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The battle to save the Bagh

The story of Bagh Ibn-e-Qasim’s slow deterioration — the price Karachi’s green spaces have paid for development

The battle to save the Bagh

The reactions against the idea of the Bagh being taken over were mostly emotional. Yet, few noticed that the park had been dying since the last few years, bit by bit, with every fading tree and plant, and especially with the closing of the main entrance. One year ago, even the battery and UPS of the big clock in the Bagh were stolen. The number of those frequenting it dwindled over the years. Whether Bahria Town takes it over or not, the fact is that Karachiites are paying a price for the ‘development’ in the megacity with the shrinkage of public places.

Worse still is the Karachiites’ aching nostalgia that comes with it. Where once there was Playland, Aquarium, and the main entrance of the Bagh, is now a void.

A resident of this area says that he has seen the so-called development happen overnight as the entire area was well and truly encroached upon. “In the evenings, the Bagh used to be packed with youth, children and families. This park was the most well-lit part of the entire Clifton area. It used to be open almost till midnight,” he says, echoing the memories of many city-dwellers. “The weather would be cool in the evenings close to Karachi’s famous seafront. Standing in the bandstand and looking out at the sea was a fantastic experience,” he reminisces about the evenings spent at the park with his family.

Trees would provide shade to people and encourage them to flock to it even during daytime – the footfall was in the thousands. There was a mosque where visitors could go to pray, and there were foodstalls outside.

“The park had nice horticulture. Plants were shaped as animals. All of that faded. The grass used to be green; now it’s just barren sand over there,” he regrets.

Many public events, such as the centennial celebrations for the renowned poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz in 2011, were held there as the huge park grounds could accommodate large numbers of visitors.

Few noticed that the park had been dying since the last few years, bit by bit, with every fading tree and plant, and especially with the closing of the main entrance. One year ago, even the battery and UPS of the big clock in the Bagh were stolen.

The park has seen better days.

For columnist Nadeem Farooq Paracha, however, this sudden wave of emotions seems too little too late. “Many folks don’t say or do anything about a problem, but suddenly spring to action if that problem is being solved through means they do not agree with.”

He thinks the Bagh has been in doldrums for quite a while now. “Yet, none of the politicos or members of the civil society making such a hue and cry of it being handed over to Malik Riaz did anything whatsoever to better the plight of this once spectacular park”.

Qasim Bagh in the glory days.

Qasim Bagh in the glory days.

The deterioration of the park did not happen overnight. For years, its main entrance was adjacent to where the Bahria Icon Tower looms today. When the construction of the skyscraper began, the main gate of the park became the entrance point for the site office. As a result, the gate was closed down. With the construction of an underpass, the Kothari Parade access points changed as well.

The resident, disgruntled at how the limited accessibility restricted visitors, holds the alteration responsible for changing the traffic flow: “Public transport could no longer collect passengers because the Abdullah Shah Ghazi Mazaar entrance was also changed to the side.”

Karachi - Bagh-e-Ibne Qasim - 055

“Now a majority of the buses pass by the mazaar’s new entrance, which is in the side lanes,” he explains. “Once this happened, the government failed to maintain the park.”

The other entrance to the park is the one which faces the sea. There is very limited public transport on that route and since a vast majority of visitors were ordinary people travelling in buses, the numbers began to drop. Having to walk long distances, and parking problems for those using personal vehicles made it more discouraging.

One of Karachi’s most diehard chroniclers, Ghazi Salahuddin, says he had been observing the deterioration of the Bagh, and feels this was neglect with an agenda. “It’s not just about this Park; it’s about Karachi as a whole. This city’s civic life has been plundered. From public spaces to transport to garbage collection – the government is not performing its civic responsibilities,” says Ghazi, dismayed at the bad condition of places such as Qasim Bagh. “These shared spaces are so precious. Karachi’s cultural life has also been effected by neglecting them,” he says, and adds that whenever he visits Lahore, he feels Karachi is no longer the city of lights, but it is Lahore now.

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Whether this disrepair is because the inflow of visitors decreased or was it done by design is debatable, the resident thinks. “It would be silly to assume that residents of the high-rise would want a view of a park in shambles. When the entrance of the mazaar and park was changed, it warded away ordinary people. Who would want ordinary people around such prime, expensive real estate property?” he asks.

Journalist and tv show host, Zarrar Khuhro feels that Karachi does have precedents of public-private partnerships, and that is not always a bad thing. “An example is how Asim Jofa has used the Do Talwar roundabout for his advertisements, but then he has also maintained that area well and in fact improved it.”

His worry, however, is deeper than just one park. “Public spaces are shrinking in Karachi, especially for the lower and lower-middle class. A city is held together by public spaces.”

