Karachi Urban Flood, Power of Local Government and State Obligation Under International Law

One of the few metropolitan cities of Pakistan, the largest city in the country and the seventh largest in the world, Karachi stands at an area of more than 3700 square kilometers which makes it much bigger than some of the most developed cities in the world, including London and New York City. Unfortunately, the city has remained a victim of poor governance and political conflict between different groups and political parties, including:

  • the party ‘ruling’ rather than serving the province of Sindh (of which Karachi is the capital), the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP);
  • the party claiming to represent immigrants from India post 1947 partition, the Mutahida Qaumi Movement (MQM); and
  • the party currently leading the coalition government in Pakistan, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

Led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, the PTI, prior to general elections in the country in 2018, had campaigned to develop the infrastructure of Karachi city. The leader also based one of his own election constituencies in Karachi under the slogan ‘wazir-e-azam Karachi se‘ (Prime Minister from Karachi).

Unfortunately, after more than two years under the ‘rule’ of PTI, Karachi continues to suffer from various developmental flaws and malfunctions, including the disastrous effects of the drastic urban flooding which has endangered the life of the city and it’s people following a heavy rainfall and flood on August 27, 2020. While the PPP has ‘ruled’ over the province of Sindh consecutively for the past 12 years, the condition of Karachi city has only deteriorated. This article will not focus on how different governments and political parties have failed to properly govern the city but how the city has actually been forced to be ruled by ‘outsiders’ for years and how the situation can actually be fixed in light of the Constitution of Pakistan.

A term we often hear and commonly use while referring to the governance system in Pakistan is the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Let’s first discuss how this Amendment works with respect to provincial autonomy and the delegation of powers. In 2010, under the coalition federal government led by Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the Constitution of Pakistan was amended for the eighteenth time in history and several new provisions had been introduced, one of which was regarding provincial autonomy. It basically vested in the provinces the power to deal with subjects like interior development, education, healthcare, etc. However, most of us ignore that the Eighteenth Amendment did not intend to give provincial governments the sole discretion and authority to govern each and every city within their territory all by themselves. Instead, it had intended to delegate powers to the local governments of cities and districts. Article 140, amended under the Eighteenth Amendment, requires local governments in the cities to be elected by the people of the city, while governing powers and sufficient funds are to be allocated to the local government by the provincial government. Article 32 of the Constitution also protects local governments by requiring the Election Commission to carry out local government elections and regulate how people from their respective cities contest elections for local governments and become Union Council members.

Unfortunately for Karachi, things have not always been so great, owing to a constant tug-of-war for power between the provincial government of PPP and Karachi’s local government dominated by MQM. Local governments and Union Council members have not been empowered enough or allocated adequate funds to govern such a large city spanning over 3700 square kilometers, as the Sindh government has been failing to delegate powers owing to its political differences with MQM.

In 2019, the Mayor of Karachi, Waseem Akhtar of MQM stated in a press conference that he wielded control over roughly only 12% of the city while Union Council members had little to no power to govern their territories. Blame was put on the PPP-led Sindh government and how they had reformed the governing system of the province while keeping most of the powers to themselves instead of delegating them to local governments. It was argued that they had done so by enacting the Sindh (Repeal of the Sindh Local Government Ordinance 2001 and Revival of the Sindh Local Government Ordinance 1979) Act 2011, which repealed the Sindh Local Government Ordinance 2001 that had given powers to local governments in a city, district or town (under Chapter II), following which the Sindh government started to micromanage matters pertaining to governance.

This not only contradicts the Constitution of Pakistan, it also contradicts international law which lays great emphasis on the establishing and functioning of local governments. The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has passed several Resolutions focusing on local governments, such as Resolutions 24/2, 27/4 and 33/8 which focus on making reports and advising member states on the role of local governments in order to promote and protect the human rights of citizens within their jurisdiction. Moreover, under Resolution 39/7, the Council requested the High Commissioner for Human Rights to prepare a report on the effective methods of promoting cooperation between local governments and local stakeholders, in order to protect and promote human rights, following which letters had been disseminated by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

Though these Resolutions are far from being legally binding in nature in the context of international dispute resolution, their existence shows the importance and necessity of local governments to protect human rights. The fact that people in Karachi are currently suffering from devastating urban flooding, poor waste management, water shortage and lack of clean water, shows how the elimination of local governments has led to the violation of basic human rights.

Another Declaration that has been adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is the Declaration on the Right to Development 1986, according to which every person has an inalienable right to economic, social and political development (Article 1). The Declaration in Article 2(3) reiterates that states have a responsibility to ensure the protection of this right for the benefit of their population. In this regard, every citizen of Karachi also has an inalienable right to have access to proper living conditions, ensuring the right to economic development. The current situation in Karachi reflects how this right has been constantly violated by the Sindh government and the federation, especially when Pakistan has been a member of the United Nations for over 70 years and also a member of the UNHRC.

There is no doubt that the rights of the people of Karachi have been constantly violated by the Sindh government, especially with regard to development and adequate living standards. Rumors of the city being taken over by the PTI-led federal coalition government and made part of federal territory are unlikely to solve the problem. Karachi continues to face injustice by being ‘ruled’ by those it does directly elect, instead of being governed by its own people. As highlighted above, the issue has been categorically tackled by the Constitution under Articles 32 and 140 requiring efficient functioning of local governments, which seems to be the only solution to the problems being faced right now by the biggest metropolitan city of Pakistan.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any organization with which he might be associated.

Cover photo: A mirrored image of Karachi city’s iconic landmark, the Jinnah Mausoleum, on a public holiday in 2020.
Hubaish Farooqui

Author: Hubaish Farooqui

The writer is the Executive Editor of SZABIST Law Journal 1.0 and a final year law student at SZABIST Karachi. He has served as an intern at Courting The Law.