English philosopher John Stuart Mill said local government was an institution that would guide the masses towards becoming a more mature electorate by enabling participation in the democratic process at a level where it had direct benefits and community involvement could be observed.
He said this in the 19th century. He also argued that the only way leaders would work for the betterment of their constituents was if the interests of both the rulers and the ruled were aligned. This happens through democratic elections, as the leaders are forced to engage with the public’s demands due to fear of political competition taking away their seat come the next election.
He claimed elections acted as the accountability needed to ensure rulers did not act against the people’s interests.
The problem with Karachi, then, is the absence of a functioning democratic environment. Over 20 million people living without representatives they can hold accountable creates the kind of political vacuum that allows those who govern it complete impunity for their decisions.
Unfortunately, if there was only one governing body, the blame would be easier to pin. Karachi’s tragedy is that it is governed by un-elected bureaucrats belonging to a multitude of land-owning agencies responsible for planning, development, and provision of civic services within their respective jurisdictions; with the political authority above these bureaucrats resting in the hands of those who haven’t been elected from Karachi.
A look at a World Bank study, itself sourced from a 2007 City District Government Karachi report, reveals that 12% of Karachi is federal land, 48% provincial, and 30% local. For each of these divisions, there are multiple sub-divisions that make complex what is already complicated.
At a base level, it can be claimed that only 10% of Karachi has what can be called locally elected representatives on the KMC City Council. Even then, the powers of these representatives are limited by provincial legislation. And as their tenures have now ended, with no election schedule announced by the provincial government, Karachi is now entirely run by bureaucrats.
The need of the hour is to first set in place a democratic government in Karachi. This can take one of two forms–a separate province or an empowered local government that spans the entire city. The former would need national, local, and regional consensus, followed by a constitutional amendment. The latter would be easier to execute, as all it needs is provincial legislation, but is contrary to the provincial ruling party’s interests.
In such a political deadlock, any progress on the local government problem is achievable only through consistent pressure on all levels of political stakeholders from the people of Karachi themselves.
The PTI’s federal government should be held accountable for not returning cantonment and other federal land to Sindh, not financing the city as it promised and not amending the Constitution to ensure implementation of Article 140-A.
The PPP’s government in Sindh should be held responsible for not devolving power and land ownership to the local tier of administration, exacerbating existing administrative flaws, and its apathy towards the city’s financial requirements; and the MQM for wreaking havoc on the city’s drains during its tenure from 2005-2010.
Sustained coverage of this issue by the media would help keep the disastrous consequences of it, which the city’s residents are living with as we speak, fresh in the mind of national discourse. And national discourse it needs–for Karachi is home to people from all parts of Pakistan. When it drowns, our democracy drowns.
The author, Agha Waleed Hasan, is a student at Lahore University of Management Sciences studying Computer Science and Public Management. He is interested in politics, urbanism, and governance and tweets at @_a_w_h