Karachi is in bloom of the brick and mortar kind. It’s ablaze with flyovers, high rises and expansive roads. The coastal climate is idyllic. The breeze never stops; the sun never heats up. Why then are folks packing up and moving to Dubai, where the temperatures are cruel and the environment hostile? Well, apart from the economic meltdown, with inflation reaching an all-time high of over 24.3 percent, the political circus comprising jokers of every description are holding not only Karachi but Pakistan hostage.
Almost everyone I meet has an opinion. Sadly it is negative. It is a vote of no-confidence against the ruling party and its junior partners in the centre as well as the provinces. “Are they thinking adults or infantile retards playing games in a nursery class – grinning and holding hands one day and trading accusations the next?” ask many.
Revulsion and hate against politicians is the new terrorism, albeit sans suicide jackets. Most feel we don’t have time to back the quixotic plans of our leaders, who have nowhere to go except down. Their shelf life is fast diminishing and their replacements are nowhere in sight. This vacuum is an invite to the military to intervene.
“Bad guy” Musharraf has been gone for eight days. Instead of resolving the judges’ issue, Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif are busy stabbing each other in the back. Zardari wants to wear the presidential crown and rule over Pakistan, even though Swiss legal authorities maintain that Zardari is under criminal investigation over allegations that he received kickbacks from two Swiss-based companies. Nawaz Sharif wants to become Pakistan’s poster boy and ride the popularity wave that would capsize the PPP and bring the PML-N to the helm. These two men, aided and abetted by other selfish politicians from Karachi to Khyber, continue to play kiddy games converting Pakistan into a giant garrulous playground of dirty politics and third-rate trivia.
Pakistanis are the biggest losers today. Helplessly they stand and watch with disgust and despair what these so-called leaders are doing to the country. “We’ll continue to stumble from crisis to crisis,” says an MQM supporter Mohammad Riaz, a shopkeeper at Clifton sitting in darkness while shops around him are brightly lit courtesy UPS (uninterrupted power supply) and small generators. “I’m too poor to afford these gadgets,” he says pointing to the roaring generators. “While I can’t earn enough to put food on the table, our leaders laugh and joke sitting on plush sofas in air-conditioned comfort. What do they know about want?” he asks, adding “they have stolen our future to become billionaires.”
Raza Khan is a driver for a car rental. He lives in Banaras Colony in Karachi. And he’s proud of it. We’re driving through Sohrab Goth, the hub of Pathan population. “See that bus there,” says Raza, “it runs between Karachi and the Sarhad.” I am told it ferries back and forth the Pathans wanting to visit their families up north. These zesty-looking buses reach their destinations under 20 hours and charge Rs1,000 fare. “The bus service owners make sure that they don’t cart drug smugglers or gunrunners,” Raza quickly adds as if he’s read my thoughts. “Don’t stick your neck out for the heck of it,” my nephew warns me when I proudly tell him I’ve been to Banaras Colony enjoying the sights and sounds of a corner meeting by the local ANP big guys of the area.
The next day, I get a text message from my nephew informing me that he was held at gunpoint in the same crowded area and deprived of his two cell phones and a wallet.
I like Raza’s attitude. To me he encompasses a Karachiite first and a Pashtun later. “I was born and bred here,” he says as he drives me towards the sea to show the phenomenal development that has taken place around the creek. He feels very proud while giving me a running commentary on the wonderful job done by the DHA (Defence Housing Authority). With the charming inlet waterways and palms swaying in the wind; golfers playing at the waterfront lush-green golf course and young mothers chauffeuring their kids around the club facilities, the thought of Karachi becoming what Beirut was once crosses my mind. I remember the magnificent casino on the Clifton shore that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto built. I visited it during the dark era of Zia-ul-Haq. It was covered with cobwebs. Yet the damask on the furniture and the curtains hadn’t lost its majesty, nor the emblemed cutlery and crockery made of finest bone china lost its lure. Alas, the Clifton Casino never came to life. Zia killed it before its birth.
We never do learn from history, do we? The rulers of the day rubbish what their predecessors built. Today what the MQM Nazim of Karachi, Syed Mustafa Kamal, has successfully wrought under Musharraf’s benign shadow and largesse is in danger of going awry by a power tussle between the Nazim and the Zardari-appointed PPP provincial ministers. They have wrested control of the lucrative ministries and Altaf Hussain, for reasons best known to him, has pitched his full-throated support for Asif Zardari as our next president.
Karachi’s Water and Sewage Board, a breeding ground for politicians on the take, has some 8,000 jobs available up for grabs. For obvious reasons it has been snatched from the Nazim and given to PPP minister Agha Siraj Durrani, a bosom buddy of Zardari.
My driver Raza Khan admires the work done by the Nazim, but adds: “the MQM takes on development work in areas where their people are the beneficiaries.” Ethnic feelings indeed still run deep in this city by the sea. I am amazed that the subject of ethnicity comes up literally at every event I attend in Karachi. People are still conscious of their roots and their language. Living in Islamabad rarely do I come across anyone discussing his or her ethnicity.
Instead of fixing broken down places and improving their functioning, the PPP-led government prefers cosmetic changes. Ever since it came to power some six months ago, its main task has been to name dilapidated buildings and projects after Benazir Bhutto. The airport and the hospital in Rawalpindi have been baptised with BB’s name. The dusty, broken down international airport presenting a mad melee of motorists, outgoing and incoming passengers jaywalking their baggage as a host of hangers-on squat around the wasteland, is hardly fit to be renamed after BB.
Political expediency and not civic interest is at play. The ruling party and its MQM partners, it seems, have agreed on how to cut the pie into two. If this indeed is the case then City Nazim Mustafa Kamal’s boast of turning Karachi into another Dubai may not materialise. “It can be done. In five years’ time. I can turn this city around,” he said in an interview recently with Time. Work on a 47-storey IT tower with a 10,000-seat call centre has begun; six over-and under-passes are already functioning, opening up the congested arteries and connecting the sprawling metropolis to vital nerve centres. But the downside cannot be swept under the carpet. According to Time magazine “More than half the population of 16 million (give or take a few millions) lives in ramshackle squatter settlements. Power outages are common. Only about half the city’s daily water needs are met. Crime, congestion and political volatility have plagued this ancient port for decades. Unhappily, terrorism is making inroads.”
With political confusion comes the halt of a multi-billion waterfront project started in 2006. It awaits approvals from various authorities. The present stakeholders in Karachi want the apartment, shopping centre and recreational and entertainment facility estimated to cost $68 billion to be shelved because Musharraf initiated it. “Several problems are being faced by the local partners of the Dubai-based developer, Limitless, as they have to require several approvals from the provincial as well as federal authorities,” said Khaleej Times.
“Karachi has so much potential,” Kamal told Time. “It is not just a city. It is the future of Pakistan. If Karachi develops and prospers, so will the country.” But the fight to control Karachi is a “brutal political game” and the City Nazim is ready to quit. “If I were given an opportunity to have an honourable exit, I would walk out right now.”
Turning Karachi into Dubai will remain a pipe dream. Alas.
The writer is a freelance journalist with over twenty years of experience in national and international reporting.
Source: The News, 26/8/2008