Karachi ruled by everyone, run by no one

Published September 27, 2014
The idea of politics and participatory democracy is a sham without the citizens and the electorate having any influence on the decisions on which their lives depend. -Photo by AFP
The idea of politics and participatory democracy is a sham without the citizens and the electorate having any influence on the decisions on which their lives depend. -Photo by AFP

Here's the routine for most people in Karachi:

They wake up in the morning and get ready for work. The lucky ones have enough water to take a bath but most have to make do with much less. If there is some gas, the stove is switched on, and some tea and bread is prepared for breakfast. Then, it is off to the bus stop with the hope of finding transport to make it to work in time. When the bus arrives, the object called human body is stuffed into it like a sardine joining other sardines in a tin box.

The same routine happens in reverse at the end of a long day. Also, during the day, those who went out for work and those who stayed at home need electricity to do their jobs or carry out the various tasks at home; if they are lucky, they will get it for a few hours.

Who provides these resources that are the lifeblood of urban existence?

Know more: The scramble for Karachi's scarce water resources

Starting from the morning: There is no water in the pipe. Some private entity has taken charge of providing it through tankers at exorbitant rates.

Then comes transport. Again, no help from the city government. Ramshackle, unreliable and crowded private buses provide this service.

Gas and electrical power – in very limited quantities – is supplied by some other private source.

Ditto if you want a small hovel in a katchi abadi, or need to provide a half decent education to your children, or see a doctor to get healed.

All these services are in some mysterious private hands whose sole motive is profit.

The agencies providing these services are generally known as 'mafias'. If you want to avoid stepping on their touchy toes, feel free to call them “special interest groups”. The ordinary people who use these services have to negotiate with these mafias, who in turn make their deals with the city officials and political parties.

Also read: PM announces Rs15bn transport project for Karachi

With these realities in mind, let us look at the definition of 'Politics' as per the Oxford English dictionary:

The activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power.

Now assess the role in politics of the ordinary person in Karachi, whose daily life is outlined earlier. Does he have any participation in the “…debate between parties having power”?

Clearly not.

How about “the activities associated with the governance of a country or area”?

Again, the answer is 'no'.

Take, for example, transport. Karachi used to have a city-run transport system. Somewhere along the way, the city administration decided to do away with this service and privatise it. Did the users of the service have any say in the matter?

The same is true for power supply, water, land, education, health care and security.

Read through: Here to unite communities, Imran Khan tells Karachi gathering

The idea of politics and participatory democracy is a sham without the citizens and the electorate having any influence on the decisions on which their lives depend. The only power they have is to cast their vote (if elections are held) to what they perceive as lesser evil. Once the vote is cast their participation ends.

And sometimes they can't even do that much, as their vote is stolen through coercion.

The dharna (sit-in) in Islamabad to demand the resignation of the Prime Minister is a perfect example of the disconnect between the citizens and the politics. The dharna of a few thousand has taken centre-stage and all the energy and effort of the “people’s representatives”, both in and out of power, is completely focused on the coming out of a winner in this tussle.

The influence of the dharna is completely out of proportion to the number of participants or the legitimacy of what they are demanding. Its significance stems mainly from the power struggle between the 'special interest groups', namely, the civilian politicians and the army. Neither group has any interest in playing the role as defined by the constitution of the country i.e. the protection and welfare of citizens of Pakistan.

The continual erosion of the relationship between power and people can only lead to a complete breakdown of society.

Explore: Altaf suggests four provinces in Sindh

A lot of damage has already taken place and Karachi is a prime example. Most parts of the mega metropolis are not run by the city government. Karachi works due to contracts between various mafias. As the city government becomes weaker and more corrupt, the mafias move in to fill the vacuum and a power struggle ensues.

And because of this power struggle, we see dead bodies turning up in garbage dumps and gunnysacks.

In some areas of Karachi, Lyari being a prime example, the contract between the mafias has broken down. This has lead to gang warfare, resulting in misery for the residents, who lose access to food, medical aid and transport, what with bullets whizzing all around.

So in this environment, where politics is just a scuffle between the rich and powerful and the powerful and rich, how is an ordinary person supposed to join in or strive for improvement?

Currently, the only options are to join one of the mafias – no matter what name tag it carries – or just shut up, climb onto the roof of the bus to go to work, come back to a dark home; and if the anger builds up, burn an old tyre or two in the street.

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