The need for social transformation in Karachi

At the recently held Adab Fest, members of the civil society and politicians from the city and the province of Sindh sat down to have a discussion about the problems facing Karachi.

The panel titled 'Karachi’s urban planning, public spaces and garbage management', attempted to have a serious dialogue on the basic concerns that plague civic life in the metropolis.

The provincial and the local governments were supposed to be represented by the city’s mayor Waseem Akhtar, Federal Minister for Maritime Affairs, Ali Zaidi, Adviser to Chief Minister of Sindh on Law, Anti-Corruption Establishment, and information, Murtaza Wahab and Pakistan People Party’s Saeed Ghani. But only Saeed Ghani could make it to the event.

Other panellists in the session included architects Arif Hasan and Marvi Mazhar, social policy experts Severine Minot and Farhan Anwar, and President of the Arts Council, Ahmed Shah. The session was moderated by Syed Khawar Mehdi.

Mehdi started the session by highlighting the importance of the city from a national perspective. “The city is a commercial and financial hub of the country, a keystone for the federation and a keystone to the economic prosperity and security of Pakistan. It contributes more than 60 percent to the federal tax, and more than 30 percent to the national GDP.”

He further added that it was a shame that they were still discussing the problems of Karachi while the rest of the world is moving forward. “The world is progressing, and the economies are focused on urban sovereignty, and here we’re discussing these issues” said Khawar Mehdi, referring to the problems of garbage disposal and urban planning.

Mehdi started the discussion by asking Saeed Ghani what stops Karachi’s transformation into a liveable and competitive mega city. “When it comes to addressing the issues of Karachi, most of the political parties and even majority of the citizens are not ready to play their responsible role,” Ghani replied. He then went to explain what led to Karachi’s deterioration over the years. “Karachi situation started deteriorating in mid-1980s. The forces that wanted to control the politics of Pakistan realized that in order to do that, they had to control the politics of Karachi. And they did that through fear.”

Arif Hasan was of the view that the primary cause of the current situation of the city is the state of its institutions. “Karachi’s institutions have been systemically destroyed and just the desire to bring change is not enough.” He further said that some institutions destroyed by centralizing them, some through corruption, and then strange laws were made to make this possible.

Talking about the recent wave of evictions and demolitions, Arif Hasan said that the evictions at Empress Market alone have cost Rs1.5 billion to the economy annually. In response Ghani said that “the government is very concerned about this and we understand that it is not possible for normal citizens to setup new houses and provide shelter to their families.”

Ghani further added that the “courts should also realize that these aren’t just structures; millions of people are living in these. And we cannot demolish these structures just based on the judgment of the court. So this is the issue we are facing.”

Arif Hasan said that the problems of the city cannot be resolved by introducing big schemes every now and then. “The government keeps making master plans, but master plans don’t work. There is an absence of understanding as to what has happened. I am against this nostalgia of what this city once was. You cannot take it back to that.”

Talking about the resilience of cities, Farhan Anwar said that “if you want to have a viable society then it has to be a socially-just society. You have to ensure social justice and equality.” He said that a city cannot be a resilient city unless all of the citizens feel that the city is giving something back to them. “You cannot have a physical transformation without a social transformation in parallel.”

He further added that there cannot be one solution to the myriad of problems the city faces. “It is a fragmented city, a segregated city, a broken city, and decentralized in all the wrong ways.” He added that in order to bring about change, there needs to be a consensus in the city between all the political stakeholders and a common vision as to where they want to see the city in 20 years.

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