage in further controversies regarding them. However, what the nature of the Pakistani state and the agencies that represent it mean for the lower middle class and working classes of Karachi must be spelt out.

According to the Karachi Master Plan surveys, the lower middle income population in Karachi increased from 14 per cent of the total population in 1973 to 31 per cent in 1989. In terms of numbers there were over 70,000 lower middle income households in the city in 1973, over 210,000 in 1981) and over 500,000 in 1989) his phenomenal increase in the lower middle class, in fact, represents a socio-economic revolution and it has had a major impact on the sociology and politics of Karachi.

Previously, this lower middle class consisted almost exclusively of public sector white-collar workers. However, there has been a massive expansion of business and trade in Karachi since the mid-seventies. In addition, the needs of a rapidly growing urban population, in the absence of state initiatives, have had to be serviced by the private sector. During this period there has been large scale migration to the Middle East and the United States. Business and trade links, usually small and informal in nature, have been established sometimes with partners outside Pakistan. As a result, the vast majority of lower middle class people now work in banks, travel agencies, as salesmen for gadgetry and various industrial and trade organisations, and as managers of small local level services sector enterprises.

Increasingly, this new lower middle class is also going into businesses and professional work in the social sector. They run estate agencies, they are agents for various industrial and computer item related products and household items; they are contractors to small and medium size construction work; they are suppliers to private sector and government organisations; they establish and run neighbourhood school and tuition centres and almost all local level clinics and health outlets are owned and staffed by them. They also form an important part of the burgeoning services sector to the transport industry and in its operation. And then it is they who establish and run various retail outlets and shops that cater to the needs of the citizens of the lower and upper middle class areas of the city. This intense and growing activity is the result of their vitality and spirit of enterprise. Increasingly, this activity is acquiring new levels of sophistication as a result of influences from abroad and the changing aspirations and life-styles of the younger generation.

This younger generation is different from its parents. By and large, it has shed the culture of frugality and social immobility which characterised the older generation. It is very much a part of the consumer culture that dominates the world today. In addition, it constantly seeks to improve its financial position and realises that this cannot be done unless it increases its social and political clout. An important manner of increasing this clout is to have a family member in government service, and this is now an almost impossible task. However, in its upward mobility the lower middle class in Karachi faces many other serious obstacles and overcoming them is becoming increasingly difficult.

The problems that this class faces in getting government jobs and admissions in state run educational institutions has been prominently highlighted in the last few years. The domicile and quota provisions that are perceived to create these problems, are now important political issues in Sindh. Even when a government job is available, it is now impossible to get it purely on merit. Previously, one could acquire it on sifarish alone. Now, in addition to sifarish, one has to pay the taut of one’s patrons as well. This payment may range from anything between 5,000 and 100,000 rupees, depending on the nature of the job.

Government contracts for construction and supplies are perhaps the most lucrative businesses in Karachi. However, these contracts are almost never awarded on merit. Either the officials who award these contracts force the contractors to establish a partnership with one of their touts, who gets most of the money for doing nothing, or officials give the contract to the person who is willing to give them the highest share of the profit, most of it in advance. In addition, there are the regular commissions that have to be paid to the agency staff as well. Due to this development costs have increased to ten times the cost of labour and materials involved in construction. The same is also true for supply contracts. And to make matters worse still, the quality of work is deplorable. This inability to compote on merit and to develop and exercise ones entrepreneurial skills have been responsible for many bourgeois revolutions in nineteenth and early twentieth century Europe. This alienation from the power structure-related entrepreneurial work also reduces the lower middle class to the position of second class citizens of the state.

The Karachi petit bourgeoisie has other problems as well. It has no access to credit for business purposes due to which its growth is considerably hampered. To qualify for credit from various innovative government loan schemes, one has to again seek a patron, belong to or have connections with the right political party, and in addition, cater to the bribe market. This process of acquiring a loan can take months, if not years. Most small businessmen prefer not to waste their time doing this.

The other major problem that the lower middle class faces is related to land and credit for house building. The same system of patronage and corruption has to be catered to in order to acquire government developed land or a loan from the House Building Finance Corporation.

Originally the lower middle class was a small one, dominated completely by big formal sector business and the public agencies which it served. The working classes were directly subservient to the formal sector as well. However, the lower middle class now supplies the manpower without which the economy of the city simply cannot function and a large section of the working class depends on it for employment. There is a growing realisation of this powerful reality among the members of this class.

Their problems notwithstanding, the Karachi lower middle classes, unlike the residents of low income settlements, have been able to establish some sort of an equation with civic agencies such as the KMC, PTC and KESC. People manning these civic institutions at the local level also belong to the same class. The bribe market in this relationship is considered reasonable by most lower-middle class families.

