When Karachi’s roads were being constructed by labourers working tirelessly into the night, passers by in cars caught a brief glimpse of a familiar face standing by them – Karachi’s city mayor: Syed Mustafa Kamal.
Once heaving with endless traffic, the newly built signal free roads have transformed the city. Poor infrastructure, political instability and civil strife have been the classic hallmarks of the city but Mustafa Kamal believes that the best way to bring about peace is by serving the people.
He is committed to lifting the disregarded people of Karachi from their urban squalor, which is why he constructed a water pipeline to Lyari, providing the residents with a direct water supply for the first time ever. Despite this, he is still haunted by the image of people taking to the streets with buckets and pots demanding water in the scorching heat. Though this had become a cruelly regular feature for the last five decades, their cries had fallen on deaf ears. Though Lyari is not an MQM stronghold, Mustafa Kamal made providing access to safe drinking water a top priority. The help and assistance extended to the citizens of Karachi irrespective of their political affiliations has won the hearts of the people and made Mustafa Kamal a hero.
His unprecedented success in revolutionising Karachi has gained him international renown. Perhaps this is because he symbolises the indomitable spirit of the people; he stands with the people who build the roads and clean the streets to keep body and soul together. In spite of the myriad challenges he faces, his dauntless spirit emerges from his love and commitment to the city of Karachi which he describes as his passion.
In his candid conversation with Blue Chip, he talks about his eventful tenure and pays tribute to the people of Karachi for their courage and resilience
Foreign Policy magazine described you as one of the best mayors in the world, in fact, the second best. What were your thoughts when you discovered this?
Mustafa Kamal: “Let me clarify. Foreign Policy had not described me as the second; my name was just on serial number two. When I got this news, I was very surprised and humbled. But some elements of the media criticised me for it, our political enemies wrote to Foreign Policy saying that they had no right to categorise the mayors. Foreign Policy said that they hadn’t meant to categorise it. But, it was a very pleasant surprise for me and I felt that I had not only been acknowledged by my country but also by the world.”
During your tenure you have done a lot for the city of Karachi. What steps have you taken to reduce violence and increase foreign investment?
MK: “If you evaluate the condition of the country today as far as peace and stability is concerned, I can vouch that there is no better place than Karachi in this whole region: Karachi is the economic hub, it is an economically vibrant city and it is politically vibrant as well. Despite all the challenges, the different ethnicities, all the political factions; the city continues to progress.
Incidents have been taking place for so many years but life doesn’t stop here in Karachi. I think this has been the greatest success of Karachi. This has not just been achieved through lip service – action speaks louder than words. I am a firm believer of action.
When this responsibility was given to me by my leader Mr. Altaf Hussain, he told me to serve each and every soul in this city. When the election was over, he called me to congratulate me. He told me that I am no longer the Nazim of MQM or an MQM candidate but the Nazim of the whole of Karachi. He said that I have to serve the whole of Karachi and be responsible for everyone in the city. He broadened my vision.
