Keeping Trash Alive in Karachi

Fifty years ago the water creek in Ibrahim Hyderi in Karachi was so clear that one could see the fish, but today it is so lethally polluted that fish cannot survive in it.

A boy sitting on the shore of Karachi Fisheries Harbour | White Star

A boy sitting on the shore of Karachi Fisheries Harbour. Credit: White Star

When Talib Kachi was living in Ibrahim Hyderi as a young boy, he would often use his mother’s thin, gauzy dupatta as a net to catch prawns from the creek next to his neighbourhood. The water was so clear that he could see how many prawns he had caught even before he had pulled the dupatta back out. Many people of his generation remember how plentiful the fish were and how blue the water was. Children swam in the sea and dragged their nets to the coast to catch fish for dinner.

This was over 50 years ago. Back then, Ibrahim Hyderi was a small village on the south-eastern edge of Karachi.

Today it is a sprawling town. There are banks, several schools and hundreds of shops and other businesses here — as well as piles of garbage lying everywhere on its narrow streets. The tricolour flags of a political party painted against dirty brick walls are the only means to ‘brighten’ up the area a little. The strong wind blowing from the sea has coated everything – buildings, vehicles, trees – with a thick layer of dust.

The administration of Bin Qasim Town, which is supposed to take care of sanitation and public hygiene in Ibrahim Hyderi, sends its trucks to collect and remove trash but, as Kachi claims, the task is performed only once a week.

For seven years, Ibrahim Hyderi has also served as an unofficial landfill site where garbage collected from various parts of Karachi would be dumped. Soil has disappeared beneath thick layers of trash in those parts of the neighbourhood where the waste was thrown. The dumping came to a halt – albeit partially – only a few months ago after leaders of the local community brought it to the media’s attention. Even today, waste is being discreetly dumped on many empty lots of land.

Quality of life has gone down drastically in Ibrahim Hyderi. Aside from many common waterborne diseases such as dysentery and rash being widespread here, a large number of local residents have been suffering from chikungunya, a mosquito-borne viral fever, for close to a year now. The creek next to Ibrahim Hyderi is an even sadder spectacle.

Hundreds of boats float moored to jetties that seem to have been built on a bed of black sludge. A toxic mix of pollutants – fumes spewing from boat engines, untreated sewerage water and other motley trash thrown into the sea – turn its surface into a poisonous slush that spreads out into the sea.

It sticks to the legs of a boy like slime as he wades through it. Fish cannot survive in such lethal environs so fisherfolk have to go far out to the sea for the catch. The time, money and effort required for fishing have multiplied.

Ayoub Shan, a local, insists fishing used to be a job fit for a king in the past: fisherfolk would fish without having to worry about time and space constraints. It is difficult to envision the dirty creek as their bounteous kingdom any longer. Fisherfolk today struggle to catch enough fish to feed their families, he says.

A garbage-strewn canal in Board Bazaar, Peshawar | Shahbaz Butt, White Star

A garbage-strewn canal in Board Bazaar, Peshawar. Credit: Shahbaz Butt, White Star

Walk, bike or drive anywhere in Karachi and you will find it difficult to spot even a short stretch of clean land. Streets are littered with domestic waste; construction material and debris from pulled-down buildings are carelessly strewn along roads; mounds of rotting rubbish are found routinely on footpaths near markets and commercial areas; verges and medians on roads and flyovers are disappearing under layers of dust; plastic shopping bags flutter in the wind, even in posh areas.

Sewerage and rainwater drains are chock-full of trash; plastics, effluents from commercial areas and industries as well as untreated sewage flow into water channels completely unchecked.

Hospitals, restaurants, office buildings, factories — all produce waste and then dispose it in ways that at best can be described as irresponsible. Even the beaches and the two rivers flowing through the city – the Malir and the Lyari – have become joint garbage dumps in many places.

The easiest way for producers of waste to get rid of it is to dump it wherever they find space. Waste pickers, usually young boys and girls, sift through those dumps, separate usable and recyclable material from it to sell but leave the rest of the garbage behind which, more often than not, is set on fire by municipal officials.

The smoke emitting from smouldering garbage carries noxious fumes that enter nearby hospitals, schools, offices and homes. Whatever we throw away keeps coming back to us this way. Officials at the Sindh Solid Waste Management Board (SSWMB) are confident that they can address the problem. Their office – located in a freshly painted bungalow inside a residential neighbourhood just off Karachi’s Shaheed-e-Millat Road – looks like a model of efficiency.

Unlike most other government offices, work for the day starts here quite early in the morning. Members of staff are alert and computers are up and running. People walk busily from one room to another.

Dr. A. D. Sajnani, managing director of the board, is a portly man, dressed soberly. He glances at his watch every now and then as he talks. He has exactly 45 minutes for an interview for this story before he will get up for a meeting.

Sajnani seems to have a scientific approach towards life and work. This has probably something to do with his training as a doctor. He is convinced that a scientific methodology is all Karachi needs in order to become a cleaner city. Data collection, statistical evaluation and the discovery of a formula is what it will take, he suggests — how many tonnes of waste are being produced every day, how much money, how many men and how big machines are required to collect and dump that trash. Efficiency, according to him, is the key word. It was lack of efficiency that prompted the Sindh government to set up SSWMB in the first place, he says.

