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ARTICLE: Karachi is prestigiously part of the world top 10-12 cities club, in terms of population. In terms of infrastructure, however, it would probably stand at the very bottom. A city with an estimated population of 20 million (higher than the actual census figure) has a broken system of governance. The provincial government has all rights and it seems, none of the responsibilities. As for ownership, Karachi is left an orphan.

Basic public services like ambulances, hospitals and social welfare—food and shelter—are provided by charitable organizations. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) controls all of the resource of the city, though the party received merely 11 percent of the votes in the last election. On the other side, the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf bagged 31 percent of votes and 67 percent of seats in the National Assembly, but can do precious little. The party can only crib about PPP’s poor performance. Meanwhile, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) with 19 percent of the votes; it, too, seems unencumbered by the city’s myriad challenges. Moreover, it is accused of playing the ethnic card. But in truth, Karachi has no one ethnicity.

Karachi is the truest reflection of Pakistan. There is no dearth of Punjabis or Balochis in the city. Pakhtuns residing in Karachi are higher in number than those living in Peshawar. Sindhis are mainly in public service; but with no real stake in the city. Parsis and Hindus and the minorities that are rarely found in any other city of Pakistan.

The misery of Karachi dates back to the 1958 when the capital of Pakistan was moved from the then “city of lights” to Islamabad. The development back then of Federal B Area and North Karachi is still standing out. Later the nationalization and quota system deprived Karachi of its due representation. People from other areas secured jobs based on quota while better qualified Karachiites were left high and dry. This gave birth to the politics of ethnicity and MQM flourished in the city. Governance and infrastructure only depleted.

Being a port city, commercial activities thrived in the city. And even though the economy of the city expanded, development was not keeping up with the fast ballooning population. There is no master plan of the city that is being followed. The wild growth and unplanned spread has been manifesting in many disasters, the recent flood being only one of them. Imagine an eight story building constructed on land where underground water drainage is planned only for a two story home, it is natural for the drainage to choke when rain pours. Anyone can compare Clifton and Cantonment areas flooded streets with the allocation of land in the original plan. When 300 people are living in an area planned for 20, there is no saving it.

On top of it, the provincial government has little to no political stake in the city. The PPP government is not interested in spending on the city and it is hard to find meritocracy in Karachi’s public sector. Technical capabilities remain weak. Public service delivery is almost unheard of. If public sector development in a city is efficient, other development agencies are forced to follow suit. For example, DHA in Lahore is beautiful and green and has functioning underpasses and bridges. In the past few years, DHA Lahore was forced to develop as infrastructure across the city began to fast improve. But in Karachi, even DHA is a mess as the rest of the city dilapidates. The unique and obscure drainage system in the center of road was constructed in DHA Karachi a decade ago which is now becoming a nightmare for inhabitants.

If one is being fair, Karachi is a big enough city to have its own independent status. It should be administratively independent from the rest of Sindh. The PM is toeing the centralist approach while liberals are defending the half-baked 18th amendment by ignoring the essence of decentralization. Today, the Keemari Port is handling two-thirds of the country’s oil imports. If Karachi is flooded, there will be no fuel or cooking oil in Lahore or Islamabad. One of the reasons for higher risk premium on investment in Pakistan is its over reliance on the deteriorating KPT. If it is dysfunctional, the whole country could come to a standstill. If Karachi suffers, the rest of the country also suffers, so why is nobody taking responsibility?

Practically, the great need here is to work on the criminal neglect of the 18th amendment. All the focus was on passing the powers on to provinces, but they were never devolved down to the local government, when in fact, a functioning local government system is the only solution to deal with the mess in Karachi.

Right now, local governments practically don’t get any money even though, a city as big as Karachi should have its own revenue sources. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) in India has an annual budget of $4.5 billion with one billion dollar collected from property tax. The budget size of KMC and property tax collection in Karachi, by comparison, is less than peanuts, but not for the lack of potential.

For Karachi to manage its own resources and spending, local government needs to be empowered. But there are political rifts. Seeing the 2018 national election results, PTI with 31 percent votes should be running the city, but on ground, PPP with 11 percent vote is in control. If the game is to be played politically, perhaps the PTI has to give Lahore to PML-N, if local government system is to be implemented across the country.

It is not impossible. Turkey has crossed that difficult political bridge. Erdogan being ex-Mayor of Istanbul and having strong federal government had to give the control of Istanbul to the opposing political party. The PTI is being vocal on local government empowerment, but has yet to deliver on it. This has to start from Karachi. The city should have a strong and empowered Mayor and it should be generating its own revenues to survive the onslaught of its infrastructure and governance challenges. And it must do so now!

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020

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Ali Khizar

Ali Khizar is the Head of Research at Business Recorder

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