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Urban Emperors and the Epic Karachi Decay

SAMAA | - Posted: Jun 26, 2020 | Last Updated: 3 months ago
Posted: Jun 26, 2020 | Last Updated: 3 months ago
Urban Emperors and the Epic Karachi Decay

When Mughal Emperor Babar invaded India, he found a country thin on charm. “There is no beauty in its people," his memoir states. “There are no good horses, meat, grapes, melons or other fruit. There is no ice, cold water, good food or bread in the markets. There are no baths and no schools.”

I woke from an undisturbed sleep. Considering that we share a colony with stray dogs, it had almost been impossible to remain immune to their late-night conferences. But curiously, they had gone.

Still a little mystified, I launched forth into my daily quotidian; A check on the underground water tank revealed water up to the brim, dispensing with the necessity for a tanker. As I stepped out, I mused that some significant personality must be scheduled for a visit to our area given how clean the streets were. At the bus stop, I barely needed to consult the timetable and had scarcely needed to use the bench as the bus arrived on time. In its air-conditioned capsule, we sped through to the centre of the city, where I alighted feeling full of hope for the day.

I will spare you the details of my afternoon downtown, the museum and library visit, the quick lunch at the Irani café, and the other amusements. Suffice it to say that even after a full day, by the time I returned to my neighbourhood, I was still sufficiently enervated to meet up with the gang in the park. We gathered around a bench under one of the lampposts which were switched on at dusk and expounded on the hot topics of the day. I asked how the provincial government was performing. Everyone agreed, it wasn’t doing a bad job…

By now, for anyone reading this in Karachi, it will be amply clear that these were all just the ramblings of a dreamer. For as Munir Niazi once wrote:

Khwaab hotey hain dekhne ke liye
Inn me jaa kar magar raha na karo

Dreams are meant to be had
Not lived in

When Mughal Emperor Babar invaded India, he found a country thin on charm. “There is no beauty in its people, no graceful social intercourse, no poetic talent or understanding, no etiquette, nobility or manliness,” his memoir states. “The arts and crafts have no harmony or symmetry. There are no good horses, meat, grapes, melons or other fruit. There is no ice, cold water, good food or bread in the markets. There are no baths and no schools. There are no candles, torches or even candlesticks.”

Babar’s disdain for the absence of finer aspects of India certainly did not deter him from helping himself to its wealth; in fact, the booty was enough of an incentive for him to stay on and establish his rule. But if we analyze Babar’s statement objectively, we find that his observation is more of a charge sheet against the Sultans of Delhi. The inept Sultans had looted India and its riches but had done nothing for its people. Even after centuries of their rule there was nothing to show for it other than a few monuments.

Babar’s dynasty would still, nevertheless, pave a new future for the people of South Asia. Grand projects such as Fatehpur Sikri, the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort turned the Mughal Empire into a coveted jewel on the global map. Still, we must admit that if the vanquisher of this empire, Nader Shah, had left behind a memoir, his opinion about its people would have been the same as Babar’s, for even the Mughals did very little for the people of India.

The present government thinks that previous governments did nothing, and the previous governments think their predecessors did nothing. One can painfully crawl up this timeline of mighty rulers to pin the entire blame on Qutbuddin Aibak, the first Sultan of Delhi. But despite the neglect, our countries remained rich with plenty to perennially loot and plunder. Critics may say that one must not ignore periods of rule by benevolent and caring rulers. I do not deny this; there were many good and compassionate rulers but my argument here is not focused on the deeds of a person—it is rather about the municipal needs of a people

Who I blame

It is a generally well-accepted fact that we inherited our systems from the British, but I believe that in essence, we have actually carried forward not just that, but the legacy of the Delhi Sultans and Mughal Emperors. Throughout Muslim rule over South Asia we can only find sporadic references to public works, schools and hospitals being established by the Sultans and emperors. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a fan of the British Raj, but I cannot ignore that they established educational and medical institutions and provided the basis for municipal services. Whatever municipal structure we do have today is a remnant of the British era. I had wanted to further buttress my point with an examination of municipal laws and how they work in Pakistan, especially in Sindh, but unfortunately they are a complete morass of jargon.

