CRAZY RICH KARACHI
Ever wonder why a city of 23 million people, the country’s powerhouse, home to its thin upper crust, can’t even afford a lick of paint?
If Karachi is a city full of so many rich people, why is its city government so broke?
I went looking for an answer many years ago. When I tried the city government’s website, I couldn’t understand its budget and older ones had not been uploaded. I gave up. It was pre-Twitter civilisation and I couldn’t even shame the mayor. Well, we actually didn’t even have one back then.
Then something absurd happened this year. On June 29, a day after Mayor Wasim Akhtar presented the budget for Karachi for the fiscal year 2019-20, he was forced to hold a session outdoors on the lawns of the Old KMC Building because the power was cut. The city government hadn’t paid its K-Electric bill of a staggering 500 million rupees.
Karachi Metropolitan Corporation is so poor that it has to beg the Sindh government to pay its bills.
I reluctantly went to interview Mayor Wasim Akhtar as he used to have a reputation of being less than genteel. He was not like the other big names from his party, the MQM, who tend to be silver-tongued and slippery to boot.
It was surprising that he was candid, if not a little saccharine. He even thanked me for bothering to write on the topic. I was taken aback. The man had changed. I suppose a lick of jail time and empty coffers do have a sobering effect.
His claims were consonant with my private assessment of why Karachi’s city government was never able to pay for itself: the Government of Sindh (read: PPP) had gutted out the KMC’s powers and ability to earn by charging taxes. This was a grand conspiracy to wrest control from the MQM which had its fun in the sun when military dictator Musharraf had been in power. That party was long over.
I grew suspicious when I found myself buying into the mayor’s explanations. I worried that I was biased against the PPP and too pro-MQM (if there is such a thing). Both parties deserved a fair shake if I was asking how they had run Karachi. They both had ample time at the helm: roughly 10 years each from 2001 to 2019.
So I asked PPP’s minister of local government at the time, Saeed Ghani, for an interview. (He was replaced by Nasir Shah in August). Mr Ghani’s demeanour was flinty but he offered much clarity on his party’s motivations.
I did a few background interviews to cross-check their claims. You will find in these sections below what I learnt—but by no means do these pieces give a nuanced breakdown of local government finances. They barely skim the surface.
The sonorous phrase “municipal finance” is a subject for the experts. Many of my questions are still unanswered but my hope is that in this special Samaa Digital section, anyone interested in how the city runs will have some signposts to help follow the news.
I believe most people do want to know, just like I did, what is the reason why we live in despair. How come we are so rich but our city is so poor?
Graphic design: Obair Khan
Animation: Feroz Khan, Muhammad Jawad
Video: Rahim Sajwani
Photo Illustrations: Shaikh Faisal Rasheed, Ziad Ashfaq, Asad Shakeel