RUMANA Husain’s recently published Street Smart: Professionals on the Street comes as a reminder of how we are losing the city where many of us have lived and worked for most of our lives. Karachi is no more what I remember of it when I was a child.
Some categories of the blue-collar workers, as Rumana calls the people who are the subject of her book, no longer exist. Mechanisation, technology and lifestyles have made them redundant. That is change, as the new replaces the old. But the tragedy is that the street professionals no longer knit the community together as they once did.
The labour of love the author has invested in the book to collect all the information and photographs is remarkable. Her style of narration is non-judgemental and she refrains from entering the realm of controversy while writing sympathetically about the persons interviewed. It is left to the readers to draw their own inferences.
Assimilation has not been possible in the city.
Unfortunately, as the foreword by veteran journalist Ghazi Salahuddin implies, it is difficult to be positive about Karachi. Ghazi mourns the fact that the privileged classes have no “moral rapport” with Karachi. I would add that neither do the others. Ghazi adds that the war against violence in Karachi will have to be fought on the “moral and intellectual” fronts. It will also have to be addressed at the social level.
These comments should prompt us to ask why Karachi has become what it is today. The fact is that a sense of ownership of the city is totally missing from those who live here. Most people who now come to Karachi arrive here in search of greener pastures. Few consider it necessary to give something in return to the city that gives them so much.
The fact is that when citizens identify themselves with the place they live in they are inevitably required to create an equation with its citizens. That has not happened in Karachi for two reasons. First, Karachi has always been in a state of flux. Migration has been a continuous process interspersed with major waves of influx that came in quick succession that didn’t allow inter-communal relationships to stabilise. A new wave would disturb the demographic balance before the old had steadied. This spasmodically created multiculturalism was not handled sensitively.
That was bad enough when the second factor, namely, politics, intervened. Political leaders tried to create their constituencies among their own communities which compelled them to be exclusive to win political support. Being intellectually bankrupt and lacking statesmanship politicians have deliberately played the ethnic and linguistic card. Turmoil has encouraged further fragmentation of the population and assimilation has not been possible. Violence has reinforced this trend as it is natural for people of one clan to seek protection by clustering together.
When economics got mixed up with politics it intensified the crisis. Karachi still remains the financial hub. It is the biggest source of revenue for the national treasury and has a substantial share in the GDP. As such, the city has seen the rise of new vested interests which received a boost from strategic concerns generated by wars in the region.
Since 1979, the region around Pakistan has been in the grip of conflict — which includes proxy wars — making Karachi the hub of the heroin and arms trafficking route. Nato supplies have also passed through this port city and brought a windfall to those controlling the transport sector. By one account the transporters were earning $500 million a year. These economic gains have made Karachi a contested cash cow.
Then how can we save Karachi? The immediate need is to spruce up governance. According to Paul Collier, a professor of economics at Oxford, (The Bottom Billion) this requires a critical mass of informed citizenry to make our rulers accountable. Only education that creates awareness in the masses and encourages them to think can weld them into a powerful pressure group.
The need is also to pull down the socio-economic barriers that fragment Karachi’s society and prevent it from emerging as a force to reckon with. For this, the privileged and underprivileged classes will have to come together. Collier speaks of compassion and enlightened self-interest as important forces. The first is needed to get a social movement started to bring in its fold people from all classes. ‘I am Karachi’ is trying to do that but it needs to be all-encompassing to make an impact. Cultural activities certainly help but they must transcend social boundaries.
The second element, enlightened self-interest, helps sustain such a movement. This requires the privileged classes to realise that their own survival depends on the uplift of the deprived. Life has become brutish and miserable for the pauperised of society whose number is growing. Their needs must be addressed if we want them to be an integral part of the pressure group to improve governance.
Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2015