By Zia Ur Rehman

Sep 22, 2019

The recent monsoon rains in Karachi left in their wake loads of trash and choked sewers, which the city administration seemed unable to manage. This prompted the federal government to intervene, much to the chagrin of the Pakistan Peoples Party-led Sindh government and a host of ethnic groups.

Exercising its “executive authority,” under Article 149 of the Constitution of Pakistan, the federal government formed a strategic committee that would look into the administrative, municipal, and civic matters of Karachi. A statement in this regard by Law Minister Farogh Naseem, who is also the head of the committee, provoked a strong reaction from the PPP. Addressing a press conference in Hyderabad, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari dubbed it as a “conspiracy,” and alleged that the federal government wanted to take control of Karachi. In another press meet, Sindh Minister for Labour, Information and Archives, Saeed Ghani, and former senator Raza Rabbani stated that under Article 149, the federal government could only issue directives to the provinces and not intervene directly.

Ghani went so far as to call it an autocratic move to separate Karachi from Sindh.

To its advantage, the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf’s federal government has got an ally in MQM-P which has been running the affairs of city’s municipality since the last local government (LG) poll in 2015. MQM-P has long been pressing for invoking Article 149, and trying to gather support for such a move by organising gatherings and rallies in the city. It has also accused the PPP leadership of being “biased and racist.”

Other voices have joined in the chorus as well. Former Karachi Mayor, Mustafa Kamal, who is the founder-chairperson of Pak Sarzameen Party, has said: “Today, [Karachi’s] citizens aren’t asking for underpasses or roads, or parks, or even schools. They want an immediate disposal of garbage lying in the streets. They want the sewage nullahs to be cleaned.”

According to Kamal, the only way to address Karachi’s woes is to revise the 18th Constitutional Amendment to ensure that districts get their due share from the Provincial Finance Commission (PFC). “Political parties did not pass the 18th Amendment just to hand over all power and resources to a chief minister. The power and resources should be transferred at the district level,” he says, adding that the Prime Minister should take Sindh Chief Minister [Syed Murad Ali Shah] on board before announcing any plans.

The PTI blames the PPP for misleading the public on the issue through vicious propaganda and by using the “Sindhi card.” PTI’s parliamentary leader in Sindh Assembly, Haleem Adil Sheikh said recently that Article 149 granted the Federation the right to give directives to any provincial government to work efficiently and deliver. He also spoke of making the Sindh government liable to solve the problems of the province.

No recommendations have been made so far. In fact, in all this blame game, the dismal situation on the streets and roads of Karachi remains unchanged. Heaps of garbage and overflowing gutters continue to be a bane for the residents.

“At present, all the three major parties in Sindh are looking for opportunities to draw political mileage, embarrass one another and take advantage of the situation instead of putting in much-needed combined efforts to rectify the institutional and administrative anomalies that contribute to Karachi’s deteriorating infrastructure.”

Political analysts associate the current crisis of governance with various developments in the recent past — chiefly, the MQM-P’s weakening because of the crackdown and split within the party.

The crisis deepened after the 2018 general election. The MQM-P has mayors and chairmen in four out of the six districts of Karachi after it won the LG polls of 2015. But the party claims that owing to legislation in Sindh Assembly, the elected local representatives have been rendered useless, and the provincial government has usurped many of the municipality’s powers. The PPP, according to the MQM-P, has held the chairmanship of the district council, so that it can control Karachi’s rural and coastal areas.

Meanwhile, the PTI-led federal government has emerged as a new player in Karachi’s politics, having won 14 out of the 21 National Assembly seats in the 2018 general polls. It is, however, restrained by the 18th Amendment from carrying out any development projects directly, without taking the provincial government on board.

A government official overseeing Karachi’s municipal affairs suggests the differences on ethnic or rural-urban basis could be clearly seen in matters of the city’s governance.

However, analysts believe that all this debate and controversy around garbage disposal has to do with power politics. “At present, all the three major parties in Sindh are looking for opportunities to draw political mileage, embarrass one another and take advantage of the situation instead of putting in much-needed, combined efforts to rectify the institutional and administrative anomalies that contribute to Karachi’s deteriorating infrastructure,” says Dr Farhan Hanif Siddiqi, a political commentator and author of The Politics of Ethnicity in Pakistan: The Baloch, Sindhi, and Mohajir Ethnic Movements.

He adds, “Article 149 was the government’s strategy to embarrass the PPP for its governance failures in Karachi. It only served to inflame political tensions without addressing the city’s pressing issues.

Also read: Too many cooks?

“The fact that the PTI government’s own ministers have opposed a possible resource to Article 149 attests to its irrelevance as a way forward for Karachi.”

Siddiqi is of the view that the PPP’s continued confrontation with the MQM-P puts a damper on its politics of retaining the 18th Amendment and provincial autonomy for improved governance. “If the PPP fails to come up with a formula to address Karachi’s problems by agreeing to work in cooperation with the MQM-P, as was witnessed in 2012 (when they joined hands to pass the Sindh People’s Local Government Act), criticism of the 18th amendment and calls for centralised and unitary politics (for example, Article 149) will only gain further ground,” he says.

Realising the gravity of the situation, the Sindh government announced on September 16 that it would clear Karachi of municipal waste to a great extent in one month’s time. It may be reminded here that all past cleanliness campaigns, backed by local and federal governments, have failed.