I started serving poor areas and providing them with the basic necessities of life. When I took up this responsibility four years ago, there was no master plan for the city. We made the first master plan for the city. You can well imagine: Karachi’s population had grown to 18 million people but the biggest city of Pakistan didn’t have a master plan, even after 58 years since the inception of Pakistan. Therefore, one can only imagine the magnitude of the problem! When I took over this responsibility, 40% to 45% of Karachi did not have a system of water and sewage, let alone any access to water. People were getting water through tankers and throwing their sewage on the road. Today, by the Grace of God, Lyari town now has direct access to water. There is a picture printed in my mind from childhood – during every hot season, we used to see pictures in the newspapers of the people of Lyari – men, women and children holding pots and buckets coming out onto the streets, protesting and blocking roads, demanding water. They have been doing this for the last four decades. Not one single union council member of my party lives there. Lyari is, in fact, a diehard PPP area. Even the late Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto had participated in elections from that constituency. Even today, the MPA, Town Nazim and MNA are PPP but they have never provided water supply. During these four decades, there have been chief ministers, prime ministers; but the people of Lyari could not get water. It is us; it is this haq parast government that has provided water. We have provided water to the people of Lyari through a six million gallon water supply line which was brought from 53km away to Lyari. Now, there is water available in each and every house of Lyari. There may still be some small difficulties as it is a difficult project. Prior to this, there was no main line bringing water to Lyari let alone a distribution system. We had to work on the main line and the distribution system simultaneously and by God’s Grace, we achieved this. There are also islands in Karachi which have been inhabited for 300 years before Pakistan’s inception that have not had direct access to water until now. The inhabitants of these islands would bring water from 7km away by traveling in small boats on the sea with containers. In fact, we have made a documentary on this. There used to be a tanker at the Karachi Port Trust (KPT) where there was one tap from which 60,000 people would take water – they would travel everyday out to sea to do this. Since they had been deprived of water for generations, they had forgotten even to demand this as a basic right. They had accepted this as their destiny. We have provided them with water. We have laid down the water line under the seabed. We have given them water after 300 years. For the first time, they are getting water in their homes. Not one single union council member of my party lives there. I can go on and on giving you examples of how we have served Karachi without any discrimination.
To answer your question, this is what we have done to bring peace. Terrorism cannot be fought through guns and ammunition. Instead, give people a sense of ownership; give them a sense that somebody cares for them. At the end of the day, actions must speak. If families don’t have water, do not have a sewage system, are stuck on the road for two or three hours, you can use those people for anything. All the evil forces can prey on those frustrated people. We have created a model in Karachi which can be replicated in other parts of the country.”
The citizens of the more affluent areas like Defence and Clifton have also praised you for the City Government’s help in relief efforts after heavy rainfall.
MK: “I am very grateful to them.”
You have also initiated a project to make Karachi greener; can you elaborate on this?
MK: “We have planted over 900,000 trees in Karachi in areas where there were only concrete structures. Today, you will see that green belts and huge trees have come up. We have not only planted trees, but we have also protected them. We have created a sense of belonging in the hearts and minds of the people. I have told the people that I can plant a tree but I cannot protect a tree. You have to be the owners of those trees. The psyche is that our own property is not beyond the boundaries of our homes. The trees in front of your house are your property; the street is your property. Today we lack ownership. We started this campaign in the third year of my tenure. In the first year, I did not speak a word to the people of Karachi. I told my people that let’s not speak to people and tell them what to do; instead just focus on the job. People initially mistrusted the government because they have seen countless slogans, heard endless speeches, yet nobody comes forward and admits to corruption – they make big promises but deliver nothing so the people are quite naturally disillusioned. Therefore, I did not utter a single word. For three years, they saw my actions. Criticism was heaped upon me when we started digging up the roads in Karachi. At one point, I had dug up almost all of Karachi! But I had no choice. My city is an international city. I had to bridge the gap between Karachi and the other cities of the world. That is why we started projects simultaneously. If 40% of Karachi does not have water, we had to dig up the line to provide the water supply. After the people had seen our actions; when bridges were built, when signal free corridors had been constructed, when parks were made, when street lights were put up, when waste disposal mechanisms were installed; then we went to the people of Karachi. On 14 August, 2007 we launched the ‘I Own Karachi’ campaign. 28,000 people enlisted and all I asked was for them to come and listen. If I plant a tree but somebody cuts it down, what can I do? If I am making roads and somebody drives the wrong way, what can I do? People came and sacrificed two hours of their time.”
Your innovation against great challenges you have faced has gained global recognition. What factors do you think have contributed to your success?
