Failing Karachi

The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.

THE rainy weather has once again exposed how Karachi’s institutions have failed its residents. Officialdom is trying to make its presence felt through press conferences and visits to inundated streets. Unfortunately, it has not informed people about the specifics of any planning done since the heavy rains of 2020, though it talks of institutions extending relief and of the situation being under control.

After Karachi was inundated in August 2020, reasons, such as ‘encroachments’ along the nullahs, were cited as the mother of all ills. Even though many of those encroachments were subsequently removed, through ruthless eviction of the poor, we are hardly faring any better now.

Sources in the media say that Sindh will soon have a new authority to manage the affairs of graveyards, crematoriums and other categories of final resting places. The Sindh Manzil Sukoon Authority Bill, 2022, is apparently being processed in the provincial legislature. If it becomes law, a vital municipal function will come under the provincial government’s purview. This is not an isolated attempt. During the past few years, many crucial urban, municipal and regional functions have been taken over by the authorities and agencies created at the provincial level.

For example, the Sindh Mass Transit Authority has been given the responsibilities of the Traffic Engineering Bureau, KDA. The Sindh Building Control Authority is an expanded version of the Karachi Building Control Authority. Instead of KMC and the district municipal corporations (DMCs), the Sindh Solid Waste Management Board manages trash.

There is no relief for the residents.

KDA’s Master Plan and Environmental Control Department, which became the Master Plan Group of Offices, is now almost redundant. In its place, the Sindh Master Plan Authority is being set up. Observers say that ‘Sindh’ is being used as a brand to deliberately eclipse ‘Karachi’. In the process, the functions, roles and revenue streams of some metropolitan agencies and organisations have been drastically curtailed. KMC, the largest municipal agency in the country, has virtually a ceremonial status now.

Similarly, KDA which prepared two major urban development plans in the past, is practically non-functional. Growth corridors, where saleable land was aplenty, were assigned to the Lyari and Malir development authorities. Both agencies have overseen dubious land transactions since their creation in 1993. An example was the sale of over 16,000 acres of land to a mega realtor along the M-9 Motorway, which was recently adjudicated by the Supreme Court. A penalty of Rs460 billion was imposed on the realtor.

Further erosion of municipal authority is being experienced due to the unequal distribution of responsibilities between KMC and the DMCs. Karachi is divided into seven districts — but three of them do not include the name of Karachi. In the context of the upcoming local elections, the metropolis is divided into 26 towns and 233 union councils. However, not much is in sync. At one end, officialdom is centralising functions and responsibilities at the provincial level, while at the other, the metropolis is subdivided into a confusing maze of new units. Obviously, these steps are an attempt to safeguard certain interests.

Officialdom states endlessly that these measures are meant to improve the quality of life of those living in Karachi and other places in Sindh. Legally, officialdom is well within its boundaries to carve out new administrative units and entities. The windfall of the 18th Amendment provides adequate financial resources to expand the bureaucratic footprint. One can now observe scores of new officers, technocrats and staff being regularly hired and placed in plush offices across Karachi and beyond. Certain political cronies are also ‘accommodated’ to perform executive functions, for which they have neither the technical merit nor the experience. The modus operandi is to devise various legal and administrative options to enhance hiring and staffing.

A visit to such offices leaves the visitor bewildered. There is expensive office furniture, with the latest vehicles and crisply attired staff running around doing ‘official’ errands. Performance is geared to gaining the approval of the political leadership, not the people.

Public money is used but it has so far failed to secure any relief for the citizenry. Our working classes can be found rushing to work in self-owned two-wheelers, tri-wheelers, and rickety buses and minibuses on broken roads. The authority which possesses the mandate to plan and manage mass transit has miserably failed to live up to expectations. Hapless citizens have to help themselves when heavy rain falls, putting lives and property at risk. And when a grand development project like the Malir Expressway is announced, the affected residents must run from pillar to post to negotiate in order to prevent evictions and safeguard their assets. All to no avail.

The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.

Published in Dawn, By Noman Ahmed July 19th, 2022

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