Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Reflections from my stay in Pakistan IV: Karachi's success story

There is no shortage of problems in the world. Pakistan too has its fair share of difficulties. Readers enjoy reading about the trouble of others - perhaps it makes one's own situation seem more bearable. However, the world is not all bad. There are success stories available for all to see, if only one chooses to see them.

Thus is the story of the Karachi Electric Supply Corporation (KESC).
In Pakistan, this is a time when megawatts of electricity are almost as valuable as gold. If electricity were easily traded, mothers would pawn their jewelry in exchange for a few hours of comfort for infant children. 
Outside of Karachi, electricity shortages are a part of daily life. Eight, ten, twelve hours, or even more, without electricity is not uncommon. I experienced this myself up country, i.e. Multan, Lahore and Islamabad.
The story in Karachi is slightly different.
To the Federal and Sindh provincial government, KESC was a valuable instrument for making political side payments to supporters. Under state control, KESC was forced to take employees onto its payroll at the wishes of successive governments. The organization was bloated and riddled with corruption.
Corrupt meter readers tampered with meters to slow them down; corrupt inspectors overlooked the slow meters; engineers fixed the system to channel electricity to 'preferred' customers. The privileged and powerful thrived while ordinary citizen paid bills. That is until KESC ran out of cash to buy supplies to generate electricity.
Corporations which produce but don't get paid for production not only lose money but also run out of cash required to sustain daily operations. In other words, KESC soon found itself flirting with bankruptcy. The state was unable to continue with subsidies and KESC was privatized, a process made easier by the fact that KESC was already listed on the Karachi Stock Exchange.
A new KESC management structure for the privatized entity was put in place in 2008. Since that time, the new owners have faced down political pressure from the Federal and Sindh government and downsized the company to levels more proportionate with KESC's size and production capacity. (Reasonable 'golden handshake' packages were offered to voluntary and involuntary redundancies.) Moreover, significant new investment in the company's transmission and distribution system have been made to improve KESC's management information systems.
KESC management can (at last!) match electricity usage with revenues received, thus isolating 'bill defaulters' more easily. After several decades of state owned neglect, KESC runs like a normal commercial entity, i.e. pay for the electricity you use. Default and live with candlelight or generators.
During my month long stay in Karachi, I came to take uninterrupted electricity for granted - as most of us are wont to do in 2012. Moreover, voltage fluctuations of the past were very much reduced. The new KESC management won me over with the company's vastly improved performance.
 KESC is a success story in many ways. It demonstrates the efficiency of private enterprise over state control. The KESC turnaround is inspiring, especially to Karachites. It suggests the city's fortunes can be revived by determination and discipline. The city's massive size and scale is not an insurmountable obstacle.
In Karachi, as in life, there is almost always a solution, even to the most seemingly intractable problems.

Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Reflections from my stay in Pakistan III: Karachi is Pakistan

