What needs to be done in Karachi

By Raza Rumi

The recent escalation of violence and senseless butchery in Karachi serves to remind us once again just how the state is withering away in Pakistan. State-building has always been a neglected project in Pakistan’s largest city. Ineffective and weak institutions were commandeered by large, organised mafias often with public support on the basis of ethnic identity. This spurred other groups to organise themselves in a similar manner and now Karachi is a playground of ethnic battles and fascist tactics with violence seen as a legitimate instrument to achieve and exercise political power.

In recent years, the PPP-MQM détente had given a faint hope that the two parties might be able to reorganise the parameters of urban governance and introduce the much-needed pending reforms. However, all this could not materialise because of lack of trust between the two groups and the PPP’s tilt towards a new power broker in Karachi, the Awami National Party (ANP), which represents the city’s burgeoning Pasthun community. In addition, the rise of the Lyari Aman Committee as a claimant to urban power confounded the elusive consensus needed for institutional reforms.

Pakistan’s largest metropolis therefore is divided between politico-ethnic factions who draw their power through armed factions, ‘death-squads’, extortion and other informal governance mechanisms. The formal state has virtually disappeared. Like the rest of the country the undoing of the local government system in 2008 has impacted the metropolis adversely. The current delimitation and electoral grouping ensures that MQM gains in any such election, which is unacceptable to other ethnic groups.

The erosion of the state has grave implications. First, the lack of an adequately staffed and trained police force makes it impossible for the provincial government to maintain law and order; and federal paramilitary troops have to be relied upon. Second, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that al Qaeda and its allied sectarian groups operate with impunity in Karachi. This mayhem suits their ends. Thirdly, the country as a whole suffers since the city has a vital position in Pakistan’s economy and any adverse effect there impacts the rest of the country. Finally, the lack of security and arbitrary ethnic killings make communities rely on their ethnic networks for protection thus preventing social integration.

The ruling coalition in Islamabad is at best indifferent and the provincial government appears to be utterly incompetent in dealing with the violence. The proposal to reintroduce the institution of commissioner and revival of various districts in the city is an old, failed model of governance. To begin with, it is a contested recipe and the MQM is not going to be keen on it. Similarly, the myopic solution to send in more Rangers and other paramilitary troops to do a ‘clean-up’ operation has been done time and again with no sustainable results. There are calls for an army operation as well. Earlier operations by the army failed to change anything and provided at best short-term relief. In any case, by resorting to an army operation, the political parties will be digging their own graves, as Pakistan’s experience would suggest.

Karachi needs a strong, well-resourced local government that can take care of the citizen’s issues of entitlements (such as security) and basic social services. Furthermore, there is simply no alternative to have a functional police system. Little has been done in this direction but a beginning can be made. Community policing becomes a part of this agenda and there is nothing that stops the provincial government to undertake these reforms. The intelligence apparatus in the city is also dysfunctional with a weak capacity. With growing terrorist networks and criminal gangs operating, how can the state dispense this function in the name of political expediency?

All these reforms require a political consensus and process of negotiation. The leaderships of the PPP, MQM and the ANP need to enter into a meaningful process of engagement where they can agree on the urgent reforms. The long-term institution building must be part of this reform-agenda. A ceasefire between death squads of political parties must be effected at once to save the people of Karachi from the daily dose of fear and insecurity.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 10th, 2011.

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