Bygone glory

October 30, 2022

In the ’70s, Karachi was called the City of Lights and it was a pleasure for the families to walk in its illuminated streets

Bygone glory


arachi was the financial and industrial capital of Pakistan in the 1970s. It still enjoys the status but at a reduced level. Other large cities of the country have grown at a higher speed than its first true metropolis. Many industrialists have relocated their units upcountry because of various reasons. Location-wise the city is an ideal place for investment. It is the country’s largest seaport.

The population of the city has kept increasing as people from all parts of the country have continued migrating to it. There is now chaos in Karachi due to lack of investment in the social sector, crumbling infrastructure, and absence of adequate public transport.

50 years ago Karachi had never faced a water shortage or flooding during rains. For most households today, water supply is perhaps a significant part of the monthly budget. For large houses the expenditure on water supply is higher than the minimum legal wage. According to some reports, the water mafia makes more than Rs 1 billion a day. The city has apparently not been designed to withstand even a few inches of rain. The drain inlets are choked and many drains overflow after every rainfall. Karachi is now a hub of water-related diseases like cholera, diarrhoea and typhoid. The standing water, overflowing sewers and filth around the city are promoting malaria.

Poor infrastructure and regular traffic jams are a recipe for urban disaster. Many street crimes in the city occur during traffic jams. Dilapidated roads contribute to road accidents. Karachi has one of the worst public transport systems in the world. Around 45 citizens must compete for every seat in a bus. The number in Mumbai is 12. Limited access to transit options impacts the women harder. Traffic jams also make the people irritable and result in numerous quarrels on the roads. The noise of horns during jams has resulted in varying degrees of hearing loss among residents of downtown areas.

Street crime is a new normal in the city. Most victims meekly hand over their valuables to the armed daylight robbers at public places. Rare resistance frequently results in death or serious injury. According to available statistics, mobile phones worth Rs 19 million have been snatched/ stolen in the first nine months of 2022. The writ of the government is not clearly visible. Kidnapping for ransom is increasingly frequent. The perpetrators get away with it most of the time.

Currently, there is no local government in Karachi. The situation, say some citizens, was no better when there was one. It is doubtful that local elections will help resolve the problems of the city. Extortion by protection mafias is a bigger expenditure for many businessmen than the taxes they pay to the state.

Over the last 10 years, the disposal of garbage has become the number one nuisance for the people of Karachi. Several parts of the city have been literally become dumpsters. Garbage piles are an open invitation to swarms of flies and other insets. It will be an uphill task to dispose of 10 years of garbage heaped all over the city, even if an initiative were taken today. Even the disposal of 1,600 tonnes of garbage that Karachi generates daily has proved a tough ask for the authorities.

Karachi is the country’s financial and economic hub, generating up 12-15 percent of the GDP. However, the city and its surroundings are not generating economic productivity gains for the country. The stagnation of economic activity in the city is problematic for its long-term economic and social potential.

With a population of 21.9 million, the city ranks 168th on the global liveability index among 172 cities. London with a population of 8.92 million is ranked 33. Karachi’s problems can no more be ignored. A comprehensive strategy to provide relief is needed.

Karachi is the country’s financial and economic hub, generating up to 12-15 percent of the GDP. However, the city and its surroundings are not generating economic productivity gains for the country. The stagnation of economic activity in the city is problematic for its long-term economic and social potential. Its population is very dense, with more than 20,000 persons living per square kilometre. Urban planning, management and service delivery have not kept pace with the population growth and the city seems to be headed towards a spatially unsustainable, inefficient and unliveable form. Urban green space is shrinking and is now only four percent of the city’s built-up area.

There is no cohesive transportation policy for Karachi even as a thousand new vehicles have been added. Both traffic congestion and road safety are serious concerns. Only 55 percent of water supply needs are met daily. Less than 60 percent of the population has access to public sewers. Almost all raw sewage is discharged untreated into the sea. This includes hazardous industrial effluents.

According to conservative estimates, Karachi needs around $9-10 billion a year worth of financing for a ten-year period to meet its infrastructure and service delivery needs in transport, water supply and sanitation and municipal solid waste. The current infrastructure development spending by the public sector is well below the requirement.

There is a dire need to build inclusive, coordinated and accountable service delivery institutions; with strong coordination mechanisms among various public land owning and service delivery agencies. The capacities and capabilities of these agencies must be enhanced to plan, finance and manage development programmes. The local governments must be empowered to take the lead in city management.

The state must invest in environmentally sustainable infrastructure to make the city liveable. The vulnerable groups need assured protection from the negative impacts of economic growth and climate change. The state lacks the resources to finance the much-needed infrastructure in the city. It must engage the private sector in infrastructure provision by creating an enabling environment via policy reforms.

Bureaucratic delays can be reduced by eliminating discretionary power for key business transactions under city and provincial authorities. They must improve cost recovery and revenue collection for basic services while safeguarding vulnerable groups such as the poor. London not only generates resources for the financial needs of the city but also spares substantial amounts for development in areas around it.

Creating a smart Karachi through policies and use of smart tools and technologies is in the larger interest of Pakistan. Innovation with smart policies will better manage city services, improve economic competitiveness and facilitate engagement with citizens.

The writer is a senior economic reporter

Bygone glory