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The criminalisation of Karachi

Irfan Husain
Filed on December 16, 2004

IN KARACHI, hardly a day goes by without some friend or relative recounting a personal story to do with crime. In fact, I know nobody who has not had some direct experience of a robbery, a hold-up, a kidnapping or a shooting.


The other evening, my two younger brothers were backing a car out of our garage to go out for dinner at around nine when they were held-up at gunpoint by several young men with scarves concealing their faces, and riding three motorcycles. Sensibly, they handed over a cellphone and whatever cash they had, and the young gunmen rode off around the corner, tossing the car keys close to the house. The entire hold-up was over in less than a minute.

When I heard the news and rushed back, I discovered that both my brothers were remarkably calm. Shahid, the youngest who lives in the States and is currently back on a visit, said in a very matter-of-fact manner that he keeps two separate wallets, one for Pakistan which contains no credit cards or original driving licence. We did not even bother reporting the incident to the police because in the absence of motorcycle numbers or descriptions, the cops could do very little.

According to neighbours, the same gang had stopped a couple who were walking on the street behind ours, forced the woman to hand over her jewellery, and her husband to give his wallet and cell phone. This crime occurred a few minutes before the incident outside our house. Obviously, the gang goes around after dark, looking for targets of opportunity.

These crimes do not appear in police statistics as they are seldom reported. The victims feel that the hassle of trying to convince the cops to file an FIR is not worth the remote prospect of the criminals being apprehended. In fact, a reader recently wrote to recount his awful experience trying to persuade the police to investigate two robberies at his house in North Nazimabad. The poor man ran from pillar to post, but to little avail.

Even when detailed descriptions are available, the police are ill-equipped and untrained to investigate. They maintain no up-to-date photo archives of criminals, and nor do they have a databank of fingerprints. In fact, the crimes that are solved are due to either paid informants, or the simple but brutal expedient of beating up all the suspects until somebody confesses, or names the actual criminal.

The techniques of mug-shots and fingerprinting have been around for over a century. They neither cost much nor do they require advanced technology. But whenever I have brought this up with my police officer friends, they have gone off on a tangent about the lack of resources. And yet, I see them driving around in late-model cars and SUVs. I am still waiting to learn why our police forces have been unable to induct simple, reliable and relatively inexpensive technology.

For instance, when my younger brother Navaid was shot in the head and the stomach around seven years ago, his office staff gave the police detailed descriptions of the gunman and his accomplice. The Citizens Police Liaison Committee produced computer-generated portraits based on these descriptions, and handed them over to the police. When an officer came to the house a couple of months after the attack, I asked him if he or his colleagues had compared the CPLC portraits to any photo archive they might have. He replied that the police lacked the manpower to conduct such a search. To this day, the crime remains unsolved. Miraculously, Navaid survived and has recovered almost completely, although a bullet is still lodged in his body.

One problem the police shares with all government departments is the poor quality of the recruits it inducts, both at the officer and the constable level. Training methods are archaic, and salaries pathetic. As a result, motivation is non-existent and corruption is out of control.

But the really serious concern is the rampant unemployment prevailing in Karachi, especially among the young. With nearly one youth in five without a job, and without much hope of getting one, the high level of crime should surprise nobody. Even the 20 per cent figure for the unemployed in Karachi conceals the reality of part-time and seasonal work that is erratic and ill-paid.

These poorly educated young men have seen enough cable TV to know what the world has to offer in terms of electronic goodies and designer clothes. Not unnaturally, they aspire to the good life without having the means, or the qualifications to get well-paid jobs. Frustrated and angry, they turn to crime which they see as a low-risk, highly profitable profession.

Many of them are foot soldiers of the MQM. Some have joined out of conviction, and others for protection. If they are ever arrested, they are mostly released on bail by a corrupt lower judiciary. Often, witnesses are too frightened to testify, or the criminals produce fake alibis.

The unemployment issue should be a major concern for politicians and policy-makers. In Karachi, one fallout of the civil war between the MQM and the state that raged in the Nineties has been the virtual halt in private investment. While the service sector has seen a boom, hardly any new industries have been established. The country headquarters of many multinationals have been moved elsewhere. As a result, job-creation is very limited.

While this is relatively true for the rest of the country, unemployment takes on a sharper edge in urban areas like Karachi. Here, because large numbers of young men have received some sort of education, they feel they have a right to get a job. And if they canít get one, they feel justified in taking to a life of crime.

Another sort of criminal is the young jihadi who was trained to participate in the jihads in Afghanistan and Kashmir. The former is over, and the latter is winding down. Bitter and disillusioned, unqualified to do anything but fight, these young zealots are completely alienated from society, and consider it their right to rob to sustain their various organisations.

These are all serious problems, but this government is far too concerned with its own survival to take the hard decisions necessary to tackle them. But until it does, Karachiís rapid slide towards chaos will continue unchecked.

[Tailpiece: On the advice of a friend, I called the emergency number 15. Apparently, they get around 500 calls a day, half of them crime-related. According to the very helpful police official on the line, they respond to every call. And I didnít have to wait for a response when I called.]

Irfan Husain is a Pakistani commentator




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