The city without a government

Squabbles over jurisdiction and powers eat away at Karachi

The city without a government
To say that Karachi’s urban governance challenges are complex would be an understatement. It has reached a stage where there is little hope of building a framework for sustainable growth and development. The crisis of civic governance and the role played by key government entities have a large footprint in terms of urban civic and social services, infrastructure development, and law and order. At the cost of sounding pessimistic, it is felt that there can be no hope of stemming this rot unless we first realize the true nature and extent of the crisis and take action to reverse the decline.

So how can one define Karachi’s present governance construct? The roots of decay principally lie in its twisted political economy context. The critical institutions of civic governance actually don’t work. The city government is struggling to be relevant since its powers, functions and responsibilities have been significantly reduced. The post-devolution surgical alterations in the local government system in the form a number of amendments and notifications in the Sindh Local Government Act 2013 have rendered the local and city governance system totally dysfunctional. The subsequent distribution of finances, services and revenue generation between Sindh government entities—the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation or KMC (which used to be the CDGK) and the six District Municipal Corporations or DMCs—has led to organizational, jurisdictional and legal chaos.
The city government is struggling to be relevant since its powers, functions and responsibilities have been significantly reduced. The post-'devolution' surgical alterations in the Sindh Local Government Act 2013 have rendered the local and city governance system totally dysfunctional

KMC and the Karachi Development Authority are at loggerheads with each other over mandate and even office space (KDA chucked KMC out of Civic Centre in March, forcing the latter to take up at the Old KMC Building on MA Jinnah Road). Recently, KMC put a notice in newspapers disputing the collection of entry fees by KDA in parks it considers part of its jurisdiction. This was just one manifestation of the larger tug of war between the KMC/DMC and the Sindh government over the control of the parks of Karachi.

Then take the controversy surrounding the formation of the Sindh Solid Waste Management Board that was supposed to get powers and functions held earlier by KMC/DMC. This has descended into a court battle between the Sindh government and KMC. A recently formed Judicial Commission recommended handing these responsibilities back to the city government. Ultimately, the city suffers as rotting garbage piles up.

There are similar battles over land use and building control, water and sanitation, revenue generation etc. all placed within a crazy mix of policy and institutional overlaps. A political turf battle has eaten into the governance DNA of the city and has straitjacketed any hopes for consensus-based and viable policy, planning and development. Within this vacuum, special interests are finding ways to promote their own agendas. There are serious concerns that the recent densification and high-rise development in certain areas of the city may be stretching the key civic utilities such as water and power beyond their limits, irreversibly altering land use and at times encroaching on listed heritage sites.

Key civic entities such as the Karachi Water & Sewerage Board and the Sindh Building Control Authority that should work together are instead taking each other to court. While the courts have intervened in certain cases this is not the solution. Within a well-functioning city, these are decisions and policies that are backed by thorough research and analyses, planned in coordination and strengthened by citizen support to give them legitimacy. This is exacerbated by the erosion and fragmentation of critical civic institutions, declining morals and competencies of staff and an almost complete lack of social accountability. There appear to be no solutions on offer or under negotiation between the competing actors either.

The potential for private sector participation in improving urban governance has been wasted. All over the world, exciting innovations are taking place and new models of public-private and community partnerships are coming up city governments redefine their roles. They are exploring policy, regulation and supervision and outsourcing aspects of their work. Take for example, an interesting model applied in many large cities of the Business Improvement District (BID) that was pioneered in New York City. A BID is a public/private partnership model set up as a non-profit organization that collects mandatory financial assessment from property owners in a defined geographic area for supplemental services such as sidewalk improvement, sanitation, security and special events. It is famous for rejuvenating decaying urban spaces, the most prominent being Times Square. In NYC alone there are now more than 70 BID projects. In Times Square it evolved to bring about the recent reconstruction and pedestrianization, for what is now considered a global best practice in public space design.

In our case, however, even though we have a vibrant private sector, government entities have not been able to work with them. There are a number of reasons for this. The private sector hesitates to get sucked into the institutional mess that defines our civic agencies. The government lacks the management capacity to handle complex models and contracts needed for private sector engagement. Regulatory mechanisms do not exist. It does not help that civil society has an undying bias against any form of private sector engagement in civic services.

In the meantime, growing corruption and criminalization has drastically reduced the writ of the state in protecting the interests of the citizens. This has seen the rise of Karachi’s ‘informal economy’ which now covers pretty much all aspects of development; the more severely impacted sectors are land and civic services such as water. (Take, for example the water tanker business and the builder mafia and katchi abadis that provide housing). A parallel, non-planned, non-documented and non-regulated system of land transactions and service delivery works in Karachi that has roots in every avenue of policy making, planning and development. The consequences in terms of sustainability of city growth are horrifying.

While citizens and civil society groups do keep coming up with models of community-driven growth, they can’t seem to gain a foothold because the government has not bothered to study and evaluate them with possible considerations for streamlining in the formal policy framework as is normally the case with NGO/CBO models. A prime example is that of the wildly successful Orangi Pilot Project. In Orangi, it provided the engineers and technical expertise and the neighbourhoods paid for their own sewage and sanitation lines. Called a pilot project by the late Akhter Hameed Khan saheb, it was meant to serve as a model that could be adopted and replicated in the city with the government making its community mobilization part of public policy. An effort was made to partially make that happen in the works of the Sindh Katchi Abadi Authority when Tasneem Siddiqui saheb was its director-general but with his departure, the initiative could not be sustained.

So today, Karachi is a rudderless city with multiple actors, shaping (rather misshaping!) the city in a variety of non-coordinated and non-compatible ways. The result is a city that now lacks any real identity or character. It is a city where it is even impossible to define its architectural vocabulary.  Half of its populace lives in informal settlements and more are being added! There are a number of potential levers for positive change (such as the adoption of community and civil society-based initiatives in public policy, and leveraging of private sector expertise and finances). But none of these options can be successful unless political stakeholders decide once and for all to think of the greater good, resolve their conflicts and agree to work together.

Civil society initiative: Sehat Kahani

‘Sehat Kahani’ is an exciting merger of IT tools and community-based health care. The scope of Sehat Kahani includes but is not limited to tele-medicine, health education and promotion, and health market research. Non-practicing women doctors are located and connected via telemedicine technology to communities in ‘clinic spaces’. Now extending beyond Karachi, by 2020, Sehat Kahani aims to create 50 e-hub and 200 e-spokes in underserved communities along with a network of out-of-practice female physicians, nurses and community health workers to serve six million beneficiaries across Pakistan.

Community work: Imkaan in Machhar Colony

Non-profit Imkaan works on infanticide and abandonment of children and was designed to meet the most basic human right of every child, the right to a loving family and a secure environment. It started off with providing support to the women and children in Machhar Colony, one of the largest informal settlements in Karachi by establishing a clinic for prenatal and neonatal care. Recently, it set up a recreational or play space for the children of the neighbourhood, called ‘Khel’. It is here that the children do art, train in gymnastics and get a chance at free play in a neighbourhood that otherwise has no spaces for them.