Managing solid waste “cannot be done” efficiently by the 178 union councils (or neighbourhood governments), Sajnani argues. There is “no data” and “no planning” at that level. Even the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC), an elected body comprising representatives from all those union councils, cannot do the job, according to him, because it “has too many things to manage which leads to inefficiency and corruption”.

What he does not mention is that the KMC – and its head, the mayor of Karachi – do not have money and power to get most things done without help from provincial authorities. The corporation cannot hire or fire municipal staff. It cannot allow or ban construction in the city. It cannot punish or fine people for damaging Karachi’s environment, not even for littering.

Children scavenge at a garbage dump in Hayatabad , Peshawar | Shahbaz Butt, White Star

Children scavenge at a garbage dump in Hayatabad , Peshawar. Credit: Shahbaz Butt, White Star

KMC’s resource crunch is equally severe. Almost two thirds of the money it was budgeted to have between July 1, 2016 and June 30, 2017 came from Sindh government (9.4 billion rupees as a grant and 6.5 billion rupees for carrying out various development projects). The corporation earned only 46.5 million rupees from the provision of such municipal services as water, sanitation and trash disposal.

But KMC’s administrative budget is ballooning. In the outgoing fiscal year (2016-17), the corporation allocated more than 10 billion rupees for staff salaries, maintenance of offices and other contingency expenses. In comparison, its allocation for development projects (apart from those funded by the provincial government) stood at 6.26 billion rupees.

When Karachi’s mayor Wasim Akhtar launched a 100-day cleanliness campaign late last year, soon after taking charge, his initiative remained largely a public-relations exercise — encouraging schoolchildren to clean streets and handing out garbage collection bags to shopkeepers.

The scale of the problem is too immense to be addressed by such cosmetic measures: if Karachi’s population has reached 20 million then its every resident – old, young, newborn, infirm, healthy, man, woman – will have to take care of a little more than half a kilogramme of solid waste each day if the city is to get rid of 12,000 tonnes of waste it produces daily.

Cleaning up the city with a staff of a few thousand people is only possible if KMC invests in new equipment, vehicles and training. But this will take money that the KMC does not have.

And whatever money it has, it is compelled to spend on things that do not help clean the city. In 2016-17, it had to put aside 2.46 billion rupees for debt servicing, pensions and other miscellaneous administrative expenses.

The budget for provision of municipal services including garbage collection, at 2.67 billion rupees, was only slightly higher. That creates a catch-22: the more human resources KMC employs, the more money it will have to allocate for administrative expenses; the more machinery it procures for waste disposal, the more debt it will incur. That will leave it with even less money for the actual delivery of municipal services — unless its revenues miraculously increase.

Enter SSWMB. Set up in 2015 under a law passed by the provincial assembly in 2014, its core function is to encourage the private sector to invest in garbage collection and disposal. It has “the authority to grant permission to individuals [and] institutions” for “collection, treatment, sale and purchase” of solid waste as well as for “its recycling or disposal”.

To set the ball rolling, SSWMB is investing vast amounts of money in the disposal of waste already piled up in the city. In 2016-17, for instance, it allocated 4.16 billion rupees for the collection and removal of garbage from two of the city’s six districts.

Sajnani is aware of what happens when a city is not cleaned. We have reached a stage where solid waste is making the residents of Karachi sick, he acknowledges. “Garbage is a breeding place for flies which transfer disease. This is how so many people in the city have contracted polio.”

Sewage gushes out of pipes into a drain in Karachi | White Star

Sewage gushes out of pipes into a drain in Karachi. Credit: White Star

The board under his charge is yet to remove most of this disease-producing rubbish. So far, Sajnani says, SSWMB is running only a “pilot project” in District East and District South where it has outsourced solid waste collection and removal to a Chinese company, Changyi Kangjie Sanitation Engineering Company Limited.

The company charges Sindh government $23 dollars for every tonne of garbage lifted from the streets and shifted to a landfill site. The money is 10 times as much as the city’s municipal authorities would spend on removing the same amount of trash — but then they were not doing a good job of it. “This is a business for [the Chinese company],” says Sanjrani, suggesting that the government has to offer a price that keeps the company interested in the project. “They will maintain their machinery and keep everything in good working condition.”

SSWMB has also failed to untie the Gordian knot of garbage removal in Karachi — who will collect waste from houses, streets, roads, bazaars, offices and factories and take it to garbage transfer stations from where it will be picked up by trucks of the Chinese company? It is the same union councils that Sanjnani accuses of being inefficient that are supposed to do the job. For its ambitious plans to be successful, SSWMB will need to have close coordination with the union councils.

The lack of coordination between them is obvious from the amount of trash lying everywhere in Karachi. Also obvious is the turf war that stops the provincial government, that oversees SSWMB, and KMC, that lords over the union councils, from working together.

The ruling party in the province, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and the ruling party at the KMC level, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), do not see eye to eye on many municipal issues, including solid waste management in Karachi. Both parties want to milk these issues to their maximum electoral benefit.

