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Don’t throw money at Karachi, get it some government

July 1, 2019
Don’t throw money at Karachi, get it some government

Last week we got two pieces of financial news for Karachi: the World Bank is giving us more money and the mayor announced the city’s budget for next year.

In a nutshell, the bank will be putting $652 million on the table for Karachi to spend on fixing its urban management, transport, water supply, garbage collection. Some of that money, $382 million, is for example, reportedly going specifically into the Yellow line bus rapid transit project. The bank has ostensibly decided to give us the money to “improve institutions, services and infrastructures”. 

And in the second piece of news, emerging a day or so earlier, Karachi’s city government unveiled its budget of Rs26 billion, a third of which the mayor says will be spent on development. (If the math is correct that roughly translates into $158m for comparison).

When I heard this news, I wondered, perhaps like many people who live in Karachi, whether the money would actually be put to good use and improve the city. Of course, I don’t expect World Bank money to miraculously fix the city and neither do I expect the mayor, with his limited powers, to be able to do much either. And I also wonder if the people who make decisions to take on such loans or make these budgets take the long view on Karachi’s finances and ability for its local government to deliver.

My despondency has been informed in no small measure by the words of Dr Kaiser Bengali, an economist whose analysis and solutions I have, over the years, come to consider the only ones truly worthy of implementation. In particular, last year, at the Karachi Conference, he had explained why Karachi and, indeed, Sindh’s other cities were in such a sorry state. I believe that revisiting his talk is important, because as anyone who lives in Karachi is likely to tell you, throwing money at the problem is not going to make it go away. We need a far deeper pivot in governance.  

Dr Bengali had begun by stating what we all simply know: All of Sindh’s cities and towns are in a bad state. Physical infrastructure and provision of civic services are in a state of collapse.

At least half the urban population does not have a daily water supply, and what they get is polluted. They co-exist with sewage and garbage in their neighbourhoods and they commute like cattle in public transport.

For any city to function, said Dr Bengali, it needs four essential services to be provided daily and, more importantly, which cannot be obtained privately. They are: water supply, waste water disposal, solid waste disposal, public transport.

Why are these city services broken across Sindh? According to Dr Bengali, one reason is the fragmentation of service delivery organisations, which is a fancy way of saying that the departments that are supposed to pick garbage, supply water and manage public buses are not working together. “They are all in conflict with each other,” he said.

The job of running Karachi city is done by different departments and authorities. The control of building and construction is provincial or under the Sindh government. We don’t know whether the water board, KWSB, is provincial or local. (Its act is very confusing). Garbage disposal was local but now it is provincial. Public transport is de facto provincial but they really don’t report to anybody, he said. Road maintenance is sometimes local government, sometimes provincial.

So if you look at how Karachi specifically runs, you’ll find the functions fragmented: either federal, provincial or local. They are not all under one umbrella or unified.

Dr Bengali believes that at the heart of this problem is the authority that controls what gets built in Karachi—that is the Sindh Building Control Authority. The irony is that it used to be a Karachi Building Control Authority (KBCA), but the authority was made provincial in 2011 by the PPP.

A weak and inefficient SBCA means that where people should only build up to one floor, they build six. As a result, more people live on a plot than is planned. They need more water, which is why illegal suction pumps are installed. The sewers burst because the higher number of people are creating more wastewater than the system can handle. The electricity pole-mounted transformers burnt out because instead of four ACs on one plot, you have 40 running.

“The SBCA is the core of all service delivery chaos,” said Dr Bengali. It is a provincial body but is uncoordinated with the body that manages the water supply and wastewater disposal (provincial-local), the electricity supply (federal) and traffic management (provincial).

The standing sewage, water shortages, traffic congestion and blackouts become routine. “And as it has become the norm, we don’t feel shocked,” he added.

The economic rationale for a city is wasted. Cities form for basic economic factors, called “agglomeration economies”. When you have people located close to each other, the cost of what they produce to sell goes down. That is what makes cities. But for that it is essential that people are able to get around. And this only happens if there is transport.

If we can’t go from one part of the city to another with ease, then the city expands and this is what has happened to Karachi. “There are people in Defence and Clifton who never go to Nazimabad or Federal B Area or Korangi,” he said. “Similarly, people from those areas never go to others. So without transport, the economic rationale of the city existence, is wasted.” 

We also have to blame the federal government, said Dr Bengali, as it controls half the city, right in the centre of the city. “They are a law unto themselves,” he said. They are not answerable to the Sindh Building Control Authority. They give permission for high-rises wherever they like. There is no coordination on water, sewage, electricity and traffic. “They just allow buildings wherever they want. This has added to Karachi’s chaos.” Adding to the chaos are cantonments, supra-federal that are a law unto themselves.

No proper laws
We should hardly be surprised that local government is fragmented in Sindh because if we go to the Constitution, it has just one line on local government (Article 140-A).

The constitution has a chapter on federal government and a chapter on provincial government, which both outline their structure, powers and functions. However, said Dr Bengali, local government is mentioned as a mere footnote, in one line that says provincial governments shall form local governments.

As a result, it has become a football that is kicked between the military and civilian governments for the control of power and patronage, he argued. Because local government is not defined for us, whenever a new government comes in, it experiments with local government.

