Those of you who've been following PPP-MQM relations over the last few years would know that agreeing on a time line for local government elections has remained a major thorn for the coalition. With this recent outbreak of almost civil war-esque violence, the need to have a functioning local administrative and security appartus has become more pressing than ever before, which in classic Pakistani reaction fashion, has made the federal and provincial government consider a major shake up of local administrative arrangements.
Following the events of this week, we've already had a few very good pieces detailing various facets of Karachi's security situation. Required readings amongst those include this Foreign Policy piece by Sheheryar Mirza, this older piece by Gazdar and co. historicizing urban violence in the city, and Saba Imtiaz's piece that puts together this latest episode in what is increasingly becoming a very tumultuous narrative. (Expand this list to include, when and if available, Ahsan's post and Cafe Pyala's locally grounded take on the matter)
Since I don't write a lot about Karachi and I haven't been closely following provincial and local politics in Sindh, I can't really comment on the causes and manifestation aspects of the security problem, but, what I do intend to do is to briefly outline a possible intervention that could temper these sporadic, yet largely systemic outbreaks.
Development literature in conflict states (or crisis states as they're called by the DFID), suggests that a well functioning administrative system is the first step required to replace violence as an arbiter of political, social and economic disagreement. This administrative system needs to be based at the local level because a) it would be closer to the target area, which would assist in service delivery, b) contextually inclusive, which would help produce a local platform for engagement, and c) holistic, which would help reduce legal contradictions.
Pakistan has had a checkered track record with democratic local government, usually instituted during times of military rule. This paper by Ali Cheema and Asim Khwaja gives a brief history of devolution in the country, focusing primarily on the reasons why military rulers have preferred forging direct center-district relations, whilst sidelining the provincial tier. In any case, it would be fair to say that all devolution efforts have been politically motivated and far from effective.
So what happens when we don't have a military ruler hell-bent on bringing 'controlled' democracy at the local level? Well, for Sindh, like other provinces, local administration is ordained by something called the Land Revenue Act 1967 (which, because of the one-unit scheme, was the West Pakistan Land Revenue act at the time of promulgation). This institutes a vertical arrangement whereby the Chief Secretary of the province appoints Commissioners for every Division in the country. A division is a collection of districts, or in the case of Karachi, just one very large administrative area. Technically it becomes the third tier of government in the country after the Federal and Provincial levels, and before the district, town/tehsil, and Union Council level. Under that act, Karachi was divided into 5 district sized areas (North, East, West, South and Malir), which were then further divided into towns/tehsils and so on.
The Land Revenue Act 1967 was hacked to pieces by the Local Government Ordinance of 2000, which abolished the divisions and instead instituted the district as the third tier of government. Under that particular scheme, Karachi was one city district, divided into 18 towns and a bunch of cantonments. The administrative head of the district was the DCO, who in turn reported to his political superior, the Mayor (or Zila Nazim). For each of the 18 towns, there were local bureaucrats that reported to town nazims or deputy mayors of sorts. In 2009-10, as the Ordinance expired, Punjab quickly reverted back to the commissionarate system, while Sindh diddled-daddled over whether to hold fresh local government elections or to follow suit. Ultimately, things are stuck in limbo as the MQM-PPP haven't been able to agree on a time line for local body elections, and now with the emergence of this latest wave of violence, the President has formally decided to institute the Commissionerate system in Karachi once again, after what will now be an interval of almost 10 years.
The principal difference between the Commissionerate system and the Local Government system is quite obvious. One is run by a senior bureaucrat who reports to the provincial chief secretary, who in turn answers to the chief minister, while the latter is run by an elected Mayor, who in turn associates with his electorate and his political boss, i.e. the chief minister. While on the face of it, the second system seems preferable to the first because of its overtly democratic and electoral nature, both suffer from one very large problem.
The thing is that the Divisional Commissioner's primary responsibility is to look after a) Revenue, b) Local service delivery (health, education, water and sanitation etc), and c) basic magistracy (civil cases and so on). If you were under the LGO 2000, the Mayor, through the DCO would look after areas a) and b). In both cases however, the actual function of policing is completely separate from the administrative setup. Police, like district/divisional administration is a provincial subject. The top police officer in Karachi is the CCPO (Capital City Police Officer), who in turn reports to the home ministry of the province. The police department has nothing to do with the administrative head of the city. In fact, for example in Punjab, the district police officer and the district coordination officer (or the regional police officer and the divisional commissioner) are of the same government rank and both have separate reporting lines. And yes, it is as big a mess as it apparently comes across.
Why is this a bigger problem in Karachi than in other areas? Well as an example, a long-standing problem in Karachi is that of the land-mafia/qabza groups. Land issues in any area are basically controlled by the revenue department, an area that falls under the Commissioner's jurisdiction. On the other hand, policing and activity against land criminals would fall under the jurisdiction of the CCPO, who would have to work with the Commissioners revenue department but would do so without a proper line of command or legal obligation.
The political aspect of this contradiction is even more troubling. One of the most lucrative systems of patronage in Pakistan is known as 'police mein bharti', which literally means stuffing the police department with people of your choice. As opposed to the revenue or other services departments, employment in the police is more coveted because of the obvious rent-seeking and power possibilities associated with the department. Now imagine a situation whereby a political party, purely through its control over the home ministry of a province, can determine appointments, recruitment, and transfers. With a few high-level appointments, and the constant patronage loyalty-through-recruitment routes, you can pretty much control the security, hence governance, apparatus of a city as large as Karachi. When you look at it from this angle, it makes sense why the MQM had so many issues with a hawkish home minister like Zulfiqar Mirza. Such policies of patronage contribute to what is called the ethnicization of the state. In effect, what happens is that one department, in this case a very powerful one, becomes associated (or is perceived to be associated) with a particular ethnicity or political party (or both). The already existing legal contradictions basically turn into political contradictions, where mistrust of the local state apparatus ultimately renders the courts and policing irrelevant in conflict resolution. For more on the issue read this excellent year old piece by Gibran Peshimam on 'Political Deputy Superintendents of Sindh Police'
One of the reasons why the security situation in Karachi remained relatively stable under the Mustafa Kamal/Musharraf era was because the provincial coalition consisted of the MQM and a party which had no urban designs or ambitions (the PML-Q). Hence, the MQM could shape the local security and administrative setup quite easily, without having to bargain or scrap with its own coalition partner. Unlike then, the 2008 provincial coalition saw a bigger share for the PPP, which controlled the home ministry, and if things go according to plan, will soon control the city's administration via the Commissionerate system as well. Throw in the Pashtun demographic and economic exigencies as well, and the situation remains increasingly fractured and, ultimately, violent.
Let's be clear, a functioning, inclusive, and most importantly, holistic (admin + policing) local government system will not solve the systemic problems causing violence in Karachi. In turn what it can do is provide an alternative form of resolution. The structural imbalances (ethnicized economy and state, poverty, unemployment, weaponization) will remain and would have to be solved through political consensus between all major parties and their respective networks, but till that is obtained, removing legal contradictions and hurdles would be a solid first step in creating a safer urban environment.