x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

One area gets pipeline, other gets the water

Pashtun migrant workers in Karachi complain they are the victims of a concerted campaign of ethnic exclusion.

Streets in the Mohajir areas of Karachi were largely deserted and tyres set ablaze at some points during a strike called by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement on June 13 to protest against the killing of the cleric Sarfraz Naeemi in a suicide bombing.
Streets in the Mohajir areas of Karachi were largely deserted and tyres set ablaze at some points during a strike called by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement on June 13 to protest against the killing of the cleric Sarfraz Naeemi in a suicide bombing.

KARACHI // The ethnic balance of power in Karachi can be measured simply by looking at the civic infrastructure in its poorer neighbourhoods, politicians representing the city's sizeable Pashtun minority say. "If you drive through the Mohajir neighbourhoods into Pashtun areas, the difference in the level of development is plain for all to see," said Mohammed Khan Afridi, the nazim, or head councillor, of Ittehad Colony, a western township populated by Afghan refugees and migrant workers from north-west Pakistan.

The drive through Mohajir areas to the Pashtun neighbourhoods of the western suburb of Baldia Town does feel like a journey from one world to another. In Mohajir areas like Rangarh Mohalla, such civic development projects as roads, water and sewerage were announced at every traffic junction on billboards erected by the city government. The billboards are decidedly partisan, with head-and-shoulders photographs of Syed Mustafa Kamal, the city's nazim-e-aala, or mayor, manipulated to appear cradled against the shoulder of Altaf Hussain, leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a party that dominates the Mohajir vote.

In contrast, the Pashtun township of Ittehad Colony looked less like a suburb of Pakistan's major metropolis and more like a desolate village in a tribal agency on the border with Afghanistan. The state was conspicuous by its absence: no government schools, health clinics or even police stations - amazing, considering the rising ethnic violence on the periphery of the area. Road projects started in the early 2000s by Naimatullah Khan, an activist of the religious Jama'at-i-Islami party and Mr Kamal's predecessor, lay abandoned. Vast areas have no running water, and most residents can only get electricity by illegally splicing copper wires from their homes to municipal power wires on main roads.

"We are sitting here, watching a pipeline being laid through the area that will carry potable water to Rangarh Mohalla, but the Pashtun neighbourhoods aren't getting any of it," said Mr Afridi, a commercial property developer who has been buying and converting former Baloch tribal grazing lands into townships for poor Pashtun for about 30 years. He said he had raised the issue with the city mayor, who had promised to ask the Rangarh Mohalla nazim to divert some funding, but to no avail.

"I criticised him a lot during the last election and, from what I have heard, he has been saying he would [rather] bump me off than fund our project," he said, then laughed. "But that is hardly a justification for denying water to the Pashtun workers who do all the dangerous and dirty jobs for Karachi that nobody else wants," he said, pointing across the road to a group of labourers fixing an electricity pole without any protective clothing or equipment.

In Baldia Town No 9, a volatile area sandwiched between Mohajir- and Pashtun-majority townships, development activity had stopped altogether because of an ethnic turf war, residents said. Entering the area from a broad, well-paved traffic artery, a broken, unpaved skeleton of a four-lane road skirts along the periphery of Pashtun neighbourhoods, marked by the flags of nationalist parties. About 200 metres on, a brightly painted MQM party office and flags denotes Mohajir territory.

Pashtun residents living in the streets sandwiched between the two territories said land gangs with alleged affiliation with the MQM were preventing them from building new homes and evicting absentee plot owners at gunpoint. A visiting expatriate working in Saudi Arabia said he had been bullied into giving up possession of eight 104-square-metre plots he had bought with his life savings. "The land mafia people kept on telling me to get out, so one day I gathered some relatives and friends to help me protect the property. But it had the opposite effect: they confronted us with automatic rifles and the leader of the gang grabbed me, held his rifle to my ear and fired off a round that nearly deafened me," said the expatriate, who requested anonymity, citing security concerns.

Neighbours, who also asked not to be named, confirmed the incident, saying the plots, which had cost the owner 800,000 rupees (Dh36,000) each, had been sold on to ethnic Mohajir for 2.1 million rupees. They pointed to a walled enclosure in an adjacent street, painted with "for sale" signs, saying that it contained similarly seized plots. "There is nothing we can do about it, because all the municipal bodies are dominated by the MQM," a resident said.