Karachi has witnessed at least three major garbage outbreaks. At the same time, ironically, the history of the city also suggests that it not only managed to eliminate these outbreaks, but actually became one of the cleanest cities in India and then Pakistan. So there is always hope.
When the British attacked and annexed Karachi in 1843, the city was part of Sindh which was being ruled by the Baloch Talpur dynasty. According to famous British officer and writer, Richard Burton, and those who penned entries in the 1919 Sindh Gazetteer, Karachi had a population of about 20,000 people at the time of the annexation.
Much of the city’s population was concentrated in two areas, Manora and Lyari, which were protected by a large fort (Qasim Fort). Outside these two areas, the city was barren, largely covered by mangrove forests, sand dunes and wild shrubs, and having a variety of birds (mainly kites, sparrows, parrots and crows) and animals such as dogs, cats, wolves, foxes and even a few black panthers. A deep pond near a shrine in Manghopir was full of crocodiles (it still is).
The population was concentrated in Manora and Lyari, mainly due to the fact that fresh water wells were available here. British soldiers and travelers found the people living in close proximity in mud houses in areas which had narrow, unpaved streets and no garbage collecting or any sewerage system.
The Sindh Gazetteer informs that the population was a mix of Hindus and Muslims, mostly Sindhi and Balochi speakers. There was a sprinkling of mosques, Sufi shrines and Hindu temples. Burton, in his writings on Sindh, also speaks of "no less than three brothels" and appalling sanitation conditions.
He described the men of Karachi as hard working but brutish and that the women loved to wear colourful clothes but were "very loud". The murder rate was high and alcoholism was rampant.
The British began to develop Karachi’s natural harbor and this drew more people to the city. The British developed cleaner "cantonment areas" away from the more populated areas of the city. Karachi’s population grew from 20,000 in 1840s to almost 100,000 in the early 1890s. The garbage and filth continued to mount, though.
In 1896, a ship from Calcutta (present-day Kolkata) docked at the Karachi harbour. A Bubonic plague epidemic had struck Calcutta. Dozens of rats carrying fleas which cause the plague made their way into Karachi from this ship. The mounting garbage dumps and dreadful hygiene conditions in the city were ideal for the rats to feast, multiply, and shred the fleas they were carrying.
By 1897, the plague had spread throughout Karachi. Thousands of Karachittes died painful deaths and thousands were quarantined as British doctors and traditional Muslim and Hindu medicine men tried to contain the outbreak.
The plague was largely contained by the early 1900s and the British doubled their efforts to further develop the city. This also saw the construction of a complex sewerage system, garbage disposal and collection mechanism, and regular cleaning of roads and streets (sometimes with water).
Even though, according to published statistics of the period, the city’s population had grown to over 300,000 by the 1930s, Karachi had risen from filth to become a bustling and lucrative trading and business hub and a preferred place of leisure. It also became one of the cleanest cities in India. It began being dubbed as the 'Paris of Asia'.
Karachi received a huge influx of millions of Muslim refugees from India after the city became part of Pakistan in 1947. Its population was 435,887 in 1941 but drastically rose to 1,137, 667 in 1951 (a growth of 161%).
With the city’s resources coming under tremendous stress, the government struggled to accommodate the influx. But a boom in exports of Pakistani agricultural products in 1950-51 somewhat stabilised the situation, especially since Karachi was the country’s only port city and an economic hub.
Remarkably, the sanitation mechanism put in place by the British did well to cope with the drastic growth in population. It was further modernised, mostly during the hectic industrialisation period initiated by the Ayub Khan regime (1958-69).
Even till the early 1960s, many roads and streets were still being washed with water, and, apart from the situation in the slums which had grown after 1950, there was no garbage collection and disposal problem. In the early 1960s, Karachi had become the 'City of Lights’ – the business hub and leisure centre of the country.
Karachi’s population had increased from 2,044,044 in 1961 to 3,606,744 in 1972. The city was the epicentre of the industrialisation policies of the Ayub Khan regime. This had created a great demand for labour which largely came from the NWFP province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa).
