IT has been a summer of filth and infestation. The rubbish was always there, but the usual piles became mountainous, the fetid pools turned into little ecosystems for enterprising insects, the junk thrown in the lanes continued to encroach. Then came the rains, and all the filth that was on the roads was doused, its volume increasing, its new liquefied state enabling it to flow farther and farther. Filth flowed into homes and huts and encampments and shanties and into the mouths and bellies of children.
The next episode was Eid-ul-Azha, for which the rains paused for just a bit, while offal was added to the fetid mix that already sat on city streets. It was no living creature now, but from it was birthed a fly infestation. Buzzing hordes descended on the streets and the people of Karachi were accosted by them everywhere they went. Whatever contagion had not been spread by the sewage or the garbage was now spread by the flies that settled on food and trash and people and babies, forming a thick dark army deputised to spread disease.
It is not over yet. As the city continues to unravel, some figures have been released by an international organisation whose task it is to release data about the habitability of the world’s largest cities. A sum of 140 cities were considered along various metrics and then ranked. As if in agreement with Karachi’s inhabitants, the purveyors of this survey ranked the city near last in terms of livability. The three cities that ranked worse were Damascus, which is a war-zone, Lagos and Dhaka.
If the war on Syria abates and the garment boom in Bangladesh endures and Lagos is able to dig itself out of its own mess, there is a chance that Karachi may fall to the very last place on the ranking. There is nothing, it seems, keeping it from accomplishing this dubious decline, which would confer on the city — if nothing else — the notoriety of being the worst of all.
So despicable is the situation in Karachi that it would not be difficult to construct a compelling dystopian novel using its realities.
There is a belief that is prevalent in the city that these matters of sanitation and sewage and trash pick-up and suppression of contagion-borne illnesses are simply par for the course. This perspective looks at the fact that the city has endured, where endured has the singular and simple meaning of simply existing, as an argument for turning away from the state of affairs.
After all, they will nod and say, Karachi has never really been a clean city and what to do if a few die here and a few die there — it has always been the case. A dirty city, a nonexistent system of cleaning and worse still, disdain for those who would like things to be better seems to have become the hallmark.
They are wrong. There is a reason that numerous traditions attributed to prominent religious figures from nearly every faith put a premium on cleanliness. It could even be argued that Islam is particularly concerned with this. The system of five ablutions, of maintaining a clean environment and ensuring even food safety rules, all point to a particular effort to connect environmental and physical purity to spiritual strength and faith.
But while this connection is duly given lip service by one and all everywhere in the country, including Karachi, its application is absent even in situations where it would be considered a requirement. Many of the city’s mosques have trash heaps right by the entrance and overflow areas involve little more than rugs or mats laid over, you guessed it, trash. Even as people are bowing in prayer, many do so over the filth of the city.
So despicable is the situation that it would not be difficult to construct a compelling dystopian novel using its realities. Angry unrelenting rainstorms, floods of sewage, swarms of flies, epidemics of water-borne diseases and, in the midst of it all, 20 million souls convincing themselves and each other that this is not yet the end of the world, that things aren’t really that bad, that other cities in other countries (three) are just as bad or indeed worse.
To add some comic relief to the plot, one could add the offhand comments of a cabinet minister who has no solutions, but a penchant for toying with emotions. In this giggle-and-guffaw-inducing episode, he pretends that change is coming, that the powers of this or that article will permit a new set of faraway rulers to take control of this dystopian kingdom. With these new rulers will come all that the city has ever wanted — trash pick-up, sewage disposal, efforts to enable better storm drainage, anti-pest measures that would prevent the infestation of flies and mosquitos and rats — and perhaps then all that they bring with them.
It is only a joke, however. There is no solution for Karachi. The infighting between the various interests in the city, from land grabbers to trash mafias to callous politicians to the hapless poor, are arranged in such an unfortunate constellation that change seems unlikely, if not impossible. The worst consequence of this apathy is the normalisation of the abnormal, the proliferation of the belief that the filth and sewage in the environment exists at a distance and poses no threat to inner peace and spiritual purity.
It is perhaps this last myth that should be attacked and attended to for a while, as there are few in Pakistan who care about the condition of Karachi; there are many millions more who care about their claims to spiritual purity. A filthy city is a city without a soul, made up of inhabitants who are losing their souls; if help is considering showing up, it is requested that it please hurry up before it is too late.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2019