December issue 2018

By | Interview | Published 8 months ago

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) and the ruling Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) are, once again, engaged in a war of words. All the differences of the past decades that were resolved in 2008, have resurfaced. 

Our alliance with the PPP in 2008 was formed under a different set of circumstances. There was a wave of sympathy for the PPP in the aftermath of Benazir Bhutto’s tragic murder and not only the MQM, but people across Pakistan, sympathised with them. We wanted to move beyond the memories of our troubled relationship with the PPP. In the past, political differences between us had led to hostility and operations against the MQM, resulting in the deaths of our workers and supporters and created the Sindhi-Mohajir divide. The reason why we stood with the PPP then was to end that divide; why we even tolerated provocations by Dr Zulfiqar Mirza.

But given all the bickering over the powers of the local governments and PPP’s backtracking on all the agreements, we have come to the conclusion that no matter how much effort we put into reconciling with the PPP, a certain mindset prevails within the party which will not let them serve the territories that enjoy MQM support. All the development in Karachi, the upgradation of hospitals and the building of colleges was undertaken by the city government with the funds that were provided by the federal government in single-line transactions under vertical programmes. When the city government system was abolished, those funds and all the vertical programmes were also stopped.

In 2010, the Mustafa Kamal-led local government system completed its term. You were part of the government, but instead of going in for the local government elections, you agreed to an ad hoc arrangement with the PPP, and administrators were appointed through an ordinance passed by the Sindh Governor. Isn’t this a point that your party itself conceded?

The PPP wanted to amend the local government system and committees were formed by both parties for consultation. We brought one draft, the other was brought by Dr Babar Awan, but the differences kept growing and eventually the MQM parted ways with the PPP and decided to sit on the opposition benches.

It is claimed that demands for an audit of all the mega projects undertaken by the city government were used to browbeat the MQM into agreeing to the ad hoc arrangement, instead of fighting the local government elections? 

Audit was one of the functions of the Local Government Commission, and it had the powers to remove anyone. If we were engaged in alleged corrupt practices, why didn’t they take action against us? Also, we were in the opposition in the previous PPP term, and they had constituted their own anti-corruption department parallel to the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), so why didn’t they initiate inquiries against us?

An argument the PPP has used against granting full local government powers to the MQM is the misuse of those powers by your party representatives in the previous term. They were said to be involved in recruiting ghost employees and China-cutting of government lands.

The PPP has given 250,000 jobs to their constituents in their previous terms. They have even violated the quota system by using fake domiciles. You cannot make fake domicile documents that easily in other cities like Larkana, Quetta or Peshawar, but you can make a domicile in Karachi by paying as little as 1,500 rupees and get a job on it. The PPP has violated the rights of those living in Karachi, the Mohajirs. It has sold jobs to the people through fake documents. In my own constituency in New Karachi, there is an employee at the Union Council, who has an Identity Card from another district of Sindh, but he got his Karachi domicile made a day before getting an appointment letter. 

These sort of irregularities are also to be found in the District Municipal Councils (DMCs) under your party. For instance, in DMC East, they have an Anti-Encroachment Department with 13 employees, but there is no provision in the local government law that allows for DMCs to establish an anti-encroachment department?

Yes, I agree that two wrongs don’t make a right, but we have to study the root cause of the problem. If the major partner, the provincial government, is involved in irregularities, the MQM-P’s share in the regularities would be equal to the powers they exercise. Everyone has their own vested interests. As for the practice of China-cutting, I can assure you that it is the PPP, who are the founders of China-cutting. 

This is a very controversial claim…

China-cutting and the gothabad housing schemes are, in effect, the same. Why have the number of goths in the urban centres doubled in recent years? Why couldn’t these be urbanised? Grabbing government lands in the name of gothabads, or leasing lands through the Deputy Commissioners (DCs) – you may call it China-cutting – it’s all the same.

Interestingly, while the gothabads are on acres of land, China-cutting is restricted to plots of 40, 60 and 120 square yards. Moreover, whatever method is employed, it amounts to the acquisition of government lands. MQM, as an organisation, was not involved in this practice, but individuals associated with it may have benefited. 

But MQM is known for its organisational discipline. So how could any individual violate party discipline? 

I reiterate that the MQM, as an organisation, was not involved. And if anyone from the MQM was involved, all this could not have been done without the nexus of officials from various government departments. However, in case of the PPP, their local and higher office-bearers did benefit from it.

But, if the MQM as an organisation was not involved, why would they collaborate with the PPP in bringing a draft of the Sindh Protection and Prohibition of Amenity Plots Bill 2009 in the Sindh Assembly, which would allow them to change the nature of the amenity plots through a resolution in assembly? 

I don’t think any such legislation was undertaken.