A similar equation had also been established with the police and though there were regular cases of police brutality and extortion in the past, their number was not considered alarming. However, operation clean up and the post May 1995 ranger’s action has completely upset this equation. To recreate it, without major structural changes in the governance of Karachi, now seems an impossibility.

The gulf between the state and the lower middle income Karachi settlements is best illustrated by the Bahadur Ali incident. After Ali, the SHO of Taimuria thana and his four fellow policemen were killed by “terrorists” in May 1994, the prime minister of Pakistan and chief minister of Sindh paid tributes to the slain policemen and announced the payment of substantial compensation to their families. In the area lying within the jurisdiction of the police station, on the other hand, residents distributed mithai and gloated over the killings.

The frustration of the lower middle classes and its political expression acquires strength from the katchi abadis of Karachi. It is estimated that forty (official figures) to fifty (unofficial estimates) per cent of Karachi’s population lives in katchi abadis. Over the last decade, the katchi abadis have grown at a rate of 9 percent per year, against a Karachi growth rate of 4.8 percent. The older more developed katchi abadis are also home to a very large number of lower middle class families, most of them mohajirs.

Katchi abadis are created because the government cannot deliver land for shelter at affordable prices and through non-corrupt procedures to lower middle and working class families. Their only option then is to acquire illegally developed land from middlemen supported by corrupt officials.

The story of the first five to ten years in the life of a katchi abadi is characterised by every form of extortion and exploitation. Some of this recedes, but never completely, once the settlement is large enough to seek protection in numbers.

A major part of the payment that a katchi abadi dweller makes to the middleman for purchase of land, goes to the police or to officials of relevant government agencies. However, that does not prevent police touts from collecting more money after the resident has moved onto his plot. When he replaces his temporary boundary wall by a block wall, or builds a latrine, the thana touts promptly arrive to collect money. When he builds a pucca house, especially when he lays a concrete roof, the thana again comes and collects payment. Whenever money is required by the thana, the new settlement is threatened with demolition, and to press home the message, a few houses are demolished. The residents then collect money and hand it over to the tout. It is estimated, that in about the first five years of a settlement’s life, poor people pay a minimum of over fifteen to twenty thousand rupees in illegal gratification to the touts of various agencies so that they can continue to live on their land for which they have paid anything between three to fifteen thousand rupees.

The story does not end here. To acquire a demand note for an electric connection, residents have to pay up to 3500 rupees as a bribe. After acquiring a demand note, more money, sometimes up to ten thousand rupees, are demanded for giving a connection. There are many cases where money has been paid but no connections have been given for over four years. It is also common practice that after the connection has been given, it is disconnected (usually because of bungling in the billing system) and the residents are forced by KESC and thana touts to get electricity through the kunda system. For this they have to pay regular bhatta and in many cases more money is extorted from them on threat of discontinuing the supply.

It is also common practice to cut off the water supply in many neighbourhoods and money is then extorted from the residents so that the water lines may become operative again. Surveys carried out by the Orangi Pilot Project for the Sindh Katchi Ahadi Authority in 29 informal settlements of Karachi reveal that water supply meant for low income settlements is frequently channelised to higher income settlements. To add insult to injury, the flood waters during the monsoon season that accumulate in higher income areas, are also directed to low lying katchi abadis.

The residents of the affected settlements are fully aware of these issues and their constant efforts to address them are seldom successful because of a lack of access to the corridors of power and decision making. During periods when people have been represented by their elected councilors, conditions improve marginally even though the communities are really powerless in those issues and subservient to the bureaucracy of the local bodies.

One of the most important government prograrnmes which can be beneficial to low income groups is the Katchi Abadi Improvement and Regularisation Programme. However, here again the bribe market operates. It is almost impossible (except for some SKAA operated schemes) to get a lease through the normal process. It has to be acquired through a dallal and the resident spends about seven thousand rupees for a lease the official cost of which is between two to three thousand rupees. Again, during the drawing up of the regularisation plan, politicians and government officials, supported by the police, terrorise the people into surrendering their homes that are located on prime land. Similarly, amenity plots are encroached upon and finally this encroachment is regularised through a nexus between politicians, officialdom and local interest groups.

Every business established in a katchi abadi has to pay bhatta to the police, both for its establishment and its operation. As inflation and recession increase, the bhatta increases as well. A small khoka in a low income area pays anything between thirty to hundred rupees a day, depending on its location. A recent study reveals that the police and local administration collect over one hundred and ten million rupees a month as bhatta from the hawkers and encroachers, which includes beggars, in the Saddar area of Karachi alone.