On January 10, 2017, their differences spilled into the open as the KMC workers’ union, dominated by MQM supporters, went on a strike against SSWMB’s decision to outsource waste management.

A couple of months later, Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of SSWMB, declaring that it had failed to perform its function. The court also directed Sindh government to transfer all responsibilities and powers of the board to local governments. These orders are yet to be implemented. This, in turn, has forced Akhtar and MQM to move Sindh High Court for their implementation. The case is pending hearing.

Dr Waqar Ahmed does not immediately come across as a professor. For one, he looks a little too young for the post; for another, he is a little too put together. But this impression is dispelled the moment he points to a bird in the window of his office at Karachi University’s Institute of Environmental Studies: “A red-vented bulbul,” he says, identifying it promptly.

Waqar is sitting in a room that seems to have been a kitchen once. It still has a big, grey sink in a corner. He has filled the room with books, files and a sturdy looking desk so the space now exudes the dignified air of an academic’s office.

He does not think much of administrative efficiency as a way of cleaning up Karachi. ‘’The problem is that we are creating too much waste [which] takes a lot of money to manage,” he argues. “We need to talk about waste minimisation. If we minimise waste, it will not only be easier to manage but also better for the environment.’’

Agricultural farms on the north-eastern outskirts of Karachi show us why an environment-friendly waste management mechanism has become an urgent need for Karachi.

An elderly waste picker at a garbage dump in Lalazar Colony, Peshawar | Shahbaz Butt, White Star

An elderly waste picker at a garbage dump in Lalazar Colony, Peshawar. Credit: Shahbaz Butt, White Star

These farms grow most of the vegetables and some of the fruits consumed in Karachi. But water from the Malir river used for irrigating them is being sullied by untreated domestic and industrial waste flowing into it unchecked. Between Goth Noor Muhammad Kathor, where the river starts, and Korangi Creek, where it merges with the Arabian Sea, it is easy to spot numerous drains that bring toxic effluents to the river.

Once it flows past the lush fields it s also easy to forget where its water is coming from. The farms provide a strong distraction: thick green grass grows along the river bank and leafy trees offer ample shade here.

Gul Rafi, a farmer passing by, admits the water is not clean but he has never experienced any problems with the quality of his crops. His face and hands are prematurely wrinkled from years of working in the sun. “It is expensive to treat this water or to find other sources of clean water for the crops,” he says, as he tends to some healthy looking spinach plants. The river is peacefully flowing just a few feet away. The only element of dissonance in this pastoral idyll is the stench coming from the water.

“If we throw something in a river, it will never simply go away,’’ says Waqar, as he sips green tea. “Though we may not immediately see or feel the impact of food grown in toxic river water, it does not mean we are not affected by it.” The effects sometimes take years to show. “Metals [present in the river water] accumulate in our body [over time] and damage tissues in organs such as the heart, kidney and liver.’’

Fruits and vegetables are not the only carriers of such bad news for our bodies. “Buffalos and cows drink this water so [dangerous] metals also accumulate in milk we drink. [Waterborne toxins] also end up in chicken feed and then, of course, in chicken as well as in most other meat we consume,’’ says Waqar.

The Malir and Lyari rivers were not so toxic a few decades ago. “Till the 1950s, people used to spend time near the rivers and fish there. How clean the rivers must be then!” he wonders. Should farmers be made to treat the river water before using it for irrigation? Waqar shakes his head. “There have been farms along the river for decades. It is actually the industries [set up in recent times] that are making water toxic.”

Plastic is the other major source of toxins in the city. “Karachi has an unhealthy dependence on plastic. Go to any grocery shop and ask for something as small as a pack of chewing gum, it will be handed to you in a plastic bag that is soon tossed aside onto the roadside,” he says.

The worst thing about plastic is that it is not biodegradable. This explains why plastic waste is mostly set on fire. There is no other cheap way to get rid of it, even though environmental and medical costs of the practice are enormous. “Burning plastic exudes dioxins, a group of toxic chemicals, into the air. If inhaled in large quantities, dioxins can lead to cancer and even to death,” says Waqar.

He says he would not be surprised if increasing incidence of cancer in Pakistan is being caused by rising levels of toxins in the air.

Waqar proudly produces a canvas shopping bag that his students have put together. It is poorly made, already splitting at the seams, and its handles are too small for its size, making it uncomfortable to carry it around. It will take a lot more than this bag to persuade people to give up the convenience of plastic shopping bags.

Used and stolen cables being burnt on the bed of Ravi river in Lahore | White Star

Used and stolen cables being burnt on the bed of Ravi river in Lahore. Credit: White Star

In March 2017, the Supreme Court named a number of government institutions and departments that had failed to fulfil their duties with regards to waste management in Karachi. One of these was the Sindh Industrial Trading Estate (SITE) that sets up and runs planned industrial areas in the province. Perhaps to avoid further censure, SITE’s newly designed website features several pictures of shiny new machines diligently cleaning roads.

The SITE office is located just off Manghopir Road, right before Karachi’s largest industrial estate. It is filled with men sitting around and drinking tea — a usual sight at government offices. It is possibly too early in the day for any real work to have begun.

