‘Karachi needs permanent solutions’: An interview with former mayor Waseem Akhtar

The former mayor of Karachi voices his concern about the recent funds announced for the city, saying they are necessary, but not sufficient for Karachi’s transformation. He speaks on the utmost importance of a functioning local government for Karachi as being the essential prerequisite to act as a catalyst for the city’s takeoff.

Solution of Karachi

GVS: What are your thoughts on the Karachi transformation plan?

Waseem Akhtar: We had a press conference regarding the transformation committee, and how it plans to execute the development of Karachi, which had been pending for a long time. It is a good gesture, a good way forward by the Prime Minister of Pakistan. This is precisely what I had been asking for the last four years, and not only for the funds for completing the pending projects of the federal government. However, there is a missing part in this plan. The Karachi transformation plan does not answer “How the government will fix the local government system?”.

If you don’t strengthen the local government system, what will happen after three years? The reason I am saying this is because the Pakistan People’s Party, has been ruling the province for very long time. If you look at the past 12 years, what have they done with the system? Now if we spend so much money on these projects – who will maintain them after they are completed. Where is the authority who will look after these – these functions belong to local governments.

GVS: Are you satisfied with the prime minister’s suggestion that there will be an overarching committee that will look after the project?

Waseem Akhtar: That is a temporary measure. I am looking for a permanent solution for Karachi. What will happen afterwards? My petition over the implementation of Article 140a both in letter and spirit, is still pending with the Supreme for three years. I want, whoever the mayor may be, it should be a strong third-tier local government that manages this – which is the case in most metropolitan cities around the world. It is not the function of the federal government or provincial government.

Read more: The Fate of Karachi Transformation Plan

GVS: Are you satisfied with the amount that has been committed in the Karachi transformation package?

Waseem Akhtar: No, it is not sufficient. The amount is enough only for let us say meeting emergency needs only. This is what can be said about it.

GVS:  PKR 1.1 trillion was promised; how much more were you expecting?

Waseem Akhtar: Transformation of Karachi is a continuous process. Unless they strengthen the local government, funds alone are just not the solution. However, I think Karachi will not easily get these funds quibbling has already started.

GVS: So, in your opinion, the strengthening of the local government is more important than the funds?

Waseem Akhtar: Oh, yes! The funds allocated for Karachi under this package will be spent by the Sindh government. And past experience shows they have done nothing substantive. They are utilizing the funds that were there for the local government. Sindh government is interfering in the affairs of the local government departments.

Departments that were under the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC), they have taken back by notification. Hence, this package is a temporary solution; we can’t get anywhere with the envisioned transformation unless the local government system is revamped. It should be protected by the Constitution in a similar manner as the provinces are, under the NFC Award.

Transformation of Karachi

GVS: Do you think the three-year plan the government has released will turn into a reality? Are you hopeful?

Waseem Akhtar: No. Because right now it’s just a mess – everyone is too busy pointing fingers. The public has not even been told the correct figures yet. We don’t know where this money is going to come from, who is going to give it. They’re just yet again trying to make a fool of the people. You are depending on Malik Riaz’s money! The money that you’re getting from corrupt land! Look at the mentality, I for one, am utterly amazed at how they function! Where is all the money that is generated from Karachi’s taxes? Where is my tax money?

GVS: We need to create local revenue collected for local expenditure as is done in many parts of the world. In New York, they have city tax, state tax and then federal tax. Do we need city tax in Karachi?

Waseem Akhtar: Brilliant. But I don’t have the power to implement something of this sort. We have over twelve hundred streets that are with KMC – streets that all of Karachi uses. The Sindh government collects 0.3 trillion rupees per year in tax from Karachi. SLGA 2013 stated that whatever tax they collect from Karachi a percentage of it will go to KMC. But they don’t give this.

GVS: The federal government, when it was discussing the Karachi transformation plan, wanted to resolve the issue of the sewage water system by playing a more active role, but the Sindh government didn’t allow, why do you think that happened?

