How dysfunctional politics led 'city of lights' Karachi to a tragic fall
Karachi is a mega city, a microcosm of Pakistan in diversity, representing every minor and major ethnic group. Before independence in 1947 it was equally diverse, but the composition of residents was very different — there were Hindus, Jews, Parsies and Muslims who were engaged in trading, commerce, and some worked in the colonial administration and security services. The demography and the politics of the city underwent fundamental change with the large-scale migration of religious minorities to India and influx of Muslim refugees. It became largely a Muslim city dominated by the migrants that got assigned properties left by the Hindus and power positions in the political and administrative system of the new state. Its designation as the new capital added to its political importance, and more for being the only seaport to do business with the rest of the world.
In the early formative period, the city became the power center attracting entrepreneurs, intellectuals, politicians and influential families from adjoining provinces. Within a few years, its population doubled from less than half a million to a million in 1954. It went through spurts of growth with each phase of industrial expansion. Most of the industries during Ayub Khan’s "decade of development" (1958-69) had an urban bias for obvious reasons of infrastructure, but Karachi was specially preferred for its port, skilled manpower, consumer market and efficient managerial class. The economic opportunities and ever-increasing demand for labor by the industries brought in millions of workers from every part of the country.
The new citizens gradually transformed the ethnic composition of the city. While the descendants of refugees from India that are also known as Urdu-speaking and Mohajirs constitute roughly close to half of the population, the rest are Pashtuns, Baloch, Punjabi and Sindhi. The demography and ethnicity are major factors that have shaped the politics of Karachi, and that are also the cause of much of tensions and endemic political violence.
Local dynamics of electoral politics and lure of big money in settling people on state land, including railway tracks, streams and parks, have resulted in blocking the flow of storm water into the sea. Karachi, which used to be clean and known as the "city of lights" is reduced to massive heaps of garbage, filth, congestion and daily traffic jams.
Rasul Bakhsh Rais
Ethnic tensions and violence of this city revolve around multiple axis and alliances, but almost in every bout it was aggressive assertion by the majority — Mohajirs — to reclaim their decline in the political and administrative structure of the country. Perhaps it was reactive to the rise of ethnic nationalism the way it was reflected in the exercise of power in the politics of Sindh in the early 1970s during the first regime of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP). Mohajir identity politics and quest for power in the urban Sindh and a strategy of calculated violence against other ethnic groups have been responsible for turning the city of arts, culture and prosperity into a battle zone of multiple confrontations.
Essentially, the issues that have troubled Karachi and its citizens are not as much ethnic diversity as it is political battle over controlling the city and exploiting its resources. One of the most important dimensions of this politics is that two different parties represented Sindh, the second most populous province for well over four decades. While the PPP dominated the "interior" or rural Sindh, the Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM) captured control of the urban areas, especially Karachi. Tensions and conflict between the two have largely defined the politics of the city. With the decline of the MQM, surprisingly, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has filled the vacuum by capturing most of the seats for the provincial and national assemblies. The pattern of two parties representing two different parts of Sindh has not changed after the 2018 elections.
In view of massive stakes in the informal economy, expensive real estate and financial resources of the city, the major parties have shown tendency to monopolize their extraction by every means possible. They couldn’t do it without destroying the institutions of law and order, justice and governance. The local dynamics of electoral politics and lure of big money in settling people on state land, including railway tracks, streams and parks, have resulted in blocking the flow of storm water into the sea. Karachi, which used to be clean and known as the "city of lights" is reduced to massive heaps of garbage, filth, congestion and daily traffic jams.
In the tug of political wars, the civilian institutions responsible for managing the city have lost autonomy, trust and credibility. They serve the interests of political bosses running the Sindh government, which a single party, the PPP, has dominated. The present government is the seventh during the past 50 years. They have to answer a lot for what has happened to the city.
The feudal Sindhi elites running the PPP show they are not willing to share power with the Karachi city government. There is no elected local government in the city anymore after the completion of tenure of its mayor last month. A Sindh government administrative appointee will govern the city. Unless and until the political governance issue of Karachi is settled, its broken civil institutions will remain dysfunctional and the political feuds may not end.
One wonders how a city of 20 million can function or stay at peace without proper institutional arrangements and without empowering and involving its citizens.
- Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017).