Syed Ahmed Fawad, secretary of SITE, occupies a central position within the office. He is extremely proud of the work SITE has done recently to keep the industrial estate clean. ‘‘Trucks pick up garbage at exactly eight every morning and we conduct an inspection whenever there is a complaint,’’ he says.

When asked about effluents from around 3,000 industrial units flowing straight into Lyari river, Fawad responds by saying the river is “not in our zone”. But, he says, regular visits are undertaken to see if water treatment equipment at factories is in working order. The SITE administration, according to him, regularly reprimands industries that do not treat their waste water before releasing it into the river. No punitive action is taken against them though.

The inspections and reprimands, it seems, are merely for show. A member of Fawad’s staff, who chooses to remain anonymous, discloses that more often than not waste water treatment equipment is not found in working order. In some cases, he says, it is detected to have “not been used for long”.

A drive through the industrial estate shows relatively clean roads; no garbage is visible either on roadsides or outside factories. But the amount of smoke emitting from different parts of SITE is impossible to overlook. When the smoke settles onto the area underneath, the air becomes discernibly grey.

And if one follows the drain pipes leading out of factories in the estate, one will see toxic waste water gushing through them wherever they are ruptured. These pipes lead to the river bank that is buried under several feet of sludge. Beyond the sludge is the river bed, littered with everything from plastic and cardboard to glass bottles. A factory situated at the bank spews its dirty water straight into the river.

Two men loiter near the river bed, keeping an eye on a herd of skinny buffalos nibbling on meagre patches of grass. One of the buffalos moves to the water flowing nearby and gingerly takes a sip.

Those working at Geolinks, a private incineration company, know that theirs is not an easy job. The firm provides waste management solutions to industries that want to maintain an environment-friendly image. One of the first projects carried out by Geolinks was about toxic sludge.

The company sponsored two students from Federal Urdu University of Arts, Sciences & Technology to conduct research on how best to use the sludge left behind by industrial waste water. The researchers found out that sundried sludge could be used as an alternative fuel as well as a raw material for construction.

Raheel Siddiqui, a thirty-something director at the company, believes many industrial units can easily plough a small percentage of their profit into waste management if they are made to realise the dangers of their disregard of the environment. The solutions to the problem are also not necessarily expensive, he says, only “if local industries care to invest”. He also insists the industries alone cannot be blamed for ignoring environmental concerns. “They are not making it a priority because the law allows them not to.”

In many ways, Geolinks has created a model that others can follow. Its incinerators are all based at Port Qasim, in an industrial area in the south-eastern extremity of Karachi. The residents of the city are not impacted in any way by their operations. The company trains its workers properly about health and safety hazards involved in their work and provides them with safety gear that they wear while at work.

Geolinks currently has 50 clients. ‘‘We need at least 10 more companies like Geolinks in Karachi alone to truly make a difference,’’ says Dr Moinuddin Ahmed, the company’s technical director. Well into his sixties, he operates from an office located in a residential neighbourhood in Gulshan-e-Iqbal area and seems to have spent all his life emphasising the need for an environment-friendly consciousness. His voice becomes raspy as he talks about the state of cleanliness in Karachi.

He talks about a trip he took to the outskirts of Karachi in the company of a large group of people — “all English-speaking, educated young men and women”. They were all throwing away litter even though there were dustbins there. When he angrily asked one of them, a student of his, to not do that, others started making fun of him. Some of the young men started littering on purpose just to show that no one could stop them. “This is our mentality. If there is a rule set down, we want only to break it,” he says, his voice shaking with anger.

Moinuddin is convinced that the waste being produced in Karachi is not being calculated scientifically and comprehensively. The city produces far more than 12,000 tonnes of waste a day, he says. “And who is picking it up? It is children [who] are doing the work of the government and industries when they should be in school.”

To change all this, he argues, Karachi needs a strong environment protection agency — one that is headed by an environmentalist and not a bureaucrat. If laws are strengthened and the agency begins to do its job, industries will have to start managing their waste in responsible ways, he says.

Local media habitually refers to Faisalabad as the Manchester of Pakistan. It is not difficult to see why: more than half of what Pakistan earns from exports comes from the textile sector and over 70 per cent of textile production happens in Faisalabad. It is also believed to be one of the dirtiest cities in the country — probably second only to Karachi.

The municipal authorities themselves acknowledge that 28 per cent of Faisalabad is not linked to a piped sewerage system. When the city is referred to as the local Manchester, it is likely that the title is meant to convey the image of Manchester soon after the Industrial Revolution started in the 19th century — when it was a dirty, noisy and overcrowded place.

Mills and factories can be found anywhere and everywhere in Faisalabad. It has no demarcated industrial areas that exist separately from residential and commercial neighbourhoods — except for a newly established industrial estate. There are hardly any waste water treatment plants here.

The municipal authorities claim to be running one but the impact of its operation is negligible. Most of the effluents from factories are carried by open drains into Chenab river, about 30 kilometres to the north-west of the city. Where drains do not exist, waste water accumulates in open spaces before seeping into the ground.

The city has an acrid air and noise pollution levels are very high here. Hundreds of factories emit huge amounts of black smoke throughout the day and thousands of power looms create deafening noise ceaselessly in many working-class areas.

