October 27, 2022
There has been an extraordinary rise in street crime across major cities in the country, notably Karachi and Lahore. According to official figures and in a matter also discussed in parliament, Lahore has witnessed a 200 per cent rise in street crime, including burglaries, robberies, the theft of motorbikes, other vehicles, and the snatching of phones and handbags, over the past four months. The rate in Karachi is thought to be even higher according to figures provided by police, with 56,000 cases of street crime reported in 2022. This number is far higher than the figures reported for previous years.
It is believed the situation is similar in other towns, and cities, though figures are not always as easy to obtain. It is also unclear how many crimes may have occurred without being reported to authorities and therefore are not appearing on records. Police in Karachi have already said they are unable to cope with the situation alone and have sought help from other agencies and authorities. At least four to five people have been killed in the city during street crimes and in Lahore too there have been deaths though the number is lower. The ‘Safe City’ cameras put up in Lahore are thought to deter street crime, but the reality is that these cameras frequently do not work in parts of the city most congested and most open to crime, including smaller residential areas and lower income locations across the vast city. The increase in population in both Lahore and Karachi is also thought to add to the hazard.
But experts believe that the real reason for the rise of street crime is the increase in poverty and the desperation of people. The floods that have devastated the country over the last four months have added to this and worsened the existing situation. People affected by floods and others who have lost jobs or homes –whether as a result of the floods or due to the Covid-19 pandemic which hit the country before this – believe they have no other way to survive other than to commit a crime and steal what they need to manage household budgets. The steep inflation, notably in the prices of vital items such as food, utilities, and fuel further adds to the problem and to the fact that people simply cannot survive.
The rate of poverty in the country is indicated, as economists such as Atif Mian have pointed out, by the fact that 50 per cent of children born in Pakistan are stunted. This means they cannot reach the expected height for their age. Others suffering wasting or an inability to reach the expected weight for age and severe malnutrition have also been reported from provinces including Sindh and Balochistan. Many women are severely anemic, the situation worsened by the fact that they undergo frequent pregnancies and bear an average of over four children per household. In many cases, this number rises to over six and can go up to 10, 12 or more than this.
Pakistan’s inability to control its population growth is one of factors which adds to its poverty levels and its inability to feed, clothe and house its people everywhere in the country. It is understood the rate of crime is also rising in cities like Peshawar even though there are less reports of this, due to the dynamics of the media and the manner in which police operate in various cities.
The situation simply points to the desperate need of people for help. These people include both the victims of the crimes carried out on a daily basis and those who commit these crimes. When people steal because they do not have anything to eat, one wonders what their choices are in terms of ground realities. These issues have to be addressed urgently. There have also been reports from parliamentarians of women being raped, and children abducted in flood hit areas where people have lived in camps in insecure circumstances for weeks or even months. The question is why no party is making this the biggest issue or taking it up in a far more serious manner. When the police in the largest city in the country say openly that they are unable to manage the situation, there is obviously a need for help and for something to be done for the people.
The question is, what is to be done and how. The federal government has done very little and while the Sindh provincial government and the Punjab provincial government say they are active in the matter, there is no evidence that the rate of crime is going down or the graph is showing a slide. This also adds to the insecurity of people living everywhere in the city, notably in areas which are not gated and which are inhabited by middle income or low income families. But of course even the biggest housing societies or areas have faced the problem with cameras often failing to capture the burglars as they enter houses and take away whatever they can find.
It is time poverty was made a major issue by all political parties of the country. We need to hear when and how money will come in to offer some kind of social welfare to people as they recover from the economic crisis, which has hit the country over the past year or two and which has worsened with the floods sweeping across vast swathes of Pakistan, notably in Sindh, southern Punjab, Balochistan and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where hill torrents have swept away entire settlements and destroyed agricultural land. This destruction of land means the problem may worsen in the future, even as inflation continues to rise and people have less and less access to the daily needs of life.
Despite the situation that is quite apparent and which has been openly discussed in the media and by other forums including the National Assembly, no party has put forward any agenda or any ideas on what to do next. Indeed, the issue of corruption and the quest for power appears to be the main focus of almost every political party in the country. This is effectively a disaster. We need policies that can help people and deliver to them the better governance and the greater security that they need. After all, the primary duty of the state is to protect the life and properties of its citizens. This is part of the pact which creates a democratic and equitable society, allowing everyone living within it some degree of ability to survive without resorting to crime and harming other people who in some cases are just as desperate as themselves.
The failure to tackle the problem has become a major concern for people in major cities and it is reported also in smaller towns, even if reports from these areas do not come in as regularly as they do from Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and other places. Somehow resources have to be found to offer people a chance to survive. At present they are simply not able to do so.
It is unclear whether any party has the agenda to manage this. In the first place, a way needs to be found to offer jobs to people by setting up major businesses or other infrastructure projects which can give them employment. This has yet to happen. More importantly, we also need to offer greater social welfare than we are able to do at present by bringing in the money to give out not as handouts, but as the right to people who need the protection of the state. The people have the right to be able to live without the fear of crime.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.