- Monday, January 21, 2019

When Benjamin Franklin wrote in a 1789 letter that “in this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” he had no idea how unashamedly modern-day Pakistan would defy his prophecy.

Pakistan today is a country where only death seems a certainty. As for taxes, only about 1 percent of the adult population has to pay. To put it more bluntly, 99 percent of the country’s adult population escapes the burden of taxation.

Taking into account the fact that there are more than 200 million people in the country, the disparity seems particularly daunting. Pakistan may still be largely an agrarian economy, but its wealthy, influential, landowning elite pay no taxes on agricultural income.

The result: Karachi and the city’s thriving seaport contribute a staggering 65 percent toward the national exchequer, effectively driving Pakistan’s economy.

But this strategically located city, once known as the “Bride of the East” because of its clean, brightly lit streets, is today deprived of even the most basic necessities.

Multiple power outages are daily occurrences. Trash collection and disposal are almost nonexistent. Access to potable water is a luxury for city residents — except for those living in posh areas run by the Pakistani military. Street crime rates have hit an all-time high. Karachi may be the only major city in the world that does not have anything even close to a central commuter system.

Most independent international bodies rank Karachi as one of the most populous cities in the world. A 2016 World Bank Group report commissioned by the Sindh government put the figure at 16 million, though Pakistan’s 2017 census showed Karachi’s population at just 14.9 million.

The same report noted that Karachi “accounts for one-third of Sindh’s population and one-fifth of the country’s urban population.” But Karachi’s representation in Pakistan’s national legislative bodies and Sindh province’s legislative assembly does not reflect even the heavily rigged census figures. This is why representatives from rural Sindh, which pays less than 10 percent of the taxes to the province’s treasury, have always ruled over Karachi.

In Pakistan, everyone rules Karachi except its own people. Some 20 agencies across federal, provincial and local levels are vying for the control of the city, leading to chaos. These agencies also control nearly 90 percent of the land in Karachi but are reluctant to make it available for development. As per the findings of the World Bank Group, “A highly complex political economy, highly centralized but fragmented governance, land contestation among many government entities and weak institutional capacity have made it difficult to manage the city’s development.”

Karachi’s lucrative land has made the city a prime target for the country’s corrupt property mafias, including military-backed and military-run real estate businesses and cantonment boards. A recent newspaper report found that less than 32 percent of Karachi is now under the administrative control of the city’s local government, the Karachi Municipal Corp.

Sindh’s provincial government, which is dominated by the region’s rural population, has left Karachi’s mayor with no control over the city’s resources and administration. The Sindh government retains substantial control over various city services and functions in Karachi, including master planning, building control, water and sewage issues, solid waste management and development of nearby land. Taxes paid by Karachi may finance Pakistan, but the city’s own finances are in a weak position, relying almost solely on meager funding from a rural-dominated provincial government to meet budgetary needs.

Experts agree that Karachi is at a high risk of natural and man-made disasters. World Bank Group analysts estimate that Karachi needs $9 billion to $10 billion in financing over the next decade to meet infrastructure and service needs in urban transport, water supply and sanitation, and municipal solid waste processing.

But infrastructure spending by the public sector is well below these requirements. With Pakistan gradually slipping into a financial meltdown, the possibility of getting funds for Karachi’s crumbling infrastructure is becoming slimmer every day. The growing civic deterioration, unemployment, poverty and frustration are only strengthening well-funded extremist forces looking to lure youths into their deadly trap.

Karachi is not just blessed with a strategic location, but it is also home to an educated and religiously tolerant ethnic group, the Mohajirs. Descendants of those who migrated to Pakistan after the British partitioned the Indian subcontinent in 1947, these Urdu-speaking Mohajirs are the ones who transformed the city into the region’s industrial powerhouse.

But the Mohajirs soon lost their eminence to Pakistan’s Punjabi-dominated military establishment, who turned to Sindhi nationalist Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s to nationalize Mohajir-owned industries, banks and educational institutions. Despite census-rigging and gerrymandering, Mohajirs still make up the majority population of the city.

Pakistan’s Punjabi-dominated military has carried out multiple security operations in Karachi to weaken the power of Mohajirs in Karachi. One operation, begun in 2013 and supported by the province’s rural-dominated government, has resulted in the arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings of hundreds of Mohajirs. The Mohajirs’ political party has also been fragmented under intense pressure from Pakistan’s intelligence agencies.

Since the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan has taken over, a vicious campaign to terrorize, displace and financially cripple Mohajirs has been launched. Thousands of homes and businesses legally owned by Mohajirs have been demolished in Karachi. Rightful owners, some with claims dating back to the 1950s and 1960s, have been evicted with only a few days’ notice and without any compensation. Pakistani courts have failed to provide justice to Mohajir victims.

Clearly, Pakistan has failed to address even the most basic issues of Karachi, as growing unemployment, a large youth population frustrated by deteriorating conditions and rising religious extremism pose major problems for peace in the region.

The Voice of Karachi, therefore, is launching a campaign to have Karachi declared as an autonomous city -called Greater Karachi- within Pakistan, similar to the Kurdish region in Iraq. A stable and prosperous Greater Karachi which will also include other Mohajir-dominated urban centers in Sindh province, would serve as a role model for the rest of Pakistan by treating all its citizens equally and ensuring freedom of religion and speech for all.

A staunchly secular Greater Karachi will also serve as a true friend of all peace-loving and democratic countries in the world, particularly the U.S.

Nadeem Nusrat can be reached at n.nusrat@voiceofkarachi.org.

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