When the rains came to Karachi in that raging torrent on Thursday last week, some crucial realities of not just Karachi but the very nature of our social development were laid bare.
While urban flooding was inevitable, the havoc that this downpour caused in the expansive sectors of the upscale Defence Housing Authority (DHA) has added a new chapter in the annals of Karachi’s disaster-ridden history.
Now, the DHA is in many ways another country; they do things differently there. It would be hard to compute the wealth that circulates and proliferates in its real estate. Most of its residents lead a privileged life and can justifiably be classified as the elite. But the flood that was raised by a day of heavy rains has inundated their lives in unexpected ways – and they are unable to readily buy their escape from this quagmire.
On a separate level, too, so many of the well-off residents of the DHA and Clifton have suffered a setback in their support for Imran Khan and his party. This has turned out to be an unrequited love affair. Even though Karachi falls in the specific domain of the provincial government, there is a feeling that the PTI – that is, the federal government – has not looked after a city that is its own constituency.
This fact that Karachi elected 14 MNAs and 22 MPAs of Imran Khan’s party in the 2018 national elections is of great significance in our political history. Historically, Karachi had always diverged from the national drift, even before it lapsed into the abyss of ethic politics. This was the first time that Karachi voted for a mainstream, national party. It was Imran Khan’s charisma that charmed a large number of Karachiites.
Indications of this shift were available in the 2013 elections when the PTI candidates polled more votes than expected in the MQM strongholds. But Imran Khan did not exploit this base and ignored the city. Anyhow, DHA people had played a prominent role in 2013 by defying the MQM pressure in electing Arif Alvi, who is now our president, as a member of the National Assembly.
The point I am making is that though Karachi and particularly the relatively affluent residents of the DHA had made their political investment in the PTI, the leaders of the party were nowhere to be seen when the rain emergency struck and DHA was drowning. This was in stark contrast to how Arif Alvi was seen in the forefront of many protests before 2018.
So much so that Imran Khan, as the prime minister, did not rush to Karachi immediately after the deluge. This is not how a people’s leader would behave. And he had retreated to Nathiagali when Karachi suffered the tragedy of the PIA crash. Eventually, his arrival during the weekend with his ‘transformation’ plan for the city was preceded by the visits of the COAS and National Assembly’s leader of the opposition.
Since my emphasis here is on the wave of anger and anxiety that has risen in the elite precinct of DHA, I will not be distracted by projects that are meant to repair a broken city. One is very aware of what is wrong with Karachi and remedies by the experts have repeatedly been prescribed. There are lessons to be learnt from what Shahbaz Sharif had done for Lahore.
Yet, Karachi’s politics is congenitally flawed and the PTI has almost lost its initial advantage to forge ahead with the collaboration of the Sindh government. It is sad that Imran Khan’s performance during the past two years has manifestly been dismal. Apparently, the PTI constituency in the DHA has bogged down in the sludge that the rains have left on so many streets.
Surely, the rains fell across the metropolis and some old localities were also flooded. But the common and the poor have generally resigned themselves to their fate, which adds to the good luck of the rich and the privileged. This time, the rains became a kind of an equaliser by breaking into the stately homes of the upper class.
The message here is that there are limits to being privileged and powerful. Far from the deprivations of the poor, they can have their own security, educational institutions and hospitals. They can pay for the services they need. But they will still need the basic infrastructure and utilities that sustain life in a city that functions.
It may be wishful thinking, but I feel that the anger, emotion and thoughts that this crisis has injected in the hearts and minds of the DHA elite can leave some impact on the politics of the city. At least in the sphere of civil society, a new surge of activism should be possible.
There are innumerable personal stories of the flooding of homes and power outages that continued for four or even five days. I was surprised by the intensity of anger and emotional distress that I encountered in my telephonic conversations with some friends.
That is how we had that spirited demonstration on Monday at the office of the Cantonment Board Clifton (CBC). One would never see those people, including women, in a political or civil society protest. When the authorities resorted to their familiar devices of harassment and intimidation by filing FIRs, there was a calculated response and the citizens were not daunted by a show of force and a planned demonstration at the DHA offices on Thursday was peacefully held. There was a protest rally at the Frere Hall on Friday.
Again, I am not sure if this protest for the rights of the citizens will sensitise a section of our elite to the problems that we confront as a nation. Do they suffer the guilt of being privileged in a society that is so unjust and impoverished? I am reminded of what the departing head of the UNDP in Pakistan had said four years ago: “The elite needs to decide whether they want a country or not”.
The writer is a senior journalist.