Only in Karachi

19 Mar 2016


THE first word my nephew Nadir uttered as a child over 25 years ago was ‘tanker’. Hardly surprising as the arrival of the vehicle carrying water to his home was a regular event.

Over a quarter of a century later, things have only got worse. While having lunch with two friends the other day, one of them remarked that he was being forced to spend around Rs50,000 a month for tankers; the other one said she had to spend even more.

Both live in Karachi’s Defence Society, one of the country’s most expensive localities.

For the majority of houses here, buying tankers is the only means of getting water. But while residents in the more exclusive areas of the city can afford this, many who live in poorer districts have to queue up at public taps to fill containers to take home.

Last summer, there were water riots when the temperature soared to lethal levels. Luckily, our family home is in an older part of the city, and is still supplied through the main pipeline. But over decades now, as Karachi has grown exponentially, many of its residents have had to buy water from the tanker mafia.

And yet, nobody actually dies of thirst. The lawns of the rich are well-watered, and their swimming pools remain full. So clearly, enough water is reaching the city; the question is why can’t the city and provincial authorities supply it to homes? The answer lies in the vast amounts collected by the owners of the numerous tankers that ferry water around the city.

Our graveyards are a perfect metaphor for the chaos here.

The word on the street is that many of these belong to powerful bureaucrats and politicians, and they certainly will not deliver water through our taps. Rumour also has it that control over many of the hydrants used to fill these tankers is with the Rangers, and they extract their share from the profits.

I would have liked to blame the PPP and the MQM for this state of affairs, but military governments have come and gone as well without addressing the problem. So accustomed have we become to this state of affairs that we don’t even complain about it, considering it as normal as our filth-ridden streets.

In Lahore, garbage collection has been assigned to private companies, and as a result, you don’t see piles of rubbish everywhere. I am told by a town planner who has gone deeply into the matter that two mafia dons control the city’s garbage, and pay off the relevant officials for this duopoly.

They assign hundreds of young scavengers to go through the rubbish and separate items that can be recycled. Crows, kites and stray dogs account for anything even remotely edible.

Recently, I was at the Defence Society graveyard to lay a beloved aunt to rest. Even though this cemetery is relatively better organised, I still found myself clambering over graves on my way out. But the Tariq Road graveyard, where my parents and brother are buried, is a ghoulish nightmare by comparison: graves jostle each other, and many new ones are created by emptying out old ones.

Each time I go, the topography has changed and I risk life and limb, scrambling over tombstones to make my way. What should be a quiet, contemplative experience as you remember the dead becomes an obstacle course. Although this graveyard was declared full many years ago, the staff there manages to find a spot for a hefty payment.

In fact, our graveyards are a perfect metaphor for the confusion and chaos in Pakistan today. To this day, we continue to argue about the so-called ideology of Pakis­tan. Sectarian and ethnic strife has engulfed our society, and politicians, generals and judges all march to the beat of their respective drummers.

And where else would you see huge posters of Mumtaz Qadri plastered all over the city? Here is a convicted murderer, hanged after due process and the rejection of his mercy petition, being lionised after death. His face on the posters, surrounded by a sea of rose petals, was a sickening reminder of the mindset shared by many mullahs and their followers in the country.

And let us not forget the lawyers who showered Qadri with flowers whenever he appeared in court.

Considering the PPP is in power in Sindh, and the man Qadri assassinated was Salmaan Taseer, a party stalwart and governor of Punjab, one would have expected the provincial government to crack down on those demonstrating in favour of the hanged convict. But rallies were permitted, and mullahs ranted undisturbed against the government for carrying out the death sentence.

These are only some of the trials and tribulations the people of Karachi go through every day. Yet somehow, almost miraculously, life in the city goes on. And if I am honest, there are few other places I’d rather be.

Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2016