An intense countrywide protest movement against Ayub in the late 1960s badly affected Karachi’s economy. The city’s sanitation mechanism broke down as well. For the first time after the 19th century, garbage dumps began to mount and were left unintended.
Things in this respect did not improve much when the populist Bhutto regime (PPP) came to power in December 1971. In his book on Bhutto, well-known author Stanley Wolpert wrote that on numerous occasions, Bhutto penned special notes to the Chief Minister of Sindh, Mumtaz Ali Bhutto, lamenting the sanitary conditions of Karachi. He advised him to "make Karachi Paris of Asia" again.
Despite the fact that the Bhutto regime initiated various ‘beautification projects’ in the city, these could not arrest Karachi’s growing sanitation problems.
The aftermath of a right-wing protest movement against the Bhutto regime in 1977 saw many of the city’s areas, streets and roads chocked by overflowing gutters and tall garbage dumps.
Bhutto fell in July 1977, toppled by a reactionary military coup engineered by General Zia-ul-Haq. The 1979 local bodies elections empowered Karachi-based nazims/councilors to revive the city’s creaking sanitation mechanism and garbage collecting system.
But when ethnic riots broke out in 1985, this mechanism broke down again. Things got even worse in the 1990s when ethnic riots, militancy and a crackdown against the MQM left the city paralysed. By the end of the 1990s, the city cut a sorry sight. Karachi it seemed was a city buried underneath a million tons of dump and filth.
When General Pervez Musharraf came to power (through a military coup) in 1999, he injected millions of rupees to revive Karachi’s economy that had been falling apart.
A lot of this money was also used to kick-start another beautification and cleaning project, mostly initiated through the MQM’s local government in Karachi.
An improvement in the overall economy of the country helped the project to become a success and the gloom and the filth that had had been haunting Karachi for so many years was lifted.
As a recent report in Dawn explained, "the city’s solid waste problem is assuming crisis proportions." The report continues that "in neighbourhoods across the city — from the enclaves of the elite to the sprawling urban slums — there are mounds of garbage piling up everywhere, with the provincial government and municipal authorities all at sea about how to solve the problem."
Debates over the mounting issue between the city’s two largest political parties — the populist left-liberal Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) which presides over the current provincial government in Sindh, and the liberal-secular Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) which has a history of returning the most Member of National Assembly and Members of Provincial Assembly from Karachi — often degenerates into becoming animated vocal brawls.
The populist centre-right party, Pakistan Thereek-i-Insaf (PTI), which managed to get bag the second largest tally of votes in the city in the 2013 election, seems to have no clue about the rather complex social and political dynamics of the city.
Recently, the celebrated real estate tycoon and philanthropist, Malik Riaz, decided to donate millions of rupees, machinery and manpower to lift the ever-rising mounts of garbage in the city.
The PPP government in Sindh has responded by importing powerful garbage collecting machines from China and signing a Rs2 billion contract with a Chinese company to process waste in the city. The MQM, on the other hand, has attempted to initiate various clean-up campaigns, but the garbage has continued to mount.
Another issue in this context has been the defacing of walls and monuments with ugly graffiti, posters and paan stains. Graffiti and posters are anarchically sprayed and pasted by a host of culprits ranging from political party activists, to religious groups, to quacks and small entrepreneurs.
Party flags are hoisted on electricity poles but then forgotten about till they rot and become ugly, muddy rags dangling from the poles.
Recently, however, the Sindh government initiated a campaign to wipe clean the graffiti, but much still needs to be done to get rid of the decomposing party flags, posters, paan stains and even a plethora of cable TV wires which can be seen dangling from electricity poles that create a problem for the city’s electric supply company, the Karachi Electric.
Unfortunately, the people of this city have only added to the problem. Shopkeepers do not hesitate to throw their litter even in front of their own shops. But many Karachiites say one can hardly find a garbage bin anywhere in the city.