Khuhro also says that in Karachi, the rise of gated communities and the disappearance of shared spaces is resulting in social silos. “Playland, Aquarium – that’s all gone. Development should be done, but must be done responsibly, keeping the character of the city in mind.”

He also comments that the stake of Bahria properties in Karachi raises questions, “considering that regulations have been circumvented and even broken to facilitate these properties”.

If Karachiites are getting another chance at utilising this park for the benefit of citizens, then as Paracha suggests, more should be done to maintain Bagh Ibn-e-Qasim while it’s still there.

This is an updated version of the article that was published in The News on Sunday on April 09, 2017

Spaces and moments of leisure

http://tns.thenews.com.pk/spaces-moments-leisure/#.WPMZEsZRU1k

 

The project used a rickshaw powered projector to show cell phone videos in diverse neighbourhoods where the videos were made. Basheer was the community coordinator for the screenings at Seaview. For Basheer who makes a living by photographing tourists along the Seaview beach, being part of a video project was something that left not just fond memories but a sense of ownership about his city. These outdoor screenings were free of cost and were held in various parts of Karachi, thereby creating an archive of cell phone videos about everyday life of Karachiites.

“This project was not a political reportage. We were not trying to be native informants. This project gathered Karachiite’s spaces and moments of leisure in the city,” says Yaminay Nasir Chaudhri, the key person behind MKMC. Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema was a way of engaging with different publics, explains Chaudhri. “We wanted to change the relationship of people to media. Normally the people we met and worked with were consumers of the media, but did not get to produce it themselves. In MKMC, they had a chance to make media and if they wanted to, to represent themselves.” The approach was participatory.

The MKMC team would teach basic video making and editing techniques using cell phones. Members of the community became collaborators and a part of the creative process. They could, for example, express their choice for music or particular scenes they liked in the videos they made, and want the MKMC team to fine tune that. “We would work on it together. It was a very important aspect of the project to create a sense of ownership and agency over the images we put out in the world,” says Chaudhri.

Karachi is a melting pot of different ethnicities, languages and cultures. This series of videos, though limited in number, were aimed at being snapshots into life of Karachiites from all walks of life. They were produced in response to the question “Home: What did you do last Sunday?” A Mobile Cinema Rickshaw carried around the projector that projected these videos on walls of houses, railway bogies and buildings, added another dimension to it that is typical to life in Karachi.

Karachi is a melting pot of different ethnicities, languages and cultures. This series of videos, though limited in number, were aimed at being snapshots into life of Karachiites from all walks of life. They were produced in response to the question “Home: What did you do last Sunday?”

The project celebrated the life and times of Karachiites, and created a new use of public spaces. This was a use of art that was not a luxury for the elite – it was by the people and for the people.

The MKMC team was headed by Yaminay Chaudhri. Other team members included Cyrus Viccaji, Sadia Khatri, Mohammad Saddique Khan, Khadija Abdul Lateef, Krishna Raju and Farhad Mirza.

Areas that were covered included Ibrahim Haidery, Lyari, Cantt Station and Seaview. Karachi’s migrant communities were also focused upon. Some of them have been living in the city since decades but still do not have legal status here. The videos, simple at a glance, were conceptually layered, tapping into complex themes like identity and ownership. Both regular and irregular settlements were tapped into.

Vernacular aesthetics and tools were used in this project. The rhythm of the city was important. These videos were not made for an international audience, which helped deliver a more fluid and organic narrative. “Often when films or documentaries are made for a global audience, producers end up orientalising, objectifying and exoticising Pakistan, resorting to stereotypes about terrorism, and over simplification of people based on ethnicities,” explains Chaudhri.

“MKMC is an incredibly diverse and inclusive project. It’s so beautiful how it’s rooted deeply in Karachi and its inhabitants, building a poignant and personal archive of all the vulnerable and aspirational relationships we have with the city, its public spaces and communities,” says Abeera Kamran, a graphic designer and web developer who worked on the website of Tentative Collective. She adds that it’s so rare to find artists that are committed to such collaborative intersectional work.

The screening of videos in MKMC created an alternative narrative in public spaces. The screenings fostered new kinds of conviviality in these neighbourhoods and leftover spaces of the city. In Lyari, in one screening, some 300 people, mostly women and children, came together on an empty parking lot and street in the middle of Baghdadi. “Our gatherings never used security apparatus and we never had any problems. The feeling of community and desire to be in a public space together doing something fun was a kind of organiser in itself,” says Chaudhri.

MKMC made an effort to hire a few people from each neighbourhood they engaged with as community leaders. They offered salaries to the ones who wanted salaries and support in other ways to those who were insulted by the offer of money. The project took one year to plan and ran for three years. It involved applying for grants, crowd sourcing, personal savings and getting funding from friends.

