Karachi, on guard

Ayesha Salman grew up listening to tales of her parents’ childhood – of them cycling to the nearest shops to get baked goodies and playing cricket on the streets with the neighbourhood kids. Her parents grew up at a time when words like ‘terrorism’ and ‘suicide blasts’ were not in one’s daily dictionary. But a great deal has changed since then, and Ayesha is well aware of the harsh reality that her life and that of her children could never be the same.

Karachi, which was labelled as the world’s most dangerous mega city by a US magazine Foreign Policy for its high rate of homicide, may pose extraordinary challenges to its citizens looking for security, but from self-defence training to installing safety checks, it’s also fast coming up with ways to address them. However, one thing’s for sure complacency has long stopped being the answer.

Life in the country’s financial hub now has transitioned to employing private guards, installing security systems and coping desperately with rising inflation just to make ends meet. How did we end up in such a situation?

“It starts from recurring news reports of street crimes – you hear of a relative or of a friend whose mobile was snatched and you get scared. As the frequency of the stories increase, you begin to flinch each time someone on a motorbike passes by your vehicle,” says Ayesha Salman, a resident of Defence Phase VIII.

Sadly, citizens of Karachi have lost the sense of security they were accustomed to till a decade ago. The small things people took for granted, such as walking down the street without fearing for one’s life or valuables is now a distant memory.

“It is a growing fear that something might happen to you if you don’t take necessary precautions,” Ayesha adds.

Dressed in uniform or plain shalwar kameezchowkidars stand on duty at many houses in Karachi. Earning anywhere between Rs10,000 to Rs20,000 the presence of a chowkidar is expected to serve as a deterrent to possible break-ins.

In many cases the chowkidars are none other than the relatives of housemaids or are drivers who are given the additional responsibility of serving as guards. Meanwhile, there are others who prefer hiring private guards but some people remain sceptical of their usefulness.

“Employing guards certainly gives one some peace of mind but stories of crimes committed by armed guards continue to haunt as well,” Ayesha says. “In such cases, it also becomes necessary to stay vigilant about the people you employ for security.”

Chief executive officer of Aftershock CEM, a freelance security consultancy, Naveed Khan agrees with the need for people to be vigilant about their safety. While people are spending, and in some cases significant amounts of money, on security they are not going about in the right manner, Khan warns.

Khan, who has assisted various multinational organisations with a crisis management programme, says he has yet to meet a trained security guard for a private or corporate security firm.

“If people were serious about safety checks, they should inquire about prior training and experience of a security guard before employing him but that doesn’t happen,” he says.

“Even corporate clients who pay as much as Rs18,000 to Rs 25,000 don’t make an effort to find out if the guards have had ample training. They just want to get the guy as long as he is in uniform and has a weapon,” Khan explains. After a brief pause he adds, “If he (security guard) looks scary, that’s a bonus.”

However, Khan may be a bit simplistic in his definition as security officer at Aqsa Security Guards Mohammad Asghar explains. “There are procedures in place before recruiting guards such as verifying their CNIC details,” he says adding, “Their information is corroborated by two witnesses and someone physically visits the address they provide to make sure everything checks out.

Speaking about guards’ training he says, “They are trained to handle a weapon once they are employed and most of their other training revolves around tackling various situations depending on whether they arise at home or on the street.” At this point Aqsa Security Guards does not provide their employed guards any training on first aid.

According to Khan, security in Pakistan is a ‘numbers game’. Security companies are ranked not by the services they provide but by the amount of manpower they employ, he claims. “Basically a company that employs more guards will be ranked higher,” he says.

Additionally basic life security and lifesaving skills are also found lacking. These include first aid, victim transportation, patrolling, reporting, conflict management and resolution and marksmanship.

Another popular precaution taken by individuals and businesses is setting up security systems. Installing panic buttons, motion detectors and round-the-clock monitoring by security firms are among the most common services.

When deciding between employing a guard or installing a security system what do people prefer? Ayesha relies on both a home security system, as well as the services of an unarmed guard and says, “Installing a home security system sometimes is much cheaper than employing guards and also allows you to feel more secure.”

Meanwhile, the Farooqi family residing in North Nazimabad feel that though a security system sounds more reliable they prefer hiring the services of a guard.

“People residing in houses instead of apartments might be prone to install a security system. But in our apartment building families prefer to hire a guard to oversee the neighbourhood and we collectively pay the guard’s salary,” says Ahsan Farooqi.

Residing in Soldier Bazaar, Zeeshan Ali feels differently. “Seeing guards everywhere is terrorising in itself. I prefer installing a security system which is less frightening and more efficient.”

Meanwhile, there are also some companies who exclusively deal with ‘security fencing’. While there is debate on this service being more effective, home owners and small businesses continue to largely rely on the services of security guards.

Saad Amanullah Khan owns a fast food joint, Big Thick Burgerz (BTB), in Defence says, “There is no proper way to handle the security challenges that exist today.” He strongly believes the only permanent solution is for the government to address the security concerns of the city and take concrete remedial measures.

Small business owners can mitigate some precautionary measures but all these efforts can be easily compromised, Saad Khan explains. Further, even if they do prove effective they end up significantly increasing the over heads.

“The cost of doing business in Pakistan is going up by the day,” Saad Khan says. “It is worse for SMEs and start up business owners, as they are already working with limited resources.” The opportunity cost for businesses remains high as the deteriorating security situation affects them from various directions. People avoid going out now and delivery staff are often robbed, on the other hand during strikes businesses shut down early or for an entire day which also disrupts the supply chain.

While a fool proof method to ensure security is yet to be devised, some organisations are offering self-defence classes. Specialised classes for women to deal with gender-based crimes such as sexual harassment are also available.

Published in Dawn on February 5, 2013.