November issue 2010

By | News & Politics | People | Q & A | Published 10 years ago

“Citizens must stop pointing fingers at the government and
take responsibility for this city”
– Javed Jabbar

Q: Karachi used to pride itself on being the largest cosmopolitan city in the country. Now ethnic and sectarian strife are tearing it apart. Is this the result of sheer lawlessness or is there a deeper problem at hand?

A: Well, it’s a combination of both. If you look at the levels of deprivation, of internal migration and the lack of infrastructure — to keep pace with the new influx of migrants — any city would be overawed. Also, the quality of our police force is not commensurate with the nature of the problem. It has remained a traditional and conventional police force, whereas the conditions of our cities are so volatile that the police need intensive adaptation and training, and should use new methods and approaches to policing.

Q: So should we give the police and Rangers more powers to impose law and order?

A: Power, yes, but in addition to power there is the question of training, of orientation, of motivation, of regulation of their own behaviour and a change in the mental approach of the police towards the whole community. At the moment it is a relationship based on power, and then that power is used coercively and most crudely — as in the case of the thanas — and that is not going to help reconcile increasingly turbulent communities. We need to study very closely the experience of other cities, that may or may not have exactly the same conditions, but have constantly faced problems of dealing with law and order and ethnicities, and have done it successfully — cities like Rio Di Janeiro and New York. Just like we study how effective mayors and municipal systems have been in the leading cities around the world, we really need to study other societies’ experiences and replicate not all, but some.

Our police system has been fossilised and insulated from not only the world at large but also from the immediate turbulent change that is taking place in Karachi.

Q: Some parties are suggesting that the army should be called in to control the situation.

A: The use of the army can only be partially effective and offers a temporary solution, not a sustainable one. The nature of the problem, the nature of Karachi and its connection with the rest of the country requires a political, social, economic and most of all an organisational approach, which is civil and sustainable. The only model, which is sustainable — look anywhere in the rest of the world — has to be part of a political and civil process in which the residents of the area are involved as much as possible.

Q: Are you suggesting something like David Cameron’s recommendation of giving police more freedom while making them answerable to the community?

A: Yes. It is a given that there has to be a local component with checks and balances. These are difficult to enforce because when we say “the community,” it is a nice homogenous sounding word but the nature of the city “community” in Karachi is heterogeneous. The danger is that a strong group within the community could become the dominant group. Such groups exist in Lyari and in the MQM-controlled areas.

We have to recognise that the structure has to provide checks and balances so that non-dominant groups are not blackmailed, oppressed or persecuted by the dominant majority. Then the provincial, and if necessary, the federal government acts against the misuse of local power.

Q: How should one implement these solutions?

A: First of all, there has to be a rethink of governance and conceptual approaches to manage Karachi. The city cannot be isolated from the rest of the country. For example, if someone says, ‘de-weaponise’ Karachi, the fact is that Karachi is a very porous city, and small illegal arms — stolen, smuggled, sold without licenses — are rampantly available and manufactured in the rest of the country too. So you can’t just compartmentalise Karachi. Major steps need to be taken in the rest of the country, if you want to deal with Karachi effectively. Hence, if you ask where we begin, we begin at the policy-making level — both federal and provincial — where decisions are taken. We must strengthen our institutions and it can only be done through active citizens. There is a lack of active citizenry at this time.

Q: Are local bodies elections the answer?

A: Yes, the other approach is at the grass-roots level. Local bodies elections have been delayed and they have to be held as soon as possible so people can participate. And when these are held, it is important not to repeat the pattern of the past. Dominant groups control polling stations and coercive, intimidatory conditions prevail in many constituencies. Also people like yourself, I doubt, go out to vote in these elections. There is a complete disconnect, a big gap between people who live in Civil Lines and DHA and those who are in charge of the local administration — and that is a key factor behind the lack of order in the city.

Citizens must take responsibility. It is not about pointing fingers at the PPP or the government. People at large have tended to write off their own responsibilities and have always passed the buck to politicians. The point of an educated class is to have each educated person take on greater responsibility for the conditions in which they live. At the moment, there is very little acceptance of that responsibility. And their conscience is salvaged by giving money to charities, flood relief and doing noble work. But that is not enough. Citizens have to ensure that more competent people are elected, rather than allowing well-organised, well-armed, coercive groups to win the majority. I have always encouraged optimal participation in the voting process; make voting compulsory for everyone over the age of 18. It should be a citizen’s government and they can elect whoever they want, but they must have a sense of belonging to the government.

