Heart of Darkness


Naveen Naqvi asks why the city government can’t protect Karachi from nature.

Okay, I know it’s predictable to write about the rain, but I can’t help it. I can’t think about much else because I live in Karachi and I have been seething. It was a gorgeous storm, perfect even. It was as though Karachiites collectively lifted their hands in prayer, managed to reach the sky, and ripped it apart to pour down upon us. For the first hour or so, we danced, even if it was basically liquid smog. Some of us ate pakoras. Others went out for drives, listening to the Red Baron and his Brigade play a Monsoon Special on City FM 89. And then, all hell broke loose.

Within a few hours (and that’s the most charitable account I can give), KESC had turned off the power in most parts of the city. Not only were we dealing with a storm the likes of which this city has apparently not seen since 1977, we were doing so without electricity. By the way, this record is being cited as the reason for everything that went wrong with the city’s administration. Is that meant to make us feel better? The fact that we haven’t made any progress since 1977 – that we may have even regressed?

As it was a Saturday, many of us were at work. That’s right. Let’s talk about all those new roads, storm drains, bridges and underpasses in that order. I’m not sure if I need to talk about the roads. Anyone who has lived in Karachi knows that whether it’s 250 or 2.5 mm of rain, the roads are riddled with potholes within moments. Is it because the raindrops fall with the force of pellets from the sky on this city? No, it is simply due to poor construction because someone – or everyone – in the chain is skimming off the top and taking commissions. For the potholes to turn into craters, it should take hours or days, not moments.

Now on to the storm drains. Note the expression, storm drains. Yes, this was a storm for which these drains were laid out in the first place. And if I may point out, it took months to complete that process. During that time, the people who lived along those roads complained bitterly about how they couldn’t park their cars inside their homes, that their houses were caked in dirt, and that they suffered the noise of construction. Moreover, no proper detours were laid out for traffic. A colleague of mine, driving late at night, dropped right into a six-foot-deep ditch on main Seaview as there was no sign or barricade indicating that the road had been dug up. After all the inconvenience, the long-awaited storm drains overflowed so that the roads were filled not only with rainwater, but also sewerage. Charming. So that’s the lovely smell of rain when it hits the earth.

As for the bridges and underpasses: the city mayor, Mustafa Kamal, said that his administration cannot be expected to fight nature! Well, we never asked them to fight nature, we merely expected someone to protect us against it. Kamal went on about a bridge collapsing as if he had experienced it personally. But why did the bridge collapse, dare I ask? And the underpasses…. Of course, the one in Gharibabad was flooded, it had no storm drains. Storm drains… let’s not start that again.

When I brought up these administrative issues with Sharmila Farooqi, the Advisor to the Chief Minister of Sindh, she said that the monsoon had come earlier than expected. ‘Earlier?’ I asked. ‘I thought it had come late this year.’ ‘No,’ she responded. ‘It was two days early.’ Ah, so that’s what the problem was – the monsoon was two days early!

If those of us who were trapped in the deluge for hours thought we’d come home and shower, no such luck. There was no running water since KESC had turned the power off hours ago, preventing us from filling our tanks. It’s all cyclical.

And finally, there was the damage to personal property. Water flooded into the homes of the more fortunate, while others saw their houses’ walls collapse. And all this in the dark.

When I went to the KESC complaint centre after being without electricity for 24 hours, there was already a small crowd at the tiny, grilled window. I hunched to get a look at the official who would register my complaint and immediately regretted it. The man grinned at me and said that I could forget about it. This was worse than the Karachi blackout from a few weeks ago. There was no telling when this would get fixed. I ground my teeth and replied with as much authority as I could muster that I knew there was nothing wrong with the grid stations, and they should just turn my power back on. At least, I had the satisfaction of seeing his grin slip.

It took a few hours, but I got my electricity switched back on. Though, I feel a tad guilty knowing others were not as lucky. It’s no wonder that people came out on the streets, burnt tires and threw stones at the electric company’s offices. I don’t condone violent protests, but nobody was listening or empathizing with the protestors, was there?

Nobody except for friends, family, neighbours and strangers. I’ve heard stories of young men pushing stalled cars down flooded streets. Neighbours helped each other in the pitch black of night when trees brought down their walls. I know my cousins opened up their home to my elderly parents and kept their generator running practically all night. Friends offered each other the limited supply of water they had in storage to bathe. While we Karachiites can’t look to the state for basic utilities, or even a kind word, we can turn to one another and find comfort.

This post was first published on the 21st of July 2009 on dawn.com

One Response to “Heart of Darkness”

  1. 1 Heart of Darkness | Tea Break

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