Sunday, May 04, 2008

An Afternoon With Karachi Mayor Mustafa Kamal

Last week, I was fortunate enough to be invited to two separate meetings with Mustafa Kamal, rising star within the MQM and Nazim of Karachi, who's touring various cities here in the U.S., including Chicago. The first meeting, on Thursday, was at the Metropolitan Planning Council which has an office downtown. The second, more wideranging in its scope, was on Friday here at the University of Chicago. I'll write about the second meeting tomorrow or maybe day after, depending on my schedule.

First, a little background. The Metropolitan Planning Council is a non-government, non-profit organization that works toward better and more efficient land use and transportation. In addition, they focus on housing policies that create a more equitable, environmentally sustainable, and economically competitive region. In short, they are civic/urban organization non-profit lobbyists who try to figure out (a) how to make urban-dwellers' lives better, and (b) how to get their ideas across to people who matter i.e. politicians and decision-makers.

I happen to know someone who works there who got in touch with me last week, informing me that Mustafa Kamal had requested a meeting with them, and that I was welcome to join. I gladly did so. The meeting was to be held at 3:30 p.m. at their office downtown and would include two members of the MPC, the Mayor, his State Department handler, and your humble blogger, severely out of place.

My first pleasant surprise was that he actually showed up on time; if anything, he was a touch early (3:28, from what I recall). Given Pakistani politicians' proclivity for tardiness, this was somewhat of a shock, but it may well have been the result of his State Department handler being on his case the whole day, who knows. Anyway, he apparently had a bunch of other meetings scheduled throughout the day (with Mayor Daley of Chicago, among others) so he did appear a little flustered, or rather eager to get on with things.

The Mayor began by talking a little bit about himself, Karachi, and the reason for his visit. His trip, he told us, was organized by the State Department and entailed his traveling to Chicago, Houston, D.C. and New York and gathering information, as well as selling Karachi a little bit.

He then moved on to some of the problems that have plagued Karachi. Six months ago, he told us, he formulated a "Master Plan", the first macro blueprint for Karachi's development in the city's history. All development projects were being undertaken with this Master Plan in mind, including new transit operations and the building of industrial zones. The challenge he faced when he "took on this responsibility" was that the city had suffered massive neglect since independence, both in terms of infrastructure as well as a sound, coherent, central strategy around which other ideas could be built. He had to tear the city down to build it back up, he told us, and caught a lot of flak for doing so. Most of the hard work has been done, however, and now it's a matter of building up upon the infrastructure that he's built.

So what are some of the plans that he's most excited about? The first is a series of "public-private partnerships" that the city district government has embarked on. Previous governments, he told us, would simply sell public land to private companies. His ambition is to create a sustainable stream of revenue by keeping control of the land, but inviting private firms to show, in effect, what they plan on doing with it. One of these initiatives is the IT Tower, a 47 story skyscraper that will house, among other things, a 10,000 seat call-center (so if I call Dell Support in a couple of years, I might be calling home). His point was that such a venture creates a steady revenue stream, an equity, unlike the one-time payoff of selling off the land.

I was most interested to hear his thoughts on public transit. As a native Karachiite, this issue above all else concerns me. Traffic, if you've been in Karachi the last 2-3 years, has been an absolute nightmare. According to the Mayor's numbers, there are 600 new cars on the road everyday.

So what're his plans? We all know about the Circular Railway (which, with no pun intended, isn't going anywhere). But what I didn't know was about Bus Rapid Transit. Here's how it works (in general; Lord knows if it'll work in Karachi this way):

First, the bus station is not like a typical bus station but more like a train station, in that you don't pay when you enter the vehicle, but when you enter the station. This saves valuable time. Second, the bus will have multiple entry doors; again, like a subway and again, saving valuable time (no long lines). Third, there are bus-only lanes, ensuring that they maintain a heady speed (I'll donate my left testicle to charity if Karachiites respect the concept of bus-only lanes. Seriously). Fourth, buses are equipped with some sort of mapping technology that makes green lights last longer when they're close to a signal. Fifth, buses travel along the four or five main throughways of the urban area in question, thus serving the city in its totality.

This service, according to the Mayor, is already in the works and should hit the road - literally - in about a year and a half (a credible commitment if I ever heard one; his tenure is, after all, up in two years). His plans to reduce traffic congestion involve two other aspects. First, the much talked about 28-km elevated expressway, scheduled to be completed at some point near the end of the decade which should divert much of the traffic that comes within the city limits but really has no business doing so. Second, his team is in the process of having 7 parking plazas built at various locations in the city.