The second phase of the project, still underway, involves the showing of previously unshared parts of MKMC, a documentation of the process, and analysing what the team learnt from it. According to Chaudhri, the MKMC team wants to look at what gets deleted, what is deemed screen worthy and what is not. As artists working with new collaborators, they also want to decipher what it was that they saw in these engagements with unlikely friends.

As often happens, lack of funds eventually became a reason why the project had to be discontinued. “We got offers to turn this project into a brand, and were offered funding from dubious sources, but we turned it down. It was important to us that the agendas of funding bodies were not reflected in the outcomes of our project. That would defeat the purpose of making a project like this with its open-ended outcomes and flexibility of programming,” says Chaudhri, adding that by the end of the project, the structure of the videos had changed dramatically based on the groups they met and their desire to make media a certain way. “The project went in all of those directions happily. With big funding, branding, and foreign agendas, none of that would have been possible.”

MKMC was a project of the “Tentative Collective” — a collective of people who share resources to create critical works of art in public places. The Tentative Collective is currently working on a project exploring some of the outcomes of modernity and development, working with literal and metaphorical notions of waste and wasted lives.

Qawwal Gali after Amjad Sabri

Farahnaz Zahidi July 24, 2016

http://tns.thenews.com.pk/qawwal-gali-sabri/#.V5RfIfkrLIU

The palpable fear after Sabri’s murder in the historic neighbourhood in Karachi and much more

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Qawwal Gali is the collective name given to a group of five streets, named after five renowned Qawwals. — Photos by Faisal Sayani

The atmosphere in Qawwal Gali is uncharacteristically subdued since Amjad Farid Sabri’s life was snuffed out prematurely. “I knew him from the time when I called him Ummi and he called me Saifee, and we were just young boys, not Amjad Sabri qawwal and Saifuddin qawwal. I still cannot believe he is no more,” says Sabri’s friend, Saifuddin Qawwal, still shaken weeks after his death.
Waves of fear after Amjad Sabri’s murder in broad daylight have reverberated 9 kilometer south from the late qawwal’s residence in Liaquatabad to Qawwal Gali, the historic neighbourhood in Karachi where the clans of the famous Qawwal Bachay reside. Yet, these custodians of the Qaul refuse to shift to more affluent or safer residential localities of the city. “This is not just our area. It is our tradition. Our lifestyle.”
Karachi’s Qawwal Gali is the collective name given to a group of five streets, named after five renowned Qawwals: Munshi Raziuddin Qawwal, Moeen Niyazi Qawwal, Kallan Khan Qawwal, Jaafar Hussain Nizami Qawwal and Bahauddin Qawwal. Between 80 to a 100 families of qawwals reside in these streets near the Shoe Market area. They safeguard a tradition that travels back to almost 800 years, when their ancestor Miyan Saamat learnt this spiritual musical art form from Hazrat Ameer Khusro, the 13th century Sufi musician, poet and scholar. Popularised versions of the unforgettable and powerful poetry of Ameer Khusro, like “Chaap tilak sub cheen” and “Mun kunto maula”, have trickled down to Pakistani masses, who get a feel of spirituality through these renditions. But the hub of the original, undiluted art is the Qawwal Gali. These families have been guarding these compositions over the centuries, and their entire lifestyles are moulded to fulfill the responsibility of keeping alive a tradition they see as almost sacred.
While Sabri was not a Qawwal Bacha, a shared tradition and profession has led to lasting bonds between all networks of Karachi’s qawwals. In the wake of his death, all of them, too, are overcast by fear. The qawwal Gali in downtown Karachi, then, is ironically the one place that they feel safe in. “It is our sanctuary. Fear is nothing new to us. Staying here is our only survival,” says Saifuddin, who is an important member of the Najmuddin Saifuddin Qawwal Brothers ensemble.
When asked if he is ever tempted to leave this profession or Qawwal Gali, Toqeer’s answer is a vehement no. “This profession is our recognition; we must protect the tradition our ancestors left us with. I started learning this art at the age of seven.”

