Developing Karachi’s faulty wants over needs

Published April 22, 2024
A man washes waste plastic sheets, collected for recycling, in polluted waters in Karachi.—Reuters
A man washes waste plastic sheets, collected for recycling, in polluted waters in Karachi.—Reuters

The new fiscal year brings a unique political combination to Sindh, especially Karachi. The same political party manages the province and city. Some optimists believe that Karachi’s fate will now change as all the tiers of government are politically aligned. This may translate into the allocation of more funds for Karachi in the forthcoming budgets.

It is an oversimplification to link the problems that Karachi faces to the proportion of budgetary sums earmarked for development projects. The metropolis is experiencing three distinct ranges of problems that merit a dispassionate review and redressal. These include non-democratic decision-making that fails to address mass issues, progressive decay in municipal institutions’ service delivery capacity, and an overemphasis on project-based development.

It is not that Karachi has not received budgetary allocations in the past — the city received project finances of sizable magnitude during the past two decades. However, most of these projects were of little benefit to the locality and sector of performance where they were initiated.

Present-day Karachi and its residents are victims of many development decisions and consequent implementation works that were initiated without considering the impacts and benefits for the masses.

Take, for example, the Lyari Expressway, a transportation project launched some two decades ago, which was completed after significant delays and several cost escalations. The project wreaked havoc on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, evicting them to extend relief to a few thousand vehicle operators.

Costly and superficial development projects continue to disappoint citizens

The whole undertaking was mired in non-transparent, technically inappropriate choices, components of which were investigated by a federal entity. Over Rs23 billion were spent on the Lyari Expressway and another over Rs10bn on re-settling evicted residents. With such a sum, a comprehensive road repairs and maintenance programme for the entire city could have been initiated to benefit millions of commuters.

Without drawing any lessons from this venture, a Malir Expressway has been launched at a higher price tag of Rs39bn, though in a public-private partnership mode. It is common sense that the project has nothing to offer to the common Karachi commuter — it is being initiated to enhance the connectivity of large-scale private real estate developments.

Little real-time benefit is expected to flow down to ordinary city residents. If one inquires about the needs of ordinary Karachi commuters who travel in snail-paced tri-wheelers, rickety buses and mini-buses, they would demand upgrading this fleet of buses and mini-buses with better options.

Facilitation of private operators through innovatively designed credit schemes for procuring and operating buses/mini-buses, regulating and upscaling the dial-a-ride bus services, allocation of serviced parking and workshop facilities, and conducting driver and vehicle staff training programmes to raise operational efficiency are the most desired interventions. These can be done at far less cost than the sanctioned expressways for the city.

The declining state of urban service delivery is another common observation in Karachi. Urban sanitation, especially solid waste collection, is a case in point. Getting the better of the 18th Constitutional Amendment, the Sindh administration cleverly acquired control of solid waste management, which was traditionally a responsibility of local bodies.

The Sindh Solid Waste Management Board (SSWMB) now manages much of the city’s waste management tasks. Some months ago, the Municipal Workers Trade Union Alliance raised serious concerns about the overall performance, including the poor operation and maintenance practices adopted by the SSWMB contractor.

Scores of private hospitals and healthcare facilities have opened up across the city, generating hospital waste of a very hazardous nature. Expansion in the usage of electronic gadgets has given rise to electronic waste. Rubber, plastic, paper, garden, industrial and biological waste of different volumes, contents and characteristics is generated as a natural outcome.

While normal municipal waste is hardly removed, the new formats of waste dumps are lying unattended to a great extent. After collection, the waste is temporarily dumped in various sites termed as garbage transfer stations and finally taken to the two dumping sites at Jam Chakro near Surjani Town and Govind Pass near Hub.

Time and again, garbage is burnt to reduce its volume and make room for fresh disposal. For more than three decades, these sites have been waiting for transformation into properly designed and managed sanitary landfill facilities with a scientific monitoring mechanism.

In terms of project and programme finances, the optics of allocated spending on various projects in Karachi appear very impressive. The Karachi Water and Sanitation Improvement Programme (KWSSIP) — supported by the World Bank — plans to invest $1.6bn in a four-phased plan over 12 years. The Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Red Line project — funded by Asian Development Bank and other donors — is a $503 million proposition. Similarly, the BRT Yellow Line (Karachi Mobility Project) will cost $428m.

There are many more on the list, but it must be kept in mind that all of these ‘high-sounding, high-spending’ projects will bring negligible relief in the life of the ordinary.

This brings us to the conclusion that isolated decisions about development spending seldom bring real relief to service users. People-friendly and democratically ratified choices of development and urban management must be identified to obtain the best value for taxpayers’ money.

The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, April 22nd, 2024

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