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Who suffers more?

September 18, 2013

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ANALYSING the anatomy of violence in Karachi, Kaiser Bengali, a former adviser to the Sindh chief minister, wrote in this paper (Sept 8) about the breakdown of the social contract in the city.

He defines this as the essential, implicit agreement between all interest groups on the broad contours of governance. On the basis of this, all societies function, he writes.

Kaiser Bengali is spot on. He lists demographic changes, joblessness of the Lyari youth and the rise of religious militancy as the major battlefronts of the war resulting from the end of the social contract.

There is another overarching factor that cannot be ignored. It is the ‘rich-poor divide’ which casts its shadow over all other features of Karachi life. It was well highlighted by M.M.A Hossain in a letter to the editor in this newspaper the same day (Sept 8). The writer very succinctly describes how the rich are buying security for themselves by getting bullet-proof cars, armed guards and secure houses and may ultimately start living inside walled compounds — some of which already exist.

The phenomenon Mr Hossain describes is actually the real cause of the breakdown of the social contract Kaiser Bengali writes about. The fact of the matter is that ours is a heavily stratified society and the gap between the haves and the have-nots has been growing over the years. Neither of the stakeholders who are supposedly parties to the social contract have made a genuine effort to bridge this gap.

The rich-poor divide marks every group interest that exists in Karachi. Be they political parties, ethnic communities or religious parties, each of them comprises members of the haves who hold leadership positions and have the privilege of decision-making and the have-nots who are deprived and underprivileged. None of these interest groups have tried to improve the status of the underdogs in their own group.

They use the numerical strength of their have-not followers to strengthen their own hands to bargain with their competitors. Since the underprivileged inherently have no capacity and power to win their rights to life, employment and shelter, they seek the protection of the privileged of their own community. This leads to further fragmentation of society by strengthening the various groups whose members tend to cluster together.

Since the wealthy class within each group can buy all services they need from the private sector they do not need the kind of social contract Mr Bengali talks about. They can also interact on the social level with members of the other groups and parties quite amicably.

Emulating the rich of their group, the underprivileged adopt similar tactics and use their connections with the rich and the powerful to exploit those who are below them in the hierarchy of power. How this is done has been described vividly and effectively by Katherine Boo in her book Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope for a Mumbai Undercity.

Karachi is in the grip of a turf war the victims of which are generally the poor. That doesn’t mean that the rich have not been killed. But their numbers have been far less. The discriminatory treatment meted out to the oppressed of Karachi has cut across all party lines.

Here I would like to take up the case of education which is the key factor in the political, economic and social empowerment of people. The leadership of every group interest has worked hard to ensure that good education does not reach the common man. Who doesn’t know that education of the right kind is an equaliser? It opens the doors to unlimited opportunities and makes jobs easily accessible. Education planned and delivered with vision also creates social capital — that is, it produces citizens who work collectively and have the capacity to cooperate for a common cause. Unfortunately this kind of education is not what is provided to the common man of any party or group.

The public sector that is the biggest provider of education — though its role has been shrinking in Karachi — has failed miserably in its performance. Since the children of policymakers do not study in government schools there is no effort by them to frame effective education policies and actually implement them. This is most regrettable since all the major interest groups in Karachi have been in the government at one point or another.

Realising the importance of paper degrees, many have openly facilitated resort to unfair practices in examinations without bothering to understand how they have damaged the character and learning potential of their younger generations.

In spite of all the violence that is ripping Karachi apart, the city’s economic and social resilience helps it sustain its position as the industrial and commercial hub of the country that generates 68pc of the revenues collected in the country, as claimed by the president of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry. It is unlikely that this rosy situation can continue for long if violence is not checked.

The social contract that is the need of the hour has to be put together again. But it must be underwritten specifically by a commitment to reduce inequity in society and a pledge to undertake plans to provide quality education for all children. Until this is actually done, any military operation in Karachi or de-weaponisation plan will bring temporary respite from violence. What we need is a permanent solution. www.zubeidamustafa.com