Political reasons
Another reason why Sindh’s cities are in such a sorry state is the political divide, said Dr Bengali. In Sindh, the government is of the PPP but the party doesn’t have a vote bank in Karachi. It is the dominant political power in Sindh but without a vote bank in its biggest city.

And so, because the PPP isn’t going to get votes in Karachi, it isn’t going to bother with it. Thus, the PPP, which is in control of the provincial government, doesn’t have the political incentive to devolve power in Karachi and lose control. “As a result, the rest of urban Sindh suffers as well,” said Dr Bengali. “Because if they don’t give autonomy to Karachi, they won’t give it to the other cities either.” 

Solutions
After the analysis, which is rather dismal, the only silver lining is that Dr Bengali also provides what is a clearly logical solution.

He said that we keep demanding elected local government but before all that we should be demanding “integrated local government”. “All the functions that a city is supposed to perform, should be under one umbrella,” he said. “This is the first thing that we should demand even if that local government is appointed. It would be far more efficient than the fragmented local government that we have. Because even a nominated local government would be in some ways answerable. Today nobody is answerable.” 

Many academics have proffered solutions to Karachi’s problems, and indeed many of them have merit, but in Dr Bengali’s case his solutions are based on a sound understanding of how the bureaucracy and power circles work because he has worked closely with and in government.

It is not as if the people in power do not know his analysis. In 2011 he had actually proposed integrated urban governance with four metropolitan authorities in Sindh. All these cities are less than one hour’s driving distance from each other but he argued that their civic services must be integrated. He even proposes they be run by unelected experts and for five years and then we start to talk about elected ones. 

Karachi Mayor Wasim Akhtar is presenting the budget on Friday.Photo: Online

The four metropolitan authorities are:
1. Sukkur Metropolitan Authority for Sukkur, Rohri, Khairpur, Shikarpur, Ghotki, Kandhkot, Jacobabad, Shahdadkot, Larkana.
2. Shaheed Benazirabad Metropolitan Authority for Nawabshah, Dadu, Naushahro Feroze, Sanghar, Sehwan, Shahdadpur.
3. Hyderabad Metropolitan Authority for Hyderabad, Kotri, Jamshoro, Tando Jam, Tando Allahyar, Tando Mohammad Khan, Badin, Thatta, Mirpurkhas.
4. Karachi Metropolitan Authority for Karachi division.

He proposed that the metropolitan authorities have exclusive power to run:
Urban spatial planning
Building control
Housing
Water supply and waste water disposal
Household level electricity and gas connection and supply
Urban roads, pavements, streetlights
Solid waste disposal
Public transport
Traffic control and policing
Health facilities
Schools and colleges
Vocational and technical institutions
Libraries
Industrial estates
Commercial plazas
Parks and playgrounds
Mosques and graveyards

Dr Bengali is not the only person arguing for more powers to Karachi. Doctoral candidate Sumrin Kalia said the same thing when she presented a comparison of local governments in Pakistan at NED university’s annual urban planning conference in 2016. According to her, the local government laws themselves restrict cities from imposing taxes. So when cities can’t create ways to make money to run themselves they end up being “excessively reliant on provincial allocation”. They get their money from the Provincial Finance Commission Award. Kalia argued that local or city governments must be able to control, plan and provide for cities. They must have control over their administrative staff and have the right to a system that allows them to predictably and effectively pay for themselves.

Why integrated urban governance?

In closing, Dr Bengali had given a simple example that shows what happens when a city’s main services are not under one umbrella.

When Murad Ali Shah became chief minister, the provincial works and services department recarpeted the road in front of Chief Minister House and installed fancy streetlights. It was high quality carpeting. A few weeks later, the KWSB dug it all up to lay sewage lines. It was like pouring money down the toilet.

Dr Bengali’s indictment was eviscerating: “If the government cannot manage the road on which the highest office of the province is located, can it manage cities and towns across the province?”

And so, I am left wondering how sustainable it is for us to continue with fragmented local government. The mayor can spend his Rs26 billion budget but will it be evenly applied in a city where he has no control over the cantonments or garbage collection?
Then take the World Bank that is giving us money—the Competitive and Livable City of Karachi Project ($230 million), the Karachi Mobility Project ($382 million) and the Karachi Water and Sewerage Services Improvement Project ($40 million). 

If we don’t have integrated local government how can we even begin to think that money will work for us in the long run? To me it is a symptom of that fragmentation when we are being offered $382 million for one BRT line, the Yellow line. What will happen for the others?

I do not doubt that the bank has done its homework before deciding where to put its money. It could be argued that this kind of funding is the only way we can get such projects off the ground. But forgive me for thinking if we don’t have a functioning integrated city government for all of Karachi, it certainly seems like just throwing money at a problem that won’t go away. 

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar
    SMNadim   July 1, 2019 3:03 pm/ Reply

    Dr. Bengali, i understand, is life long supporter of PPP. Why don’t he tells the PPP leadership what to do and what not to do?

    • Avatar
      Mahim Maher   July 1, 2019 6:45 pm/ Reply

      I think Dr Bengali has been critical of the PPP. He is against the system that they ran, which he says clearly.

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