“Karachi is a city of mafias,” contends Roland deSouza, as he addresses a seminar by SHEHRI, an NGO set up to save the city’s built environment. It is a hazardous job fighting for open space for the city. SHEHRI has seen one its office bearers shot and most members continue to receive threats daily. Their fight is against the builder mafia, which gobbles up open land and heritage buildings to put up huge shopping malls and housing plazas, in open violation of local building laws and town planning rules.
deSouza says that the city seems to be “like nobody’s city,” and almost everyone is out to milk it because it is also Pakistan’s economic powerhouse. There is the tanker mafia that supplies water to houses whose piped supply had run dry. Perween Rehman, who runs a self-help urban revival NGO, says that most of the city’s water problems are scams. “Water supplies are disconnected so that tankers supply to houses at ten times the cost.”
Then there is the transport mafia — a collection of private transporters who edge out any public sector effort at introducing mass transit in this city of 12 million. The private transporters run crude locally built mini-buses in which people are packed like sardines in the absence of any alternatives. Many of these buses are owned by policemen which is why they are never fined on the roads.
The biggest mafia of all seems to be the government or to be precise,. the city’s notoriously corrupt police service. Political commentator, Rafat Saeed says that the police have a hand in every pie, “from bhatta collection to charging for encroaching land or stealing from the public sector.” The unplanned illegal settlements that sprout all over the city to meet the growing needs for housing are all patronized by the police, as are prostitution, gambling dens and illegal liquor sales. Local newspapers continue to publish reports daily of such excesses but no one seems to take notice.
Dr Husain of the Institute of Business Administration says that the mafias are a manifestation of private enterprise that would otherwise not be allowed to flourish.
But despite the chaos and the mafias, the city seems to run most smoothly if compared to other cities in the country. “Everything is available — at a price,” comments Rasheed.
This is a sentiment that most dwellers of Karachi do not appreciate given that many of them live under the poverty line. “Urban poverty has grown appreciably,” says economist Kaiser Bengali. Many worry that this poverty can fuel crime in the long run. It is a thought that keeps many Karachi-ites in a constant state of worry.