Karachi in the grip of
extortionists By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI - The cost of doing business in
Pakistan's southern port city of Karachi is steep.
Surviving the climate of impunity now requires
more than bags of protection money - it also calls
for a stoutness of heart.
ransom and extortion have become the norm here,
not an exception," a 50-year-old factory owner in
Karachi told IPS. He considers himself lucky that
he pays a "protection" bribe of 50,000 rupees
(about US$528) every month when others around him
are forced to pay much more.
extortionists, locally called the "bhatta mafia",
are often young men between 18 and 30 years old,
wielding state of the art ammunition. They have
the support of four major political parties - the
ruling Pakistan People's Party, the Awami National
Muttahida Quami Movement
(MQM) and the Haqiqi.
Taliban have also been demanding a slice of the
Karachi extortion pie.
The bhatta epidemic
started about three years ago, according to Anjum
Nisar, former president of the Karachi Chamber of
Commerce and Industries.
Nisar told IPS
that the problem was initially concentrated in a
few of Karachi's industrialized zones like Korangi
and SITE, but has now engulfed the whole city
including shopping areas and marketplaces and
become "quite uncontrollable".
factory owners and big industrialists but also
small shopkeepers are at the mercy of
There are three or four ways
employed to extort money, shopkeepers located in
the city's wholesale market for automobile spare
parts told IPS. The fear factor is so intense that
most were even afraid to speak, let alone identify
themselves on the record.
"It starts with
one phone call where they demand a ridiculous
amount. Then they give you information about where
your kids study and their regular haunts. If you
resist, you will either get shots fired on your
shutters or a brand new bullet sent to you along
with a note saying, "this will be used either on
one of your employees or even you"," explained one
of the shopkeepers on condition of anonymity.
Those gathered around nodded in silent agreement.
"Because you know these threats are real,
you negotiate and come to a mutually agreed
amount," a white-haired store owner on Tariq Road,
one of the most popular market places in Karachi
and home to over 2,000 shops, multi-story plazas,
showrooms and offices, told IPS.
bribers) have got guts, they even leave messages
on your cell phone; if you go to the police to
trace the number, the latter usually tell you to
pay up," he added incredulously.
not just the police, who are under-resourced
anyway; even ministers or members of parliament,
many of whom are known to us on a personal level,
tell us it is best to settle," interrupted his
neighbor, adding that the "extortion epidemic" is
now beyond anyone's control.
at the Plaza, the biggest auto spare parts
marketplace in the city, say they pay anywhere
from 5,000 to 10,000 rupees annually to each gang.
There are over half a dozen gangs, all of whom
operate under the umbrella of some political party
"There are also random
telephone calls ordering us to whip up anywhere
between 200,000 to 500,000 rupees within a few
days' notice," a business owner at the Plaza told
Several others told IPS the mafia has
devised a myriad ways to extort money.
"They kidnap you, make you call your
family from your phone and ask them to arrange for
a certain sum of money in two hours. These are
speedy kidnappings and you are released within a
few hours," said a bearded man who appeared to be
in his late fifties.
He refused to be
identified, saying it was too dangerous. "These
young men are very clever and may just come to me
with this article asking why I dared to speak," he
"Our young men have found an
easy way of making money," added his friend, also
requesting anonymity. "I'd say a few are educated,
but what they earn (through this racket) is more
than a fresh business graduate could earn in a
month. And the kick they get out of holding a TT
(semi-automatic) pistol, using filthy language and
scaring the daylights out of people gives them a
certain power they wallow in."
to Nisar, massive unemployment could be a factor.
"About three million people entering the job
market each year are unable to find employment,"
"As a result these young job
seekers turn to illegal ways of making easy
National impact Karachi,
a sprawling city of 18 million, is the country's
economic hub, accounting for 95% of Pakistan's
foreign trade and contributing 30% of national
"Pakistan is losing
between 1.3 and two% of gross domestic product
(GDP) annually due to the energy crises and an
ineffective law and order apparatus," said Nisar,
citing financial ministry statistics.
tax base of less than 9.5%, coupled with the
highest interest rate for the private sector in
the region (roughly 13 to 14%), has ruined the
investment climate completely," he lamented.
Now, extortionists are sapping the city's
economic potential even further. Compared to the
economic performances of other countries in the
region, the impact of lawlessness on Pakistan's
economy is startling.
"In 2002 Vietnam's
exports totaled $2 billion; by 2012 that had
increased to $80 billion. South Korea was way
behind us in 1965 and they used our economic
model. Look at them now - their exports have
reached $550 billion. India's exports are worth
$300 billion. We're so well endowed both with
natural as well as human resources and yet our
exports amount to less than $24 billion," Nisar
He said the cost of doing
business in Karachi was much higher than doing it
in other cities in the region. "We pay through our
noses for private security for our factories and
families - the 30,000 police deployed in the
streets are just not enough to manage the city's
18 million residents. In addition, the insurance
rates have also gone up."
president of Pakistan's Automobile and Spare Parts
Importers and Dealers Association, 53-year old
Arshad Islam, has one solution on his mind: "Make
Karachi weapon-free and these gun-toting young men
will come to their senses."
suggested the imposition of a night curfew. "This
will act as a deterrent, as many lootings take
place in the night," he told IPS.
those measures are implemented, "we have demanded
that the government give us licenses to keep
weapons," Nisar said.
At a recent meeting
called by the chief minister of the Sindh
province, Syed Qaim Ali Shah, the inspector
general of police and officials of intelligence
agencies briefed local politicians and businessmen
on the law and order situation and claimed they
were not even equipped to trace the phone calls
made by blackmailers.
But residents and
victims of the wave of extortion are not
"I cannot believe the
government machinery cannot deal with this plague,
which is going on right under their noses. If our
intelligence agencies can dig up and hand over
hard-core militants, surely these criminals, who
are very visible, can be easily caught?" a
shopkeeper on Tariq Road exclaimed.
Zofeen Ebrahim is a
Karachi-based journalist who has been working
independently since 2001, contributing to English
dailies, including Dawn and The News, and current
affairs monthly magazines, including Herald and
Newsline, as well as the online paper Dawn.com.
(Inter Press Service)