Lethal streets

Published April 19, 2024
The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi
The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi

KARACHI has been in the throes of brutal street crime including robberies, muggings and killings for several months. The recent killing of Syed Turab Hussain Zaidi for resisting robbery is a case in point. The situation has deteriorated to a point where even places of worship are not safe — recently, three worshippers at a mosque in Karimabad were stripped of their cash and valuables by a mugger.

While opposition leaders criticise the performance of the PPP government, officials are quick to lay the blame on multiple stakeholders, including the previous caretaker set-up, leading to the public’s loss of trust in the police and administration. According to a report in this paper, between 2022 and 2024, more than 250 people were killed and over 1,000 injured in street crime. Meanwhile, muggings are indiscriminate. From call-centre and night shift workers, students, and domestic help to clerics, shopkeepers and vendors, the menace has spared few. The alarming rise in violence is deeply worrying and the provincial government must address it as a top priority.

However, provincial administrators are still hopeful that certain interventions, including the swift implementation of the much-trumpeted Karachi Safe City Project, will make a difference. The multibillion-rupee venture aims to make city roads and streets safer with CCTVs and other monitoring apparatus. While these are a step in the right direction, the real concern is not about viewing a crime but responding to it with speed and competence on the part of law enforcers.

Instead of relying on a failed scheme, the authorities must focus on enhancing the training and fitness of cops, set higher standards for recruitment, and jettison political ‘recommendations’ to appease constituents.

It must also be kept in mind that Karachi comprises over 10,000 kilometres of roads and streets, along with other public spaces that require a vigilant eye — bus terminals, parks, playgrounds, pedestrian bridges, parking lots, open markets, etc. This figure does not include lanes and cul-de-sacs in the city’s dense urban neighbourhoods.

The surge in Karachi violence is deeply worrying.

Monitoring these vast spaces requires innovative strategies, which must begin with reviewing and modernising the current approach of the law enforcers. The traffic police, for instance, seldom apprehend swanky vehicles that flout the law, but pounce on smaller vehicles to add to their traffic challan list. Moreover, cars with tinted glass and large jeeps featuring gun-toting private guards break traffic signals and the law with impunity.

People are, therefore, forced to take their own measures. Many neighbourhoods have installed metallic barriers with private guards to close off streets. While the law does not permit restricting access to public spaces, resident groups see it as their sole option. Needless to say, this was the norm a decade ago when the city was gripped by political bloodshed; while the Karachi operation of 2014 did bring some relief, the situation worsened soon after.

Once again, gated communities and streets have returned to the city landscape as many believe that reduced access can staunch the onslaught of fierce violations. But sadly, these measures have only had a marginal impact as people cannot be confined in fortified precincts; they have to leave for work, or do chores, or get out of their homes for several other things. In so doing, the fragile law-and-order situation haunts them.

Besides, one of the fallouts of curtailing access to neighbourhoods is its effect on the urban poor. A research conducted by this writer some years ago revealed that the installation of barriers and other physical obstructions prevented mobile street vendors, greengroc­ers and pushcart op­­erators from earning a livelihood from households in gated communities.

However, there are certain effective practices that residents can consider adopting. The Citizens Police Liaison Committee should take the lead and undertake neighbourhood surveillance with a local watch-and-ward system that is supported and assisted by residents.

In the past, this particular crime-control measure proved effective in many neighbourhoods. Several peri-urban settlements, such as Orangi Town, maintained a street chowkidari systemto keep an eye on visitors, passers-by and vehicles, so that suspicious movement and individuals could be apprehended.

The arrangement should be modernised and bolstered with surveillance devices. Furthermore, alarms and tracking tools fitted in cars and bikes, and advanced geo-fencing mechanisms can rein in street criminals.

But Karachi demands more than neighbourhood management. A multipronged policy that entails police reforms, addresses socioeconomic deprivation and convinces the public to trust the law enforcers could prove an effective solution.

The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.

Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2024

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