Waseem Akhtar: According to my understanding, they don’t want the federal government intervening in the issue, it’s a power issue that’s all.

Read more: Who will answer for Karachi in the eternal court?

GVS: Taking a step back: after your tenure ended you held a press conference on August 25 in which you seemed very frustrated, some say you even cried. What during your term of four years as the city mayor contributed to this discontent?

Waseem Akhtar: I have been associated with Karachi’s politics for almost 35 years. Over the years, I have served as the minister for local government, adviser for home ministry, and minister housing and town planning. Due to my vast experience in Karachi, I realize what should be our priority. However, when I started my term in office, the problems I faced were like a daily nightmare situation. I have been under continual stress for the last four years.

GVS: What was the reason behind the stress?

Waseem Akhtar: The Sindh government. When you read the Sindh Local Government Act (SLGA) 2013; funds have to be disbursed to the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) by the Sindh government. However, this didn’t happen. The Sindh government didn’t release KMC’s funds. Now, the departments of the water board, building and master plan, transport have all been taken over by the Sindh government. When in fact, these are the functions of the KMC. However, everyone looks at me, that I will resolve their problems – how can I?

GVS: In what ways was your tenure as mayor Karachi different from Mustafa Kamal’s – who is seen as one of Karachi’s most dynamic and popular mayors?

Waseem Akhtar: The difference is that when Mustafa Kamal served as the mayor, all the KMC departments were under his control under the Local Government Ordinance 2001 and not with Sindh government. Everyone was supporting him; the finance minister was MQM, I supported him as an advisor home, P&D minister supported him, and the Governor was MQM. Even President Musharraf was supporting him. He was allocated PKR 29 billion directly for running KMC’s affairs.

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GVS: So, is the difference because at that time MQM was in power, or was it due to him operating under the LG Ordinance of 2001?

Waseem Akhtar: The LG Ordinance 2001 gave him all the necessary powers, and he was heading all the departments. Money was coming from Islamabad directly to the KMC, and he was actively generating revenue from all the departments that fell under the purview of the mayor.

GVS: How will you compare the amount you were receiving versus him?

Waseem: My budget was PKR 24 billion, while he was directly given PKR 29 billion. Along with this, he was also generating wealth through all the departments and property tax, betterment tax and commercialization, etc. I didn’t have such money channels.

Waseem Akhtar: You wouldn’t believe how little funds I had- I currently have a shortfall of salaries amounting to 160 million rupees!

GVS: So from within those funds, you also have to provide salaries?

Waseem Akhtar: Salaries are provided by the Sindh government. But there’s a shortfall of 160 million rupees. KMC does not have electricity. KMC cannot afford to pay that bill, so our connection was cut. It’s only because of a Supreme Court order that we have electricity on our premises right now! What is this? How will this work? What is the future?

GVS: Would you want to go back to the 2001 Act? Would that be the perfect scenario?

Waseem Akhtar: Well, we could sit and discuss what route to take – a newer one. Look, SLGA 2013 could be amended because now we are clear on the problems as well as their solutions, so we’re in a better position to amend it. We need a more significant sum for Karachi, for KMC, for basic salaries, for fundamental development.

I wish to make a garden for Karachi, I look at these basic amenities in foreign countries, and I want to make them for our people too. There’s Nehr-e-Khayyam beside Karachi Grammar School, I wanted to improve it. It reeks. It has become a sewage dumping ground. I tried to replenish it. But I couldn’t. I didn’t have the funds. I couldn’t even provide these basic amenities.

Read more: Islamabad: Safer than London, Paris and Sydney?

GVS: If you knew this reality in 2016, why did you contest the election?

Waseem Akhtar: I am a political worker in a party which enjoys the vote bank of the city – especially in the third tier (local government) of the election. For several years, we have been in the government. I cannot leave the space like that. My party nominated me.

