Running Karachi’s affairs

The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.

UNLESS there are last-minute hiccups, elections to the positions of Karachi mayor and deputy mayor are likely to go ahead as planned today. It took several months to complete the electoral process of the local governments in Sindh. If all goes well, Karachi and other areas will soon have elected mayors and town municipal administration chairmen.

A tough political contest is expected between the Jamaat-i-Islami and the PPP for the city leadership slot. Despite the fact that many of the municipal powers have already been acquired by the provincial government through various laws and administrative arrangements, optimists in the city have reason to be hopeful. It is important to note that the mayor is rightly considered to be the custodian of the city, irrespective of prevailing legal and administrative constraints. The current political fracas in the city notwithstanding, there is enormous opportunity for the person who takes on the mantle of leadership in Karachi. Recognising and accepting the role and status of the municipal administration is necessary, especially for those who are chosen to run the city’s affairs.

The residents of Karachi have been witness to the tussle between the provincial government and local institutions for a very long time now. Each side has claimed to be the true authority for the delivery of services to the citizens. At present, most of Karachi’s affairs are managed by the government of Sindh. New public transport projects, the management of solid waste, water and sewerage services through the Karachi Water & Sewerage Board, safeguarding the environment through the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency, regulating buildings and zoning through the Sindh Building Control Authority, looking after heritage and conservation matters through the culture department and a number of other core responsibilities are under the administrative control of the provincial government.

When the Sindh cabinet meets, a lot of time and effort is spent on dealing with Karachi’s urban affairs. But this arrangement does not take away from the importance of the municipal administration. If the incoming mayor, irrespective of party affiliation and objectives, makes an effort to establish a working relationship between the province and the municipal tier, it may generate a win-win situation for the city and province. Such an approach can only succeed if the content of negotiations is changed from discussing Karachi’s problems to solutions.

The residents of Karachi have been witness to the tussle between the provincial government and local institutions for a very long time now.

The mayor of Karachi can initiate the preparation of urban management procedures for the city’s various neighbourhoods in consultation with town and union committees. Almost all the neighbourhoods suffer from a lack of maintenance of urban public spaces and common-use facilities. Footpaths, street and lane lights, open spaces in front of markets and road fronts, bus stands, parks and playgrounds, healthcare and educational facilities present a rundown picture. Any attempt at repairing, repainting or upkeep has been shoddy at best. By involving municipal councillors, union committee chairs and area notables, a maintenance report card can be generated periodically to prioritise the core interventions needed for neighbourhood reforms.

While the provincial government may be asked for financial assistance, the municipal leadership can reach out to the youth for volunteering their time and effort in identified tasks for area upliftment. With digital technology commonly available, useful task forces for area upkeep can be formed. The private sector and philanthropists can be invited to chip in with specific support when required. It is hoped that the office of mayor will become an accessible platform for seeking solutions and assistance by all, and will not degenerate into the kind of political expediency we have seen all too often.

New developments, infrastructure schemes and mega projects must be initiated in accordance with an effective city plan. The mayor’s office can become a coordinating entity. From 1921 to 2007, Karachi benefited from various planning inputs that offered many useful solutions to city problems. Among other contributions, the plans helped appraise the situation of urban development and management in the city and gave useful suggestions. The Karachi Development Authority has recently floated a request for the preparation of the ‘Greater Karachi Plan 2047’. It is hoped that this much-needed initiative will regulate the process of development and address the challenges that the residents of Karachi face.

Karachi’s local politics has seen a lot of bickering and petty politics. It is hoped that the new mayor will break with this undesirable trend. Instead of locking horns with the provincial and federal governments and other agencies that control a sizable spread of Karachi, the mayor and his affiliates must outline attainable tasks. By building political bridges, many tasks can be done collaboratively, rather than competitively. The city’s affairs are being influenced by trade associations and stakeholder bodies of various scale and profile. The Association of Builders and Developers, the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, wholesalers, retailers, education service providers, healthcare providers, transporters, tanker operators, market committees, residents’ organisations, cooperative societies and similar entities constitute potential lobbies whose genuine issues may become the municipal bodies’ task to resolve.

By way of appropriate consultations, a people-centric priority list can be formulated for reviving Karachi. In addition, the city urgently needs a broad-based review of the ongoing bus rapid transit project and the far-reaching impacts of land-use change, procedural losses to retailing businesses, inconvenience to residents regarding the right of ways, and uncertainty about integration with other modes of transport. The mayor can make his way to the front by using his representative status to reconcile the process and outcome of this high-cost spending for the advantage of remote as well as inner city neighbourhoods.

The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.

Published in Dawn, By Noman Ahmed June 15th, 2023