The dirty politics of cleaning Karachi
It is perhaps Pakistan’s worst kept secret, frequently outed in various annual global rankings, that the largest three cities of the country — Karachi, Lahore and Faisalabad — are among the worst in the world when it comes to cleanliness and liveability.
The latest annual rankings from the Economic Intelligence Unit for liveable cities puts Karachi among the 10 worst (out of 140) while Greenpeace’s latest annual rankings of the world’s most polluted cities puts Faisalabad and Lahore among the top 10 with the dirtiest air quality.
It can be argued that it is a tad unfair to list Karachi among the 10 ‘least liveable’ cities in the world. Several cities in Asia, Africa and Latin America could edge out Karachi for this dubious distinction, not to mention several cities within Pakistan.
The same goes for Lahore — one should try living in Peshawar or Gujranwala or Quetta, though Lahore’s air quality gets a worse name. However, in broader arguments, it is true that Pakistani cities are exhausted and far from clean, and unable to offer healthy lifestyles except in pockets of affluence.
The problem is Pakistan’s broader issue of poor governance and acute, institutionalized mismanagement. The 2017 national census shows Pakistan has ten cities with a population of a million or more people – Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, Gujranwala, Peshawar, Multan, Hyderabad, Islamabad and Quetta, in that order. Karachi has 14 million and Lahore 11 million – over a dozen times larger than Quetta in each case.
The quality of Karachi’s management is symptomatic of Pakistan’s overall poor governance track record. And nothing manifests this like the cleaning up – or lack thereof – of the city. Over the past few weeks, the public has witnessed a tripartite mud-slinging match in the media between the federal government, Sindh provincial government and the city’s mayor, over why the city’s garbage heaps keep piling up. It’s a problem exacerbated by the monsoon that has seen even underground filth dredged up and flooding the city.
According to official figures, Pakistan generates 48.5 million tons of solid waste annually, which is increasing by over two percent a year. But the country critically lacks a modern and adequate waste management infrastructure, which creates serious environmental problems. Most municipal waste ends up burned, dumped or buried on vacant lots, threatening everyone’s health and welfare. Pakistan’s top five cities generate 87,000 tons of solid waste per day, including over 13,500 tons of municipal waste generated daily by Karachi alone.
As with other areas of governance, the waste management failure is a result of the state and political forces’ inability to create promised relevant governance structures and policy priorities.
Virtually all major cities face enormous urban waste management challenges. Bureaucratic hurdles, lack of urban planning, inadequate waste management equipment and poor public awareness exacerbate the problem. Recent experiments in outsourcing garbage collection and disposal to Chinese companies in Karachi and Turkish firms in Lahore have fared poorly.
But perhaps the biggest reason Karachi remains perennially dirty are the peculiar politics of the city. Karachi is the capital of Sindh, which is ruled by one party (Bhutto’s PPP dominated by ethnic Sindhis) while Karachi’s elected city government is run by a faction of the MQM party, which represents the ethnic Urdu-speakers, who constitute the majority residents of the city. Then, most of Karachi’s legislators in the National Assembly belong to a third party – the PTI of Imran Khan, which is governing the country.
Their mutual, zero-sum politicking over primary responsibilities coupled with dirty fights over who will pay for Karachi’s clean-up ensures that the city remains filthy. Unending garbage generated by the city remains largely uncollected, polluting and choking waterways, spreading disease and generally making life uncomfortable and unhealthy.
As with other areas of governance, the waste management failure is a result of the state and political forces’ inability to create promised relevant governance structures and policy priorities. In 2010, Pakistan overhauled its constitution through the 18th Amendment, changing over 100 of its clauses to heavily devolve powers from the center to the provinces, and making the national polity decentralized while outlining key responsibilities among federal, provincial, metropolitan and district governments.
However, there has been little follow-up looking into a secondary devolution of power from the provinces to the districts, and further on down the service delivery tiers of governance. Without this secondary and tertiary devolution, appropriate budgetary allocations will not be made, and no one will assume responsibility for running Pakistan’s largest cities or be held securely accountable for their failures (as is the case now.)
Lack of enforcing compliance with municipal regulations is only a small part of the problem. The quality of life is the responsibility of all political authorities in power. Their dirty politics will not clean Karachi, only clean governance will
– Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science.