It used to be called the City of Lights. Anyone living in Karachi over the last few decades might as well describe it as the City of Fright, if not for sectarian and political violence, and law and order situation, then for the wretched state of transport, sanitation, garbage, storm water drainage, drinking water, and other basic public infrastructure. It is perhaps the only biggest city in the world, where progress and development hasn’t dawned yet. So severe is Karachi’s crises of hard infrastructure that the city’s denizens hardly ever talk about its soft infrastructure.
Whenever curtains fall on the black comedy currently being played at the theatre of garbage, the most frequently cited root of the problem, Karachiites will brood over is that ‘no one owns Karachi’ – in the sense no one wants to take ownership of the city. Led by the PPP over the last 10 plus years, the provincial government has been missing in action. Political commentators attribute this to the fact that the PPP does not get enough seats from Karachi.
If MQM or some faction thereof, or JI got the most seats from Karachi in the yesteryears, the 2018 elections sprung forth a new flock of politicians from the PTI. But in the absence of an effective local government and provincial finance commission, these parties can achieve little unless they grow big enough to hold sway in the provincial government.
Karachiites on the other hand, do not seem to fully understand the constitutional framework, and the arrangement and the roles/responsibilities of three tiers of government. A hotly discussed and WhatsApp forwarded argument among Karachi’s educated professionals and business elite goes like this.
“Around 18 NA seats were won by the PTI/MQM coalition from Karachi. Amongst others, positions held at the federal level from Karachi include the President of Pakistan, Governor Sindh, about five federal ministers, two advisors to the PM, deputy chairman Senate, and the heads of State Bank of Pakistan and Federal Board of Revenue.” Hence, the federal government should “provide Karachi a revised master plan, multi-modal transport system, sewerage plant, resolve traffic and parking issues, work towards beatification of the city and built footpaths” amongst a host of other things.
What is little appreciated or perhaps understood - even in Karachi’s educated circles - that the federal government has none to a very limited role in these. At best the federal government can devise a project or two and allocate money, whose implementation can’t be done without an effective role of provincial government. Hence all this representation can’t do anything about Karachi.
Then there are some business circles who demand that the prime minister should declare Karachi as the second capital of the country, or otherwise at least spend 15 days at a stretch in Karachi once every three months to help solve the city’s problems. This too reflects gaps in understanding of the country’s constitution, according to which cities cannot be separated from provinces or otherwise given special administrative status without provincial government’s consent. It is also often ignored that the state of Pakistan was created after the provinces came together to become one federation.
Even if constitutional amendments are brought about to allow the federal government to exert more influence in the administrative domain of second and third tier of governments or to change their structures, it would be tantamount to opening the Pandora’s box, given the current scheme of politics. Today it may be Karachi; tomorrow other provincial capitals and economics hubs may demand special treatment on the premise that their contribution to the country’s tax revenues, employment, GDP or one of its sectors thereof is substantial in relation to other cities of the provinces they are in.
Such discourse does not sit well with the powers that be, which idolise the centrality of command, and have been allegedly trying to roll back the 18th Amendment. Admittedly though, there is nothing wrong to conceptualise cities as engines of growth – in fact fashionable these days – and accordingly try figure out a corresponding change in their governance or administrative structure. This coils back to the discussion on the absence of ownership in Karachi.
If democratic disposition is any guide, then the question of Karachi’s governance and its infrastructure is as much a demand side problem as much as it is a supply side issue. While there is no ‘empirical study’ on this, something which academics are fond of, a reading of Karachi’s shows that it’s socio-economic policy stream runs thin.
There is a clear absence of social organisations and civil society institutions that can make a coherent set of demands and lobby for change instead of typical strikes, lockouts and protests by the society at large. A fresh disappointment to this affect is the case of Social Policy Development Centre, which is the oldest, biggest and perhaps only policy research institute in a city whose size demands at least ten such institutions. The SPDC these days runs the risk of running aground, where lack of funding has now found it seeking house at the Institute of Business Administration for a year.
For a metropolis boasting big business and financial pundits, Karachi is still to adopt a portfolio approach to public philanthropy. Instead of spending all the philanthropic money on conventional charity, the city’s drivers – big businesses and high net worth individuals – need to start funding policy research institutes and think tanks to adequately articulate their demands and present research-backed policy solutions since the strategy of merely ranting about the city’s problems and lack of ownership hasn’t clearly delivered as yet.