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Spirit of Karachi

Spirit of Karachi

FROM a sleepy fishing village in the 1800s to a large metropolis today that barely sleeps, Karachi’s rise has been truly astonishing. Its combination of economic dynamism, electric work ethic, political perversion, high crime rates and hectic lifestyle elicit awe, respect, fear and puzzlement across the rest of Pakistan.

In terms of sheer economic productivity and breathless lifestyle, Karachi is probably several decades ahead of its closest rival Lahore. While the rest of the country is starting to call it a day and go to sleep around 10pm, Karachi is just warming up for an exhilarating evening.

But Karachi’s pre-eminence is not just national. In economic dynamism, it beats many Asian and African cities. A few years ago, while going on a two-day trip to Nairobi, I broke my laptop screen. I rushed from the airport to a Dell dealer only to be told to my dejection that it would take three weeks to repair it. The screen was not available locally and would have to be imported from London.

I went from Nairobi to Sri Lanka for two days and was told there that it would take four weeks. I came to Karachi, again for only two days, and went to a small IT shop. To my glee, the young owner told me they had the screen and would fix it by 7pm.

When I called at 7pm to inquire, he told me that the screen did not fit my machine. Just as I was about to lambast him, he said: “But don’t worry sir. The screen is available in Dubai. A khepi [youngsters travelling regularly to Dubai to bring stuff] will bring it in the morning and we will fix it by 4pm.” Sure enough, I got my laptop back just before my flight! International purchases, DHL transit times and customs delays pose no challenge for Karachi’s improvising entrepreneurs.

Karachi’s many contradictions, faces and phases deserve indepth sociological studies to unpack its mysteries: the economic dynamism coupled with the political perversion, the political economy of its meteoric rise after 1947 and relative decline after the 1980s, and the double jeopardy of this Mohajir-dominated city given the step-motherly attitude of a Punjabi-dominated centre and a Sindhi-dominated province.

In fact, there is a third jeopardy that it suffers which is at the hands of its own local leadership, forcing Karachiites to cry ‘You too, Brutus’ in unison. But sadly, few studies unravel Karachi’s mysteries, forcing armchair analysts like me to rely on anecdotes and partial data to understand it.

No issue is more fascinating than the huge disconnect between its economic dynamism and political perversion. From the country’s economically most advanced and globally connected city, one expects political processes equally dynamic and impressive.

The economics of vibrant cities like Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai influenced and helped lift the quality of not only metropolitan but national governance. However, this has not happened in Karachi’s case. Its politics has become more perverse over time, which has affected its economic vibrancy. Crime and violence have become dominant over economic vitalism.

These trends have to do with the national, provincial and metropolitan political economy since 1947. In Mohajir imagination, Karachi’s rise after 1947 was solely due to their hard work and enterprise. While these factors clearly were crucial, the role of a friendly federal government based in Karachi and controlled heavily by fellow-ethnic people too was critical. Thus, agriculture was systematically neglected and exploited through transfer pricing policies to help establish industry in Karachi.

But, ultimately, numerical realities prevailed and the political pre-eminence of the small Mohajir community and, hence the economic pre-eminence of Karachi, started waning as politically ascendant Punjabi elites similarly followed policies to benefit Punjab.

History reveals that industrialists and urban professionals politically sideline rural elites with industrialisation. This has happened in Punjab but not in Sindh due to the stark rural-urban ethnic divide. But more surprisingly, the economically most dynamic segments of the Mohajir community, its industrialists and upper middle-class professionals with elite education, have eschewed even metropolitan politics.

Thus, as Mohajir political consciousness crystallised with their receding national political powers, the mantle of Mohajir political leadership was assumed not by them but by less well-educated lower-middle-class youth which gradually developed linkages with and established crime mafias in the city.

This phase in Mohajir politics is likely ending with last week’s dramatic events. But this will not end the Mohajir need for ethnic politics, as true for other politically marginalised southern communities, ie Sindhis and Baloch, which unlike Mohajirs are also highly economically marginalised. It is critical that the economically dynamic segments of the Mohajir community step forward to fill this void and provide political leadership in line with Karachi’s economic dynamism.

The writer heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

[email protected]

Published in Dawn, August 30th, 2016

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