MK: “I am not from the stereotypical feudal family. I did not spend a penny to get this post. I have been the MPA, then the Provincial Minister and then the Nazim of the biggest city in Pakistan, seventh largest city in the world – I did not spend a single penny to get this seat. I was a street worker of the MQM. My leader picked me up from the street and put me in front of 18 million people. There were question marks surrounding my selection as I was young – my predecessor was my grandfather’s age – so people had doubts in their mind. I was young and unknown. I had to prove that my leader’s decision was right. I think my dedication and honesty… I have dedicated my life to this cause. I have to prove the philosophy of my party and my leader that a middle class person without a big family name can run Karachi successfully. This is not in keeping with the traditional perception of the country where the position of mayors, governors, chief ministers and prime ministers are kept for feudal sons who study in the UK or America and take over from their fathers. If I failed, my party’s philosophy would have failed – that middle class literate youths do not have the potential to run the affairs of the city. They can be the followers, not be the leaders. By the Grace of God, I have proved this wrong.”
You must have made a lot of enemies.
MK: “Yes, I have. Doing something right is the toughest job. If you are willing to do something wrong you will make many friends here. One of the keys to my success is that you should know how to offend people; you must have the courage to offend people as you cannot please everybody. I can talk straight in front of anybody.”
You studied in Karachi and you have grown up in Karachi. What makes the city so special for you?
MK: “I can’t put it into words. It’s the whole atmosphere of the city. It’s a resilient city. It’s a crazy city. I can give you an example: When a cyclone comes and there is an announcement from the government to evacuate the seaside, everybody leaves the seaside and goes to safety. But, in Karachi, if there is an announcement of a cyclone or a flood, there are traffic jams in Clifton because everybody is rushing to the seaside to see the cyclone! People are on motorbikes with their families. That is what Karachi is all about: the great people. Resilience is a small word to describe them. That’s why despite the challenges Karachi has faced, the city has never gone down.”
What was your experience in Malaysia like? Were you inspired by the organisation there?
MK: “In Malaysia, different cultures and religions live together. The thing that inspired me was that everybody minds their own business. They respect everybody regardless of religion and ethnicity. People live in harmony and contribute to the wellbeing of their country. There are temples, churches and mosques, but people live in peace and with tolerance and that is what I was inspired by.”
What was your experience like as Sindh IT minister?
MK: “In the 2002 election, I was given the ticket for Member Provincial Assembly. I was the MPA in the previous government. After one year, I was given the responsibility of the Cabinet as well, then I was made IT minister. It was a newly created ministry. I can declare that the Sindh IT department made its presence felt all over Pakistan. During this time, we developed the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry which is a $200 billion global industry. 80% of this goes to India. If we can even get a fraction of this, we wouldn’t need any Kerry Lugar Bill or foreign aid. The unfortunate part is that we have the potential, we have the best human resources available for the BPO industry, and our youth can speak good English unlike the rest of the region. In India, every three months, a population the size of Islamabad gets jobs in BPO industry. Can you imagine what a huge opportunity for job creation this would be, not to mention the billions of dollars of foreign investment coming in? Since we have not been able to capitalise on this, business is going to the Philippines and South Africa. Why am I talking about it and why isn’t my Prime Minister? I have limitations; I have limited powers and I cannot speak on behalf of the country or the whole province. I am building an IT tower for a 10,000-seat call centre. This will be the largest call centre. This means that 30,000 youths will be employed because one seat carries three jobs. It will be a white collar job.”
You have also spearheaded parking projects and announced mega projects worth Rs. 1.7 billion for development to improve the city’s infrastructure in the shortest possible time.
MK: “We made the first parking plaza of Pakistan. Previously, there wasn’t any concept of parking plazas. We conceived these for all the crowded areas and incorporated them into our master plan. When I was responsible for the Karachi Building Control Authority (KBCA), I made the rule that no building can be constructed without a parking plaza. The first parking plaza was inaugurated on the busiest street of Saddar where there is a 1,100 car-parking plaza. Seven more are being constructed.
