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September 1, 2019

The great garbage battle


September 1, 2019

A great garbage battle is raging in Karachi. The protagonists this time are two celebrated sons of the city of lights, both belonging to Bhai’s scattered and disoriented household. Unfortunately, another star, belonging to the Tabdeeli constellation, Alamgir Khan of #Fixit fame, is conspicuous by his absence.

A decade ago, the whole nation celebrated with the MQM when “an award-winning American magazine Foreign Policy” chose “Nazim Karachi, Syed Mustafa Kamal as second among the three best mayors in the world for the year 2008.” According to news reports, the magazine included the names of Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit and Wang Hongju, Mayor of Chongqing as the other mayors of the moment.

Also read: Garbage-lifting politics has turned dirtier than garbage itself, says CM

The sweetshops in Karachi had almost emptied when FP published a full article length clarification with the title: ‘What FP didn’t say about the mayor of Karachi’. FP stated, “We hate to rain on Kamal’s parade, and certainly intend him and his city no disrespect, but we simply never ranked him in any way. This entire mess could have been avoided with some very basic fact-checking.”

Ten years later, in 2018, Mustafa Kamal claimed, and we hoped, that he would be the next prime minister of Pakistan and hopefully, the second best premier on the whole planet. Unfortunately, that did not happen as Pakistan was not ready for such a leap. Last week, he graciously agreed to take the position of project director garbage on a voluntary basis when the world’s toughest mayor, Waseem Akhtar, appointed him to the post.

Waseem Akhtar wrote in the official letter that the appointment was made in response to the claim that Mustafa Kamal could clean the city of Karachi within 90 days. Unfortunately, the mayor dismissed his project director the very next day, accusing him of insubordination. Karachi, in all likelihood, will remain garbage ridden after 90 days.

Karachi is Pakistan’s only true metropolis and its garbage shocks every visitor. It appears that this beautiful city has lost its battle with garbage. Its inhabitants seem disinterested in maintaining the exteriors of their own houses and adjacent areas. Lahore and Islamabad contain a lot of garbage, but this garbage remains hidden to a visitor as it is often located in areas populated by the poor. In Karachi, dirt and cleanliness, poverty and riches mix in a unique way that is both charming and shocking.

Nobody appears to have ownership of Karachi as a civic entity, as a city that is mother to the poor, and which can rival any city in the region in its beauty and prosperity only if its charm is recognized, celebrated and cared. Everyone seems to have a claim to a part of its body. There are people who claim to own one of its ethnic parts and there are people who have pegged their flag on one of its geographical parts.

In fact, Karachi is a responsibility of every Pakistani, all provinces and the federation. It is a city that absorbs and welcomes entrepreneurs, professionals, excess population, the poor, the unemployed, the internally displaced and refugees from all of the country – and in no small numbers. If the NFC is to be revised, Karachi must get what it deserves from the federal resources.

Turning to Punjab, Lahore’s beauty can be as shocking as the ugliness imposed on Karachi. Shahbaz Sharif nurtured Lahore like a Timurid capital, at a huge cost to the rest of the province. The PML-N government consistently spent more than half of Punjab’s development budget on Lahore, starving the rest of the province, particularly southern Punjab of its share of resources. That means that Lahore received more resources than are available to all of Sindh. However, while the PML-N had an exhibit, the PPP has nothing to show, not even the city of Larkana.

The story of Islamabad is not very different either. Pakistan’s capital makes huge per capita spending on its municipal services that other cities cannot even dream of. According to some estimates, it is one of the most spendthrift capitals in terms of using water. Huge amounts of water is wasted. Instead of conserving water, metering and pricing its use properly and making use of abundant rainfall through new dams and building level rain harvesting, the city plans to draw water from the Tarbela dam.

The way baabus are destroying Islamabad’s beauty and charm will be remembered as a crime for many centuries to come. The CDA has already turned the paths of its natural streams into sewers. However, as long as the land is not claimed, there is a chance that these stream-ways can be rehabiliated and beautified. But the CDA is fast claiming this land to make money by converting paths of streams into concrete sewers.

Islamabad is also cleaned very selectively. Almost half of Islamabad is now Slumabad where both rich and poor have set up their informal housing areas. Most of these areas are as unclean as Karachi. Bani Gala, the rich man’s slum made famous by Imran Khan’s residence, pollutes the waters of Rawal Dam that supplies drinking water to Rawalpindi. Shah Allah Ditta, an original village and a tourist attraction, has an acre-wide sewage pond to welcome visitors.

Cities in Pakistan have never been allowed to manage or rule themselves. Military rules are an exception when we throw up world-class mayors like Mustafa Kamal. The provinces that fought for decades for the right of self-rule and fiscal devolution, and won it in the form of the 18th Amendment, have refused to extend devolution further.

The provincial ruling elite and legislators monopolize municipal functions because the biggest chunk of patronage is hidden in work that should be devolved to local governments. By giving away a good part of provincial resources, they will be left with fewer resources to dole out as patronage and perpetuate their own power. The PML-N suspended the local government system in 2008 to cleanse the system of the PML-Q’s influence; the PTI has done the same in 2019, to kick out the PML-N from the local governments.

Megacities cannot be run on the lines of small cities or districts. In Sindh, the PPP insists that Karachi must be run on the very same lines as Mirpur Khas. Sindhi nationalist Einsteins insist that any peculiar arrangement for Karachi amounts to division of Sindh.

The garbage debate is important because it reveals the essence of our state and society, or any state or society for that matter. How a society treats dirt tells us a lot about it. The question of who cleans up indicates social organisation.

In an egalitarian society, everyone cleans up as there is a strong group motivation based on moral imperatives. Anyone seen to be not cleaning is perceived morally inferior to the group. In a fatalist society, no one cleans up. There is no point in bothering as it is bound to get messy again. In a society focused on hierarchy, cleaning denotes status. The cleaners are socially lower than the cleaned.

The struggle to clean up Karachi or Pakistan is about changing the very nature of our society and reorganizing our relationship with dirt and with each other. We must fix it together.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @zaighamkhan