Turkish company Albayrak’s dumpsters in Lahore | Murtaza Ali, White Star

Turkish company Albayrak’s dumpsters in Lahore. Credit: Murtaza Ali, White Star

A short walk away from the Daewoo bus station in the heart of Faisalabad is Ganda Nala Road. The name is revealing: the road is built along a vast dirty nala, drain, that carries a revolting mix of sewage and industrial effluents to some unknown destination. Locals regularly throw plastics and other trash into it. A few stubborn weeds and patches of dull grass somehow manage to survive on the bank of the drain. There are several textile factories along the road, all spewing their toxic effluents into it.

Ganda Nala Road is also a bustling centre of activity. A line of motorcycle rickshaws, Qingqis, wait here for passengers. Their drivers while away their time, sitting near the drain and watching people go about their daily business. Clearly, they are used to the sight and smell.

There is also a tea stall next to the drain. Its proprietor seems surprised when asked about the environmental hazard the drain has become. “I have been here my whole life and it has always looked like this,” he says. Do any government officials ever inspect the drain? He shakes his head in the negative: not to his knowledge. A mere glance at the drain makes it clear that, even if anyone has ever come to inspect it, they have done nothing to clean it up.

This is in spite of the fact that environment protection institutions have existed both at the federal and provincial levels since 1983. The Pakistan Environmental Protection Act, too, has been in effect since 1997, giving the government power to enforce penalties on those who violate environment protection regulations.

One of the fundamental principles of this act is that the polluter must pay: if it is discovered that an industry is disregarding National Environmental Quality Standards then it can be made to pay a fine. The amount is to be calculated according to the degree of the damage the errant industry has directly or indirectly caused. Industries located along Ganda Nala Road seem to have never faced these penalties.

A sales point right next to a textile factory on the same road is thronged by women buying cloth at bargain prices. Many of them lean over the counter, demanding to see print after print as shop assistants comply, unfurling large rolls of cloth in front of them. Many men stand in a line to pay for the cloth purchased by women of their families; others impatiently wait outside. The crowd of buyers is not here to mark some special sale, says a harried shop assistant. The store is busy like this every day, especially during the lawn season, he says.

It is obvious that the factory that owns the store is doing good business. What is not obvious is whether it follows any environmental standards at all. A guard appears after a rap on its metal gate but he makes sure that no visitors move around in the industrial unit freely. Other members of the staff are also at pain to ensure just that. There is no way around them to have a look at the factory’s environment-related practices.

South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics (Sandee), a regional association of non-governmental organisations, environmental activists and academics, observes in a recent report that implementing and monitoring environmental rules and regulations at industrial units in Pakistan is lax at best.

Though large textile factories are more likely to follow environmental regulations due to their visibility and pressures from their foreign clients, medium and small firms are hardly bothered about them. The Sandee report claims that only 14 per cent medium-sized textile firms in Pakistan have an environment policy.

The network also observes the fines levied on factories for damaging the environment are too low to be effective.

Industries generally refuse, with impunity, to pay if the government imposes fines on them. The River Ravi Commission, a multi-sector entity set up by Lahore High Court to look into the discharge of untreated municipal and industrial waste water into the Ravi near Lahore, noted in June 2012 that Punjab’s Environment Protection Agency (EPA) had sent 2,300 cases to the province’s environmental tribunal since 1997; only 16 per cent of those cases were adjudicated by 2012.

The 400 or so cases in which the tribunal had issued a verdict resulted in the imposition of 14.5 million rupees in fines. The government, however, could collect only 2.2 million out of that, the commission reported.

Allied Hospital is situated right next to a cluster of factories that routinely emit clouds of smoke. Spread over several blocks and receiving a huge number of patients every day, it is the biggest public hospital in Faisalabad. A sanitation official working here claims that most of the patients suffer from asthma or other breathing problems — all caused by polluted air. “It is either that or they have hepatitis caused by contaminated water they consume,” he says. That makes it imperative for the hospital make an extra effort to keep its environs clean and ensure an efficient disposal of its medical waste.

The hospital looks impressive from the outside but its administrative offices are located in a few cramped rooms towards the back of the main building. Dr Arshad Ali Cheema, the medical superintendent, picks up a phone as it rings. He shouts orders into its mouthpiece and then rushes out of his office. Twenty minutes later, he returns, mopping his sweaty forehead with a handkerchief. Trained in health services management in the United Kingdom, he seems well-suited for his job but he is clearly running a hospital that is both overburdened and understaffed.

The job to keep the hospital clean has recently been outsourced to a private contractor — JJ Brothers. When asked if cleanliness has improved after the outsourcing, Cheema chooses not to answer. A member of his staff says the quality of hygiene has actually fallen.

Cheema claims to be very particular about medical waste disposal. “Waste is segregated within the hospital very effectively; non-infectious waste is shifted to an area far away from patients and visitors and infectious waste is taken to an [in-house] incinerator,” he says. The incinerator, that runs every night, resembles a massive furnace and seems to be in good working condition.

