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Karachi and our conscience

Karachi and our conscience

IT is this city’s sad predicament that it embraces all with open arms and is yet endlessly vilified with glee. Following the utterly despicable speech by Altaf Hussain on Monday night, a kind of open season has been declared on the MQM. But what troubles me more is how much of this spills out onto the general citizenry of Karachi.

This is how the line goes: if the people of Karachi still vote for the MQM candidate in the mayoral elections happening on Wednesday, it will prove that they want pain and not change.

There is a certain prejudice against Karachi and its citizens amongst my upcountry friends that I am always struck by. At a personal level, we are all entitled to our feelings and opinions. However, the problem is that when this attitude finds its way into policy thinking, or politics, it is then no longer a personal but a public matter.

Let me give an example. Many years ago, I was interviewing a former official from the privatisation ministry about the various privatisation transactions of the Musharraf regime. When it came to KESC, as K-Electric was then known, he let out a sigh of frustration. “I personally pushed for the privatisation of this entity,” he said. “It was a terrible entity, always asking for subsidies, riddled with rackets and losses.”

Was it worse than the power distribution companies of the rest of the country, I asked. Yes, came the response, much worse. Then he launched into a description of how bad the enterprise was and I couldn’t help but notice that he was describing a mental image of the city of Karachi more than the entity itself.

In subsequent encounters with Wapda officials, and this was before the bifurcation of the entity into hydro and power sides, I found this unique disdain for KESC. Whenever discussing other entities in the power sector, they had reasons for why things were in a dilapidated state. When it came to KESC, there were no excuses and no sugar-coating. At the time, I didn’t make much of this and took their view that the losses at KESC were the number one problem and the entity must be jettisoned at almost any price.

It was, indeed, jettisoned to a private party that could not manage it. Then another management came in during 2008, and slowly things turned around. Now the losses are gone and the entity is profitable and line losses are coming down. How this is happening is another story, but since the line at the time was that the losses are high and it must be jettisoned at any cost, I though perhaps officialdom in the power sector would be happy.

But no. Recent conversations with upcountry folks in the power sector confirm once again that the same entity which is now called K-Electric, is the subject of the same disdain. They all opposed privatisation of the power sector, and in doing so, pointed towards K-Electric. “Do you want us to become like them?”

What’s wrong with them, I asked? They’re profitable, line losses are coming down, investments are being made, so where is the problem? And now there was a different story. “They’re overbilling their customers,” said one. “They’re only selling electricity taken from the national grid, nothing more,” said another. “If they have their own power plants, why do they take power from the grid?” asked yet another.

Then it struck me. No matter what happens, Karachi’s power utility will always be a whipping boy for the rest of the country, not because of its performance issues but because it is in Karachi. After all, Pepco keeps some of its plants shut while there is load-shedding in the rest of the country too. And why should Karachiites not be entitled to the cheaper hydropower in the national grid? Is there no overbilling in the distribution companies owned by Pepco? And how exactly did K-Electric declare a profit of Rs22 billion through overbilling alone without there being any kind of an uproar in the city?

Here’s another example. A while back, I wrote an article complaining about the massive inconvenience caused to the city’s residents on account of the IDEAS expo being held here. Comments I received in return were “if the city’s residents can endure countless closures on the orders of a

political party, what is a few more days of traffic jams?” The answer is simple: every day of traffic and school closures is a lot for a city this size, and nobody enjoys the city’s closures on the dictates of a political party either.

Often I find that the way in which people upcountry relate to Karachi is similar to how expats or foreigners relate to Pakistan as a whole. They see the headlines and generalise about the people. If people want to really understand why a substantial vote bank exists for the MQM in spite of everything they see on TV, all they have to do is understand that voter behaviour is rarely influenced by what happens on television. Elections are decided on local issues, and most people I meet who may have strong feelings about Karachi know very little about the local issues of the city.

Again and again, I keep encountering such blinkered and deeply prejudiced views about Karachi. Yet this is one city where in a single stretch of a market near my house, the paanwala is Burmese, the tea vendor behind him is Pashto-speaking, the tyre guy next to him is Urdu-speaking and the AC repairman next to him is from southern Punjab. And you have to experience the friendly vibes between them to understand that this is the only city in the country that brings together so many different people from so many backgrounds, and let’s them all call themselves a Karachiwala.

The writer is a member of staff.

[email protected]

Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, August 25th, 2016

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