THIS is a horror story. A global pandemic rages outside. The newspapers are emblazoned with death counts, with reports of the suffering, of ever-dwindling resources at hospitals trying to tend to patients. Then there is the heat, rising up to 41 degrees Centigrade, making life and living in the open as arduous as can possibly be.
Even if nothing else were happening, these are difficult days in Pakistan including Karachi. Suppose after making peace with all these challenges posed by the pandemic and the power outages and heat and the water shortage, the administration of the city of Karachi decides to impose even more hardships. Take the example of residents living near the Tipu Sultan Road area in Karachi. The off-road known as Modern Housing Society has long been a subject of neglect. At the corner, facing main Tipu Sultan Road, a plot of empty unclaimed land has been routinely permitted to devolve into a rubbish dump. The lack of zoning and planning to accommodate the burgeoning commercial establishments on main Tipu Sultan Road (where an open drain runs through the median) have only made life worse and worse and still worse.
And yet, as the residents of Modern Housing Society discovered last week, it was possible that things could get even worse. In the middle of summer, during a global pandemic and with all sorts of other uncertainties looming, they would face even more. Early last week, a truck of employees of the Karachi Municipal Corporation landed on the road. Under the pretext of installing a new sewer pipe, they broke the pavements that had been built by local residents; they uprooted trees and they demolished half of the road. Sewage that was in the line was permitted to seep onto the road and was left there.
Can a man or woman standing in sewage ask questions? No, absolutely not, and KMC knows this.
Then, the next day, digging was resumed and the electricity lines supplying one side of the street suffered damage. That entire side of the street lost power. It is terrible enough to suffer the constant tortures of the power outages imposed by K-Electric, as they push one into the constant anticipation of when they’re going to end; it is even worse to endure those that have no end at all. This would be the case of this particular power outage, delivered courtesy of KMC, which threw up its hands and said it was not their fault. Of course, it is never ever their fault.
The third day, the entire street resembled a war zone, in which the attackers were not any foreign enemy but the very men working to serve Karachi’s hapless population. More sewage seeped into the areas around the houses. Because the threat of Covid-19 is not deemed enough to make the lives of Karachiites miserable, the threat of walking through sewage was added to their travails. Most interestingly, on this third day, when the devastation had left everyone utterly desperate, the KMC team that had done the digging disappeared. The inhabitants of Modern Housing Society were thrust into a pre-modern existence, living in sewage and without electricity.
When K-Electric was contacted to address the power problem, they hedged by saying that this was not their fault and hence not even their job. Things proceeded as they do in Pakistan, with residents having to beg K-Electric to ‘do a favour’ and fix the line. Favours cost money and so it was with this favour.
On day four, the road remained dug up but one of the workers who was responsible for having dug it up came around to survey the misery of the residents forced to live around open sewage. When one resident flagged him down, he was prepared with an answer. He had run out of workers, because there was no budget to finish the job and actually instal the pipe, which had been the reason for the entire road having been dug up.
Now, some who live in places where municipal corporations actually work to make a city work would wonder, ‘shouldn’t they have thought about the cost of the project before they began the project?’ Not so a person who lives in Karachi. If you live in Karachi, you know that this ploy is just another way by which city workers extort money from those they have cursed with a hapless life. Can a man or woman standing in sewage ask questions? No, absolutely not, and KMC knows this. The worst-affected residents had to beg for KMC to instal the pipe ‘as a favour’. Favours, you will know by now, require money and so KMC had to be paid by the residents to get the workers to the site and instal the pipe.
The saga of torture continues even now. While the pipe is installed, the road remains dug up, almost completely impassable; the sewage water is still accumulated in places. In the meantime, Mayor Wasim Akhtar, who seems unaware of this sort of cruel extortion and torture scheme carried out on innocent and desperate Karachi residents, informed everyone recently that the federal government’s failure to allocate money to Karachi means that KMC will not be able to avert floods during the upcoming monsoon season. One wonders if the mayor is willing to ask those under him why they are digging up city streets and leaving them in that state if they do not have the funds. The sewage line serving Modern Housing Society had no reported problems. It was, it seems, as it always is, extortion and bribery season.
The neglect that Karachi, a city that provides the majority percentage of the country’s revenue, faces is an old story. What is new is that imposing cruelties on ordinary and innocent citizens continues even during a global pandemic. In this kind of case, which occurs in innumerable portions of the city, the problem is not just neglect but wilful cruelty and intentional destruction to inflict hardship on all.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2020