As far as infrastructure development is concerned, we have spent over Rs. 30 billion in order to provide a water and sewage system all over Karachi. We have spent over Rs. 200 billion on road infrastructure. We have constructed roads of over 15,000 km in Karachi. We have constructed 32 flyovers and bridges. One flyover or bridge used to take 11 years to complete. When we conceived the first signal free corridor in which there were three underpasses and three flyovers – the biggest in Pakistan – it was over a 15km stretch, we conceived and completed it in just eight months time. Our second signal free corridor comprises five flyovers and one underpass, which was completed in just one year over a 25km stretch of road. The third signal free corridor again has five flyovers and one underpass, which was completed in just six months time. These three projects were completed in record time when previously constructing just one bridge took 11 years. In three years altogether, we have completed all three signal free corridors. There is an international case study on Karachi. Everyday, hundreds of new cars are coming onto the streets. Had we not done this the city would have been choked, there would have been riots on the streets because of the traffic jams.”
What have been the other highlights of your tenure?
MK: “We have launched a complaint management system which is unique in the world. The 18 million people of Karachi didn’t have the right to speak up or to even lodge a complaint to their authority. If you had no water, there was no number to reach your authority. There was no phone number to call your mayor or local administration to clean your street or fix your streetlights. Thousands of people do not get water everyday. I know exactly what the situation the city is in: I know how many people are suffering from water and sewage problems. The system is based on a 50-seat call centre. Highly trained youths have been appointed to speak to the people. They have been told that the people of Karachi are your bosses so you have to be respectful. When you call 1339, it’s all computerised; it goes to 18 towns simultaneously, which have offices, which are equipped and linked directly through Wimax so they are on real-time. The DCO’s offices are linked on real-time as well as the Water Board’s. My office is also linked up to the system on real-time. The moment the complaint has been entered on the system, there is a four-digit reference number which you can go back to or you can refer back by calling them. The complaint is stored in the database and will appear on the office screen of that town where the complaint was made. Therefore, the authorities immediately know what problem you are facing. I also receive this information on a real-time basis. I know about the whole city and where the complaints are coming from. This is what I am really proud of. The people of Karachi are finally able to pour out their grievances and frustrations. They have a channel to do that now. We are the only government organisation in Pakistan to have ISO 9000/1 certification. Without this system, there is no way that these people could reach out to me and tell me about their problems. There is a system to ensure that my people on the ground are resolving their problems so there is a check on them as well. I can also see how many problems have been resolved. There are three categories: active complaints, done jobs and unresolved jobs. The chief engineer has to come back to the office and enter the information. There is a third party to ensure that the information is accurate. So far 178,717 people’s problems have been resolved. This is how I have established a system of accountability on my own people and for the first time the people of Karachi have a voice. This is what I am really proud of.
We have also developed a command and control centre where we can see 25% of the city. We are expanding this across different parts of the city.”
Who are your role models?
MK: “Altaf Hussain. He is my leader. Without him I would not be sitting in this position. My father is not an industrialist nor is he a politician that under his name people would give votes to me. Nobody knew Mustafa Kamal three years ago. There were so many questions surrounding my selection. Whatever I have been able to deliver is because of Mr. Altaf Hussain, because he put his trust in me. He gave me the strength. I was very nervous. I still have sleepless nights. I cannot rest and always have a fear that what if something bad happens and people call Mr. Hussain and say who have you chosen as the Nazim of the city.”
What are your plans for the future?
MK: “I am a street worker of the MQM and I will continue preaching MQM’s philosophy. I will be the advocate of Mr. Altaf Hussain’s philosophy. I will be one of the ambassadors of Mr. Hussain.”
Tell us about Karachi, the Kohinoor?
MK: “This is a pictorial book comparing the Karachi of four years ago to the present day.”
You have achieved so much, what has kept you so humble?
MK: “I have endured the difficulties of the common citizen. I have traveled in overcrowded buses; I know how it feels when the bus conductor is rude to you; and I know how it feels to go to a government school. My parents always emphasised education but I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I am a product of this society and I can feel the pain of the people. I am not doing this because it’s just my job – it’s my passion and my party’s philosophy: to make this administration the best administration. Today, we have established a success model. This has been our first chance to deliver. Now we don’t have to speak because the results speak for themselves.”