When I was running for the elections, I was sent to jail. Before my party nominated me, I had zero FIRs registered against me. But after the nomination, I had 40 FIRs registered against me. They tried to stop me from contesting elections. So it was a big challenge for me, how I would deliver, but, I raised my voice for the third tier of government. No one knows the name of any mayor in Pakistan but ‘Waseem Akhtar’. I have been struggling for the local government system for the past four years. You cannot strengthen democracy without it.

GVS: Given your helplessness, why didn’t you resign if you were so distressed? After all, even the Supreme Court observed this.

Waseem Akhtar: That is not the solution; resigning is the easiest thing to do. I accepted the challenge and faced difficulties, and I am still trying to strengthen the system. That’s why my petition is still in the Supreme Court.

Transformation of Karachi

GVS: In the upcoming mayoral elections, do you think that the local government act may change?

Waseem Akhtar: I don’t think so. After the capital was shifted from Karachi to Islamabad, nobody paid much attention to Karachi after that. I don’t think there will be any change in the city’s administrative system. All the revenue comes from Karachi; 95% percent of Sindh’s funds comes from here. In such a scenario, who will vacate the city and its numerous departments, when all the money come from there? Unfortunately, money takes precedence over people’s problems.

GVS: You have mentioned that since the capital was moved from Karachi to Islamabad in the 1960s, the situation in Karachi worsened. Do you support the idea of making Karachi a federal territory?

Waseem Akhtar: No, I am in favour of strengthening the third tier of government. I am going to repeat; why not enhance just the local government? Put everything under the mayoral umbrella. The police could be a metropolitan police under the mayor. We should be speaking about resolving people’s issues, not playing politics.

It’s obvious the leadership of Pakistan doesn’t have a vision – look at Larkana; they go to visit Dubai, Europe, England, but they don’t wish to develop their own towns and cities. Karachi is Paris in front of Larkana. Look at the poor quality of life in interior Sindh. In the last three years, Karachi has given the country 3 trillion rupees. That’s big money! How long are we to watch it all being looted, how long. Enough should be enough! Everyone has made enough money!

They’ve made enough to put into Dubai and England. But what of the voters? Our voters? What have they done wrong to deserve this? Take a look at how these people live their lives in Baldia, Lyari, Korangi, Lines Area. Once you look at that, you will find it terribly hard to even sleep at night. They live such tedious lives. We have all turned politics into an industry. We’ve also made mistakes. MQM made a whole lot of errors; given the extent of power that we had.

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GVS: On that note, I wanted to ask you about that, why, when you had power for such a long period of time, were you not able to make local governments a really vital part of the Constitution – so as to prevent changes to the Act that were possible later?

Waseem Akhtar: I would like to tell you one reason if there was just one; however, there is an endless list! Look what our leader did. He misused the powerful mandate the public had bestowed upon him – with their money, their votes. Look at the mess he made of it from all the way there. Now it’s the people who are suffering. I came to Pakistan in 1986; I was working at AT&T in Jeddah. I’d been working there for twelve years. I joined MQM in 1987.

We have made mistakes, we have made a lot of mess. We should have done better. The things that people were being made to do during those times. I thank God that I was a parliamentarian and didn’t have to partake.

Had Altaf Hussain walked the right track, today MQM would have been Pakistan’s largest political party. But we did the wrong things, and that caused us losses. But we have learned from them, and we don’t want a repeat of them.

Even during Musharraf’s time, there have been unfortunate events; it was during his time that our party was corrupted. Our party was tagged in a lot of wrong activities, but never corruption – until then. And since then the money given to Karachi has never been correctly utilized.

However, while we sing praises of Mustafa Kamal, even today because he was a member of MQM, but he spent the money on bridges and underpasses. Instead, the funds should have been spent on groundwork infrastructure – rain drainage systems, water pipes. But we didn’t. That was foolish. We wrecked our city. We don’t need underpasses; we needed waterways underground. People are drinking contaminated water.

Transformation of Karachi

GVS: What major issues do you think are of importance in the context of Karachi?

Waseem Akhtar: Public transport, sewage, contaminated drinking water, load shedding, disposal of garbage, clean energy, corruption – what can be bigger fundamental issues?