The Faisalabad chapter of Punjab Lok Sujag, a non-governmental organisation headquartered in Lahore, recently reported on its website that Allied Hospital was also burning something else: yet-to-expire medicine. This was allegedly being done to show that the medicines had been consumed so that the hospital could get more money from the government. It is difficult to ascertain the veracity of these reports but it is certain that the hospital incinerator was not being used for burning the medicine. This is because everything that goes into the incinerator has to be properly recorded and accounted for.

The management, instead, is reported to have burnt the medicine in an open space within the hospital. On the morning of May 8, the noxious smoke hovering over Allied Hospital was not just emitting from the factories nearby but possibly also from the premises of the medical facility itself.

It is past 6:00 pm and Ammad Gill is tired. His workday should have ended by now but has not. A retired colonel, he works as managing director of Faisalabad Waste Management Company, set up in 2013.

Gill’s sparsely furnished office is much bigger than it needs to be. It is also squeaky clean — the floor almost gleaming. He mentions main roads in Faisalabad being clean before adding that this is not the “look” he wants for the city. He wants all of it to look clean. Why that is not the case so far is because “it is Easter break” and many of the company’s workers, being Christian, have “taken time off”.

Large parts of the city seem to be under multiple layers of dust that cannot accumulate over a longer weekend. Faisalabad certainly has taken years, if not decades, of no waste management to acquire the untidy look it has.

At the time of Partition, the city, then known as Lyallpur, had only 70,000 residents. Its population increased to around 200,000 in the 1960s when it got its first government-provided sewerage system. In those days, sweepers employed by city authorities swept streets, collected trash and dumped it into designated places where it would either rot or would be taken outside the city to be thrown away — there was no designated landfill site.

This system worked to a certain extent as long as the city had a smaller population. Since the early 1990s, Faisalabad has experienced a massive increase in its population. Today, it is probably the third largest city in the country after Lahore and Karachi and creates far more trash than it could handle with traditional mechanisms. For instance, its Water and Sanitation Agency (Wasa), set up in 1978, does not cater to around a quarter of its residents. And only four years ago, the city had no dedicated agency to handle its solid waste.

When city authorities managed waste collection and disposal, says Gill, the work was not done in a proper manner, with workers whiling away a lot of time and dodging their duties. “The same workers are now working effectively just because the management has changed,” he says.

The company under him started off by carrying out all its functions on its own but recently it has decided to outsource its core job of collecting and removing solid waste. One of the 19 foreign companies that so far have shown interest in the project is Albayrak, a Turkish conglomerate responsible for half of solid waste collection and disposal in Lahore. Gill proudly quotes an Albayrak representative as saying that Faisalabad is much cleaner than other major cities in Punjab and that the city’s landfill site is the best among those of the province’s seven cities where waste management companies have been established.

Gill acknowledges that the only sustainable way to manage solid waste is to recycle it and that so far the only people who do some recycling are scavengers — waste pickers. But it is apparent that he sees them as a nuisance since, according to him, they wantonly throw away trash after segregating reusable items from it.

This complicates his job. “The Lahore Waste Management Company has been trying to train them but they are not willing to be trained,” he says resignedly.

Gill also admits that Faisalabad’s over-populated, ill-planned and congested low-income areas need more cleaning than they get. “It is difficult to sweep narrow streets there.” In comparison, “it is far easier to make a high income area look presentable”. It is odd that the head of a waste management company is so fixated on the way the city should look as opposed to improving the collection and disposal of waste.

But looks do matter. Most high-profile visitors to Faisalabad, such as representatives of foreign waste-busting firms, mostly get to see only high-income areas.

A 25-year-old hotel receptionist also judges the city by the way it looks. He is happy that “Faisalabad is now beginning to look like a real city”. He himself lives in Malikpur, a “backward area” far from his workplace in the centre of the city. There is no regular sweeping of the streets and roads outside his house. Nobody uses dustbins there.

No conversation about Karachi’s lack of waste management can be complete without comparisons with Lahore. Some put this down to politics – ‘all the money in the country goes to Lahore’ – while others claim (somewhat naively) that the people of Lahore have cultivated a better civic sense than those living in Karachi: not a single person spits paan onto the streets or throws trash on the roads in Lahore, they claim.

In any case, many Karachiites who visit Lahore often return home waxing lyrical about roads lined with trees and manicured footpaths and roundabouts studded with green grass and colourful shrubs.

Often there is no mention of costs in these comparisons. Almost every major road project in Lahore has about 10 per cent additional allocation of money for what the city authorities call beautification and this allocation does not include the money subsequently spent by the Parks and Horticulture Authority to maintain beautified sidewalks, road-dividers and roundabouts.

Lahore is also the first city in Pakistan to set up a public sector company to manage solid waste. The Lahore Waste Management Company (LWMC) was established in 2010 and claims to be keeping the city clean “like never before”. It provides services such as waste collection, mechanical sweeping and washing of roads and streets and setting up of dustbins and garbage collection depots.

Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer based in Lahore, is working as a member of LWMC’s board of directors. He seems to be the go-to person for city authorities whenever they need to hire someone from the private sector to head a civic agency. He has worked as chairperson of Lahore Electric Supply Company, member of the board of directors for both the Punjab Urban Unit, a public sector policy planning entity, and the Punjab Saaf Pani Company, a government-run firm set up to provide clean drinking water in the province.

