TODAY could be meaningful.
Prime Minister Imran Khan arrives in Karachi laden with bags of money. Lots of it. This money is piggybacking on a plan to fix things deemed unfixable. This plan is a manifestation of a thought process that aims to untangle deep political webs and straighten them out into actionable solutions. The quest for these solutions is a project in motion.
Good intentions and all, right? Much ado about something — anything. Our state’s capacity to say what needs saying has traditionally outweighed its capacity to do what needs doing. Karachi is a case in point. Decades of decay amid decomposed governance has taken a toll. It was bound to. It was only when water reached neck high, literally, that the authorities moved. Or will move after today’s prime ministerial announcements. Then things may improve, or not; political entanglements may get disentangled, or not; and rivals may team up, or not. And yet, whatever happens in Karachi will give us a glimpse of what may be in store for the next few years.
It starts with a basic premise: every problem has a solution. If we cannot find this solution, we either lack ability or we lack intent. Our governments have been self-sufficient in both. The result is visible to all — a wide matrix of core, outer-core and peripheral problems that have festered into gaping governance wounds. How long can one keep rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?
How long can one keep rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?
Karachi will tell us if we are in fact prioritising solutions or staying insistent on the justification of problems. Karachi will show us if visceral disagreements can in fact be bulldozed into agreements. If so, lessons will be learnt and precedents set. Karachi will show us if projects can in fact be chiselled out of policy planning. If so, lessons will be learnt and precedents set. And Karachi will inform us if governance mayhem can in fact be forcefully channelled into focused service delivery. If so, lessons will be learnt and precedents set.
The initiative in Karachi is fuelled by the potency of disillusionment. Years of anger, frustration, despondency and hopelessness have now bubbled over into the watery streets of the urban metropolis. It is the anger of being taken for granted by governments; it is the frustration of seeing things getting worse by the year; it is the despondency of knowing the rulers are unwilling and incapable of improving the lives of citizens; and it is the hopelessness of expecting nothing will change.
But this is not how countries are run.
Change starts with asking the right question. It is not why we cannot fix Karachi’s problems but why we have chosen not to fix them; it is not why we cannot educate every Pakistani child but why we have chosen not to; it is not why we cannot reform our criminal justice system, or our police, or the creaking healthcare system, but why we have chosen not to.
Now the federal and provincial governments say they have chosen to fix Karachi. Let us believe them for now. Can this choice, this re-prioritisation, this renewed focus translate into prudent planning that in turn translates into efficient implementation? The Pakistani state’s capability is about to be tested. Project Karachi will show to us if the state has the wherewithal to put its money where its mouth is by delivering quantifiable and identifiable governance outcomes on a timelined spectrum.
What will this entail?
Someone will need to even out the odds. The provincial government led by Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah will lead the initiative but he will need to manage a decision-making matrix that will include federal people of various persuasions. We may be looking at a framework that optimises coordination between competing interests within the umbrella of provincial autonomy. A tough call. With billions of rupees, millions of issues, thousands of problems and hundreds of interests — the task at hand promises to be an arduous one.
Success — even a relative one — will have far-reaching consequences for the rest of the country. Politics as a byproduct of governance — instead of the other way round as has been the norm — will be emulated in other areas. A model will emerge. Citizens will demand governance at their doorstep. The state will learn to figure out how to morph politics into deliverables. Fixing things will be an exercisable option.
The future of governance is hazy. What is clear is that the present cannot continue. A broken system must self-heal and evolve. Education, health, justice and security of life and property are problems that need to be overcome before we can envision a future that is less hazy and more promising. If the state cannot fix Karachi, it cannot fix the strategic issues of citizens’ empowerment.
The target for the state should be clear: build Karachi and then build on Karachi. Every stakeholder may want to digest the enormity of the challenge and the scale of its consequences. When every key person is on board, there is little reason why the plan should not work. Money in hand and the state apparatus at hand, the federal and provincial leadership has everything it needs to get going. There is a whiff of hope in the air. Perhaps this time we have hit rock bottom and there is no place to go other than up; perhaps enough is actually enough and it is time to change the way this country has been governed; and perhaps the governments have realised time is upon them to deliver on their promises.
A whiff is all we have but for now, even that is sufficient. PTI, PPP, MQM and all other stakeholders in Karachi are in the spotlight. They will need to subjugate their petty political interests, their electoral manipulations, their personal objectives and their gravy train of patronage under the mainframe of reforming this urban decay.
Karachi is watching. Pakistan is watching.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, September 5th, 2020