From builders and developers to marriage hall owners and operators, everyone became unsettled by the verdict of the top court that aimed to revert Karachi to its pristine form of yesteryears. If one is asked to identify visible merit in the Supreme Court order of January 22, 2019, in relation to illegal construction, encroachments and usage of residential locations for various purposes, there is a near consensus between the otherwise disjointed political parties of the city.

The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in the centre, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in charge of Sindh and Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) in the driving seat in the local government, have given their views that razing 500 or so buildings is not the solution to the type of built environment that the Court wishes to restore. On various media channels, the leaders of these parties were busy informing the viewers about their reluctance to accept any form of bulldozing as an option but stopped short of subscribing a way out from the quagmire that the metropolis is in for many years. And this can only be achieved when the political, financial and socio-ethnic stakeholders come together and debate the present and future of Karachi’s functioning, in an objective manner.

It is disappointing to observe that the demolitions done during November 2018 and after were carried out without a laid out blueprint for relief, relocation or rehabilitation of the affected.

Using the shield of top court verdicts, the demolition teams of the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) and other agencies uprooted shops, hawker stalls, appendages to shopping arcades, plant nurseries, street side eateries, protruding signages and several other types of built and unbuilt structures in the name of ‘clearing’ encroachments. Whereas an actual impact assessment shall require an extensive foot survey, upon the authentic maps and plans of the areas, different experts have claimed the number of razed and removed structures running into thousands.

Interestingly, society has taken a very divisive view on the subject. For instance, voices from many typical middle-class folks consider these operations as a good omen for the city. For them, the moving and still pushcart vendors, paan walaas and commercial operators on any form of public open space are ‘illegal’, hence worthy of removal.

Members of some religio-political parties stood in solidarity with the impacted hawkers and shopkeepers. They also demanded a halt to these ongoing operations. Builders and developers took a cautious stand assuming that the top court can come down hard on buildings constructed in dubious way (which is exactly what happened through the Supreme Court Order of January 22, 2019 – all tall buildings from the residential areas have been ordered to be removed). Then, the Sindh Government has taken a very careful view by drawing a line of distinction between the removal of commercial stalls and similar enterprises against the possible removal of residential buildings of any kind.

According to the provincial local government minister, it may not be possible to demolish ‘homes’ of any kind as it shall give rise to a sharp and aggressive response from the occupants. He cited the example of the botched attempt to vacate the Pakistan Quarter dwellings which had to be stopped on the court’s intervention itself. Other political interest groups are also attempting not to stain their records and future vote bank, due to this muddy quagmire.

Let us take a look at the key political stakeholders. While a PPP government is in place in the province, the PTI-led federal government is casting overtures to have a role, given the large number of MNAs and MPAs belong to PTI. The MQM-P, in its present status, is attempting to regain some stake in the city governance through its mayor. This attempt is not acceptable to PPP which considers itself to be the sole representative political force in Sindh with a legal mandate to also govern Karachi.

Key service delivery institutions such as the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB) are under direct control of the Sindh government. Authority and jurisdiction of Sindh Building Control Authority (SBCA) is now openly challenged by the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC). Under the Sindh High-Density Board Act of 2010, the Sindh government has enough legal privilege to alter or adjust the height and density of upcoming buildings in the existing metropolis. Existing buildings can be demolished and replaced by tall structures under this law. While it offers a lucrative opportunity for the PPP henchmen, this move is severely criticized by the KMC leadership and many independent professionals for its randomness and damage to the prevailing quality of city life. Environmental safeguards such as environmental impact assessments (EIA) have completely failed to restrict this onslaught of arbitrary development of dense buildings.

Article 140 A of the constitution empowers the local government to a fairly prominent level in service delivery and governance affairs. The present federal government has repeatedly announced to abide by this provision. However, it has not shown any skill to engage in negotiation with the Sindh government.

In real terms, the status of Karachi needs a reassessment, being a metropolis accounting for one-third of the provincial population.

Over-centralization of power and jurisdiction in favour of provincial departments and provincial control of regulatory agencies are core matters that await a negotiated and consensus settlement for smooth management of Karachi. The city enjoys an extraordinary position due to the existence of the only two ports of the country and the busiest airport that also deals with cargo in a significant manner. The potential for capitalizing on transportation and logistics has created unhealthy competition between rival and competing interest groups.

Through a historical process, land transportation has passed into the control of a quasi-formal sector manned by ethnic Pakhtuns from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and other clans from the northern parts. The fact that Karachi possesses the single largest urban concentration of the Pakhtun population, anywhere in the country, is an important factor worthy of full attention by the political leadership. A political accord of all the competing and heterogeneous interest groups in an open and transparent manner is the appropriate solution for this state of affairs.

The sources of revenue for the city are largely under federal and provincial control. Over a period of time, the city has lost its local potential and privilege of revenue generation due to acute centralized approaches. About two decades ago, the octroi tax was abolished which was the largest source of revenue for the municipal agencies. No institutionalized revenue base has been evolved by the local authorities to manage their expenses. Karachi is thus dependent upon the packages and grants from the federal and provincial governments to manage routine affairs and development projects. It goes without saying that fiscal/financial subordination ultimately results in administrative subordination to the higher tier of government.

Creative ways of independence revenue generation and tax sharing must be worked out for acquiring financial independence by the city. The options may include a revised version of property tax, motor vehicle tax, environmental levies and logistics taxation. Political interest groups shall be able to bring respite to the urban affairs only after securing a healthy and sustainable revenue base for Karachi.

There is no denying the fact that Karachi continues to receive migrants from all across the country and beyond. Once the details of 2017 census shall be made public, this trend shall stand qualified. To manage this growth, the city needs a continuous planning response.

A basic issue is related to the planning for the city. Karachi Strategic Development Plan 2020, which was prepared by the erstwhile City District Government in 2006 – 07, has become anachronistic with present-day ground realities. A rational way of planning and developing Karachi for the future is to establish an independent planning agency for the city. This agency should be entrusted the task to translate the political objectives into viable planning and development options. Urban planners, economists, sociologists, architects, financial experts, engineers and legal experts may form the core team of this agency.

It can be certainly concluded that by reducing ad-hocism and introducing transparency in the working, a great deal of content and prosperity can be ensured for the city in general and country in particular. It is up to the political leadership to rise up to their actual tasks and responsibilities and deliver the citizens the long due gift of good governance that shall only cost them a few timely decisions with firmness.

Ahmed is a professor and dean, Faculty of Architecture and Management Sciences at the NED University in Karachi.

Note: The views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Geo News or the Jang Group.