Karachi street crime

Published December 2, 2022
The writer was formerly IGP Sindh.
The writer was formerly IGP Sindh.

THE media is replete with harrowing stories of street crime in Karachi that have led to vigilante justice, including murders and mob lynching by ordinary citizens. With each violent incident, the police spring into action, and their enhanced presence dampens the crime spike. However, such increased presence cannot be sustained.

As the situation normalises, the criminals return to the streets. Clearly, short-term measures are not the panacea. The phenomenon of urban crime is common to every growing urban centre. The crime pattern is different and more complex due to the following:

a) Concentrated large population hailing from various parts of the country who manifest a distinct behaviour reflective of shared ethnicity and region; b) local floating unverified population within cities who have moved in for work; c) diverse ethnic composition of city residents; d) opportunities for a range of crimes peculiar to cities that provide an enabling environment; e) urban crime involves high stakes that can only be maintained with the support of organised crime syndicates. Large-scale crimes include land grabbing, entertainment business, drugs, gun running, bhatta and fraud.

The situation is exacerbated with the rise of religious and extremist groups; and f) cities also offer safe haven as well as goons-for-hire from varied backgrounds who, after committing the crime, vanish from the radar of the security agencies.

These factors provide a breeding ground for criminal activity with anonymity and protection from criminal gangs. On the other hand, there is no political will to address these issues. This is because the criminals are patronised by powerful persons who use them as ‘muscle’ to promote their political and business interests while providing them with protection in return.

The smarter members of the criminal gangs also join political parties, which allows them to claim political victimisation if they are pursued by the law-enforcement agencies.

Karachi has also been a battleground for ethnic and sectarian political parties that have committed dreadful violent crimes in the name of political/social issues, with many of their leaders becoming cogs in the governance machinery as well as members of elected bodies.

The task of maintaining order and tracking down criminals is compounded by a non-functional criminal justice system.

The task of maintaining order and tracking down criminals is further compounded by a non-functional criminal justice system struggling with a populace that has a 19th-century mindset against 21st-century legal benchmarks.

The ground situation and the expectation of the people cannot be reconciled. It is, therefore, important to assess the policing, keeping in view the criminal justice system and social, civic and management challenges for a holistic and durable solution. Urban police need to be structured differently and excised of any overlap with the rural policing composition on the ground.

The police leadership has persistently highlighted this issue. Following independence, a law was passed by the assembly to emulate the Bombay metropolitan police model, but it was sandbagged by a powerful bureaucracy that did not want to create any autonomous institution outside the sphere of its control.

Karachi police were, however, merged with the provincial police subsequent to the dismantling of One Unit in 1970. Karachi thus became one of the administrative units of the province. The city expanded with a massive influx of refugees and people from all over Pakistan to a locale that presented unmatched opportunities for business and employment.

Tragically, Karachi, one of the cleanest cities of the world, gradually turned into an urban sprawl pockmarked with katchi abadis. The occasional intervention of the government improved the civic situation in some pockets, but the unlimited vacant state land around the city, without an effective management body, proved ripe for illegal settlements that, over time, turned into ungoverned ghettos. The Afghan war, which displaced millions, brought more refugees to Karachi.

Contributing massively to the federal tax collection, Karachi required investment to develop and maintain the infrastructure as an autonomous administrative unit of the province. However, the administrative structure of the city, including the police, was not upgraded to keep pace with the emergent challenges. Today, we are harvesting the chaos sown during the last seven decades.

One of the largest cities of the world, Karachi today exists without a workable structure, giving rise to a precarious security situation, with a huge governance vacuum. The situation has been defined by some researchers as ‘ordered disorder’. Instead of finding a lasting solution, successive governments have militarised the police and deployed the civil armed forces and the army to deal with ethnic and sectarian conflicts traumatising the city repeatedly over the years.

To deal with the recurring cycle of violence, political governments have outsourced the maintenance of order partially to the civil armed forces. These knee-jerk steps have not only created schisms in normal policing responsibilities but also resulted in ungoverned and lawless pockets in the city, subject to parallel control by organised crime mafias fuelled by the black economy.

This lawlessness must be staunched. We need to take the politically difficult step of separating the city as a well-delineated completely autonomous unit of the province. The first step in this direction is an independent police force with an operational association with the provincial police.

The Police Order 2002 specified such an arrangement for all the capital cities of the country as similar issues of lawlessness and urban crimes in other provincial capitals had also begun to burgeon. We now need to move forward and establish an independent police force followed by other departments.

The big metropolises can no longer be managed with the old structures rooted in a system essentially designed for a rural area. Investment in the existing arrangement would be redundant. It is time to recognise the complexity of urban centre management and deal with big cities accordingly.

This exercise would not only confer all the provincial capital cities with complete autonomy but also allow a clean break from the current structure through a phased programme, thus alleviating the agony of the residents of urban areas in Pakistan.

The writer was formerly IGP Sindh.

Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2022

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