I had to travel to Karachi at the start of last week, for a few cases fixed before the honourable Sindh High Court. On Wednesday, as I was scheduled to fly back to Lahore, the floodgates of the sky opened, pouring unprecedented rain on this ill-prepared city. And, as we know from the immortal words of this city’s ace political leader, ‘jab baarish hota hai toh paani aata hai…’. The rest, as they say, is history.
Over the past several days, there has been no electricity in large parts of Karachi (including Defence, where I am staying). For the past 5 days, there has been no delivery (or availability) or clean drinking water. No availability of basic food (milk, eggs, bread, etc.), in places inundated with the rainwater. No fuel is available across petrol pumps for several miles. Even in places where there is fuel, there is no electricity for the pumps to operate. The cell phone connectivity has broken down entirely.
There is no linkage with the outside world, and no means of contacting anyone for emergencies. Even the land-lines are not functional, owing to underground cables being inundated. I have seen people sitting outside their houses with kids, hoping that someone will help them get to a medical store. Elderly people have run out of life-saving medication. Cars are abandoned in the middle of the roads, with the owners having walked back to wherever they came from. And, of course, no security or government officials in sight.
Over the past four days, Karachi (and other parts of Sindh) have seen a complete collapse of the governance structure. The very basic requirements of governance—provision of essential services to the people—have entirely caved under the weight of rainwater. The emperors of Sindh were not wearing any clothes to begin with; now, even the pretence of it has been stripped away from their useless existence.
Everyone has someone else to blame. And, each time the situation gets out of control, ‘state institutions’ (who have no such role under the 18th Amendment) have to bail Karachi out
Unprecedented rainfall or mere excuses?
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: yes, it was unprecedented rains for Karachi. 294 mm of it in twelve hours. But that is no excuse for a city of 14.9 million people, and 1.94 billion in the annual budget, to shut down completely. There are hundreds of towns and cities across the world, such as London, that get more rainfall every year.
Places that are literally in the eye of the storm year after year, with a fraction of Karachi’s financial budget. Still, life goes on (mostly) unaffected. People continue to enjoy the basic provisions of life. And the government ensures people’s safety through deliberate and purposeful planning.
But all that sounds like a dream here. Because this is PPP and MQM territory. And, at this point, there are no words of shame and ridicule that can jolt their morbid conscience. So long as Bilawal House is safe, who cares if the rest of the people die hungry on the streets? So long as Zardari House’s generators are working, who cares if children of the city go without electricity for four days? So long as Bilawal Zardari’s coffers are full, who cares if people sleep under the rainy skies, empty stomached? So long as Addi Feryal Talpur’s house is quickly dried, who cares if more than one million people saw their shanty abodes drown in water?
This is Karachi. PPP-MQM town. The only lives that matter here are those of PPP and MQM leaders. The rest can, for the most part, go to…
Practice of blame game
During this time, PPP leaders and MQM local government officials have consistently denied their responsibility in the catastrophe that is Karachi. Continuing from where the ‘kachra’ debate left, these political rulers of Karachi have been doing what they do best: shifting blame on others. Here is how the argument sounds: clearing water from the roads is not our responsibility, one PPP leader said.
That is the responsibility of the local government. Garbage collection and water dispensation is not our responsibility, the MQM local government officials say – this job is that of PPP’s provincial government. Electricity is no one’s responsibility, the Federal Government should take responsibility for it. ‘Security’ is a Provincial subject, but the IG is appointed by the Federal Government.
Or when NDMA and FWO came to clean the ‘kachra’ and the ‘nalas’. Or now, when they are being called in to help with the rains
Medical stores are the responsibility of the Provincial Government, but the transportation of medicines to these stores rests with the local government. Availability of milk and bread is the local government’s responsibility, but the access to roads for such provision is with the Provincial government. Cell-phone connectivity rests with the Federal Government; but the signal-towers are built on Provincial government land.
And amidst this despicable blame-shifting, the people of Karachi have no choice but to look up towards the pouring heavens, and pray for a bolt of lightning to strike down these Pharaohs of our time.
18th Amendment not working?
But away from our fleeting anger against these irredeemable leaders, the state of Karachi should force us to rethink the State delivery structure. And any serious thinking, in this regard, would lead to one unmistakable conclusion: the multi-tiered structure of governance, introduced by the 18th Constitutional Amendment, is just not working.
There is no way to hide this fact. No amount of waxing lyrical about ‘integrated federalism’ can hide the fact that the 18th Constitutional Amendment has introduced a governance structure that just isn’t working. It didn’t work during corona (till the honourable Supreme Court intervened to create a ‘national policy’), and it is not working now.
The 18th Constitutional Amendment, for all its virtuous goals, has created a system of government in which no one is responsible for the problems of Karachi. Everyone has an excuse to hide behind. Everyone has someone else to blame. And, each time the situation gets out of control, ‘state institutions’ (who have no such role under the 18th Amendment) have to bail Karachi out. This is precisely what happened when, in 2013, the Karachi security situation could not be controlled by Sindh Police. Or when NDMA and FWO came to clean the ‘kachra’ and the ‘nalas’. Or now, when they are being called in to help with the rains.
This is a time for imagining a better society, in a new constitutional paradigm, so as to better deliver the promise of democracy to our people
So what should we do? Should we wait a few decades on the faint promise that the 18th Amendment structure will one day turn its focus away from defending scattered fiefdoms, and instead focus on collective welfare? Or should we, instead, think of restructuring our system of governance, so as to envision a more functional and result-oriented constitutional framework? Can our democratic service delivery system function ‘better’ if certain structural changes were enacted into our Constitution and the law? If so, should we resist such changes just because Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, in 2010, had agreed on the existing dysfunctional structure?
These are serious questions that require national debate. They require vociferous arguments from all stakeholders—most of all from the people at large, who are the final custodians of our Constitution. There is no reason to remain pedantic in our approach to the existing constitutional framework. This is a time for imagining a better society, in a new constitutional paradigm, so as to better deliver the promise of democracy to our people.
Post-Script: while trying to find some way to the Karachi airport yesterday, I saw a family near Shahrah-e-Faisal; one man, his wife, and two toddlers. They were sitting on the edge of a dumpster (above the water level), with their belongings wrapped in two suitcases. I asked if I can help in some way, with money. They refused, and instead offered me their suitcases (which had all of their belongings) in exchange for getting them a pint of milk for their babies.
Maybe our democracy, our courts, our system of governance will forgive the rulers of Karachi. But there is a larger (divine) justice at play here. And in that eternal Court, the greatest heed is paid to the whispers that escape a broken heart.
Saad Rasool is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has an LL.M. in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Twitter: @Ch_SaadRasool. This article originally appeared at The Nation and has been republished with the author’s permission. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.