Will PTI’s Karachi package be different from those of the past?

Repeatedly injecting billions of rupees may seem impressive, but there are many pitfalls to learn from.
Updated 12 Apr, 2019 03:09pm

At the end of March, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced a Karachi package that included 18 projects with a cumulative outlay of Rs162 billion. Ten projects are related to the public transport sector while seven are related to water supply and sewerage infrastructure. He also announced the launch of master planning exercise for the city.

Addressing the Prime Minister’s Karachi Transformation Committee that functions under the Sindh governor, the premier emphasised defining the city’s boundaries on scientific basis to stem undesirable sprawl. He stressed increasing building densities to accommodate more people per unit area. In addition, the prime minister promoted the idea of water conservation.

If one goes by the track record of ‘packages’ announced for Karachi by different governments in the past, Karachi is indeed most fortunate.

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From Benazir Bhutto to Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, each chief executive of the country came to the rescue of the metropolis by way of making substantial financial allocations from time to time.

Thus, from Rs29 billion by General Pervez Musharraf in 2003 to Rs25 billion by Abbasi in 2017, the recurring consistency of such announcements and the focus on large-scale development projects for the city seems impressive.

The core question, however, remains whether the city has shown signs of improvement in performance, livability and governance as a result of these cash injections. This matter requires a thorough but dispassionate review.

Just grand schemes?

For a long time, transport has been the main sector of urban development which has caught the attention of federal and even provincial governments.

Construction of underpasses along Shaheed-i-Millat Road, Bus Rapid Transit corridors along various lines at an anticipated cost of over $220 million and revival of the Karachi Circular Railway are a few prominent mentions from ongoing works.

From time to time, the federal and provincial regimes attempt to keep the old schemes or proposals alive, perhaps to retain public interest.

Grand schemes in bulk water supply also become a source of public attention. For example, the massive Greater Karachi Water Supply Project (K-IV) — aimed to add 650 million gallons per day (mgd) — is religiously included in all package announcements for Karachi.

Talks about reviving the planning exercise are held at every worthwhile forum without making the necessary headway. It is obvious that the nature, scale and magnitude of problems faced by Karachi are very different and consequently require an objective and sustained response from the perspective of urban and regional planning.

Issues pertinent to transportation and commuting have become extremely acute with the passage of time. The exponential rise in numbers of cars and motorcycles, limited road space, quasi-centralised work locations that invite uni-directional peak flows of traffic, limited choices for passenger transit, inadequate parking facilities, high scale peri-urban growth and absence of a genuine mass transit system are a few grave realities.

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It is important to note that passenger transit is a public service which does not possess the capacity to generate profits, even in developed countries. In some cases, it can’t pay back its own capital cost.

Some appropriate measure of subsidy is unavoidable and this investment is accounted as a catalysing factor for raising productivity.

It is, however, disappointing to find that most transport-related projects presently conceptualised or under implementation do not address the heart of the problem.

For example, underpasses and flyovers do not prove to be useful in a traffic corridor where vehicle numbers continue to increase.

Current transport planning and management for Karachi is in need of some bold and corresponding approaches that more effectively address the set of problems facing the city.

For a short-term strategy, the creation of appropriately-located and sized inter- and intra-city bus terminals, the timely dualisation of Karachi Northern Bypass (included in the current Karachi package) and the planned relocation of warehousing and inner city wholesale markets, route realignment and consequent management of public buses and mini-buses, capacity-building of qingqi and large rickshaw operators and the signalisation of major intersections and junctions must be carried out as the first step on an urgent basis.

Plug the leaks first

There is no denying the fact that Karachi requires more bulk quantities of water supply, but enhanced quantities will make little difference without addressing some prerequisites.

The crucial issue is the poor state of the distribution system. Destroyed water mains, leaking distributors, aging installations past their prime, illegal branch connections and the harmful coexistence of water and sewerage lines are the core concerns.

The rehabilitation of pipe networks at the district level — and below — is an urgently required intervention. Survey and analysis of the existing network needs to be a top priority at the union council level.

A demand analysis of water consumption patterns must be done to forecast and estimate future needs.

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Quality control of water supply is also crucial. Health guidelines should be followed with the objective to supply safe water to target areas.

It is useful that the present Karachi package has a drinking water facilitation project — but before embarking on this project, the government must draw lessons from the Musharraf-era Clean Drinking Water Initiative.

It worked well in cases where ownership and management were effectively acquired by the local community. One can still find several drinking water filtration plants in district South and elsewhere that provide potable water to residents at little or no cost.

A water management plan must be prepared to ensure uninterrupted supply on a periodical basis.

In addition, the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board must make efforts to raise its revenues by recovering long-standing arrears and instituting fresh charges. Tariff revisions must be based on rationalised supply costs and consumption profiles.

A lasting commitment

The Karachi Strategic Development Plan 2020 was finalised in 2007. The period assigned for its completion concludes next year, yet it remains largely unimplemented as it was not given legal and statutory cover.

While there is no denying the importance of a city plan, it must be viewed as an ongoing exercise rather than a one-time, project-based commitment.

It may be understood that a city plan provides the overall vision for city growth, development and management. It is process-based, whereby the sequence of outputs is generated periodically to guide the functions of government.

It is finalised through a consultative process where all stakeholders are invited to share their views on the presented options.

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It must be provided legal cover to ensure smooth development along various sectors, and above all, it cannot become meaningful without the existence of an autonomous and potent planning agency, with adequate staffing and working mandate.

If the prime minister wishes his Karachi package to be different and more effective from those of the past, he must task his team to begin a consultation process with the provincial government and other institutional and non-institutional stakeholders for moving ahead in finalising and implementing the initiatives announced.

No matter how politically difficult and awkward it may sound, this is perhaps the only way forward to achieve a real success.

[Disclosure: The author is a member of the Karachi Transformation Committee His views do not reflect those of the Committee.]

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