Karachi’s major political parties have always reacted strongly to allegations that they patronize crime, but a recent statement by the paramilitary Sindh Rangers – who are part of a law-enforcement operation in the city – aroused an extraordinary response from the usually-calm former president Asif Ali Zardari.
On June 4, Maj Gen Bilal Akbar, the director general of Sindh Rangers, told an “apex committee” overseeing the operation that more the Rs 230 billion were being generated every year through extortion, smuggling of Iranian diesel, corruption in water supply, and land grabbing, mainly patronized by “a major political party”. A week later, on June 11, the information was shared with the media in a press release.
Although it was taken as a veiled reference to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the most scathing reply came from Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) co-chairman Asif Zardari, who warned the military against stepping outside its domain.
Other leaders of the party, such as Senator Aitzaz Ahsan and Sindh Finance Minister Murad Ali Shah, have questioned how the criminal economy can be measured.
“Since there was no scientific survey, the Sindh government cannot comment on the figure,” says Rashid Channa, a media advisor to Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah.
But Arif Hasan, a social researcher and urban planner working in Karachi, does not agree. “This is not the first time the size of a crime economy has been quantified,” he says. “The Orangi Pilot Project has done it, Geo TV has done it, and even we have done it before the Rangers.” In fact, he says the figure given by Rangers is much lower than other estimates of roughly Rs 300 billion.
“The Rangers director general has said nothing new,” Arif says, “except the claim that the money is being used to toe a foreign agenda.”
“The information about who has how much of a role in the crime economy of the city was available since long,” says Syed Shoaib Hasan, a Wall Street Journal reporter who has been investigating the financial aspect of violence and militancy in Pakistan in general and Karachi in particular.
MQM says the Rangers have not named it. “We reject the report if it hints at MQM,” party veteran Dr Farooq Sattar said in a news conference. He said the Rangers had spoken of various political and religious parties, but the statement was followed by a media trial of MQM.
The PPP was not being referred to in the statement, says Rashid Channa, but it “has felt it as an effort to weaken the Sindh government”. Such press releases are not issued by Rangers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, he says.
A handout issued by the Chief Minister’s House after the June 4 meeting said extortion, collection of charity and animal hides, kidnapping for ransom, payments to ghost employees, land grabbing, and smuggling, particularly of Iranian oil, were among the major sources of financing of terrorism and violence.
The provincial government had concealed nothing, and everything was shared with the media, except the figure, which was questioned by Sindh Finance Minister Murad Ali Shah in the apex committee meeting, according to Channa. “Even the Rangers DG had said the figure of Rs 230 billion shouldn’t be deemed final,” he says.
“It is obvious that Mr Zardari is targeting a sensitive national institution to veil his own wrongdoings,” Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar said in response to the statement by the former president.
But the Sindh government says it has already agreed to form a task force on the matter. “The government hasn’t stopped the Rangers from taking action,” Rashid Channa says. “Even the Nine Zero raid was brought into the chief minister’s notice after it was conducted.”
Shoaib Hasan agrees. “If Rangers can conduct a raid at Nine Zero and detain criminals associated with the MQM, then they can take action against anyone,” he says. “Action has been taken against political gangs, religious groups and proscribed outfits in Karachi. It should be no more a politicians-vs-security apparatus affair,”
Although a three member task force as already been formed – consisting of Justice (r) Ghulam Sarwar Korai as chairman, and retired judge Arjun Ram K Talreja and Home Secretary Mukhtiar Hussain Soomro as its members – analysts say the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and the Sindh anti-corruption department should also have swung into action.
NAB did swing into action days later, arresting five high-ranking officials of the Lines Area development project, accused of china-cutting 1,200 plots worth Rs 4.5 billion and selling them to builders and “land mafia”. Reports said the money was used for financing terrorists.
Meanwhile, Sindh Rangers raided the Sindh Building Control Authority (SBCA) office and questioned the staff about their former director general Manzoor Qadir aka Kaka, who has reportedly left for Dubai. They also seized important data and records.
According to Arif Hasan, three important institutions – planning, land control and law and order – have ceased to exist in Karachi. “The people of the city need four major things – employment, residence, transport and security,” he says. “Unfortunately, all four department are serving as major sources of extortion.”
The writer is a freelance journalist