Consensus is the biggest problem – how will this be carried forward into the future. Today, I’m the mayor, it’ll be somebody else tomorrow, and they too will complain about the same things – it’s a joke! This is a city with two ports, and this city supports the whole country! What kind of policies is the power center making for this city?! Karachi should be getting special treatment.

GVS: People also say that MQM members and sector command is also a big problem in terms of corruption, you should also do something about that, don’t you think?

Waseem Akhtar: Yes, and we have. We’ve left our own leader! We left that system! We finished it. What we did, no other party could match. They’ve turned Nawaz Sharif and Zardari into royalty! Some of the most heinously corrupt people. Our leader drifted astray, so we kicked him out of our own party! The sector commanders you speak of do not exist any longer. We finished that system.

GVS: You are in the federal government right now; what are you doing to ensure a stronger local government system?

Waseem Akhtar: We had an agreement with the PTI, and we shared with them a list of our issues – related to our party and Karachi. Presently, only one member of MQM, Amin ul Haque is in the cabinet. He is serving as the Minister of Information Technology & Telecommunication.

Even now, we are waiting for the second portfolio promised by Prime Minister Imran Khan. We are supporting the PTI and standing for democracy. However, we are not satisfied with how they are resolving our issues related to Karachi or our party. Every time we have a meeting with the prime minister, we remind him of our problems.

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GVS: The PTI government is supporting local governments financially and legally in KP, will they do the same in Karachi?

Waseem Akhtar: When I met the prime minister, he said that he is going to support the local government. This development came in the papers as well. He said that he would transfer funds to the local government. About three months ago, I heard that he was giving money to MNAs and MPA’s. When I had met him, the prime minister’s body language and words were for the local government system. He should also send the money to KMC.

GVS: Do you think the Sindh government’s newly appointed administrator will be able to achieve what’s needed?

Waseem Akhtar: Nobody can achieve in this city unless he has the required power, authority and funds. The new administrator is not from Karachi, and the biggest stakeholder of Karachi’ MQM was not even consulted while posting him. We have almost 80% mandate of the city. They [Sindh government] have appointed almost all the administrators (including deputy administrators) which are not locals.

Everyone is from the Pakistan People’s Party. How will the new administrator understand the issues of the different localities in Karachi like Baldia, Malir, etc.? After all, this person was only the commissioner in the south of the city; red zone where the CM lives.

GVS: On a final issue –you have many complaints on the 2017 census, which showed that Karachi’s population is only about 14 to 15 million. When I moved to Pakistan in 2008, people spoke about the population touching 20 million even then. I was shocked as many others when the 2017 census number came out. According to you, what were the flaws with the census, and how does it impact Karachi?

Waseem Akhtar: I think more than 30 million people are currently living in the city. And the remarks of the Chief Justice of Pakistan put it even beyond that. It directly affects the NFC award. We are getting a budget for half the population, so you cannot make policies for improving the health and education sectors when you don’t know even know the exact population figure.

GVS: What pockets of the population were underestimated?

Waseem Akhtar: Whole of the city.

GVS: No particular ethnicity was overlooked?

Waseem Akhtar: No, I think that everyone who is living in Karachi. People who migrated here. In the last 50 years, they have not voted for the PPP Sindh government. Our petition on this subject is pending in the supreme court.

GVS: Who do you think benefits from this?

Waseem Akhtar: The Pakistan People’s Party.

GVS: Why would they benefit given Karachi’s population affects the NFC award given to Sindh?

Waseem Akhtar: We’ll have more seats, and hence, get stronger in the provincial and national assembly. You know how we are treated.

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GVS: Going forward, what would you advise the government?

Waseem Akhtar: The situation will remain the same unless you strengthen the third tier of government.

GVS: So will you be running in the Mayoral elections again as a candidate?

Waseem Akhtar: Honestly, it depends on the party. It will be my aim that somebody else gets the candidacy. I have done my share of struggle. I have raised countless issues, regardless of whether or not people are willing to acknowledge it. But again, it all depends on the party.

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