Karachi at sea

Published in Dawn – cover image by AFP

‘The monsoons have devastated the city,’ urban planner Arif Hasan wrote about Karachi back in 2003, and pointed to a string of causes in these very pages: the city wasn’t mapped, infrastructure was piecemeal, the nallahs had to be desilted, there weren’t enough drains, and the politicians were megalomaniacs.

Much remains the same. As regards megalomania, who can forget this same Sindh government when the other extreme — drought — hit Thar, and left children to starve? While visiting the grieving families, the chief minister’s team famously feasted on tikkas and malai boti at Circular House, Mithi, while famine was dubbed a ‘structural problem’.

Looking around today, with rain lashing Karachi, it’s unsurprising that we hear the same words again. But ‘structural problems’ are now stretched to include the very opposite: anything that’s petty or preventable. Starvation in Thar. Dog bites in Larkana. Clogged drains in Karachi.

Even then, it’s a shoddy defence: taken together, the PPP has run Sindh for 26 years. A quarter-century is enough time to try and dent said structural problems, at least to the point of a functioning drainage system. That hasn’t happened.

Nor is this cause for comfort for the MQM, who were handed Karachi’s local governments on a silver platter by the generals, only to pack them with party men and bad intentions. Between these two parties, the city of lights is thrashing in the dark.

The visuals are hard to watch: all of Karachi is afloat. Containers bob along the water, underpasses have filled up like jugs, and citizens continue to lose their lives.

PPP ministers, meanwhile, climb atop bridges and hail dry land; violinists on the good ship Titanic. Their chairperson drifts even higher in cyberspace, liking any tweet that records rainfall in places other than his own. Co-chair Asif Zardari, suffering his umpteenth indictment, is far from the scene — somewhat kinder, perhaps, than when he waited out another flood in his French chateau, unironically named the Manoir de la Reine Blanche.

None of this is because the party doesn’t understand what’s happening; it’s because it gets away with it. A grubby electoral formula damns Sindh to oblivion, with mainstream parties cruelly ignoring it en route to the throne in Islamabad.

That means zero pressure on the PPP to improve service delivery, because it has zero challengers. The GDA, their sole opponent, is a collection of mostly feudal fatties from yesterday, united only by their hatred for the Bhuttos. And because Karachi’s fate is linked to Sindh’s, the cycle continues.

But this state of affairs has gone on for too long and destroyed too much: even leaving aside the major culprit — the Bhutto family’s decayed regency — Karachi’s wreckers span from Ayub snatching the capital away in the 1960s all through to the Musharraf-MQM combine wreaking bloody havoc on May 12.

And yet Karachi was a beautiful world city, and can still be made whole again. To turn to the solutions on offer, the most obvious is a separate province, ideally among dozens more. This is a needless taboo now, and invites shock and horror from those who otherwise support provincial autonomy (never quite extending it to Karachi’s millions).

The second is no solution at all: governor’s rule, as ‘hinted’ by the centre. Used and reused by military regimes, rule by the federation’s men has no place in a parliamentary democracy. As it is, the city needs more devolution, not less — something the centre needs to remember. Though Karachi voters turned out for the PTI in 2018, most of PTI Karachi’s A-Team has turned out to be either blowhards or centralisers. The prime minister says he wants decentralisation. If that’s the case, his Karachi wing needs a reshuffle.

The third is local bodies, which can be the most transformational. For now, however, the Sindh government has grafted boards and bureaus on top of local bodies, to plug any power that trickles down. That’s why the KWSB is a mess, the tanker mafia reigns supreme, and the mayor weeps on live television.

Most disturbing is the Sindh Local Government Act of 2013. While ripping apart Article 140A of the Constitution, the SLGA crowns the province with every power imaginable: appointments of all major city officials, annual budgets, by-laws, tax proposals, and audits. Per the World Bank, Larkana has also commandeered building controls, master planning, water and sewerage, and solid waste management.

The results are before us: an urban wasteland, with no idea of who’s in charge of what. Devolution is the only way forward: the SLGA must be overhauled, local bodies must be empowered, overlapping civic agencies need to be cut and streamlined, nallahs must be desilted, storm-water drains must be revived, and a new class of public representatives must be allowed to serve its citizens.

Karachi is, was, and always will be this country’s most important city. It deserves so much better than this.

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