Qawwal-Gali-004
The fear factor is not just about safety; they also fear their younger generation will get lost in the contemporary world and lose out on this art they see as a divine gift. Their offspring, with increasing exposure to the outside world, do express the desire to move out towards better areas. “But we explain to them how important it is for us to stay here,” says Saifuddin.
“Our community has a lot of unity. Our joys and sorrows are shared. There are certain cultural traditions we live by. We would not survive elsewhere and neither would our art,” says Rauf Saami, the eldest son of Ustad Naseeruddin Saami, and part of the Saami Brothers ensemble of Qawwals.
Rauf does not believe in coercing his children into this profession, but wishes that this ilm (knowledge) does not die out. “But times have changed. I’m realistic.”
Qawwal-Gali-004
The work of qawwals is very nocturnal in nature. “Our work is at night. We leave home early evening and return around twilight. The more posh parts of Karachi are not alive during night time. Can you imagine what neighbours of Karachi’s affluent parts would think if 12 men are entering a house every day at 4am?” says Saifuddin.
The Qawwal Gali does not go to sleep. Its residents sleep during the mornings and are up and about in the evenings. The chai dhabas never close. The riyaz (musical practice) never stops. The hustle and bustle never dies out.
“While we are away, whether for performances at night or during our frequent travels outside Karachi, we are at peace that our families are safe. Here, everyone watches out for each other’s families, despite professional rivalry.”
Rauf echoes that sentiment. “We don’t only look out for other qawwals but also for our supporting members of the ensembles. We are there for each other whenever we need each other.”
The qawwali business is seasonal in nature, and the flow of money can be ad hoc. The community also supports each other in lean times when the earning is limited. In such times, they pay each other’s hospital bills and children’s school fee.
The women of Qawwal Gali are the biggest support for their men. “The women of our households do not have any complaints. They understand the demands of our profession,” says the 26 years old Toqeer Ahmed, who belongs to the Khurja Gharana’s Nohar Bani branch. Their ancestral lineage are one of the first things they learn, but their women’s names are not registered in those lists, neither are they allowed to sing. Till today, a majority of the qawwals marry within their families.
“My nikah is to be held soon,” shares Toqeer with a smile. The match was fixed within his family, “but my choice was also considered. This is a big decision. How can it be done without my choice?”
When asked if he is ever tempted to leave this profession or Qawwal Gali, Toqeer’s answer is a vehement no. “This profession is our recognition; we must protect the tradition our ancestors left us with. I started learning this art at the age of seven.”
In Toqeer’s opinion, if the Qawwals try their hand at any other profession, it would take them hundreds of years to make a mark.
“Why should we lose out on the honour and respect this profession has given me? And as for the Qawwal Gali, it is the only place in the world I feel I am me. It is my identity.”
In true Qawwal Gali-esque style, Saifuddin sums it up by reciting this couplet in Urdu:
Apnay markaz se agar door nikal jaao ge
Khaak ho jaao ge, afsaanon mein dhall jaao ge…
(If you wander away from your pivot,
You will become nothing but ashes, nothing will remain of you but tales and fables)

How Emotional Neglect Is Turning Too Many Of Pakistan’s Boys Into Criminals

While conflict and terror rise alarmingly around the world, it’s time to ask ourselves: could lives be saved if we got better at raising boys?

http://www.buzzfeed.com/farahnazzahidi/the-neglected-sons-of-pakistan#.jlPyOq14p

Rebecca Hendin / BuzzFeed

Editor’s note: Some names have been changed to protect the identity of people interviewed for this story.

When Zafar was young, he wanted to become a professional footballer. Now, at 38, he recruits young men for his brother, who is one of several warlords in Lyari, a densely populated neighbourhood in Karachi, Pakistan. Lyari is as famous for its talented football players and rich culture as it is infamous for gang warfare and targeted killings.

“I am a victim of this system,” Zafar says, referring to his inability to isolate himself from a life crime. “Time in jail can transform innocent people into criminals.”

Zafar describes himself as non-violent. He spends some of his time managing a confectionery shop as a side-business. “I’m not involved in anything wrong,” he insists. His friends, sitting around him, laugh as a rejection of this claim.

We’re sitting inside journalist Saeed Baloch’s house inside the town. As an active member of the community in Lyari, Baloch has seen many young men stray down violent paths, going on to lead lives of crime and imprisonment. “Neglect leads to boys becoming militant,” he explains.

According to Baloch, as many as 3,000 young Lyari men — many of whom had committed crimes — have been killed in encounters by law enforcement agencies between 2013 and 2015.

March, 2014: Lyari residents protest after gang violence killed 16 people. ASIF HASSAN / Getty Images

Between 2003 and 2015, Pakistan has lost more than 20,000 civilians to acts of terrorism alone, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP). The average age of men involved in crime and militancy remains dangerously low. According to Saeed, they often start being recruited when they turn 13.

“Young boys see the good life of gang leaders – their money and power leaves even community elders awestruck,” Baloch says. “When boys have no productive activity, they loiter around. Once they get inducted into a gang, they can never leave.”

Baloch’s 17-year-old daughter Muqaddas is a student of Pre-Medical Intermediate. “Boys are generally non-serious about education and seek other outlets,” she chimes in. “For us girls, education itself is the outlet.”

And gangs are only one of several violent paths that attract Pakistan’s boys. Baloch, and several others I spoke to for this story, said that while resources are spent on fixing the problems that come from neglecting these boys – crime, violence against women, terrorism, gang wars — not enough emphasis is placed on finding solutions to the neglect that leads them down those paths to begin with.

While opportunities for acquiring literacy and education may be available to young men, very few initiatives focus on counseling and mentoring them through adolescence.

