Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Living in Karachi

Every evening in Karachi we hear bursts of gunfire. We sleep armed behind locked doors with guards and guard dogs patrolling the ‘moat’, which separates the house from the street. ‘Brinks’ alarms and ‘panic’ buttons in each room add not to the sense of security, but rather the contrary. Police patrols pass by now and then, but no one feels reassured because they are as likely to be filled with criminals as the police who, in Karachi, are often one and the same. Only the poor are safe because they have nothing to offer bandits.
Three houses in the neighbourhood have thus far been pillaged, at the cost of one dead, a chowkidar (gatekeeper), who was beheaded. The other two houses escaped comparatively lightly. In one the bandits had the wife of the owner cook them breakfast, as they were loading her generator on to the truck which they had thoughtfully brought along; and in the other they left with the belongings although not all because they returned some weeks later to pick up the rest.
Even the president is wary. Whenever he arrives to survey his properties, whole streets are blocked off and new forts spring up in our midst. When he moves, it is as if a war is ongoing. However, considering the speed with which he decamps the battlefield, this war appears to be yet another war that we are losing.

The killing of Benazir Bhutto and the havoc that followed her death made us Karachiites yearn for the democracy dividend for which she had so bravely given her life. And it was not long in coming, in the form of daily targeted killings of scores of city dwellers. The authorities had no explanation or none that were remotely plausible.
So now it is taken as a given that you can be shot at anywhere and hence must take your own precautions. One of which is that, before assaying out for work every day, we Karachiites phone each other to ascertain the score. If one side has lost appreciably more men than the other in the previous day’s killings, then those areas where the ‘victors’ live are best avoided lest one should get caught up in the ‘surge’ mounted by their opponents to even the score. Because, curiously in our kleptocracy, money is not the only item in demand; taking a life on whim, fancy, party and belief is more so. Actually, it is the vogue, nay it has become a fad. Pakistan, one is happy to announce, no longer has an image problem. We have finally succeeded in doing away with our image problem. It is reality, which is the problem now.
As there is no ‘image’ left to project, and because reality is better conveyed by embedded journalists, certain cost-cutting measures come to mind. The first of which is that scores of our embassies abroad that are meant to project a non-existent ‘image’ can be closed. In any case, all that they do is provide subsidised holidays for our diplomats. Why on earth, for example, do we have an embassy in tiny Ireland, which has more horses than people, and much better bred to boot, unless it is to ensure that Amin Fahim’s daughter appointed as a First Secretary out of the blue has a job. Or is it out of some kind of solidarity with the Irish, who, it is said, like us, never speak well of one another; or perhaps because the Irish too do not know what they want but are prepared to fight to the death to get it. But surely in these cash-strapped days that is a luxury, which we can ill afford.
At least 40 of our approximately 60 missions abroad serve very little purpose. Of course, the prime minister’s recent directive that henceforth Pakistani officials travelling abroad should, as a cost-cutting measure, kip down in embassies and consulates suggests that embassy buildings will double up as hotels and hostels. This has intriguing consequences, considering the rush of officials wanting to visit Rome and Paris, one of which is that hoteliers, rather than those versed in international relations, can now also be considered for appointment to our embassies. And why not, if convicted felons, shore-based admirals, amateur chefs and shrine devotees are already in situ or in the running for such jobs?
A corollary of mission closures would be to downsize the Foreign Office, which sports as many as 1,000 or more babus of all grades. If downsized by 70 percent, it would still be more than the strength that existed in 1971, when Pakistan was united and our population was very roughly the same. Anyway, having outsourced foreign policy to the military, there seems little justification for further expenditure on the Foreign Office. Such an exercise would account for savings of tens of millions of rupees. The moneys so saved could be divided up between our main cities with Karachi getting the lion’s share for obvious reasons.

One other benefit of living in a city like Karachi, which is run akin to a criminal enterprise, is the savings that could be made on security. Law and order in designated areas could effectively be outsourced to forces best able to establish their writ, which, as it happens, is not the police. Thus privatised, it would be more effective and cheaper. In fact, had the government not decided to retain the police force as an excuse to provide jobs for its supporters at the expense of the taxpayer, the proposal may have won acceptance. After all, the Karachi police today are armed mostly to protect themselves from irate citizens and fundos or from deserving candidates for police recruitment who were turned away for lack of patronage rather than to safeguard the common man. Hence, yet more millions saved.
Guarded and preserved for very different reasons by the Americans and the Taliban, Karachi could become a thriving metropolis. And with the savings thus effected, water, gas, oil and electricity could be had for the asking. There may even be some left over to ensure that the Edhi centres continue to run and the drug addicts wallowing in filth under the many underpasses be relocated elsewhere and be provided clean needles. And, finally, there would be a modicum of security for the hapless inhabitants to look forward to.

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