Wading through reform – Fahd Husain

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WATERS will recede, questions will not.

The great deluge in the metropolis has exposed much but none more so than the unsustainability of the way things are done and not done. This could be — should be — the tipping point in the tragic saga of Pakistan’s largest urban centre.

So what now?

We have been repeatedly told by all and sundry that Karachi’s problems are ‘complex’; that they cannot be reduced to mere cleaning of drains and appointment of an empowered mayor or administrator; that the complications are entrenched deeply under layers of encroachments, overlapping turfs, political interests and institutional clashes. In short, no government can solve them through will or intent alone. As a result, the debate over decades on what ails Karachi has centred less on what can be done and more on why it cannot be done.

But the rains have done this debate in.

The waters will leave behind an urban soil fertile for fresh political and administrative plantation. Now there will be less takers for letting the same way of governance continue. The conventional arguments to do so will be greeted with richly deserved contempt. Resistance to change stands weakened; motivation for reform stands strengthened.

Karachi finds itself at a tipping point. All institutions appear ready and willing to reform the metropolis.

It can all start with a principle decision to fix things. This decision is based on a premise that a joint action team will need to be stitched together for this task. This is easier said than done. The PPP government defends its constitutional turf jealously. When it comes to wielding executive authority in the city, it is the sole wielder. The PTI is a stakeholder as it boasts 14 MNAs from Karachi but this representation in the centre means little in the province other than in an advisory capacity. The local government set-up is a wreck and the mayor will have sailed away into the watery night with the chime of Friday’s midnight clock. With the city carved up into multiple municipalities, authorities and boards, there is no single person who can wade into the slush of the city’s problems and dredge them out.

Read: What really caused the floods in Karachi

Before this latest devastating spell of rains, one committee’s formation had created a stir in Sindh. To be headed by the chief minister, the committee included representatives of PTI and MQM — and the members had tasked themselves to figure out how to fix the city’s problems. However, the chief minister had made it amply clear this was not a joint governance mechanism — executive power lay only with the provincial government — but an advisory body would smoothen political hurdles that needed to be crossed. The committee did not happen in of itself. In the politically polarised environment prevailing today, it could not have. Its formation was a signal, if ever one was needed, that a strategic push was under way to make things move in Karachi.

If there is indeed such a strategic plan behind saving Karachi, then stop-gap arrangements hurriedly woven together in silos will not happen. What should happen is a joint venture that operates within the existing political and constitutional framework while powering up decision-making through coordination and consensus. The strategic plan could — theoretically — evolve into something like this:

The committee is given a name and it acquires the functioning of an executive platform working under the umbrella of the Sindh government. This platform will be chaired by Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah and include not only the already nominated members from PTI and MQM but other parties that have electoral representation from the city. In addition, it should be empowered to call on the military for help wherever needed. Added to these will be technical experts and advisers pertaining to fields that constitute problem areas in the city. This committee could aim to achieve the following objectives:

1) Fast-track a local government plan through consensus and get the relevant legislation drafted and passed through the provincial assembly; 2) Merge all authorities and bodies into one and design an administrative structure that brings all functions under the mayor; 3) Figure out how to fit in DHA and other areas under cantonment boards within this matrix; 4) plan the removal of encroachments — many of which have led to massive clogging of waterways — and figure out alternate plans for those people who will be uprooted from these encroachments (including compensation and housing); 5) Formulate a policy that can lead to the politically difficult decision of laying off excess staff in local departments that will be made redundant; 6) Draw up a blueprint for a drainage system that builds upon the existing one after the removal of encroachments; 7) Set up a city-wide garbage collection mechanism with the required equipment; 8) Establish a public transport system that includes the Karachi Circular Railway, the Green Line and other networks (metro?); 9) Reform building control laws in order to better plan and manage urban sprawl of the future; 10) Draw up a financial plan to fund these reforms through provincial and federal budgets.

There are a hundred reasons why all this cannot be done. There are a thousand reasons why all this must be done. Karachi finds itself at a tipping point. All institutions appear ready and willing to reform the metropolis. The weight of the state is leaning towards Karachi and if applied at the right points at the right time for the right reasons, this weight can demolish walls of unnecessary resistance by getting all stakeholders under one roof to make the difficult decisions and get them fully and speedily implemented.

A perfect storm of dismay, anger and expectation is sweeping across the city. Every citizen appears to be saying enough is enough. Karachi deserves better — much better. Now is the time to make the change — whatever it takes. If the strategists are thinking right, they will stay away from silly ideas like governor’s rule or making the city a federal territory, and opt for bringing about radical reform that paves the way for Karachi to truly become the engine for Pakistan’s growth.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

Twitter: @fahdhusain

Published in Dawn, August 29th, 2020