The plague in Karachi



The mind boggling idea of plague in Karachi

There’s a story about a wife who tots up her husband’s total spending on beer for twenty years and tells him he could have bought an airplane with that money. He asks how much beer she’s had in the past twenty years to which she proudly responds: “None!” So he asks her “Where’s your airplane then?”

You’re reminded of that story when the PPP…and another P’s juvenile political aspirant Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and his less than salubrious parent sneer about the PML-N. Without in any way shape or form being a PML-N supporter, one nevertheless feels that criticism from the PPP’s leadership is a bit rich, when having had their stint in government not once but several times with Karachi as their ‘home base’ as Lahore is for the Sharif family they managed to do squat for its welfare. Well, look at that port city, once the capital of the entire country. Or smell it. And this does not refer to the recent worse than usual stench that has been enveloping that city, which as the WWF informs us is due to the decaying ‘bloom’ of a marine species, which occurs twice a year, and has occurred a bit earlier and much smellier than usual this time. No, that ‘look at Karachi and smell it’ referred to the usual every day muck, also composed of dead and decaying matter in which that city is mired and is mired all year round, and the increasingly higher piles of that dead and decaying matter that have accumulated in every available spot, and the particular smells that arise from them.

Karachi used to be a wonderful city. It still is, despite its lack of leadership. Or even simply despite its leadership. Sir Charles Napier, the first governor of Sindh is quoted as saying:

‘You will be the Glory of the East; Would that I come

 Again to see you, Karachi, in your grandeur!’

Karachi remains Pakistan’s most diverse city. It is also Pakistan’s most liberal city. And although Lahore was once that, it is now Pakistan’s most intellectual and culturally vibrant city. Most of all, believe it or not, Karachi was once Pakistan’s cleanest city, perhaps the cleanest city in all of Asia. No kidding.

Plague, the disease, was not restricted to seventeenth century London. In London about a 100,000 people died during the Great Plague, almost a quarter of that city’s population. Two centuries later, at the end of the nineteenth century, the citizens of Karachi were faced by the results of lack of sanitation in the shape of another epidemic of bubonic plague. The fleas carrying the disease found a congenial environment in the city’s filth, and thousands of citizens of Karachi died, presenting a very real challenge for the British, then the rulers. But that government rose to the challenge. The plague was contained in a few years, largely because henceforth the British provided the city with an effective garbage collection system, and once it was collected with an efficient garbage disposal system. And they constructed decent sewage, and made sure the city was regularly cleaned. Which is, you know, the sort of stuff governments are supposed to do.

All that however is in the past. Today, Karachi is a garbage dump. Rather an egalitarian one because it isn’t just the ‘lower class’ areas (nasty phrase) that have the rubbish problem, it is also the ‘upper class’ areas (another nasty phrase) that do. There are piles of rubbish bang in front of Bilawal House, in fact. Clearly the inmates are among those who chuck their rubbish over the doorstep, happy so long as the mansion is clean.

So now some expensive garbage collection equipment has been imported by the government in power in Sindh, no doubt with the usual kickbacks. This equipment apparently includes tricycle refuse vehicles, handcarts, dustbins, tree cleaning showers, mechanical sweepers and street-washing vehicles. Whether Pakistan makes mechanical sweepers and street washing vehicles is a moot point, but it is incredible that equipment such as handcarts and dustbins were also imported, but we’ll let that pass. A Chinese firm is to be paid…wait for this…Rs2 billion a year to lift and process the incredible amounts of waste produced by this massive city. But we’ll let that pass too. Anyone who has an idea of the scale of work involved would agree that that is a justifiable and unavoidable price to pay. Garbage disposal is a crucial and integral aspect of life in any city, small or large. In a place Karachi’s size it assumes imperative dimensions.

The thing is that if the plague could strike once, it could strike again. The various components are all there: absence, and I mean ABSENCE of sanitation, rats, ignorance, and close living as a result of poverty. Is a government that was unable to perform a function as basic as waste disposal without foreign aid equipped to handle a health crisis of the dimensions one would assume if it (God forbid) struck the largest city of Pakistan? It is a question that the Department of Health should add onto its agenda on a priority basis, as well as looking into some kind of cooperation with sanitation units.  Hospitals in Karachi are doing a good job, with several run philanthropically offering wonderful service to citizens. But the plague…?