“We have already lost too many boys due to negligence, too many chances at a good life missed out on,” says Mossarat Qadeem, a peace activist who works to bring back young men from militancy in Pakistan’s north-western province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P).

According to Mossarat, 35% of the population in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are between the ages of 15 to 30 — and they don’t have access to a single university.

“We have no institutions that would help channel the energy of youth,” Mossarat adds. “This has left a huge gap and that gap is being filled by the wrong people.”

April, 2012: Plain-clothed police commandos take positions during an operation against gangs in Lyari. ASIF HASSAN / Getty Images

Mossarat’s organization, PAIMAN, reaches out to conflict-prone districts of K-P and FATA, hoping to counter the impacts of radicalisation and extremism. Mossarat and her team have helped rehabilitate some 1,230 boys since the organization first started in 2004. That’s a drop in the ocean.

There’s a correlation between high proportions of 15 to 29-year-olds in a population and a greater incidence of civil conflict, according to a UNFPA study, which means as the proportion of young people in a society increases, so does their likelihood to get in trouble, unless they’re provided with enough access to educations and honest livelihoods.

And nowhere is this need more dire than in South Asia. India has 356 million, the world’s highest number, of people aged between 10 to 24. Pakistan has 59 million and Bangladesh has 48 million.

“This dividend has turned into a demographic disaster,” says Dr. Farid Midhet, a demographer and director of Jhpiego, which focuses on maternal and reproductive health issues and adolescents, for Pakistan. “In coming decades, this problem will become very serious and possibly uncontrollable in the absence of a good education system for the poor urban and rural boys, an extensive system for vocational training including counseling and social training, social support and social security.”

Rebecca Hendin / BuzzFeed

Who’ll talk to the boys?

According to Baloch, most boys in Pakistan do not receive counseling, even from their own parents. “They simply don’t talk to each other,” he says. “Poverty is so all-consuming and keeps the parents so busy that they cannot focus on keeping their interest for education alive.”

Aman Tech, an initiative of Aman Foundation in Pakistan, is addressing this need. In addition to the hard skills and vocational training it gives to young men, it has made “soft skills” a part of its curriculum. This includes not just grooming and image-building exercises but also communication and social skills.

“When they come to us, it is amazing how out-of-touch with themselves these young men are,” says Mahida Baig, the departmental head of Soft Skills at Aman Tech. She says many young men who come there lack self-awareness and do not know how to encash themselves.

“The biggest reason is that they have not emotionally engaged with their parents, especially their fathers,” Baig says. “It’s just something that is not done in our culture.”

Baig says that when Aman Tech identifies a boy as aggressive, they provide one-on-one counseling. Instructors, who are approachable, act as mentors and guide students who confide in them about relationships and life decisions.

But according to Baig, a central challenge in the counseling process is combating the stereotypes of masculinity that South Asian boys grow up around.

In 2002, Promundo, an NGO focusing on promoting gender justice, launched a program called Program H, which primarily targets men between the ages of 15 to 24, and encourages critical reflection about rigid norms related to manhood. Promundo reports that after participating in their Program H activities, positive changes were seen in these young men. With sensitization that made them rethink gender roles, these boys had better attitudes towards relationships and family planning, participation in domestic work, not indulging in sexually harassment, and not perpetrating domestic violence.

Rebecca Hendin / BuzzFeed

A lop-sided focus on girls?

According to the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (PDHS) 2012-2013, only 16% of men have completed more than secondary level of education.

Unlike many of the young men, the girls in Lyari are focused and are better students, says Nadeem Ghazi, a peace activist from the area who works on peace-building through education from the forum of his organization Peace Education Welfare Organization(PEWO). “Girls are more motivated to get an education,” he says. “Boys come under a lot of unhealthy outside influence.”

If boys are a problem, they must be engaged as part of the solution, says Rujuta Teredesai, co-founder and executive director of a social enterprise called Equal Community Foundation (ECF) dedicated to engaging men to end violence and discrimination against women.

According to Teredesai, development projects are focusing on girls because girls are not able to access enough opportunities for education and training. “However, if we exclude boys, we are not addressing some of the root causes; we might be creating a bigger problem.”

Experts say that a lack of focus on young men will actually set back the programs that focus on empowering women.

“All of the gains we have made for women and children can be reversed if we don’t pay attention to what is happening, or not happening, to young men,” says Leith Greenslade, vice chair, MDG Health Alliance and Office of the UN Special Envoy for Financing the Health MDGs. Greenslade says rising numbers of young, uneducated men without job prospects can be distracted by violent, anti-woman ideologies. “These ideologies can lead to civil unrest that can destabilize entire societies. Once the level of violence rises to these levels, we see the gains for women and girls unravel quickly.”

Rebecca Hendin / BuzzFeed

Talking solutions

Teredesai says that work with boys should be done in three major areas: Engaging them as allies, providing them with opportunity to learn about these issues, and catering to their needs.

