THE fact that the National Disaster Management Authority — a federal agency which, by virtue of its very definition, is designed to move in and launch operations when disasters strike — has been tasked by the prime minister to clean Karachi’s storm drains shows that the metropolis’s civic infrastructure has collapsed. It is no secret that decades of neglect and misrule by various parties have left Karachi in tatters, and the state this megacity is in is no less than a man-made disaster. NDMA personnel, along with the FWO, started work cleaning Gujjar nullah, one of the city’s main storm drains, on Monday, taking out tonnes of sludge that had blocked the free flow of water and resulted in horrendous urban flooding in parts of the city during heavy rain spells at the end of last month. Another heavy spell has been forecast by the weatherman in the city later this week, which perhaps explains the federal government’s urgency to get the drains cleaned.
While it may be a relief that some action has been taken at the official level to save Karachi from further rain-related misery, calling in federal agencies designed to be deployed in emergencies is only a stopgap measure. When the nation’s largest city has a barely functioning local government, residents look at such ad hoc moves as the only solution. Indeed, all the players that use Karachi as a political battleground are equally responsible for this sorry state of affairs. The PPP-led Sindh government over more than a decade has, bit by bit, stripped away nearly all the powers of the local government, specifically keeping water, sewage and solid waste (mis)management under its wing. The disastrous results are in plain sight. Meanwhile, the MQM-led mayoralty also does little other than complain about lack of powers and funds. While its plaint may be partially justified, the KMC does not seem to be particularly active in using whatever powers remain with it. On the other hand, the PTI’s federal government — which has the most MNAs elected from Karachi — watches from the wings and after disaster strikes, moves in to the rescue with swashbuckling solutions. None of these are tenable approaches. Whether it is federal agencies launching clean-up operations, or the Sindh government unveiling grandiose foreign donor-funded civic projects, all these moves will fail unless there is an elected, empowered local government in place that can clean and maintain Karachi as part of its constitutional duty.
Published in Dawn, August 4th, 2020