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Karachi as an ATM

DRIVING to the French Beach the other day, I was reminded of just how ugly Karachi has become over the years: piles of garbage lined the rutted road, and shoddy houses were everywhere.

Before this brief excursion, I flew to Lahore for a week and was struck again and again by the gulf that has grown between the two cities. No rubbish was visible, and growth was planned. The new ring road allowed traffic to flow smoothly, and the cops were surprisingly efficient.

I recall that in my first stint in Lahore in the late 1960s after becoming a civil servant, those of us from Karachi used to look down on Lahore as a provincial hick town. Our new Lahori friends considered Karachi a swinging metropolis, far ahead of their sleepy city.

That was then: it’s a whole different story now. Karachi was dragged down by urban terrorism initiated by the militant arm of the MQM from the mid-1980s onwards. It has only just halted its death spiral a few years ago, when Nawaz Sharif cracked down on the thugs who had taken over the city.

Lahore has taken over Karachi’s mantle as Pakistan’s premier city.

But the gang violence, terrorism and protection rackets that brought Karachi to its knees have taken a heavy toll. There has been little fresh investment, and many industries have moved to Punjab. Nevertheless, people from across the country have continued to pour in, searching for jobs. The result is an unplanned urban eyesore with around 21 million people competing for jobs and scarce resources like water, transport and electricity.

The mess has been made worse by the wrangling between the PPP and the MQM. While the former rules Sindh, the latter has the majority of councillors in the local government. However, the PPP has been reluctant to transfer funds to the city government, and the result is visible in the form of piles of garbage all over the city. I suppose it would be too much to expect the two parties to work out a modus vivendi that would bring some relief to the beleaguered inhabitants of Karachi. No wonder both parties fared so poorly in the last elections.

As Karachi has declined, Lahore has taken over its mantle as the country’s premier city. Going there now from Karachi is like visiting a foreign country. True, successive governments in Punjab have focused on the more exclusive areas of Lahore, and the recent desecration of the city’s priceless cultural heritage has been little short of criminal. But development has filtered across the city and the province to varying degrees.

Whatever the truth about the allegations against Shahbaz Sharif, the fact is that he has done a great job in pushing Punjab’s progress. I met the head of the Department of International Aid, Britain’s aid agency, in Sri Lanka a couple of years ago. He was then based in Lahore, and said Punjab was the best province in Pakistan for making good use of British aid.

Sindh, on the other hand, has suffered under a kleptocracy that has treated Karachi as its personal ATM. While Punjab’s ruling elite has taken pride in improving Lahore, our local and provincial governments have both milked Karachi dry. Land grabs are common, and most attempts at changing things for the better have been led by individuals and NGOs.

I met a civil servant about three years ago who had served in both Punjab and Sindh as a deputy commissioner, and asked him about his experience in both provinces. “Saeen,” he replied. “It was a tough job in Punjab because the private secretary to the chief minister used to call all DCs on their landlines at 8 am. In Sindh, nobody bothered when I turned up to work.”

This difference in attitude towards governance explains the gulf that has opened up between Punjab and Sindh. People who have driven from Karachi to Lahore speak of the sudden improvement in the quality of the roads as they cross over the provincial border from Sindh into Punjab.

None of this is intended to suggest that Punjab has become a land of milk and honey overnight. But you get a sense that — until recently, at least — there was an authority driving change. In Sindh, there seems little desire for improvement as the rulers here are just too busy making money.

One thing to remember is that Lahore had a huge advantage over Karachi due to its rich heritage of Mughal and colonial buildings and gardens. Karachi, by contrast, was an insignificant port city that had a few imposing colonial buildings, but little else. After Partition, it was overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of refugees; and this flood has continued as people from other provinces have flocked here to find work.

Given its limited resources, it is no wonder it has been unable to cope. But this should not be used as an excuse for the loot and plunder that has been going on.

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