“None of these approaches can work in isolation,” she says.

And according to Mossarat, the answer to how young men can be mitigated from being recruited into violence and radicalization lies in preventive measures taken before the damage is done.

“We need vigilant communities in society. We need the media to play its role to spread awareness. And we need parents to allow their sons to talk to them about everything,” Mossarat says.

“Because once they get inducted into violence, get radicalized and are caught in that web, it is a tumultuous task to bring them back.”

A common man’s obituary: The saviour of Chawkandi tombs

Published: January 21, 2016
http://tribune.com.pk/story/1031397/a-common-mans-obituary-the-saviour-of-chawkandi-tombs/
Ali Dino Mallah wanted to take this photograph against the backdrop of the oil tankers, hoping the authorities would remove them from the vicinity. PHOTOS: EXPRESS

Ali Dino Mallah wanted to take this photograph against the backdrop of the oil tankers, hoping the authorities would remove them from the vicinity. PHOTOS: EXPRESS

KARACHI: “Big money, big tomb. Small money, small tomb. No money no tomb.”

Ali Dino Mallah, the caretaker of the Chawkandi tombs on the outskirts of Karachi, uttered these words in a thick Sindhi accent in an attempt to share the few sentences of English that he had mastered over the decades. I met him in December last year, a week before he died.

Sporting an ajrak wrapped as a turban and an oversized waistcoat worn over a sweater and shalwar kameez, Ali Dino appeared much older than what I remembered of him from our last meeting more than two years ago.

He walked around the ornately carved graves inside the Chawkandi cemetery, shooing away potential vandals with his walking stick. He would stop frequently to catch his breath and take out the tiniest possible water bottle from a gigantic but otherwise empty pocket to take measured sips, a habit he said he had learnt by observing foreigners who visited the cemetery.

“I have a pacemaker in my heart you see,” he explained. “Do you want me to request people to help with your treatment or write about it?” I had asked after he told me that his family had spent thousands on his treatment even at the National Institute of Cardiovascular Diseases (NICVD), a government-run facility that supposedly treats the poor free of charge. “Don’t waste words writing about my illness. I don’t have much time left,” he told me, before urging me to write about what really mattered to him. “Write about these tombs. Please. Maybe someone will read it and expedite the restoration.”

Exploring Sindh: King of the road

Even if his faith in the restoration work was far-fetched, Ali Dino was right when he said he did not have much time left. He died on December 29 on his way to the hospital sitting behind a relative on a motorcycle. “He was the heart of Chawkandi. I have nothing left now,” wept his widow, Rehmat Bibi. The family, comprising his widow and six children, continues to live in the small quarters adjacent to the graveyard and are in need of financial help. “He was like an angel and died an easy death. Like an angel was taken away.”

The old caretaker of the tombs hailed from Khairpur district in Sindh and was a common man. This is a common man’s obituary. And the obituary of a historic, priceless heritage site of the province of Sindh that is crumbling away.

Intricately carved sandstone tombs that are masterpieces of funerary art and rich in symbolism are now mostly half broken. Blocks and bits of these tombs have been stolen by vandals over the years, and now grace the drawing rooms of affluent art collectors in Pakistan and abroad, Ali Dino had shared.

“The commissioner [Shoaib Siddiqui] had promised me that tankers would be removed from this area, security walls would be erected around the graveyard and pickets would be established,” Ali Dino recalled his conversation with the commissioner before he got distracted by the camera. “Listen, take my photo with these oil tankers in the background. And choose an angle smartly. If there is harsh sunlight in the background, the photograph will not come out well,” he said.

After more than 30 years of service as a guide and caretaker of these tombs, Ali Dino had posed with thousands of visitors to know that the play of shadow and light was key to good photography, without ever holding a decent camera in his hands. Many of these visitors were high-ranking government officials and bureaucrats who had given hope to the old man that one day, this spectacular heritage site would get the attention it deserves.  Soon after we met, the commissioner of Karachi was transferred from the post. Perhaps, his replacement will be able to remove the gravel, sand, trucks and tankers, unwanted encroachments, and put a stop to illegal burial in the centuries-old graveyard.

Ali Dino, the man who spent his life trying to safeguard our heritage and tell us tales hidden in the carvings on those tombs, was buried in the same graveyard, among the very tombs he spent his life looking after. The restoration and protection of Chawkandi tombs should be considered a dying man’s last wish. If fulfilled, he will rest in peace.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 21st, 2016.

Waterways choked, Karachi on brink of floods with each rain

Pakistan’s commercial capital Karachi faces the threat of floods each time it rains, due to rampant construction, pollution and encroachments blocking its natural ravines and storm-water drains

Akhtar_Colony_drain

In July this year, Pakistan’s teeming port city Karachi braced itself for disaster after the meteorological department forecast 50-60 mm of rain in a day. With the knowledge that even 20 mm could bring the city of 23 million people to a standstill, officials prepared themselves for a never-seen-before deluge.

