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What next? Karachi waits with bated breath

What next? Karachi  waits with bated breath

A WEEK after the blaze, stench and despair marked the environment as one visited the Cooperative Market in downtown Saddar. Workers were busy moving the remains from the gutted shops, while the owners were busy filling out loss assessment forms. The leaping flames extinguished life for close to 400 shops within hours.

The cause of fire and reasons for the rather high scale of destruction, despite multiple fire stations being in the vicinity, are yet to be established. The affected traders are staring at a bleak future unless the government steps in to restore some semblance of life in the badly damaged market.

“Some government officials, including the city administrator, paid fleeting visits and promised to approach the higher-ups on our behalf. So far, we have not received any commitment from the government for any rebuilding or compensation.

“We, on our part, are trying to document the details of our respective losses. Over 300 forms circulated for the purpose have been returned. The collective loss of the traders has been worked out to be around Rs1.5 billion so far. Besides assets and stocks, a big chunk of cash also got burnt,” said Sheikh Muhammad Feroz, President of the Saddar Cooperative Market Society, while talking to Dawn.

Elaborating on the cash part, he said the wholesalers in the market get payments cleared on Saturdays which they deposit in the banks on Mondays. Instead of carrying the cash around, they prefer to keep it secured in their shops over the weekend.

Dissatisfied with the government response, the aggrieved traders have pinned hope on high-profile private-sector leaders of the city. “We have approached the Karachi Chamber and the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce & Industry for help to gain access to the government,” he said.

There were some voices in the market suspecting sabotage engineered by elements involved in the allegedly illegal sale/purchase of shops in the building. “I was here and saw the fire spreading. It didn’t seem like an accident at all,” stressed a bitter shop-owner on the site.

Sudden fires in the commercial hub, spike in street crimes and certain wall-chalkings are making life tough for a city that generates 40pc of national and 90pc of provincial resources

Independent city-watchers find the incident and the provincial government’s response reflective of the neglect that the city has been subjected to. “I find the city situation scary. It could be my paranoia. The sudden spike in street crimes, incidents of fire in commercial centres and overnight wall-chalkings point to the possible reactivation of some hidden forces,” said one observer.

The office of the Sindh chief minister was approached, but the response was awaited till the filing of this report.

On his part, city administrator Murtaza Wahab dismissed the perception of administrative neglect in the case of the fire incident as well as in general. He said he would like to wait for the inquiry report before commenting any further. He lamented the absence of fire safety equipment in the market which could have helped the traders to do something before the arrival of fire engines. He said 10 fire tenders had taken part in the operation under his watch. “The KPT fire station is beyond our jurisdiction so I can’t be accountable if it was not mobilised”.

Talking about life in general, he said the provincial government, with better focus, could have done better to lessen the water-related misery, but blamed the federal government squarely for the absence of public transport in the commercial hub of the country.

“China agreed to finance the Karachi Circular Railway under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor in 2016, but the federal government declined the Chinese investors’ demand for sovereign guarantee. I am positive that over the next two years the situation will improve visibly as several initiatives in the sector are advancing at a satisfactory pace,” said Mr Wahab over the phone.

He thought the private sector’s expectations could have been higher, but ‘being hostile’ is too strong an expression to describe the provincial government’s relationship with the business community which, he insisted, counted the community among the key stakeholders.

When questioned why the business community in Karachi behaves differently despite stronger financial muscle than those in Sialkot, he thought the question needs to be directed to the private sector and not to the government. All he could do was to promise to share the data he was using for improving governance standards in Karachi.

Some PPP stalwarts declined to comment on the specifics when approached but regretted the provincial government’s underperformance, which, according to them, had further eroded its base among the locals. “A party ruling the province for over a decade can’t possibly be absolved of the responsibility for the plight of the city,” said a leader privately.

“Despite its contribution to the national kitty, when it comes to basic civic amenities, like water, public transport, etc, Karachi is not just behind all its global counterparts, but fare much worse than several smaller cities within the country,” he conceded.

Some estimates put the share of Karachi in total tax collection beyond 40 per cent of the national. In the province, the cosmopolitan city pitches over 90 per cent of the resources generated by the Sindh Board of Revenue. According to the published Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) data, the city under the head of income tax alone contributed Rs209bn in 2018 against Lahore’s Rs180bn.

Another senior member of the provincial team promised current data profiling all districts of Karachi “later”.

Asad Ali Shah, CEO of an accounting firm and son of former chief minister Qaim Ali Shah, felt Karachi deserved more attention and better governance if the party wished to improve its image in the city. Apparently not a huge fan of Murtaza Wahab, he admitted that the quality of governance in Karachi is far from being satisfactory.

He recalled the times when the PPP had a bit more fun in Karachi. “In the 1970 elections, the party won 20pc of the provincial seats and two of seven National Assembly seats marked for Karachi. In the first PPP government, Karachi had a good representation. Kamal Azfar was the finance minister and Haji Kassim Abbas Patel was heading the industries portfolio. In 1973, Begum Raana Liaqat Ali became the provincial governor and was succeeded by Mohammed Dilawar Khanji.”

He blamed the MQM for widening the rural-urban divide and for wiping out the PPP from typical Karachi localities. He was critical of the government’s poor relationship with the business community. In his opinion, the performance in the health sector was comparatively better. “By investing liberally in SIUT, NICVD, Jinnah Hospital, Trauma Centre, Indus Hospital and other such places, the government has served the city well.

“I must add that a big portion of the blame rests with subsequent federal governments for drying up development funds for the city that supports the entire country with the taxes that are raised here.”

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, November 22nd, 2021

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