Do you think that your local council can lift garbage? Or do you think they can provide you clean drinking water? Or can they repair your road? If you are living in Karachi then the answer is probably no. In Karachi, garbage collection is the responsibility of the Sindh Solid Waste Management Board. The Karachi Water and Sewerage Board is responsible for clean water. Road repairs have many actors including the Government of Sindh, a financially strained local council, the federal government’s Sindh Infrastructure Development Company, the Deputy Commissioner-led Community Development Program etc. Almost none of these entities have elected representatives who can be held accountable by the people. The entire bureaucratic municipal system of delivery is over-centralized but bereft of functional independence at its lower tiers. While writing these lines, I also remembered that we now have a provincial vertical program to control stray dogs—previously a responsibility of the local authorities.

Our governments can undertake grand projects of constructing an underpass, an overhead or rapid transport system but they cannot do the simple things that make people’s lives easier. This is because we inherently like undiluted power. We are convinced that we can do each and every thing on our own. But we never realize that we lack the energy or focus to do all things despite being sincere. Why do we see a meticulously planned and maintained Islamabad? Or why are areas adjoining CM houses in provincial capitals usually better off than other areas? The reason is simple: all these places are under the watch of people who can take decisions. Whereas an important place in District Karachi West may suffer neglect because there is no one who can take appropriate decisions. Yes, there must be those who want to improve the situation, but they do not have the resources at their disposal.

Special mention

The Local Government system introduced by Musharraf in 2001 is worth mentioning here. It created powerful local councils with little to no accountability. The councils had, however, a decent share in resources but had little responsibility and no checks whatsoever. As a result, local councils became offices of political parties all over Pakistan. The system favored aristocracy and converted remote areas into their fiefdoms as political control, the administration and police came under the control of the Nazim who mostly belonged to some important political family of the area. Such were the powers of Nazims that some seasoned politicians preferred this post to a seat in the National Assembly.

Unbridled powers of local councils became the major cause for their downfall. Consider an average district of Punjab; almost every district here has more than 20 members of the provincial assembly. But every district had one Nazim with control over the administration and police. Politicians who had worked hard to win thousands of votes to get a provincial assembly seat felt redundant and jealous of the person who was elected at the union council level and through political maneuvering managed to become a Nazim. With the first available opportunity, provincial assemblies did away with Musharraf’s Local Government system rather than fixing and improving it.

Local councils in most parts of the developed world are immensely powerful. Unlike Musharraf’s councils, they are not dependent on grants nor are they infamous for political appointments. They tax people for the services they provide. Almost all government services can be obtained from a local council, including driving licenses, passports, vehicle registrations, birth certificates etc. For citizens of such councils, their council is the government. But in Pakistan, and especially in Karachi, I am not sure as to what thousands of municipal employees do.

Skewed thinking

Over the course of centuries our despotic rulers have made us internalize the belief that education and heath are our own responsibility. Almost anyone who can afford it prefers private health and education over government provided. Also, it is a common prayer in Pakistan, “O Allah keep us safe from the courts and police” Ya Allah, thana, katchehri se bachana. I believe we are among the nations with the least expectations. So, for most of us, any government that can provide basic needs such as water, garbage collection, roads, is a very good government. Unfortunately, it is difficult for the federal and provincial governments to provide these services for they are not designed to function at such a level of public service delivery.

To return to my dream: What part of my dream is out of this world? Are these not all fundamental rights that have been denied because of structural flaws in our political systems? We cherish the 18<sup>th</sup> Amendment in the Constitution of Pakistan for giving more power to the people of the provinces. But 10 years since it was introduced, can anyone say that municipal service delivery has improved in this period. Most of us would agree that they have deteriorated. I agree that people like to feel empowered but at the same time they also like clean and green cities, towns and villages. They also like to have access to clean water. No constitution can guarantee these things, they can only be ensured through established systems and institutions.

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  1. Adil Mushtaq  June 27, 2020 2:00 am/ Reply

    An insightful article.

  2. Aryba J.  June 27, 2020 11:55 am/ Reply

    That’s the dilema, neither do we have the resources nor the bodies who would actually work on all these issues.
    Majority of the people have stopped expecting from the government, they would be happy with even the least of facilities, uninterrupted electric and water supply and possibly clean streets. All of which are way far from reality at the moment.

  3. Aryba J.  June 27, 2020 3:59 pm/ Reply

    Living in Karachi and being deprived of the most basic rights, essentials like uninterrupted electricity, clean water and proper infrastructure and roads feel like a luxury.

    It’s saddening to see our current state and what is more saddening is that there is nobody to listen to the plight of people. Either they aren’t interested or they do not have the funds to ensure provision of basic facilities.

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