“It was the first warning of its kind. The 2013 urban flooding taught us that we must be prepared this time,” said Ajay Kumar, assistant director operations, Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA), in Sindh.

Fortunately, the rains of the 2015 monsoon were less than expected and did not result in casualties and destruction of property and infrastructure as in 2013 when scores were killed in flash floods that paralysed one of the world’s most populated cities.

The crisis was averted this time but it could return with the next heavy rain, fear residents.

In 2013, Kumar recalled, storm-water drains (nallahs) in the country’s commercial capital had overflown following torrential rain, inundating areas like Saadi Town, Gadap Town and Amroha.

While rains are a blessing in other, better-planned cities like the capital Islamabad, in Karachi the story is different. The nuisance value overshadows the joy, owing to overflowing gutters and clogged natural ravines.

“An estimated 60% of Karachi’s population lives in informal settlements, with no access to sewers. People dump sewage into ravines that were for clean water, not for waste,” explained Roland de Souza, executive member of the group Shehri – Citizens For A Better Environment. “So when it rains in Karachi, it overflows.”

“It did not rain as much but at least the warning helped expedite the cleaning of the nallahs by Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC),” added Kumar.

But that’s not really helpful, said architect and urban planner Arif Hasan. While it is a good idea to clean the drains, “it will not really help (check) the flooding if the drain water does not have a passage to go into the sea. Whenever the tide is high, the problem will return.”

Major road and housing projects have been built in Karachi, causing enormous damage to the environment. Mismanaged construction, pollution and encroachments have blocked Karachi’s water passages.

What will happen to a city of Karachi’s size and its choked up drainage system if there are torrential rains? The question remains unanswered.

In Karachi, human greed is destroying life, says ecologist Rafiul Haq. “We have built buildings on water bodies, started using strong detergents excessively and non-biodegradable plastic bags. All this clogs our drains.”

The vein-like network of Karachi’s natural ravines and manmade nallahs as well as the sewerage drains are a confused mess. At the time of Pakistan’s formation in 1947, Karachi had some 400,000 residents but the population exploded in following decades. Inefficient administration, uncontrolled reclamation of land for construction and pollution have resulted in the destruction of natural drainage.

Today, under the pressure of a population of 23 million plus, and a population density of 24,000 people per square kilometre, according to the World Population Review, both the water supply and drainage system of Karachi are less than satisfactory.

Rampant construction

“Rainwater in Karachi used to clear away within 10 minutes once upon a time. But then man came along, over-built, and confused the system,” said de Souza. He cites the example of Gora Qabristan, a graveyard for the Christian community, built on the city’s jugular Sharah-e-Faisal road. Over the last 68 years, the road has been raised by four feet. As a result, the cemetery becomes a pit full of water for days during the rainy season.

“A storm drainage map system is what we need. The building control authorities should check the drainage before approving any construction. A flood in a city is not a natural but a manmade disaster,” de Souza said.

Hasan explained, “There are three main outfalls of drainage to the sea from Karachi.” One of them, the Gizri Creek, has the upscale Phase 7 Defence Housing Authority (DHA), home to the city’s rich and powerful, built on it. “All that we are left with is approximately an 80 feet nallah. When there is high tide, or rain, the water cannot get out. The result is that it gets choked.”

Similarly, the major Mai Kolachi bypass has been built over a drain. “It should have been elevated to avoid problems” and to the west, the Karachi Port Trust colony was built over marshland, Hasan said.

Then there is the Kalri Nallah, near Machhar (mosquito) Colony, the largest of Karachi’s unregulated neighbourhoods, where hundreds of trucks of garbage are dumped every day.

There are several other instances. An 80 feet wide, 4,000 feet long nallah between Akhtar Colony and Defence View Phase 2 has piles of silt, overflowing sewage, mounds of garbage and an entire colony of slum dwellers lining both sides.

Blame game

Commissioner Karachi Shoaib Ahmed Siddiqui, who is also KMC administrator, recently called for the speedy clean-up of the drains. Asked how swiftly this would be done, Syed Muhammad Shakaib, director of planning and development at the Karachi Commissioner Office, admitted that there are serious bottlenecks when it comes to implementation. “Can you tell me names of more nallahs that need cleaning? We can start working on them right away.”

According to experts, the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB) should take responsibility. But the blame game continues here too. “Cleaning the freshwater ravines or storm-water drains is not our responsibility. We are just concerned with sewage water. The laws are all there but if people don’t follow them what can we do?” said Nazeer Mateen, KWSB spokesperson.