Then there are a large number of video halls and gambling and prostitution dens in the poorer katchi abadis of the city. Their operators insist that these are really joint ventures in collaboration with the law enforcing agencies. Their contention is supported by reports of police involvement in the activities of the drug mafia which have been highlighted in the press from time to time. People insist that anti-drug movements are suppressed by the mafia with support from the police, and there have been reports in the press which categorically state that anti-drug activists have been killed off by members of the law enforcing agencies.

Again, as in the case of the lower middle income entrepreneurs, the vibrant informal sector enterprises in the katchi abadis do not have any access to credit or technical assistance for expanding their operations. They have to borrow money at a ten to fifteen percent interest rate per month from the open market. This restricts their activities and results in the exploitation of their workers. According to the Karachi Master Plan, 75 percent of Karachi jobs are generated by the informal sector. The scale of this activity can he judged by the fact that there are over 40,000 micro enterprise units in Orangi alone.

The exploitative nature of the system described above is visible to even upper class Karachiites in other forms. One can drive a brand new car without number plates from one end of the city to another without being stopped. However, you cannot travel on a motorcycle, even if all your papers are in order, without having to pay money to a policeman. In many offices where people sometimes work late, the staff that travels by motorbikes, prefers to sleep in the office. This is because after dark one may have to pay anything between 50 to 200 rupees to get free passage from the police. If on the other hand, you are riding along with your wife, female friend or female relation, the price may be much higher as you will be threatened with being taken to the thana. Taxi drivers normally pay half to one-third of their earnings to the police as bhatta, and poor people who return to Karachi from abroad with consumer items are forced to pay large sums of money to the police so that they can keep their valuables. Truck drivers, contract Suzuki drivers and owners of old cars are treated in a similar manner.

At a recent meeting held by an NGO in a Karachi katchi abadi, community members were encouraged to send their children to school instead of to work. One community member responded, “if we send them to school how will we stuff the mouths of the police and civic agencies with money”. In fact, it is the conviction of most katchi abadi dwellers and those living in lower middle class areas that the affluence and ostentation of the families of politicians and government employees is because of money looted from the less affluent.

In the absence of appropriate civic institutions and the resulting exploitation, ethnicity provides a very strong bond in society riddled with inequitable political relationships and unequal development.

There would be no political problem in Karachi if the lower middle classes and the working classes quietly accepted the nature of the Pakistani state and their subservient role in it. However, they do not do this. They work incessantly and lobby constantly for improvement in their economic and social conditions. They are forced to resort increasingly to the black market and bribe market to fulfill their aspirations and they increasingly realise the limitations that these two illegal “markets” impose upon them.

There are two major reasons for the existence of a large MQM vote bank in the city. One, that the dominant leadership of the national political parties, unlike that of the MOM, does not belong to the middle or working classes and nor do they seek to address in concrete terms the conditions described in this article. And two, that in the absence of appropriate civic institutions and the resulting exploitation, ethnicity provides a very strong bond in a society riddled with inequitable political relationships arid unequal development.

Whatever the result of the current “anti-terrorist” operation or the MQM- government dialogue, there can be no long-term peace in Karachi unless the social revolution that has taken place in the city is consolidated politically, well meaning seminars, peace marches and protests against human rights violations notwithstanding. Without evolving a process to facilitate this consolidation, the threat of violence will be ever present and an increasing number of young men will take to it.

This consolidation can only take place if the intelligentsia of this city prepares a blueprint for development and the process of acquiring an effective local government. They must also seek support for this blueprint from those political parties and organisations that claim to represent this city, and forge links with the numerous Community organisations arid NGOs of Karachi on this issue. And finally, they must struggle though the political process to achieve this role. Subsequently, the result of this movement will have to be nurtured with love and affection, if another round of anarchy is to be prevented. But before any of this is done, it has to be accepted that the manner in which the city is governed and planned for is perhaps an even greater violation of human rights than the present extra-judicial killings and mohasras and that this manner of governance cannot co-exist with the lower middle and working classes.

The Karachi situation is a part of the larger crisis learning across the Pakistani horizon. With the consolidation of capitalist farming, urbanisation and increased literacy, the old pattern of inter-class relationships has changed. Ethnic groups and communities to whom history had assigned specific roles are now competing with communities and groups that were more developed than them. In the absence of appropriate institutional arrangements to deal with this situation, the old institutions have become irrelevant and ineffective, and hence corrupt. It seems that the new area of conflict will be in an already urbanised Punjab where this fact of urbanisation is not accepted by the powers that be and where an unequal relationship exists between “locals” and “settlers”.

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