Q: What role should the civilian government play, on ground, to counter this breakdown of law and order?

A: The government must also reform its method of governance. For instance, will simply building flyovers tackle the problem of a mass transit system badly needed in Karachi? For the past 40 years we have been shelving that problem, or dealing with it by increasing the number of buses, improving roads and building flyovers. But now the flyovers are more crowded than the roads they fly over. It is a paradox. Cities of the future need to cope with pressures of population, and a radically improved and creative approach is needed. Otherwise, Karachi will face more complex problems in the future.

I hesitate to give neat prescriptive solutions. Solutions come out of study and application of several excellent concepts that are already available, whether in civil society or through private consultants, or multilateral agencies like the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank that have offered various solutions. Thirdly, the government itself should respond to the situation. Political leadership needs to have the will and the clarity to take what is already available, assess the current situation, adapt and construct innovative solutions and move forward.

Q: There is a lack of faith in the government. Has democracy as a model failed in Pakistan and is a benign dictator, supported by technocrats and specialist advisors, the answer to Karachi’s problems?

A: It is unfortunate that educated people come to this conclusion. It is a phantom that you are looking at. If you go by our own experience, four such characters with strong potential power emerged in our history: Zia, Yahya Khan, Ayub Khan and General Musharraf. Equally, on the civil side as well we have had powerful leaders like Nawaz Sharif between 1997-1999, who had a two-thirds majority in parliament and wanted to declare himself Amir-ul-Momineen. Before that, Bhutto had extraordinary support and power. The pattern is that we look for these messiahs whereas we should be doing a complete about-turn and instead of using Swiss banks to stash away our money, we should be using the Swiss model of collective leadership.

The Swiss presidency is a rotating presidency that is virtually anonymous. It is a council of about seven ministers and each one gets 18 months to two years as president so you never know who’s president. But the institutions are so strong and the federal structure is so participative that all cantons feel that they are part of the system.

Democracy is not a finished product. We tend to assume that the Westminster parliamentary model is the ultimate model. It is not! Democracy is a concept that needs to be constantly defined, refined and improved. We have made significant progress. Don’t let the current chaos detract from the progress. For a country as freakish and bizarre as we, look at the achievements of the 18th Amendment. Just the abolition of the concurrent list is a giant step towards giving the provinces more autonomy, a sense of greater strength and control over their resources denied to them for the past 37-40 years.

So it’s a sign of great maturity of the people that they were able to adopt a major change in the constitution. The impact will not be felt immediately. It will take decades, but the process has begun.

Q: You’re the quintessential Karachiite. As someone who has lived here all his life, which party do you think best represents this city?

A: It’s not a question of one particular party. But, it has to be a party that has both the vision and shows the professional capacity, and has amongst its ranks professional members as well as people who are qualified to comprehend the scale of the problem and enforce implementation. Both politically and technically that party should also show integrity and a willingness to enforce an honest code of conduct.

Q: The government has criticised the media for being overtly, and sometimes unfairly, anti-government and pessimistic. Has this exacerbated the situation?

A: I think the media is doing an excellent job of keeping citizens informed. However they do, by their selective nature, tend to concentrate on events, incidents, accidents, disasters and catastrophe. I call it media “morosia,” like “malaria.” It is in the very nature of the “news media” to be morose. It needs to correct itself and recognise that along with all the mayhem there are also many creative, constructive and progressive things happening in society and they do not get the attention they need in the news media. The news media tends to focus excessively on what is breaking down. They don’t have the willingness to focus on what is coming together because it is not that dramatic. It is a question of how you change that ethos. Without becoming less interesting, the media needs to be more introspective.

Q: How real is the threat of fanatical Islamic militants taking over the city of Karachi?

A: Extremism exists in all parts of Pakistan, but Karachi is fortunate in that there are many more elements of moderation, of balance, of modernism, of awareness of the rest of the world and of non-Muslims. It balances and prevents religious extremism from becoming dominant as it has in say parts of Khyber Pakhtunkwa.

Q: Why is the civilian government failing in managing the issue?

A: There is no single reason. Conflicting interests in a coalition government is inherently a very big challenge. So far the coalition has survived — in the assemblies — but on the ground it hasn’t. The coalition’s reality in parliament, and its reality on ground is very different. This gap needs to be bridged. Once this is done, solutions will begin to emerge.

This interview accompanied the November 2010 cover story, Karachi’s Mean Streets.

Maheen Bashir Adamjee is an APNS award-winning journalist. She was an editorial assistant at Newsline from 2010-2011.