What Karachi Requires

The Local Body Ordinance was imposed on us by an unelected government in 2001. It was supposed to be the panacea for all our governance and development related problems. Through indirect voting in a ruthlessly manipulated political system based on coercion and the buying and selling of loyalties, 2,314 councillors in a city of 13 million cast their votes for electing our first Nazim. He was in office for four years and during this period conditions with regard to employment, water supply, sanitation, drainage, education, traffic congestion and management, transport, security and electricity continued to deteriorate while our cultural heritage was destroyed as never before. The Nazim also initiated the preparation of a “master plan“ for Karachi and ordered that it should be completed in six months, something that was humanly impossible for such a large city especially when its physical and social conditions had not been monitored since 1978 and nor had they been documented since the questionable documentation for the UNCHS supported Karachi Development Plan 2000 in 1987. What is more surprising is that professionals and consulting firms, throwing professional ethics to the winds, did not only bid for this impossible task but did everything possible under the sun to undercut each other to get the contract. As a result, it took more than nine months for consultants to be selected for this six-month assignment. The local government during the tenure of the first Nazim did build roads that eased the flow of traffic but many of these have since been washed away and almost all of them were flooded during the recent rains. He also built a number of parks most of which are not being maintained. However, he had a reputation for being honest and sincere, something rear in this age of public cynicism.

Our present Nazim has been elected through the same process of indirect votes and has been in office since September 2005. During his one-year tenure deterioration in all the sectors mentioned above has continued to an extent that people have stopped believing that things can improve. They are angry and frustrated. The Nazim has been preoccupied with the removal of traffic congestion and provision of drainage for the city, both important issues. For the former he has initiated grand projects such as flyovers and under-passes; signal free roads (which are a disaster for pedestrians); and proposed an elevated expressway from Jinnah Bridge to Quaidabad. These decisions are not a part of traffic, transport and landuse plans for Karachi for such plans do not exist. As such, these decisions, unrelated to larger planning realities, are ad-hoc in nature and like similar projects for Karachi in the past, and for other Third World cities such as Manila, Bangkok, Cairo and Tehran, they are not going to deliver. Decisions taken with regard to regulating the movement of trucks, eviction of hawkers from Saddar, removal of smoky buses and the shifting of illegal cargo and transport terminals (all well intentioned) have backfired because of an absence of an understanding of landuse and socio-economic issues.  Meanwhile, the reclamation of Karachi’s nullas and mangrove swamps for housing the elite and for gentrification continues, making it increasingly impossible to drain the city during the monsoons or to maintain the outfalls.

The provision of housing, transport, and employment, in our context, are the most important requirements of city planning. However, since the present devolution plan was put in place, no social housing programmes have been initiated as a result of which katchi abadis continue to grow. In spite of the fact that there are no social housing schemes, local government has demolished over 22,000 houses in the last five years, many of them in notified katchi abadis, making over 200,000 persons homeless. This process is pushing the poor out of the city, far away from places of work, recreation and health facilities. It is depriving school going children of their schools and family members, especially women, of their jobs, thus impoverishing the impoverished even more. This, along with unemployment, has increased social conflict and crime in an already fragmented city, the last thing that any city would want. The recent attempt by local government for providing housing for low income groups in Taiser Town is based on a strategy that failed miserably in the 1980s. The failure of this strategy has been documented in great detail by researchers and alternatives have been suggested. Obviously, the city government politicians and planners are unaware of this. In addition, the Taiser Scheme, even if we assume (a big assumption) that its plots will reach the target group, is on too small a scale to make a difference. Decisions regarding a mass transit system for the city have yet to be finalised. Newspaper reports suggest that there is utter confusion regarding this important programme although it has been studied to death since 1972. Meanwhile, the destruction of Karachi’s built-heritage has further increased (aided by serious anomalies in KBCA bye laws and provincial legislations which no one wishes to address) and the roads and services infrastructure, where this exquisite heritage is located, lies in ruins. Developing workable plans for its rehabilitation is not a priority.

It is true that much of Karachi’s problems have not been created by our two nazims; they have inherited them. It is also true that the city government does not have control over large areas of the city that “belong” to federal agencies and cantonment boards. However, conditions are going to become much worse unless the decision-making power in Islamabad and the well-intentioned local government in Karachi realise that Karachi’s problems cannot be solved by poorly conceived, badly planned and uncoordinated mega projects, local and international consultants, foreign loans, master plans based on faulty TORs and grossly inadequate information, and fancy visions for a city that deny its existing realities. Karachi’s problems can only be solved by understanding and respecting the ecology of the region in which Karachi lies along with the physical and socio-economic assets that the city possesses; learning how to manage and maintain these assets; and planning to build on them rather than ignoring or discarding them in favour of building high profile parallel systems that serve only a small percentage of the city and that too inadequately. For example, the circular railway corridor exists and can be rehabilitated and extended, yet we are preoccupied by promoting economically unsustainable and environmentally questionable projects such as the Maglev Rail Project for Corridor – 1.

What has been suggested above can only happen if four important things are put in place. One, political decision-making has to be informed. This can only happen if proper research and monitoring of Karachi’s development related issues is done on a continuing basis and through the establishment of a process of consultation between those who have knowledge and information, interest groups and the politicians. The former requires an effective and independent institution and the latter an institutionalised process supported by politicians who have humility, love and affection for the city and its people rather than a megalomania for quick fix mega schemes. Two, informed decision-making has to be turned into realistic plans. This can only be done if effective institutions, manned by competent and well-paid professionals are created. The city government does have competent professionals in certain departments but they have diminished in number over time and are not supported by a properly organised middle and lower level cadre. In addition, these institutions have to have rules and regulations that are followed so that they are not subject to constant political interference leading to ad-hoc transfers and appointments, corruption and ineffectiveness. For instance, more than one professional in the city government has said to me that they are given orders to do such-and-such in such-and-such time but there is no organisation below them to effectively carry out such orders or even to support them in the planning process. Three, the plans have to be implemented. For this a transparent and accountable system of tendering, supervision and monitoring has to be put in place which involves community representatives and interest groups. There is a serious need to revisit the existing system and question the PC-1 and PC-2 process which are the basis of most of the problems related to transparency and accountability. And four, development has to be managed and maintained. Again, institutions at the city, town and union council (UC) level have to be created and sustained for this purpose and a process of coordination put in place. At present, at the UC level they do not exist and at the town and city level, they are weak, fragmented and badly housed and badly maintained. It should also be understood that consultants, however competent, cannot replace effective government institutions. As a matter of fact, a consultant is as good as the city government organisation that monitors and evaluates his work and provides him with necessary guidance. In the same way, a plan is as good as the institution that implements it.

The development and consolidation of the institutions mentioned above are a priority for Karachi and without them the city’s sustainable growth and management that benefits the vast majority of its citizens, cannot take place. If our Nazim and the power in Islamabad can create these institutions, along with short term measures to mitigate the years of neglect, corruption and the fleecing of Karachi, it will be a far greater “gift” to the present and future citizens of the city than all the underpasses, expressways, fountains and creek cities that are being built and conceived.

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