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A STRATEGIC location and an enlarged urban economy attract firms and households, and put mounting pressure on social and physical structure, which, if not addressed promptly, creates unsustainable cities.

The more developed a city, the more sophisticated and expanded an infrastructure network it needs to maintain its growth momentum.

Urban economists, however, lament the low level of current investment for development of civic facilities in Karachi which hosts the country’s premier financial and capital markets and is a major commercial and industrial hub and a port city.

The key issue is: how quickly will these programmes materialise to shore up the city’s capacity for sustainable development?

It is the top contributor to the national exchequer with a share of 40pc in the sales tax revenue on domestic goods. Such revenue contributions have raised the city’s expectation of a much higher level of development spending.

Though still the country’s largest and most developed city, Karachi is losing some of its lustre. As SECP records show, an increasing number of foreign firms now prefer to be incorporated in Islamabad owing to the security situation (now improving), Karachi’s poor infrastructure and the competing attraction of a much bigger and faster growing Punjab market.

Not too long ago Karachi was the first choice for both foreign and domestic investors.

Karachi suffers from a huge social deficit and civic facilities and also offers a sharp contrast of immense wealth — though with an expanding middle class — with relatively stark poverty.

All social indicators show underperformance owing to lack of proper planning, ad hoc decision-making, slow project implementation and for want of enough local finance.

District governments are not empowered to raise their own taxes to resolve local problems. They are funded by, and responsible to, the provincial administration rather than taxpayers/electorate in their own constituency leading to a democratic deficit.

For want of funds, a former mayor of Karachi secured the support of former president Musharraf to improve the city roads and get an underpass built by Karachi Port Trust for quicker movement of port cargo and traffic. Similarly, support was also provided by SITE, a semi-government body to repair roads.

Lately, a well-known builder has constr­ucted the Clifton bypass at his own expense, much faster than the provincial authorities would have done. Such ad hoc measures do not resolve lingering problems.

Going by urban development indicators such as those relating to education, public transport, housing, poverty, pollution; the city has been underperforming.

Yet it has the country’s most developed services sector which directly spurs urban economic activities with increased efficiency.

That includes developed seaports, airport and terminal operations, telecommunication system, insurance industry, franchise business, stock brokers/securities houses and consultancy services. They together contribute the bulk of the sales tax revenue from services whose share has gone up to around 54pc of Sindh’s provincial tax receipts.

On the civic services side is a different story. The city suffers from congested roads, poor and expensive transport system, virtual absence of low-cost housing and expanding slums and shortage of water supply (created largely by tanker owners depriving piped water supply to even posh-localities like in DHA area).

Traffic jams result in commuters’ loss of time which could be better used in productive pursuits. Speculative activity has pushed property prices to beyond the reach of even much of the middle class with very little effort made to check this trend. Wage earners, hit by high cost of living, are turning into double jobbers to make both ends meet.

While the inflow of manpower from the north has somewhat scaled down because of development activities, especially in Punjab, many from rural Sindh and less developed Saraiki speaking areas are still able to find jobs in Karachi.

In context to the environment, there is little to show. Power shortages for running tubewells and unchecked removal of Bajri (sand) for construction activities from dry Malir and Lyari beds — that facilitated collection / underground storage of rainwater for growing vegetable and fruit crops —have deprived farmers of irrigation water for the depleted greenbelt around Karachi. Some farmers use piped along with sewerage water to produce polluted vegetables, not fit for human consumption.

The ill-planned urban expansion and encroachment of land grabbers has reduced the greenbelt and induced poultry farmers, also harassed by extortionists, to move into the safer areas of the remote interior.

Some recent developments, however, hold the promise that things would change for the better. The World Bank is interested in helping the provincial authorities to give a facelift to Karachi.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to which Pakistan is a signatory, has provided the authorities the mandate to shore up the neglected social services.

Finally, with less than a year left for elections the PPP government in Sindh and PML-N government at the Centre have stepped up financial allocations and expanded the programme for the city’s development in the current fiscal year.

Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, during his first visit to Karachi as the prime minister, announced an Rs25 billion development package for the city. To quote Sindh Governor Sindh Muhammad Zubair, the centre has initiated Greenline Lyari Expressway and Greater Karachi Bulk Water Supply Scheme while similar schemes would be initiated under the PM’s package.

Earlier in his budget 2017-18 speech, Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah had announced an allocation of Rs70bn for the city’s uplift. The projects included repairs (most of the 9,000km city’s roads are in bad shape) and building of roads and Rapid Bus Transport System.

The road from city centre to Thatta is also planned to be improved. The Karachi circular railway designed to run by a modern commuter system, will be initiated by September

For improving water supply to the city, the work on the Greater Karachi Bulk Supply project, financed jointly by the federal and provincial governments, is expected to be expedited.

As for environment, apart from improving solid waste management, there are plans to set up three affluent plants for the city’s industrial areas. A World Bank co-funded Karachi neighbourhood project will be launched for developing parks, improving road network and restoring old buildings.

Not satisfied with KE performance, the Sindh government is seeking representation on the utility’s board of directors with Murad Ali Shah complaining that the federation has two members while his province has none.

However, the key issue is: how quickly will these programmes materialise to shore up the city’s capacity for sustainable development?

jawaidbokhari2016@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, September 25th, 2017