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Empowered LG system may help solve Karachi’s issues, says HRCP

Emphasising the need for an empowered local government in Karachi, a fact-finding report released by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) recommends making the city’s 19 land-controlling and land management authorities accountable to one central authority or making them autonomous.

The rights watchdog’s report titled ‘Karachi’s Urban Flooding: Looking for Solutions’ notes that the main challenge lies in first resolving the city’s jurisdictional issues, giving the local government the power to levy local taxes that can then be diverted to local needs, and reversing the top-down urban development model so that the city’s hinterlands are brought back into the conversation.

Rainfall in Karachi started wreaking havoc in July, but the city witnessed its worst rains in August. Unprecedented rainfall and urban flooding in the last week of August brought life to a grinding halt.

At least 20 people died by drowning in overflowing drains, under collapsed walls and roofs, and through electrocution. Businesses were also closed, causing an economic loss worth billions of rupees.

Members of the fact-finding mission — Dr Fahd Ali, professor of economics at Lahore’s Information Technology University, and HRCP Director Farah Zia — visited Karachi in September to gauge the losses incurred after the record-breaking torrential rains in August, to get a sense of why damage at this scale had occurred and to find possible solutions to avoid such devastation in future.

Based on extensive consultations with urban planners, human rights activists, journalists, academics and citizens affected by the floods, the report claims that a strong anti-poor bias runs through urban planning and policymaking in Karachi.

The report points to the city’s peculiar political geography, where various jurisdictions — local, provincial, federal and cantonment — coexist, often at cross-purposes to each other.

The lack of a legitimate decision-making and accountable authority may have been responsible for bringing the city to a standstill during the monsoon rains in July and August.

There are inherent flaws in the existing structures and laws. “The Local Government Ordinance 2001, introduced by General Pervez Musharraf, did not leave any powers with the provincial tier. When the PPP had a chance to bring in their own local government law (the Sindh Local Government Act 2013), they took back powers that were in the municipality’s domain.”

The mission was also told that with the mayor’s and the local bodies’ tenures having ended, there should be immediate local government elections, and the law must be reviewed.

“Ideally, this local government should be empowered the same way the provincial governments were after the 7th National Finance Commission Award and the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan.”

The report says that the local government should have the power to levy local taxes such as Octroi, property tax, motor vehicle tax, parking fees and billboard fees. “Local taxes can be distributed among the city district government, towns, union councils and, finally, wards.”

Karachi is an extraordinarily rich city both in terms of revenue and educational institutions, health institutions, the media industry and jobs. “The Pakistan People Party can’t control this enormous wealth except through a highly centralised form of governance, though they have been unsuccessful in this over the years,” the report quotes town planner Arif Hasan as saying.

“On the contrary, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (or whoever represents Karachi) can’t control this except through a highly decentralised form of governance. A consensus among them has not happened nor is it likely.”

He says the money the districts and union councils should get never reaches the district and union levels from the federal government because it disappears, possibly due to corruption. “Without appropriate human resources, it’s not possible to run a city government.”

Most of Karachi’s natural drains are blocked because they have either been encroached on or filled up with solid waste. However, these encroachments can be traced to many different agents, including the DHA, the KPT Officers Housing Society and private builders with the connivance of state functionaries. Yet, each time Karachi is flooded, it is encroachments by the poor that are flagged as the overriding problem.

The practice of dumping Karachi’s sewage in its nullahs and drains has contributed to the latter’s blockage, says the report. “Developing a sewerage system is a mammoth task that requires time and resources. A plan for a city-wide sewerage system must be developed and implemented in various phases.”

The HRCP notes that the superior courts’ involvement in Karachi’s urban planning is problematic because it inevitably leads to anti-encroachment drives against the poor, causing more inequality and poverty. The report stresses that the anti-poor bias in policy making, planning and execution must end.

“Karachi is unique because here the migrant population far outweighs the native Sindhi and Baloch communities. Now it is also the biggest Pashtun city. Citizens shared their concerns about political divisions, especially along ethnic lines, in the last four decades, causing more harm than the city deserved.”

The report observes that manufactured narratives afflict the polity as a whole. In Karachi these false narratives are crystallised and endlessly projected in the media to benefit vested interests and prevent democratic and equitable solutions.

All the experts the fact-finding team met estimated Karachi’s population to be at least 20 million. “It is imperative that Karachi’s true population size is known in order to address its myriad infrastructure and service delivery issues, and to allocate resources to proper planning.”

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