The process of destruction of Karachi, which has been going on for the last four decades, saw its climax weeks ago when torrential rains hit the city, creating a big deluge and exposing all the hidden political and social fault lines that have turned the megapolis into a living hell for its citizens.
Karachi is no stranger to rains. But this time it was different. The disaster wrought by the prolonged cloudburst was unprecedented in its ferocity. Not only the slums and middle-class localities but the more prosperous areas too were inundated. The ramshackle civic infrastructure collapsed like a house of cards. The government, both provincial and municipal, was conspicuous by its absence. It was no less than a nightmare for more than 20 million people in the city. The rains caused unparalleled damage to the city. Many precious lives were lost, business and personal assets destroyed, means of livelihoods blocked, properties and constructed structures damaged. It was water everywhere, not only on roads but inside homes and shops and markets.
While all this happened, the provincial and municipal governments played an unseemly blame game. No one was ready to take responsibility for the calamity that befell the hapless people of Karachi. Nothing could be more sad and ridiculous than the controversy over who is responsible for cleaning the gutter lines and addressing drainage problems in the city.
Karachi is much bigger than the population of many countries but it does not have an effective municipal body, let alone an empowered city government to run it. There are several authorities controlling different parts of the city. The administrative chaos has become more pronounced with each passing year, with each body jealously guarding its turf so as to get as much booty as possible.
The Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) has been continuously ruling the province for more than 12 years and cannot be absolved of responsibility in the matter. It did not invest enough to improve the city infrastructure and provide basic amenities to the people. For its selfish political ends it also curtailed the powers of the local government — a main reason behind the worsening plight of the city. Without doubt, the PPP has throughout meted out a selective treatment to Karachi.
But there are other authorities too in the city which should share the blame for the miserable plight of the people. Almost a third of the urban monstrosity falls under the cantonment boards and the Defence Housing Authority. Some parts also come under the federal government. This multiplicity of jurisdiction has contributed to the poor state of governance in the city. On their part, successive federal governments too have completely ignored the needs of essential infrastructure development in a city which is the country’s economic lifeline.
A plethora of ills plagues the city – corruption at all levels, poor quality of human resources, paucity of operational budgets, weak monitoring mechanisms, absence of effective audit and accounts procedures, financial dependence on the federal and provincial governments, lack of control over the police, undue pressure exercised by federal and provincial institutions, and the inability to generate finance for local works. The net result is that Karachi struggles with a shortage of funds to strengthen vital services such as sanitation, water supply, informal settlement upgradation and firefighting.
The immediate needs include speedy repair of roads and streets, putting in place a dependable drainage system, overhaul of power, telecom and digital infrastructure and compensation for losses of life and property suffered by the citizens. It is obvious that, with the current institutional arrangements, these goals cannot be achieved. It goes without saying that the metropolis cannot be completely transformed without radically altering the political status quo and governance structure.
There is an urgent need to analyze Karachi’s problems beyond the current disaster caused by the rains. There is a lot more to be done to make the city more livable. Karachi’s development is inextricably linked with the country’s economic growth needs and momentum. The constant political battle between the federal government and the province must cease in the interest of Karachi as well as the country.
Despite all its chaos and mayhem, Karachi is the most vibrant and dynamic city in the country. It is the country’s economic jugular vein and financial hub. A few years ago it became a city of daily deaths. Mafias rule everywhere. It is a place where politics and crime mix. The drug and land mafias are more powerful than the state.
For a long-term solution, there is a need for greater understanding of the city’s political and social dynamics. Our political leaders need to see things beyond their nose. It is indeed a good sign that Prime Minister Imran Khan has offered to work with the provincial government to help pull out the city from the debris. Karachi is a mini-Pakistan. We must save Karachi to save Pakistan.