Karachi, the City of Pakistan's founder Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, has come a long way since Pakistan's independence in 1947. A population of approximately 400,000 citizens at Partition in 1947 has grown to an estimated 21 million people today. Contemporary Karachi is now home to over ten percent of Pakistan's population. Despite the development of other areas of Pakistan, Karachi remains Pakistan's economic and financial powerhouse.
Karachi is a city with its own culture and lifestyle, a melting pot of Pakistan's diversity. Other than the Urdu speaking migrants from India, the city boasts the largest population of Pashtuns of any city in the world. More Pashtuns live in Karachi than in Peshawar or Kabul.
The city is a magnet for economic immigrants from across the country. All Pakistanis have a stake in Karachi's future. Virtually every family has friends and relatives living in the city. An immigrant arrives in Karachi on Monday and becomes a Karachite by Tuesday. There are no socialization programs or cultural sensitivity classes for a 'New Karachite' to attend before proclaiming oneself a Karachite.
To some, Karachi is a 'free for all' city. Crime rates are high – though not nearly close to the levels associated with some African or Latin American cities such as Johannesburg or Rio. If there are racial tensions in any part of Pakistan, the stresses will certainly surface amongst Karachi's diverse communities. Add to this mix gangland style violence over gambling, narcotics and related crime syndicates and Karachi's reputation for violent crime is sealed.
Part of the problem is that the majority of Karachi's residents lack any roots in the city. These economic migrants are only in the city for economic reasons and perceive their stay as temporary. Of course, temporary sometimes stretches into a few generations. Nonetheless, people refer to their homes in villages and towns in other parts of Pakistan only being 'Karachites' for convenience.
Karachi has a buzz which can neither be replicated nor found in other Pakistani cities; a kind of 'creative chaos' which brings out the best (and sometimes the worst) in people. Financiers, conmen, professionals and the 'down and out' share the city's congested streets. Bearded mullahs throng the same streets which house restaurants where wine and liquor flow freely, albeit quietly. (I had my best steak in recent memory at just such a restaurant in South Karachi.)
Despite or because of the 'mess,' Karachi is Pakistan's most entrepreneurial city. If something can be done, made or copied, then rest assured somewhere in Karachi some Karachite is doing, making or copying. Small businesses thrive alongside the largest corporate multinational structures. The 'parallel' economy probably provides more employment than the 'organized' sector, i.e. the unregistered car workshop versus the detergent factory operated by a multinational corporation.  
Karachi is a mother to all Pakistanis, rich or poor. The poor arrive to set up stalls, shops or simply to commit crime. Rich businesspeople set up shop to milk the country's wealthiest and largest consumer market.
Nevertheless, like any good mother, Karachi accepts and loves her children no matter what shape or form they reach the city's shores. Karachi, in turn asks her children to be gracious about the city's faults. Once the relationship is thus established, then all falls into the boiling cauldron called Karachi.  
Karachi symbolizes the best and the worst of Pakistan. Class mobility is a given. Old money has been overrun by new money.  The city's civic infrastructure is bursting at the seams. Massive investment in roads or electricity does not come close to meeting the demands of the daily increasing population.
Like any Megacity in the developing world, problems are endless. To Punjabis, Lahore may be Lahore; to powerbrokers Islamabad may be the Federal capital; but there is no denying that to many Pakistanis, Karachi is Pakistan.

Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Reflections from my stay in Pakistan II: Indus People look East or West?

Disembarking at Karachi airport in early August, one got a clear reminder of the changes wrought on Pakistan during the last twenty years. Pakistan was a 'normal' part of the international community during the last century. In fact, under the Cold War era's Reagan Doctrine (which called for the United States to support Islamic fundamentalist ideologies and Taliban style religious warriors with large amounts of cash) Pakistan was a veritable hero of the Free World. Pakistan's role as a 'front line state' in the war against communism gave the country prestige which has long since disappeared.
Today, most international flights from Karachi airport service the Gulf countries. Pakistan may have several airlines – versus just the one in the 1980s – but the list of international destinations directly served from Pakistan has fallen dramatically. Most of the world can be accessed only via connecting flights at airports like Dubai or Abu Dhabi, a phenomenon which fairly represents Pakistan's steady isolation from the capitalist democracies of Western Europe and the America's.
The reconstruction of the Swat Valley benefits tremendously from the generosity of the United Arab Emirates. The UAE flag is a frequent sight in the Swat Valley 
Instead, Pakistan's fate has been inexorably tied to the Arab world and, to a large measure, with 'Arab' Islam.
Pakistanis are not Arab but their extensive interaction with the Gulf Arab states, especially the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, has rendered that distinction less meaningful since Prime Minister ZA Bhutto actively cultivated relations with the Islamic world from the 1970s as a matter of state policy.  Economically, the footprint of the Gulf Arab states in Pakistan is visible in virtually every sector of the domestic economy, from telecommunications, banking, energy, and even to hotels.
Linkages with India in the East, which fed Hindu and other polytheist philosophies, have eroded due to the onslaught of Wahabi Islam nurtured by Arab petrodollars. This 'non-Islamic, Indian' aspect of Pakistan's heritage acted as a natural 'moderator' to the more austere elements of Sunni Islam.
Nevertheless, just as India cannot legislate away centuries of practicing the caste system, neither can Pakistan's 'Indus People' shed their pre-Islamic customs so easily. The magnetism of 'ambidextrous' Sufi saints, i.e. venerated by Hindus and Muslims, remains strong. Almost every district has a story associated with a local 'Holy Man.' Often times these Holy Men may have been Hindus but given their saintly virtues, Muslims conveniently overlooked that fact as they flocked to the Pirs for protection and blessings.
Oil burning vessels at the grave of a Sufi Pir in Islamabad. The practice of burning oil lanterns at Sufi shrines is reminiscent of Hindu rituals, particularly at a festival like Diwali
For the Indus People, perhaps the pendulum is shifting away from its Western, Arab Islamic neighbours towards the Indian East again? Relations between Pakistan and India took a huge leap forward in November 2011 with the granting of Most Favoured Nation status to India by Pakistan. Subsequently, much of Lahore's business community is busy preparing for partnerships with an economically empowered India. Additionally, as NATO winds down its operations in Afghanistan, many logistics operators are getting ready for an active Pakistani role in facilitating India – Afghanistan trade by using Pakistan's road and rail links.
Like many post-colonial national constructs, Pakistan still searches for its identity. Undoubtedly, most Pakistanis associate Islam as a central part of Pakistan's national identity. However, Pakistan's history began a few millennia before Islam with the Indus Valley Civilization (e.g. Moenjodaro), not with the eighth century invasion of Sindh by Mohammad Bin Qasim. Unfortunately, the process of blending Pakistan's historical, cultural and religious characteristics into a seamless identity is proving anything but easy.

Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

Friday, 5 October 2012

Reflections from my stay in Pakistan - I

It has been almost two months since I arrived at Karachi's Quaid-e-Azam International Airport. During my eight weeks in Pakistan, I travelled to five cities in three provinces and traversed over 3,600 kilometers by a combination of train and bus. (Air journeys are not a great way to experience a country so no domestic airplane flights on this trip.)

In Pakistan, I interacted with a cross-section of society, e.g. academics, artists, businesspersons, government officials, retired bureaucrats, military officials, professionals and, of course, 'ordinary' citizen encompassing various walks of life. The Pakistani lifestyle grew on me and I became as much a Pakistani as when I left my country of birth in 1996.
My travels took me from Karach to Multan (train), Multan - Lahore (bus), Lahore - Islamabad (bus), Islamabad - Swat (bus), and then back to Lahore via Islamabad (bus). From Lahore I took the train back to Karachi.
Today's Pakistan is different from a few years ago. for Pakistan, the post-Musharraf era has been a difficult one. Disillusionment with the civilian dispensation runs high. National institutions have decayed - some beyond repair.
To many, the nation sustains itself only on hope.
Hope for positive change. Hope the cricket team wins against India. Hope the electricity resumes again quickly. Hope the roads are repaired. Hope the government demonstrates good leadership soon... and so on.
Nevertheless, I also saw Pakistan's dynamic side.
A Pakistan brimming with positive energy - a private sector ably filling the void created by poorly managed national institutions. A country whose national institutions are administered by high quality bureaucrats fighting the odds and braving the system. A country crammed with dedicated citizens making a significant difference at the micro and macro level, through individual effort and collective voluntary organizations.
I witnessed a Pakistan which has rejected Taliban style Islamic conservatism. Surely, Pakistanis are generally conservative Muslims - this is no Indonesia socially speaking - but my observations in Swat tell me the worst of the Islamist ideological challenge is behind the country.
Pakistan may still fall to the mullahs, but only through violence and intimidation.
The mullahs know this fact only too well. Consequently, the religious ideologues are playing a long waiting game, attempting to infiltrate civil institutions while sustainable a low level campaign of violence against key sections of society. In particular, Muslim and Non-Muslim minorities are targeted by Islamist ideologues. Intimidation is the key weapon of the mullahs.
Civil society is fighting back. Arts are flourishing. Cultural activities are aplenty. Women are embedded in all aspects of the work force. The passing of the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2010 provides a legal basis for women activists to take their cause farther.
In short, Pakistan is a nation of contradictions, reflecting the country's cultural diversity but also its identity crisis
In the next few months, I will post several articles outlining my reflections about Pakistan's current situation and trends for the future.

Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at