Political roots of a city

Updated 07 Sep 2020


The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

CONVERSATIONS in the aftermath of the recent floods continue to focus on two aspects of Karachi’s problems, often in isolation from each other. The first is a list of prescriptions, most of which are technocratic. These tend to focus on the design of municipal government, decision-making structures, the state of urban governance, and its attendant fragmentation.

The problem identified here is that Karachi is a city governed by as many as six different bodies, with different chains of reporting, and different connections to higher tiers of government. Local governments with somewhat direct citizen accountability are disempowered, many key regulatory and developmental functions rest with the provincial government, which has at best an indirect relationship with city voters, while other swathes of the city are simply unaccountable bodies reporting to federal institutions such as the military.

Read: Now is the time to change how Karachi is governed

The problem, as critical geographers and urbanists will proffer, is that separate and distinct mandates do not change the underlying ecological reality of a given space being completely interconnected. In other words, it doesn’t matter if the military administers Defence Housing Authority (DHA) and Sindh government looks after Gadap — their fates are intertwined simply on the basis of a shared geography.

Taking surface-level cognisance of this reality, technocratic interventions proposed are usually along the lines of unifying authority at the city level and devolving power to the ‘grassroots’ so that accountability relationships are clear, incentives become rationalised, and municipal governance becomes more cohesive. One end of this conversation imagines changing Karachi’s legal status to an autonomous administrative entity (not sure what that means under Pakistan’s current Constitution), while others suggest changes to Sindh’s local government laws.

Separate and distinct mandates do not change the underlying ecological reality of a given space.

A second aspect of the conversation around Karachi focuses on ethnic fragmentation, the extraction of economic surplus from the city through rent-seeking and corruption by the Sindh government, and its indifference towards the fate of its citizens. These factors are identified as the underlying reason for why Karachi is in a state of municipal disrepair. At their ugliest, such conversations tend to gravitate towards highly racialised and/or xenophobic tropes about entitlement to the city and its resources.

My contention here is that these two conversations — technocratic aspects and societal demographic and political reality — while happening distinctly need to be seen as part of one constitutive urban political economy. And without this view, any solution proposed will be unsustainable. To this end, the case of Lahore is somewhat revelatory.

Lahore’s municipal infrastructure is reasonable by lower-middle-income country standards. Parts of the city, where land development has been ad hoc and pervasive, suffer from similar bouts of flooding during monsoon, while in many areas access to clean drinking water remains a persistent issue. On the other hand, road and community infrastructure is relatively robust, and sanitation and solid waste management services — given income and municipal revenue per capita levels — are quite reasonable.

Lahore does not de jure enjoy special administrative status. Neither is its city government cohesive and accountable to its citizens. Developmental and regulatory functions for urban real estate and sanitation development lie with the same unaccountable and largely incompetent behemoth, Lahore Development Authority, while other issues are dealt with by other arms of the provincial government (land records, solid waste management, public transport planning) or the federal government (cantonment boards and DHA).

The difference in outcome across these two cities arises out of a difference in underlying political economy. Lahore’s residents and those in charge of making decisions in the city are tied to higher tiers of decision-makers through shared ethnic, factional, or partisan ties, even in the absence of an elected local government system.

Most cite the case of the PML-N in Punjab, given its historical roots, large basis of support in the city, and bias towards Lahore as a reason for this, but the relationship actually holds for when other parties have held power too — notably the PML-Q in 2002-07 and PTI from 2018 onwards. Each party has felt some degree of responsibility towards Lahore’s elite and middle-class voters and thus caters to their municipal developmental needs. This responsibility exists regardless of the institutional architecture through which Lahore is governed.

This pattern cannot be replicated in Karachi given its far more diverse population and complex history. But what it also tells us is that tinkering with institutional design of urban government is not going to do much as long as the underlying politics doesn’t change. Back in 2001, the federal government was able to create a new local government arrangement, but one that fell apart violently 2007 onwards. That in itself reveals something about the sustainability of such transformational plans.

The solution for those parties who wish to change the status quo in Karachi is more straightforward than intricate institutional design. It just requires parties doing actual politics. A sustainable solution that will create and protect coherent municipal governance requires making electoral inroads into Sindh (for the PTI) or in Karachi (for the PPP) to create political coherence between the provincial tier — where law and regulatory functions for urban development lie — and the municipal tier — where service delivery is implemented.

The PTI repeatedly talks about its national character yet has mostly given up on electoral prospects in Sindh beyond Karachi. There seems to be no appetite in the party to actually organise politically and challenge the incumbent’s hegemony. The PPP too talks about how Karachi belongs to Sindh and Sindhis, and yet not only pays little attention to the demands of Karachi’s residents but also colludes in the dispossession of Sindhis and Baloch communities for speculative real estate development. Without a shift in underlying political realities that link different blocks of citizens to decision-makers, the fate of Karachi — as would be the case with any city — is unlikely to change.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, September 7th, 2020