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Tuesday November 30, 2021

How to fix Karachi

Everyone wants a better Karachi. How?

September 02, 2020
People wade through a flooded residential area following heavy monsoon rains triggered floods in Pakistan´s port city of Karachi on August 31, 2020.-AFP

Everyone wants a better Karachi. How? The easy answer, so commonly cited, is the refrain of “local government”. If only Karachi had local government!

Of course, the reality is that Karachi does have ‘local government’. In October 2012 Sindh adopted the Sindh People’s Local Government Act 2012. This was replaced in February 2013 with the The Sindh (Repeal of the SPLG Act, 2012 and Revival of the SLG Ordinance, 1979) Act, 2013. This in turn was replaced in August 2013 with the The Sindh Local Government Act 2013. The local government system in Sindh was reformed in its entirety three times in less than one tumultuous year!

It gets better. The current law, the SLGA 2013, changed eight times, from August 2013 when the SLGA 2013 was passed to December 2015, when the first election under this law took place. Eight times. Two by ordinance and six by acts of the Sindh Assembly.

As pregnancies go, local government in Sindh has had a very rough one. The resulting miscarriage has been splashing and sploshing about the breadth and width of Karachi over the last few days. But Sindh is not the exception in Pakistan when it comes to local governance. It is the rule.

Article 140-A, which was added to the constitution as part of the 18th Amendment essentially lays out the generic principle of local government. It says, “Each province shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local governments”.

Is this an adequate delineation of the constitutional articulation of subsidiarity, representativeness for local government? Maybe. Let’s examine how it has been done in other countries blessed with constitutional federalism.

The statement of objects and reasons for the 74th Amendment to the constitution of the Republic of India, enacted in 1992, lays out the basis for the reform of the panchayat system to address the need for urban governance. It says, “In many states local bodies have become weak and ineffective… As a result, Urban Local Bodies are not able to perform effectively… it is considered necessary that provisions relating to Urban Local Bodies are incorporated in the constitution particularly for putting on a firmer footing the relationship between the state government and the Urban Local Bodies”.

In the United States of America, the 10th Amendment does almost the opposite of what the 74th Amendment does in India, stating, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people”.

What is the right balance that Pakistan must seek in framing how to establish the structure and norms that will enable the governance of a city like Karachi? For starters, we must overcome our fixation with the ‘uniqueness’ of Karachi.

Of course, Karachi is unique. But is it so unique that it needs a constitutional amendment or a set of laws all its own? The answer is: maybe.

Pakistani cities have no place to grow and no place to go. The reason for this is not necessarily the fact that urban governance finds no mention in the constitution, but rather than the notion of the Pakistani city, both structurally and normatively, simply does not exist.

The local government laws in the country, regardless of which province we examine, make essentially the same standardized distinction between urban and rural areas. Urban areas are divided into some version or the other of metropolitan and/or municipal corporations. Rural areas are not. There are a range of functions, at least on paper, that these corporations are supposed to be able to do. None, anywhere in the country can. The result is not only Karachi. Look closely at Lahore and its solid waste management problems. Look at the water and sanitation crisis in Faisalabad. Look at the land use and building codes violations-as-norm in Peshawar. Karachi is bigger and more visible a sore. But it is not alone.

So, what is the solution?

First, let’s eliminate the big non-solution in the room: taking Karachi away from Sindh in any way shape or form. Any ideas for Karachi that will trigger Sindhi anxiety or provoke the PPP into aggression or denial need to be rejected, right off the bat. Does this mean that we are now issuing ethnic groups or political parties a veto to prevent progress? Not really. The fact is that federalism, as a mode of governance, essentially requires the country to find solutions that are either designed by the provinces themselves, or solutions that the provinces are amenable to.

Talk of new provinces that begins and ends with Karachi, the notion of ‘federalizing’ Karachi (whatever that term of fantasy fiction actually means) or the idea of ‘separating’ Karachi from Sindh are all non-starters because they problematize the idea of Sindh, and more widely Sindhi identity. This is no way to solve problems. It is a formula to create new ones.

Now, the solution. Pakistan needs a grand vision for how society will be organized over the next quarter century and longer. What is the function of the 21st century Pakistani megacity and city? What role can cities play in economic growth? What can cities do for individual dignity, class mobility, freedom and human capital? How do cities strengthen national security? How can climate change be managed as we build more and more concrete and steel structures? This vision must not be developed specifically for Karachi, but for all ten of the country’s largest cities by population, as per the 2017 census.

The Pakistani city needs two structural guarantors. The first would be a federal law that enables the establishment of minimum standards on issues such as public safety, food security, climate change, public health, education and other similar issues on which the federal government is responsible for fulfilling international commitments (such as the Sustainable Development Goals). The second would be provincial laws, developed through a national consultative and consensus-seeking mechanism (perhaps a committee notified by the Council on Common Interests) that enables the core framework for urban governance to be similar across the country.

Once these federal and provincial laws are in place, two changes in how resources are managed will be required; one relates to human resources, the second to financial.

In the deployment of human resources, Pakistani cities must have public servants that are from their communities. In terms of process, this requires a substantial set of changes to the federal and provincial civil services and how civil servants are transferred and posted. In spirit, this requires the dismantling of executive power in government as a tool wielded only by civil servants.

Executive authority needs to be vested increasingly in elected representatives. Local administration, local schools, local clinics and most of all, local police must be manned by people (for the most part) serving the communities they live in. This seems simple but is a disruptive and revolutionary concept for a Pakistan still managed through a colonial civil service tradition.

In terms of finances, Pakistani cities require the establishment of federal funding mechanisms for key city functions (for example public transportation, universities and alternative energy). Cities would then compete for and secure federal grants and financing based on metrics of governance that would help secure compliance (in the main urban centres) with minimum standards for public safety, food security, climate change, public health, education etc. These federal grants would have to come from the federal share of the NFC – but the 10th NFC may design a formula that accounts for how that burden could be offset. Regardless, cities cannot continue to be invested in through the archaic PSDP or ADP – instruments incapable of the alacrity, speed and flexibility that 21st century urban governance demands.

The evolution of the Sindh Local Government Act 2013 demonstrates how challenging the conception and enactment of such a law can be. The state of Karachi after a week of rains (granted, unprecedented) shows how challenging the conversion of such a law into better urban governance can be.

If the solutions remain restricted to the cleaning of nullahs and the raising of ethnic dog whistling and political victimhood, then Karachi is only the first of many cities that will hamper and retard the growth of Pakistan.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.