That was about it from the Mayor. It was a fairly short meeting, and as I mentioned, he seemed to be a in a bit of hurry.

So what were my impressions? Well, aside from my disappointment in not being able to ask him any questions, these were my thoughts:

First, I was highly impressed with his grasp of policy and on-the-ground problems. He really knew what he was talking about, and could quote figures, company names, dollar amounts, and various other technical issues with ease.

Second, I was slightly bemused: I couldn't quite understand the point of the meeting. He really didn't ask for much advice/counsel from the people purportedly there to give their advice/counsel, the MPC representatives. Why, if he didn't want to gleam any information from them, did he bother scheduling this meeting? Clearly he was busy, and clearly he had very little to gain from selling Karachi to these guys - it's not like they were business leaders or Wall Street executives who are looking for emerging markets investments. I couldn't quite figure this one out, and frankly, neither could the MPC guys.

Third, I loved his confidence. Despite struggling with his English a little bit, he didn't let that hold him back, and was very engaging. Of course, as a politician, that's his job, but it was refreshing to not see one of our politicians doing their whole bow-down-to-the-white-man thing, and not give a crap about he sounded (police = pulleyce, city district government = sadistic gore-mint) and just plow through the meeting.

All in all, I walked away impressed. This impression changed, not dramatically but not insignificantly, the next time we met. For a report of our meeting on Friday at U of C, you will have to wait a day or two.

UPDATE: You can read about the Friday meeting here.


Farooq said...

I think they're trying to implement the bus only lane on I.I. Chundrigar but, due to congestion on that lane, it failed miserably. So your left testicle (and sole one, might i add) is safe for now.

Can you spare us the cliffhanger ending and just tell us whether your impression about him changed for the better or worse?

Ahsan said...

Hahaha I thought it was pretty clear that it changed for the worse, but only slightly. As for the details, I'm afraid you'll have to was a long meeting (more than an hour) and A LOT of substantive stuff was covered.

It was also nice to see him live up to some pretty base Mohajir stereotypes. I love it when that happens.

Anonymous said...

You know what is surprising. I don't know the guy but so far, what I have heard of him is pretty positive. I have yet to hear about a negative experience involving him. It appears that he has the ability to connect and work with his audience. I saw his interview a while back with Anwar Maqsood and I thought he did very well there too.

BTW, what are the base Mohajir stereotypes. Was he chewing paan while talking at a 100 mph?

SAP Arbeiter said...

For some reason, the comments section took my comments as anonymous.
Anyway, this is afrasiyab.

Ahsan said...

Hahahahah. No, he just had an overwhelming sense of victimhood and woe-is-me-ness about him, which is fairly typical of the Mohajir experience in my opinion.

He also *kind of* lost his cool in an environment that was extremely non-threatening (woolly-headed academics, for God's sake). If he gets angry around us, how do you think he behaves with more aggressive people?

Anonymous said...

He slaps them.

Wait, he's MQM. He shoots them. That's the non-feudal way.

Anonymous said...

well , after living in london for 5 years the only reason that pulled me back to my home land was this guy Mustafa Kamal. His endless efforts and contributions for karachi is matchless and yes i assume his achievement seems to be a bit of a punch to some of our "Non mohajir" friends here on this site . well guys its all what we have gained from by working our arse off. I am a british citozen but being a mohajir pakistani like mustafa kamal i believe i am a bit more patriotic than my OTHER pakistani colleagues who really find it easy to raise fingers by punching keys on their keypads rather than to take an initiative and work for the city or place where they actually belong to. Or otherwise i believe that all my jelous beloogers belongs to some remote place in our country where they are still scared of their brutal, bloody minded, draconic, inhuman and ill natured Feudal LOrd....

shahid_geminee said...


Mustafa kamal

City Nazim Karcahi

Subject: Water supply shortage at our area (Orangi no 11 ½ Block ‘D’)

Respected sir,

This is bring in your notes that I am resident of Orangi town sector 11 ½ selamabad Block ‘D’ we all residents facing a problem shortage of water supply our all surrounding areas have perfect water supply but our area was not in that.

Please tack the necessary action to solve our problem our routine life is totally penalize your quick action will be highly appreciated.


Residents Orangi