SCENES such as one in the picture are quite common in Lahore.—Arif Ali / White Star
SCENES such as one in the picture are quite common in Lahore.—Arif Ali / White Star

AS one approaches an LWMC dumping site next to iconic Arfa Kareem tower near the posh locality of Model Town, heaps of waste can be seen from as far as one drifts from the main (Ferozepur) road and stench in the air becomes stronger. This is one of the 24 sites used as a temporary depot before the garbage is transferred to its final destination on Lahore outskirts. The place that is supposed to be emptied every day has not been cleared for several weeks since cleanliness operation has slowed down in the Punjab’s capital.

“Here we used to have a fruit market. It was demolished for some other development project a few years ago,” explains fruit vendor Mohammad Ramzan, standing next to the debris of the market. Perhaps the prolonged exposure to the reek has enabled those residing nearby to adapt to it, otherwise the bad smell and heaps of filth in the middle of the debris could have stirred street protests by now. If reports from 23 (secondary) other sites and around 7,000 containers (primary sites) are to be believed, the situation is not quite good either.

The Lahore Waste Management Company (LWMC), which is supposed to lift garbage every day, has been struggling to clear containers in streets and roads and is being grilled by political and social circles for the failure, as waste generation continues to outpace its removal. Over the last two years, the LWMC planned and succeeded in purging the metropolis from two foreign contractors on the plea “we can clean our city ourselves; why do we need foreign firms for this menial job”. It sounded fine!

In order to execute its plan, the company extended contracts of the foreign firms temporarily after they expired in January and February last year. Then it also did not initiate the process of hiring fresh contractors. Finally, they were shown the door, with their contracts being abrogated 10 days shy of the formal expiry, their premises being raided, machines being confiscated while risking a legal fight. All this was done in the name and claim: “do we really need foreigner for janitorial services in the city?” However, to add to the company’s trouble, international arbitration, costing the country money and reputation, may follow shortly.

LWMC caught between its own claims and the reality

When the moment arrived, the LWMC suddenly realised that it neither has a plan, nor men, machines, or expertise to clean the city. For the last one month, the city is sinking into its own waste — and the Punjab government, guilty of buying the LWMC idea of letting it sweep the Punjab capital on the face value of patriotism and failing to get the job done, is now turning the whole affair into a political fight: picking nits in the contracts, terming them corruption points and blaming the previous government. But people are paying the price as the city awaits action.

All those in the know of things — LWMC, the provincial government and two previous contractors — now identify three basic issues: lack of machines, men and a plan.

Minister in charge Aslam Iqbal while addressing a presser last week, conceded that “65 per cent of machinery, which we got from the contractors, is either not in working condition or too old to do the job.” Others involved in the city cleanliness also agree with him. But the claim begs a question: why did the company and minister realise these machine deficit after the event?

The contractors brought them in 2011 and 2012. They served seven-year contract period and another one during temporary extensions. During the final year, the machines had virtually broken down and it was part of official record. In fact, machines’ condition and shortfall was one of the reasons to throw contractors out. At one stage, the Turkish were allowed to get machines on rent to do the job.

“Despite this documented machine failure, the LWMC claimed to do the job itself and that too without arranging machines,” explains Syed Afzaal Shah, an official of the OzPak, one of the two Turkish contractors.

As the state of machines was never a secret, the LWMC is caught between its own claims and the reality — transforming from a monitoring company to operational one and that too without any plan. “The lack of planning has turned the whole exercise into a fire-fighting effort rather than working under a plan and pattern,” the official explains.

Elaborating on the manpower, an employee of one of the contractors who did not want to be named claims when their companies took over, 7,811 staff members from the Municipal Corporation Lahore (MCL) were given to them in 2012. “At that point of time, the attendance of this staff was 30 per cent. The company struggled to get these employees work because vast majority of them was working at the houses of some provincial high-ups. The companies complained consistently, knock every door but attendance never went beyond 65 per cent. Frustrated, both companies hired around 2,500 people from their own pocket.”

“The reality of the LWMC boils down to basic stats: with 65pc reduction in machines and 32pc less manpower (2,500 companies’ employees), how can anyone do 100pc job? Only the LWMC or the Punjab government can explain. Even this picture includes an almost impossible hypothesis: 100pc attendance of the MCL staff.

“Another question that no one has raised or answered is about the quantum of waste. Is it still the same as it was in 2012 — around 5,000 tonnes a day. What if it has increased by 10pc? This adds another layer to already complicated picture of 32pc reduction in men and 65pc in machines,” wonders a political party activist involved mobilizing its workers to get Lahore clean again.

Malik Amjad Noon, chairman of the LWMC board of directors, however defends his company and operation, saying that men and machines are not the issue. “It has whatever it takes to clean the city and company is doing it. Instead of one shift, as the contractors were doing, the LWMC is running three shifts — thus tripling the impact of limited resources. Things will improve drastically once we are able to clear the backlog and bring the city to zero waste.”

Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2021

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