Saturday March 25, 2023

Keamari deaths

By Editorial Board
January 29, 2023

What happens when taking a breath becomes a luxury? It seems many in Pakistan may be heading towards – if not already there – a time when this luxury can only be afforded by those that live behind gated communities. One neighbourhood in Karachi recently faced the realities of how unchecked operations of smoke-emitting factories are posing threats to human health. Around 18 people, including 16 children, died in Ali Muhammad Goth in Keamari, Karachi in the last few days after inhaling toxic fumes discharged from factories in the area; residents are now worried about what lies ahead for them. Factories that emit poisonous gases are in abundance in Pakistan’s industrial areas and often operate without licences but our healthcare authorities seldom take notice – until a tragedy strikes. The same is true for environmental officials who only take action after such disastrous and avoidable incidents. The pattern is the same: after every such incident, officials visit the area, collect samples, and find excuses for their negligence. It is rather shocking that industrial units in Pakistan normally do not have regular checks on their emissions nor do they have on-site medical facilities for emergencies. Temporary medical camps that authorities set up after such accidents disappear after some time, leaving people once again exposed to the mercy of dangerous elements in the air.

There has to be a check on the raw materials being used by factories to manufacture their products. The most disturbing aspect is the fact that many factories operate in residential areas in complete violation of rules. Factories responsible for emitting toxic emissions should not be allowed to operate in residential areas in an attempt to keep residents safe from the harmful effects of the fumes emitted. Under law, inspection officers are supposed to monitor a manufacturing unit’s emission levels. Unfortunately, such laws remain limited to paper. The absence of a functioning local government setup is also a major cause behind a lack of attention to such issues.

The first step towards saving people’s lives should be a ban on establishing factories in residential areas. Most residents do not have the option to move out of the area for multiple reasons. In most cases, the proximity to such factories help them find work opportunities. In a city where public transport is in a bad state, residents prefer working at places that are closer to their home to save on commuting expenses. Pakistan in any case has a history of labour rights violations. Most workers do not have health insurance or other medical benefits. A similar tragedy occurred in 2020 in Keamari when around seven people died after inhaling toxic gases. A report by Karachi University’s International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences (ICCBS) had blamed soya bean dust for the death. However, other organizations had ruled out the cause, making the deaths a mystery. In civilized societies, such incidents are a wakeup call, prompting authorities to take effective measures to avoid a repeat of these tragedies. In Pakistan, the situation is just the opposite. The government of Sindh must take appropriate measures across the province, before another disaster like this strikes. All businesses and industries that cause – or may cause – environmental hazards like this must be brought to book. Regularly checking the air quality should be a common feature and not a one-off activity to avert such accidents in the future.