KARACHI, Pakistan — Walking along the beach recently, I met a man who was feeding ants. When I spotted him bending over a bush throwing some powdery stuff, I assumed he was spreading poison to kill rats. Then I thought: I have seen people do odd things on Karachi’s beaches, but nobody bothers killing anything. There is enough poison in the sea.
“What do ants eat?” I asked him when he told me what he was doing. “Semolina,” he said, waving his plastic bag in my face. How did he know? I had always believed in the Islamic dictum that God promises sustenance to all, even insects. I thought the man was crazy for wasting his compassion on the wrong species.
“I have been doing it for three years,” he said. “They seem to like it.”
He was oblivious to the filth around him. He wasn’t concerned about the plastic bags fluttering about or the seawater’s gray, oily texture or the smell of sewage carried by the breeze. He didn’t care about Playa’s Bar and Bruno’s, posh eateries that were built and abandoned before even opening. He didn’t have anything to say about the McDonald’s, which seemed to be throwing its refuse directly into the Arabian Sea. Seeing this man and his display of needless kindness amid this squalor should have made me happy: He summed up the generosity of my adopted hometown. But the man’s extreme charity also represented what is wrong with one of the world’s most populous cities.
Last month, Karachi received another top ranking, from the Economist Intelligence Unit — as the fifth-least livable city on the planet. Karachi’s poor might disagree; they have probably never had the chance to see another city. But Karachi’s well-heeled moan about the rot a lot. Then again, anybody who has observed their lifestyle, our lifestyle, will tell you that they are the rot.
According to screaming headlines and politicians of all varieties, Karachi has turned into a heap of trash. Two inches of rain and the city is flooded, and when people step outside, they are electrocuted. Drains are blocked with garbage. Open sewers brim with plastic waste. The natural drains that were supposed to take the rainwater to the sea have been filled in as people built houses on them. Right next to the fancy malls and upscale housing blocks, there are piles and piles of rubbish. There is much indignation, much rage, about this rubbish, but nobody seems very interested in talking about who produces it.
I see it on my street every day. People who complain the most about garbage are the ones who produce most of it, and then they ask their servants to take it out and throw it at the street corner. These are the same people who lecture us about civic sense, about taking ownership of the city. But they — we — are the privileged ones because our trash does get removed. There are neighborhoods in Karachi that have never been visited by the municipal authorities, ever. Neighborhoods that the municipal authorities pretend don’t even exist.
Inequality in megacities is quite common and stark, but Karachi’s elites have taken it to a new level. All they seem to care about is signal-free roads for their cars, parking for their cars and gated communities for their cars and their families. And keeping the riffraff away.
Yet despite the city’s abysmal global rankings, working people from all over Pakistan still flock to the city — only to end up on the doorsteps of the rich, sometimes as modern slaves, sometimes as freelance trash pickers.
In Karachi, you see kids around traffic lights and shopping centers that display vintage Rolls-Royces — kids who are so young they forget they were put there to beg and start to play with one another instead. Yet what repulses us isn’t the fact that in this city children as young as three are forced to live in such squalor; it’s the sight of a child defecating by the roadside.
In this city, two and a half people live in a mansion and are tended to by a half-dozen servants, who live cramped in a tent outside. High unemployment means that labor is cheap: The price of dinner for two at a local French cafe is the monthly wage of a nanny or an round-the-clock security guard.
Those who preach resilience and civic responsibility are often the people who have built themselves little fortresses that are city-proof. The lack of civic amenities affects them very little; in fact, they are the ones responsible for the lack of civic amenities.
My street is full of politicians and bureaucrats who spend their lives going through the revolving door of power. As soon as there is an electrical outage in the neighborhood, a thousand generators fire up — the rumble reminds me of that sequence in “Apocalypse Now” when formations of helicopters suddenly appear on the screen ready to bomb a serene village. In my neighborhood, it could be raining fire outside, but the air-conditioners will keep our living rooms at a steady 18 degrees Celsius (about 64 degrees Fahrenheit).
Despite our love for air-conditioners and our two-maids-per-child compulsions, we know about climate change: We are trying to ban plastic bags. We just haven’t bothered to think of an alternative for the millions of working people who get their tea or their lunch delivered in one.
It’s increasingly clear that the people who produce the most garbage do little to solve the problem — other than to poorly pay their servants to throw the trash far enough away that they can’t smell it. For them, the shopping mall built on reclaimed stretches of the Arabian Sea is not the problem; the 3-year-old defecating in public across the road is. These are people who can’t tell the difference between garbage and hard-working people. Some people have to pick trash to make a living, and they are then treated like trash.
Through Karachi’s affluent neighborhoods, young boys walk with a bag as large as themselves slung over their shoulders. The more enterprising ones have two bags slung over a bicycle. They go through the garbage we’ve dumped, picking out plastic, empty glass bottles of smuggled Scotch whisky, squashed tins of Heineken, cardboard boxes of pizza, discarded household implements — anything that can be recycled, anything that can be sold. By evening, with their bags full, they make about 200 rupees (less than $1.30), just enough for two meals or, for some of them, a daily fix. I haven’t seen more hardworking drug addicts in my life.
“What do you do for a living?” I asked the man who feeds ants. He told me that he owns a few dozen liter bottles of Sprite, Fanta and Coke, fills them up with the polluted seawater and waits. People who barge into the sea then want to wash off the stench or the sand, and for a rinse they’ll pay 20 rupees (about 13 cents) for a bottle filled with that same seawater.
It’s a very sustainable business model. The man feeding the ants knows that God has promised sustenance for all, but he isn’t taking any chances.
Mohammed Hanif (@mohammedhanif) is the author of the novels “A Case of Exploding Mangoes,” “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti” and “Red Birds.” He is a contributing opinion writer.
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