A city in freefall

Updated September 21, 2019


I was three years old when my family migrated to Pakistan from India in 1947, and have no early memories of Karachi.

But in the early 1950s, the city was relatively small, clean and safe. As children, we would be playing outdoors until dark without our parents getting worried. There were no piles of garbage, no gunshots at night, and hardly any street crime.

Now, of course, the city is a dump festering in its own filth. As Rafia Zakaria reminded us in a recent column here, Karachi is virtually at the bottom of an international list of liveable cities out of 140 surveyed.

In terms of aesthetics, amenities and architecture, Karachi was always a laggard. However, years ago, it was a pleasant town with flourishing cinemas, a vibrant nightlife and some excellent bookshops. When he returned to Pakistan from the US in the early 1990s to try and establish a liberal arts university, I asked the late (and much missed) Dr Eqbal Ahmed where he would prefer to settle. He replied that his first choice would be Karachi as it was the only secular city in Pakistan.

Read: There is no solution for Karachi

So it is with great sadness that I have witnessed the steady decline of the city I grew up in. One reason, of course, is that both the PPP and the MQM have treated Karachi as an ATM instead of a city they took pride in. The MQM did push through some essential infrastructure projects, but ultimately, the name of the game for both parties was ‘china-cutting’. This refers to slicing off pockets of state land to be sold for private profit.

In the early 1950s, Karachi was relatively small, clean and safe.

There has been much talk recently about the possibility of the federal government intervening to halt and reverse the slide. This suggestion has been met with much indignation, especially from the PPP. An editorial in this newspaper agreed there was much to be done to improve matters, but the task should be undertaken by the provincial and city governments. The Constitution was cited to make the case for the clear separation of authority between the federal, provincial and city governments.

Frankly, I couldn’t care less if Satan were to miraculously clean up Karachi. As a stakeholder, I have skin in the game, and can’t wait around for the eternity it would take for politicians and bureaucrats to get their act together. I just wish somebody — anybody! — would clean up the city, provide it with water, and fix its sanitation issues.

A few years ago, I was showing some English friends around Karachi, and they suddenly asked the driver to stop. What had caught their attention was a bus with dozens of passengers on the roof. After they had taken a few pictures, they explained that they had never seen such a sight anywhere in the world. We are told that soon, hundreds of new buses will be introduced. I’ll believe it when I see them. Over the years, many promises have been made by politicians only to be broken, so please excuse my cynicism.

Processing plants don’t function, so raw, untreated sewage finds its way into the sea. Thus, much of the seafood we eat is full of toxic metals. Subsoil water is similarly polluted, and vegetables grown in Karachi’s vicinity are heavily tainted with chemicals from factories.

A few months ago, I saw a heartbreaking documentary about the trials and tribulations of the people living in the poorer sections of the city as they struggled to obtain water for their daily use. They would line up for hours at public water taps with their utensils. These sequences were intercut with images of the gardens and swimming pools of the rich who could afford to pay for water tankers. Few neighbourhoods now get piped water as the ‘tanker mafia’ has a tight grip on water distribution.

Rafia Zakaria gave a harrowing account of the recent floods that carried garbage into homes. Adding to this horror was the offal thrown into the streets after the recent Eidul Azha sacrifice of cows, goats and sheep. This cocktail of offal and raw sewage has generated a biblical plague of flies.

One of the theories that neatly accounts for Karachi’s uncollected rubbish is that some major thugs control the recycling business. Hundreds of their employees scour dumps for empty bottles and cans that can be cleaned and resold. These crooks pay off city officials and politicians to let them get on with their rackets, and hence the pile-up of rubbish. Foreign investors who have tried to get contracts to clean up the city have been discouraged.

Fixing these problems does not require rocket science or massive resources. If politicians were made to queue for water, clean up the rubbish dumps in their areas, and travel by bus, I can assure you it wouldn’t take long to fix most of Karachi’s problems.

But as this is not about to happen, I would welcome the federal government’s intervention.


Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2019