KARACHI, Oct 12: Decades of official neglect and increasing pollution have turned the once flourishing Baba Island literally into a big dump of filth. The entire island, invaded by mosquitoes and flies, simply stinks and is inhabited by an ailing fishing community, a visit to the island showed.

Hardly at a 20 minute distance from the main city, Baba Island is a part of Keamari Town’s Union Council 4 that encompasses Bhit Island, Younasabad, Sualehabad, Kakka Village and Shamspir Island, with a population ranging between 30,000 and 35,000. Of these localities, Baba Island is said to be the oldest inhabited place.

To a first-time visitor, the island — considered by many as a model fishing island in the union council — is nothing but a spot with garbage littered all over. Its 12,000-plus population lives in utter filth, completely overtaken by the menace of gutka. More painful, perhaps, is the fact that its youth offers little hope.

Talking to Dawn, most residents appeared apologetic about the fact that even their small children have now been hooked to drug-laced gutka, but showed no will to fight against the menace.

“It is an unfortunate fact that gutka consumption is destroying our fishing community and our youth. People know it’s bad, but still they eat it,” says Abdullah, a fisherman, who himself was chewing gutka.

When asked what future their community has, people showed little concern. Addiction to gutka has deprived them of the sensitivity to community issues and they showed no interest in understanding the strong link between hygiene and prosperity, while others find themselves too weak to fight the menace of gutka that has emerged as the biggest threat to the fishermen community’s survival in recent years.

Most of them blamed the government for all their ills. “The government has not done its job. We live in filth because there is no proper sewerage and drainage system here. The seawater that enters homes during the high-tide season stays there for months as there is no system to drain it out. Besides, there is an acute shortage of sweepers. People throw garbage along the island’s periphery so it can strengthen the island’s foundation. This way we have also reclaimed some land from the sea over the years.”

Talking to Dawn, Mukesh Sahtia, a doctor at a government-run basic health unit (BHU) said: “Every second person here is ill. Skin and respiratory infections and mouth ulcers are common and this is because of the prevailing unhygienic conditions, gutka-chewing habits of the people and the fact that the place had remained deprived of drinking water for a long time.”

Hazardous waste

However, fishermen believe that the increasing sea pollution around the island is also a major reason behind the widespread illnesses. “Chemical effluent coming from the city and draining into the sea is a major reason why so many people are suffering from skin diseases here. The continued flow of hazardous waste from the city to the island has completely destroyed the fish habitat. Besides, people are also affected by cement and coal dust coming from the port, where all consignments are dumped,” said Hussain, a social activist and member of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum.

Lack of health facilities is a major problem in UC-4. Emergency cases are taken to the city after a lot of hassle: patients are ferried to Keamari and then taken to hospital. This involves risks, besides a lot of expenses, residents said.

The BHU at Baba Island is being run on an ad hoc basis since the government has not yet appointed any staff nor allocated any budget for years. At the moment, the town administration operates it on a self-help basis. With the support of a multinational pharmaceutical company, a dispensary-cum-maternity home was established on the island a year ago. However, the health centre has so far failed to fulfil its purpose.

“Before the starting of the project, a private university had agreed in writing to provide 24-hour emergency service at the health centre. But that was never done. The three lady doctors who were appointed initially stopped coming after some months,” Dr Yousuf Haji Mohammad, supervisor of the health centre, told Dawn.

It was ironic to see that not a single delivery case has been carried out so far at the 12-bed centre, though it has a labour room and a fully equipped operation theatre. Appreciating the fact that the multinational concern has not withdrawn its support, Dr Yousuf said that if its cooperation was not there, the local community activists would not have been able to arrange a male doctor and other staff for the health centre.

After the departure of the lady doctors, the number of patients has dropped from 250 to 140 daily. Seventy-five per cent of patients are women who are charged Rs5 for all services that include provision of medicines for common ailments, blood test and ultrasound examination.

“With community help, we have been able to arrange some staff to keep the centre running after the designated staff of the university left. The staff is paid by the pharmaceutical firm that also takes care of the medical expenses and has also donated a generator to the health centre.”

Maternity home needed

Talking about the health needs, Dr Yousuf said: “The university administration told us that no doctor was willing to come here. But we desperately require a maternity home with a 24-hour emergency service. This is the need of thousands of people living in adjoining islands that only have partially-functional BHUs. Many times, women had given birth in boats while being taken to Keamari jetty,” he said.

While lauding the support of non-governmental organisations that have contributed to improving the performance of schools, residents of Baba Island lamented the fact that there were no job opportunities for the youth except fishing.

“There are no avenues for higher education and technical training for youth. Resultantly, most people are involved in fishing. The profession is no longer profitable because there is no parity between diesel prices and fishing rates,” says Haji Yousuf, adding that shrimp rates had not increased since the 1980s, though diesel prices had gone up many times.

“Our community faces a number of challenges. We can’t tackle them without government support. There has to be some government initiative to reduce the poverty level and improve the living conditions of people. Fishermen must be supported as is being done in other countries through the provision of various subsidies on fishing equipment and fuel,” he said.