Alam calls LWMC “a revolutionary organisation” since, as he explains, it allows its managers to perform their functions without any unnecessary micromanaging from the people at the top. This has given the managers space to constantly assess situations and tailor their operations.

The company has outsourced solid waste management to Albayrak and Ozpak, two Turkish firms that have divided the 274 union councils of the city almost by half between them. The two firms collect solid waste from across the city and transport it to a landfill site where it is measured before being dumped. They are paid 20-22 US dollars per tonne of waste they collect and transport. All the money paid to them comes from Punjab government.

A significant chunk of LWMC’s budget goes towards paying the two firms (that are fined up to three per cent of what they charge per tonne of waste if their collection and transportation are not effective). No month has gone by so far when they have not been fined, says Alam.

LWMC, however, does not have absolute autonomy in dealing with waste. The city’s elected representatives – members of the national and provincial assemblies, union councillors, deputy mayors and the lord mayor – have a lot of say in its affairs even when most of the time their roles are just advisory. In addition to them, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) maintains an extensive network of coordinators at the neighbourhood level. They work as focal persons for collecting public complaints and taking them to civic agencies such as LWMC. A civic agency can ignore their complaints only at the risk of drawing the ire of Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif.

LWMC also cannot treat its workforce as the staff of a private sector corporate organisation — linking their wages to targets and achievements. Whatever changes it has attempted to make in its work routine have caused only resentment. In 2014, several of its sanitary workers held a protest outside Lahore Press Club. They were unhappy over a digital system set up by the company to mark their attendance. They said the system displayed a lack of trust in them because gadgets linked to it took their pictures as and when they worked on an assignment.

Many protesting workers complained the system marked them absent for the whole day if they were late to work even for an hour or so. This would result in their salaries being cut. They also claimed the truants could still bribe their supervisors to be marked present.

Alam admits the attendance system was procured because of a “carelessly thought-out strategy”. Yet it remains in place mainly because it has to be put to use after it has been procured at a hefty cost.

Alam believes keeping a city clean requires a lot of money, enormous management resources and, above all, a lot of capacity among the city managers to absorb pressure. A massive amount of bureaucracy, legal complexities and politics require constant negotiations, he says. And, like in any negotiation, you win some while you lose some. Many parts of Lahore already feel that they have lost out in the bargain.

These are mostly unplanned, or ill-planned, residential neighbourhoods in the south, north and west of the city, stretching from Thokar Niaz Baig and Youhanabad in the south to Shahdara in the north, with such old localities as Ichhra, Mozang, Samanabad, Sanda, Chauburji, Sham Nagar, Mohni Road and the Walled City in between.

Trucks exit Karachi’s Jam Chakro landfill site | Tahir Jamal, White Star

Trucks exit Karachi’s Jam Chakro landfill site. Credit: Tahir Jamal, White Star

Though there are some recent signs of improvement in sanitary conditions in these areas, roads and streets there still remain much dirtier than they are in posh neighbourhoods of Gulberg, Cantt and many newer housing colonies along Canal and Raiwind Road.

Badami Bagh, literally meaning almond orchard, is caught somewhere in the middle. Called an “industrial slum” by Zafar Iqbal Mirza, a journalist known for his writings on Lahore, in a column he wrote in 1986, it is located next to one of Punjab government’s flagship beautification projects — the glittering Greater Lahore Park that includes such historic buildings as Badshahi Masjid, Lahore Fort and Minar-e-Pakistan.

The neighbourhood is all of narrow unkempt alleys and dirt-ridden roads. Some of the oldest bus and trucking stations in the city are located here and it also houses a wholesale market for fruits and vegetables. The transport stations and the market remain among the most ill-kept places in Lahore, if recent television reports are to be believed.

Streets on the outer edges of the neighbourhood look clean — as if they have been swept regularly. “In the past, if anyone ever mentioned Badami Bagh, all they would talk about was how dirty it was,” says a woman sitting right outside her door in the neighbourhood. “You could not leave your house without stepping into garbage.” But now, she says, the situation is much better.

A little further down the street, another resident is still complaining: “The roads [in the neighbourhood] are cleaned regularly but the smaller alleys are not.” Politicians come here, he says, “they survey the main roads and are happy”. He also claims that sanitary workers charge every household a small fee for door-to-door waste collection. An LWMC representative, however, denies this. He insists the company officials are not allowed to take money from the citizens.

Some other places in Lahore are much worse off than Badami Bagh. Model Colony, situated on Walton Road where another road turns towards the Defence Housing Authority (DHA) area to its east, is hidden behind trees planted by the roadside. The colony is also walled off. Looking inside it from the main road is impossible. A security guard posted at the entrance keeps a strict watch on those who enter and exit the neighbourhood. Streets inside wind as narrow labyrinths and houses are lumped together in no particular order.

Model Colony is an overcrowded place — children run around, men loiter near shops and women huddle together near doorsteps. It is immediately evident that nobody comes here to collect waste. Piles of garbage have taken up considerable space on empty lots of land as well as outside shops and houses. The only option that the residents have to get rid of all this trash is to burn it.

