Adjacent to I. J. Principal Road, about half-a-kilometre from the toll plaza, lay some of the most neglected areas of Rawalpindi.
Going off I. J. Principal Road, into the dense mess of houses and narrow alleys that barely accommodate a small car, one reaches the heart of Shahzad Colony.
Walking into the twisting alleyways of Shahzad Colony, past mounds of garbage, one reaches a door.
This house belongs to Dr Sarhadi. He is the head of the sanitation committee that has been formed for his Mohallah by the efforts of Akhtar Hameed Khan Memorial Trust (AHKMT), a lean NGO that works extensively in Rawalpindi and focuses especially on sanitation issues.
And Shahzad Colony has serious sanitation problems. Developed over time in a chaotic, unplanned manner, the area saw houses pop up and narrowing lanes were only made cemented when local MPAs dedicated funds – so development came in spurts.
On this day, Sumaira Gul, along with Asia, key member of the AHKMT is leading one of the 150 meetings that will happen in the area to convince the people to better dispose off their solid waste. Asia has done surveys in the area and already talked many of the women in the community individually.
Today’s meeting is to seal the deal. Gul leads through Dr Sarhadi’s house into a beautiful courtyard with 20 women sitting in a circle. Open air and grapevines set the scene for the meeting as Gul walked in and introduced herself to the women. An unmoving fan points to the state of electricity – or lack of it in the area.
The diversity of the gathering became obvious from the languages that could be heard. Pashto and Punjabi flew across the courtyard as babies cried and women discussed power and water issues.
“Why are we here?” asked Gul from the women facing her expectantly. An initial hesitation met her as no one volunteered a response. But as she cajoled, the women replied: “…for a sanitation meeting.”
Technically, the responsibility for maintaining sewage and garbage disposal system falls under the Rawalpindi Cantonment Board. But as the people of Shahzad Colony love pointing out, the cantonment board only performs its duties in posh areas where military personnel reside. To the rest, it is a mother-in-law.
And this was why Gul was here as a representative of the AHKMT to motivate the community to establish a sanitation system on a self-help basis.
“Once I went to one such meeting where the women had gathered together to hear a religious sermon and when I started talking, the whole time the women kept waiting for the sermon to start”, went on Gul, getting a few chuckles, “so I want you to be clear about why I am here”.
“Do you want the path outside your homes to be clean,” she asked, and all the women nodded in assent.
“I am here to tell you that Dr Sarhadi, whose house we are in, has cooperated with us to head a sanitation committee that will take care of cleanliness in this alley.
But these men are busy at work all day long so the women have to cooperate to keep this neighbourhood clean,” explained Gul getting straight to the point.
“This is our mess and we have to keep it clean so if we are going to hire a man to throw away our trash and clean the alleyway, then we have to pay him,” she added.
“In the neighbourhood behind, they have hired a man to do that,” said Sajida, holding a seven-month old baby in her arms.
“Even if we hire a man, half the women will say that they do not have any trash and refuse to cooperate,” said one gutsy and jolly woman.
“Women clean their houses and throw all the trash out in the alley – and then with surkhi powder (lipstick and make up) on, leave their houses sidestepping mounds of trash in front of their doors,” she added with ceremony as the crowd laughed and agreed.
But Gul was not deterred by the women’s opposition and asked again, “Do all of you agree that you need a sweeper for your alley?” and there was general consent.
“We hired a man before for the sewage line,” revealed one woman as logistics were being decided – this is not the first time that such an effort is being made.
Comment noted, Gul continued, “Would you agree to pay Rs100 each for the sweeper?” A somewhat silent agreement greeted her again as women broke off in individual banter, commenting on how other houses will not cooperate and in the end no one will pay.
And Gul tried to save the flow, “Look, out of 50 houses, maybe 20 or 30 won’t pay, but you all are here for the meeting showing you care and if you pay you’ll benefit others too.
Mosquitoes and flies don’t have boundaries, they infest every house,” she added, and more nods greeted her.
Gul concluded the meeting after putting two women, a serene and composed Habibun Nisa, (apparently Pathan), and a friendly Sajida, (possibly Punjabi) in charge of reporting anyone who refuses to cooperate, to the men’s sanitation committee.
“So do we all agree?” asked Gul one final time and murmurs arose among the women.
Until Habibun Nisa, after listening patiently, declared with a confident smile – “This will never work,” and all dams broke.
Voices rose to agree with her while Gul and Asia tried to motivate, “You can’t lose before starting, you have to at least try!” they lamented.
“We will try, of course we will give it a shot, but it will never work,” repeated Habibun Nisa. More murmurs rose in agreement as the maiden meeting concluded; one down, 149 still to go.