It was vehemently opposed by the civil society.

We were assured by the PPP that when they converted the Karachi Building Control Authority (KBCA) into the Sindh Building Control Authority (SBCA), they would undertake equal development works in Karachi. We supported that move as well, but Karachi does not figure in the development work of the SBCA.

It is claimed that as part of the negotiations, KBCA was to be merged in SBCA and given to the province, whereas the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB) was to remain with the local governments.  

The KWSB was already with the local government and the Mayor was its Chairperson. However, when Agha Siraj Durrani became the Minister for Local Government, this was the first thing that was taken away from us. Now the Mayor only has a consultative position and no legal jurisdiction over the KWSB.

During your alliance with the PPP, there was a consensus between major political parties on the 18th Amendment and you put forward three demands: devolution of the Karachi Port to the Karachi City Government; the right to vote and contest elections for overseas Pakistanis; and the abolition of the quota system. However, only one of your demands has been approved. Doesn’t that constitute a major failure on your part?

If you go into the details of our demands during the negotiations on the 18th Amendment, we demanded a share in the revenue of the Karachi Port, the infrastructure of the city that facilitates the port. No grant has ever been given to the city. First, it was taken by the federal government, and then by the province. All we wanted was a share in that cess to help the city government.  We didn’t want control of the port, that’s a federal subject. However, since the port is located in the city, the people of the city, the locals, are entitled to jobs there. Our second demand was voting rights for overseas Pakistanis; the PTI also made this demand. If overseas Pakistanis are contributing to the economy through remittances, why shouldn’t they have the right to vote, and contest the elections? Our third demand of abolishing the quota system was turned down. The PPP have always had a different mindset, so why would they accede to this demand? And now that we are in opposition, we have had to face FIRs lodged under the anti-terrorism act, following our protests demanding water for our localities.

What is the current status of your petition in the Supreme Court demanding the empowerment of local governments? 

We won the case against the Third Amendment in the Local Government Act. It was about the union councils. Earlier, there were union councils having populations of a hundred thousand. Now they comprise a population of thirty to forty thousand. Meanwhile, the case regarding the interpretation of Article 140 (regarding the local governments’ powers) is still pending in the Supreme Court.

The formation of a separate province is a persistent MQM demand, which has led to a furore in the Sindh Assembly in the previous term of the government. How do you expect it to play out in the current scenario?

The demand for a separate province is made when a party with a mandate from the rural districts rules over the urban population – and by urban, I don’t mean the Mohajirs alone. I include every citizen who lives in the urban territories from Karachi to Hyderabad, to Mirpurkhas and Sukkur. You snatch their share in the jobs, get 98 per cent of the taxes from there, but spend only 3 per cent on them. It leads to a sense of deprivation among the people. Another misfortune of Karachi is its delimitation by design – through the recently held census in which the population of Karachi has been reduced by half. We have coercively been turned into a minority. This way, we will always remain in the opposition, and would continue to be ruled by the PPP. People are helpless and don’t know how to get rid of the PPP rule. Hence, the demand for the province is not just for Karachi, but for the entire Southern Sindh province. Surprisingly all those who vehemently oppose a province within Sindh, would support a similar demand in Punjab. Why? Because revenue is the actual issue. If you want to address the demand for a new province, establish five or six independent metropolitan corporations, and that would resolve the issue.

The Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) is fully functional. However, the problem is that the KMC’s own revenues amount to only 3 per cent of the budget; the rest of the 97 per cent comes either from the federal or the provincial government. How can making independent metropolitan corporations be a solution, if they have to rely on the federal or provincial government for resources?

KMC is not left with any sector from where it can collect taxes. Around 42 sectors are with the provincial government, including entertainment, education, internet, dry cleaning etc. The KMC has been left with nothing to levy taxes on.

Trade taxes, cess, industrial licensing could be imposed?

How many people would pay trade tax? And how would you impose and implement it, when local government representatives have no magisterial or controlling powers. Also, there are 13 civic agencies in Karachi; then you have the Lyari Development Authority (LDA) and the Karachi Development Authority (KDA). The Mayor of Karachi is technically the mayor of 32 per cent of the area comprising Karachi.

But 58 major inter-district roads and parks lie with the Mayor? And the Mayor has funds for it; 6 billion of the provincial Annual Development Programme (ADP) and the Octroi Zilla Tax (OZT) have been transferred to the KMC?