Most of the residents of Model Colony are Christian. Many of them work as sanitary workers elsewhere in the city, especially in the nearby DHA where an official claims he has never even heard of Model Colony — the confusion in his voice is apparent even over the phone.

One major reason why Model Colony has fallen by the wayside is that it is located within the geographical limits of DHA, which claims to be under no legal obligation to keep the colony clean. What complicates the matter is the fact that LWMC cannot operate here because the DHA has its own in-house system of waste collection and disposal.

Hashim bin Rashid is working on his laptop at a café in Lahore’s DHA area, frowning at the frantically upbeat music that makes it difficult for him to concentrate or even have a proper conversation. The café is a world away from Model Colony. Commercial and residential areas in DHA are kept separate but close enough for convenience. The tree-lined roads here are wide and the parks are green and well maintained. To many, Lahore’s DHA looks picture-perfect and much superior to its counterparts both in Islamabad and Karachi.

Rashid is a teacher at Beaconhouse National University, Lahore, and urbanisation is one of his focus areas. He finds the creation of a private company to manage urban waste as ironic. By setting up LWMC, he says, the state is admitting that the way it works is inefficient.

But the problem, as he points out, is that the company still needs to be financed by taxpayers and that its “budget has spiralled out of control” — estimated to be Rs 16 billion for 2016-17, four billion more than what it was in the previous financial year.

“Over 10 billion rupees in the previous budget (in 2015-16) went towards recurring operational costs,” says Rashid. In plain-speak these “costs have been incurred on paying the top management of the company itself and to the Turkish firms”.

To show how these costs have increased astronomically in recent years, he compares them with the money Lahore’s city government allocated for solid waste management in 2007-2008 — a little over 300 million rupees only. “If the government has 16 billion rupees to spend on waste management then why could it not improve its own public sector waste disposal mechanisms?

Rashid is also concerned with LWMC’s focus on the surveillance of its workforce. “The idea that the labourers need to be disciplined and monitored strengthens the notion that it is not the government’s fault that this sector has been performing abysmally for years; instead, it is the worker who is lazy and corrupt.”

He sees LWMC as another step towards what he calls “the neoliberalisation of city governance in Lahore”. He also calls the company’s operations as a “huge public relations project with a huge budget, designed to make the [ruling party] look good”.

Waqas Butt, a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of California, San Diego, agrees. He is studying informal waste economy in Lahore and has spent some time studying the LWMC’s working as well. His research finds close ties between the company and PMLN’s politics in Lahore.

LWMC, in fact, works as an extension of the party’s political organisation, he says: neighbourhood coordinators of PMLN have the company’s officials at their beck and call and can, therefore, claim credit for arranging waste collection and disposal from their respective areas. This, in turn, earns them and their party a lot of political support. In other words, according to Butt, LWMC is ceaselessly running PMLN’s election campaign with taxpayers’ money.

From a distance, Mehmood Booti can be mistaken for a few grey hills. About 10 kilometres to the east of Badami Bagh and nearly half that distance from Shahdara Forest Reserve on the bank of the Ravi river to the northwest, it is where most of the solid waste collected from Lahore was dumped — until recently.

The landfill has been officially closed for six months. There are plans to level it and build a park on top of it. A small park, lined with palm trees, already graces its entrance.

On a relatively clearer patch of land at the site is a cluster of jhuggis, huts, where around 70 waste pickers live. A bright pastiche of colour and texture set against the otherwise dull mounds of garbage, the jhuggis strangely please the eye. They have no electricity or running water and their residents are unsure if they will be allowed to stay on site for long.

A few of them – men as well as women – sit on charpoys outside the hutments, surrounded by children with dirt-streaked faces and sun-bleached hair. They are sifting through articles made of plastic, metal and paper, throwing them into different piles. They have been working as waste pickers their whole lives and have been moving around Lahore ever since they can remember.

Waste pickers like them number in several thousands in Lahore, according to LWMC, and, as Butt puts it, they handle around 40 per cent of the city’s waste. “Initially we thought there were 30,000 waste pickers in Lahore but it turns out there are more than 50,000 of them today,” says Rafay Alam.

LWMC is figuring out how to make use of them as additional workforce, though attempts at this have so far been unsuccessful for a variety of reasons. Many of the waste pickers are children and the company cannot legally employ them without attracting the charge of employing child labour. Most of them also do not have evidence or documents to prove that they are legal citizens of Pakistan — another necessary requirement to get employment at LWMC.

The waste pickers do not see waste in the same way that the citizens of Lahore or the government does, argues Butt. Waste is what they make their livelihood from; it also forms the basis of many of their social and economic relationships, he says.

The waste pickers want many things when you ask them — computerised national identity cards, permanent places of residence and other civic amenities. What they do not want: help from the government or LWMC in their work. “It is unlikely that the waste pickers will want to give up their informal networks based on kinship and trust and move to a more formal one based on distrust and fear,” says Butt.

The other thing that waste pickers do not approve of is someone taking their photos. They do not want their faces to be recognised. This, they fear, will lead to their forcible removal from Mehmood Booti.

This article was originally published in Herald.

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