Mateen admitted that water contamination is not uncommon in Karachi, with some residents stealing water by making holes in pipes and attaching makeshift waterlines to them. “Those sometimes get mixed up with sewage lines KWSB has laid. If we find out, we fix it. What else can we do?”

As the chaos intensifies in the sprawling city, residents remember the old days. “I myself have caught fish from the Lyari river and eaten it,” said a nostalgic Muhammad Moazzam Khan, technical advisor, marine fisheries, WWF-Pakistan. “No one even feels for the loss of natural water bodies. Their absence has affected biodiversity and life itself in Karachi. It has been eaten up by commercialism.”

Dear Karachiites, before you plant trees, think

Published: August 9, 2015

Homeless man rest under trees on a hot summer day in Allahabad. PHOTO: AFP

The heat wave that killed more than 1,300 people in Karachi seems like a long time ago. Concerned citizens, in the heat of the moment, promised to plant trees, but very little has been said regarding when and how this can be done.

As time is passing and cool monsoon winds are blowing away painful memories of the heat wave, the promises seem to be dissipating. Where memories are short lived, long-term efforts to mitigate a recurrence of the same catastrophe seem nowhere in sight.

That is the problem with climate change – the cause and effect, both take place over extended periods of time. In a world of instant gratifications, both individuals and governments seem to have no patience to invest in something that will not show results instantaneously.

Trees are an integral part of the environment, a part sorely missing in mega cities such as Karachi. Trees have a cooling effect as they transpire water from the ground, through the roots and out from their leaves. In addition, trees provide shade. For those who experience Karachi heat on the streets and have compared the temperature in shade and in open air know the difference.

Planting trees in this concrete jungle is the real way we can stop this from happening again. However, few people recognise the impact of planting a tree today that could potentially save lives decades later. Those who are seriously inclined towards it, often end up planting the wrong trees at the wrong places due to a lack of awareness. Other than experts, like the unsung heroes of the ‘Mera Karachi (My Karachi) drives for tree plantation, people may be planting trees in Karachi but are planting them wrong.

First and foremost, not every tree can bear Karachi’s temperament – what to plant should be a primary consideration. In Karachi, one thing to bear in mind is that anything we plant will have to be watered by us, as rains are a rarity and the city is already suffering from water shortage even for human consumption.

As horticulturist and activist, Tofiq Pasha Mooraj says,

“If you plant it, you water it.”

For that, water conservation and recycling is important. However, this should not be the only consideration. The Corynocarpus is hassle free, fast growing, adaptable to even high salt content, economical when it comes to watering, and is the most popular choice of Karachiites since recent years.

Photo: Wikipedia

However, it does not provide shade as it grows almost straight and vertically. There have been studies that point in the direction that Corynocarpus causes allergies in humans who live nearby. Most importantly, its roots, when they grow deep underground in search of water, break or clog Karachi’s sewage and water lines.

In this, it resembles the harm the Eucalyptus trees caused the city earlier. The city realised 25 years later what the Eucalyptus had done. As a result, an unnecessary effort was put into cutting out Eucalyptus trees in the city, and we lost out on the city’s greenery as well. While it has the advantage of providing cheap wood and grows fast, it literally throws toxins at other plants and does not allow other plants and trees to grow close by.

Photo: Reuters

A recent trend is to plant Khujoor (date) trees with full grown tree implants. However, the tree and its fruit are prone to fungal attacks due to the humid weather here. The date tree is therefore a less than ideal choice.

Photo: AFP

The best trees for the city are those that take less water and provide shade. The best example is Neem, a very smart life form, which sucks in water from underground and provides cool shade. Other sensible choices are Gulmohar (Flame of the forest), and Amaltas (Indian Laburnum). These are deciduous trees that shed leaves, which proves to be very useful for Karachi.

Photo: Express Tribune

Photo: Pinterest

Photo: Twitter

Indigenous varieties like Laal Badaam (Indian almond) and Jaamun (Syzygium cumini /jambolan) are also useful fruit-giving trees that give shade. Lignum is also a good option; it looks pretty, and uses less water, but takes time to become a shade giving tree. As it is a mid-sized tree, it is good to plant in areas where there are electricity wires above.

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Pinterest

The choice of the tree you plant also depends on where you plant it and the space available. This brings us to the second consideration – where should one plant trees?

For starters, if you are planting in a place other than your lawn, make sure you have permission to do so. Make sure the tree, once it has fully grown, will not interrupt electrical wires or obstruct underground sewage or water lines, or damage any walls. A good place is dividers or the place between your boundary wall and the road. Those living in apartments will have to be more creative, and settle mostly for plants that can be grown in pots on the roof. Yet, the important role green roofs can play must not be undermined.

The ideal planting season for trees is mid-February to mid-March and mid-July to mid-August. Trees can be planted at other times too but extremely hot or cold months should be avoided. This means that it is best not to plant in April, May, June, and October.