The funds are there, but the execution does not lie with the KMC. The Chief Minister (CM) Murad Ali Shah ordered the reconstruction of Tariq Road and the funds were deducted from the KMC account. They claim that they have spent 6 billion rupees in Karachi. In the 2017-18 budget speech of the CM, the figure for the reconstruction of Tariq Road was 880 million, while in the ADP the amount is 1.4 billion. There is a difference of almost double the amount. Then he claims that he completed it on June 25. How can a project initiated in May be completed in two months? It means you have violated the due procedure. Also, the OZT is given after cuts. The CM announces a 10 per cent increase in salaries and pensions, the Mayor has to obey as it is the government’s policy, but the CM does not increase the KMC grant by 10 per cent. The roads are with the KMC, but the public-private partnership is with the province.

There are serious issues with the KMC. They have taken away the LDA and KDA, and the KDA now imposes its own taxes. The property tax on plots of 120 square yards and below is not with the KMC, and a majority of the houses fall in this category. 

In our model of the local government system, the share from the port infrastructure to the water board to the building control authority, all were included. If all these taxes plus the property tax, the OZT and all the toll taxes were paid to the local government, all the issues could be resolved. Interestingly, in case of mismanagement, the entire wrath is vented against the Mayor. No one will question the multiple controlling agencies that pose a major problem. 

Why did the MQM-P decide to enter into an alliance with the PTI at the centre?

We have had alliances with the PPP and PML-N in the past. The PTI was a new party but we negotiated with them, despite having reservations that our mandate was snatched away in the recently held elections, our support base was reduced, and the PTI was the beneficiary. Our demands were heard by them and they, in a written agreement, have agreed to reopen the results of eight constituencies and legally assist in this move. Further, they have offered to undertake development work, on a priority basis, in Karachi, Hyderabad, Sukkur, Nawabshah and Mirpurkhas. Our third demand was a sample audit of the 2017 census. Since the PTI agreed to our demands, joining the PPP or the PML-N was not in the interest of our voters. However, we are contesting against the PTI in the by-elections.

Other than the alliance at the centre, you have also joined PTI on the opposition benches in the Sindh Assembly. Would that exert some pressure on the PPP to amend the local government system?

I don’t think the PTI would take an aggressive stance in opposition politics, it would be more of an understanding opposition. They will try to develop a good rapport with the CM since they want to undertake mega projects in Karachi, and they wouldn’t like to cross swords with a person whose support is necessary to facilitate their projects. For instance, in the case of the Green Line Project, all issues related to encroachments, traffic signals, traffic police posts and other minor issues can be handled only with the help of the provincial government. 

Which means, an alliance with the PTI at the centre would not benefit your own politics in Karachi, primarily the contentious issue relating to the powers of the local governments etc?

No, since the PTI has agreed to undertake development work in Karachi, we have signed an agreement with them. If our demands are met, we will benefit from it. If the PTI were to establish a university in Hyderabad for instance, PTI would stand to gain from it but our efforts, too, would be acknowledged. 

And who would be the beneficiary of these developments in the upcoming local government elections?

This is a tricky question. Only time will tell. The elections are to be held after a year-and-a half, and that would  give the voters enough time to judge everybody’s performances. I believe it would depend on the narrative that every party gives to its voters. 

All your arguments pertaining to the local government’s powers, job quotas and other issues will be understood by the educated voter. But how do you convince a layman?

We try our best to engage with our constituents. When we try to resolve the issues of basic utilities by getting the officials to visit these localities, along with the local government representatives, we also invite people from our localities, so at least they can see first-hand the efforts we are making to get their issues resolved. The common people are concerned with the solution of their issues, not rhetoric.

Another problem faced by the MQM-P is that of their workers, who are facing various charges, and those who have gone missing. Besides there is the issue of the sealed MQM offices, that have yet to be handed back to you. Was all this also on your agenda during your negotiations with the PTI?

This, indeed, is one of the most critical issues for us, and the MQM-P Senator and Federal Law Minister Farogh Naseem, who is in a key position now, is following up on it. Regarding our offices, those that were encroachments, have been demolished, but those that were MQM properties should be handed back to us.

There were 9,000 raids on the MQM-P offices and houses of the workers. But not a single bullet was fired, nor was a single stone pelted on the law enforcement officials from our side. There was no resistance from the party workers and supporters. If officials in uniform approach a worker’s home and detain him, it’s understandable, but when people in private vehicles wearing plainclothes raid houses and take away the workers, it creates a sense of insecurity and helplessness. They would never know if they were being detained, or kidnapped. This affects the families and their kids, both socially and psychologically. These kids will find it very hard to return to normal when they see their dear ones suffer in this manner. So we will keep raising the issue.

Those arrested are now being linked to MQM-London, so that people would hesitate to raise a voice for them?

I can sense a feeling of alienation among the younger lot, which is not a good sign. I think forcing them to split into different factions to weaken them would not work. Mohajir, as an identity, is a fact that should be acknowledged and given space in politics; suppression won’t work.  

Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order