People & Society Tapestry

Slumlords of the sea

Published 27 Mar, 2015 01:35pm

Before the factories belched their putrid fumes, it was green. Before an entire megacity’s waste submerged the land and seafront, mangroves clustered in marshy colonies, protecting villagers from high tides and providing fish a safe haven to lay their transparent eggs. But when the trucks arrived, the ancient coastal town of Ibrahim Haideri slowly began to decay beneath the refuse they brought with them. Today, home to a population of 70,000 mostly indigenous Sindhis, it cooks in the grime and stench of Karachi’s discarded filth.

“This used to be a model fishing village,” says Ayoub Shah, a veteran activist with the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF). He remembers a time when people lived and worked communally, dividing their profits. They would freely park their boats by the dock without the hassle of involving middlemen and subsequent jetty-builders and coastguards, harassing residents for legal documents nobody had ever heard of. In under a decade, a project of illegal land development has unraveled centuries of organised, peaceful living, of symbiosis with the sea that once fed and sustained the lives built on its shores.

“There were trees, plants; it was almost like a jungle,” Shah recalls. A blade of grass couldn’t push through the diseased earth now.

About five years ago, Karachi’s notorious nexus of land developers, politicians, bureaucrats, police and criminals – known simply as the land mafia – began an aggressive campaign of land reclamation from the sea by dumping the city’s rubbish onto Ibrahim Haideri’s once-pristine coastline. The rot crept in slowly at first. Today, it is all that is left. The newly created land, rented out or sold (often to factories which have sprouted in the village like a cancer and spew sewerage into the ocean), squats on over six feet of untreated waste.

The shallow seas are empty now. Pollution has strangled marine life. The mangroves, and the fragile ecosystems sustained in their swampy midst, are gone. The fishermen’s radius is limited too: They are banned from fishing in the waters where the coast of Ibrahim Haideri meets the limits of DHA. “People in DHA complain of the smell of fish,” Faisal explains the reason for the ban. To make a catch, the fishermen must venture into the deep sea, where borders are murky and the probability of unwittingly treading into hostile Indian waters is high.

Deep-sea fishing is not only treacherous but expensive, requiring more fuel – an expensive commodity in energy-starved Pakistan – and equipment like an icebox to keep the fish fresh during the hours the fishermen are on the sea. But, today, even out there the catch is slim. The little that comes in, the fishermen must sell. By the time they have paid off the middlemen – boat owners and other investors who make these expensive fishing excursions possible – there is no fish left for their own consumption.

“Ten years ago, all sorts of fish came onto our dinner table, but now only the really small ones do,”

Faisal, whose father was a fisherman, reminisces. “We don’t have the freedom to keep a crumb. It would greatly affect our income.” A cruel paradox: Fishermen who can’t eat fish.

The mafia has spun Ibrahim Haideri into a cocoon of pestilence. Skin diseases are rife among the children who pick through the refuse brought by the trucks. An acute lack of clean drinking water spawns infections and upset stomachs, the latter of which, if untreated, are lethal for infants. Chemicals in the buried waste seep into the groundwater, lacing it with arsenic and other toxic substances. Oral cancer is not unusual, caused by the ubiquitous chewing of gutka, even among children. Widespread drug addiction keeps people afloat until the next day but escapism can’t obscure the fallouts of mental illness and hard living forever — depression and schizophrenia are the most common mental illnesses haunting the populace. “When you live like this, it is expected,” affirms Dr Anita Zaidi, associate professor of paediatrics and microbiology at the Aga Khan University Hospital (AKUH) and the recent recipient of a million-dollar grant, through the US-based Whole New World Foundation, to combat infant mortality in the nearby village of Rehri Goth.

Ibrahim Haideri welcomes outside assistance. Because the community offers protection to outsiders working there, it has, in its own way, become a darling of the NGO world. Aman Foundation, Hands, Interactive Research Development and the AKUH all operate in the town, filling a gap in the healthcare system where the government is predictably absent. “Ibrahim Haideri has a fantastic, welcoming attitude to NGOs. It is also safe for us to do our work here because this is an old and settled community,” says Zaidi, who has been working in the community for about 12 years.

“With migrant communities you can’t establish relationships because people come and go so quickly and criminal gangs threaten or attack you if they don’t like your presence on their turf.”

She tells the Herald that her teams have already been evicted from areas like Sultanabad, Bilal Colony and Sherpao Colony, dominated by Pakhtun and Punjabi migrants to Karachi.

The AKUH, in particular, funds a research site and clinic in Ibrahim Haideri, which provides free healthcare to children under the age of five, as well as a free transport service to Jinnah Post Graduate Medical Centre (JPMC), several kilometres to the northwest of the town. Local health workers, all women, are trained by the AKUH after they pass their matriculation exams. This has had the unintended, but welcome, consequence of boosting female education in the community, according to Zaidi. “Whether the sons study or not, they will become fishermen, but community projects give women a chance to make use of an education and earn,” she says. Moreover, infant mortality rates have dropped to 70 deaths per 1,000 live births since Zaidi first started working in the community – still short of the Millennium Development Goal of 48 deaths per 1,000 live births, but lower than the national average of 86, according to the figures collected by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).

While these efforts are both necessary and commendable, none of the NGOs active in the area tackle the sanitation issue or advocate against the illegal garbage dumping, instead focusing largely on healthcare. The NGO-operated healthcare initiatives are no doubt critical endeavours when private clinics in the area are run by unlicensed quacks but, ultimately, it is a losing battle. There is little point in giving a patient free medicine and then sending him back out into the filth which made him sick to begin with. It is futile to treat the symptom without attacking the cause. “Before the dumping, there were no outstanding health issues,” says PFF activist Shah, echoing the words of others the Herald spoke to. “Obviously, you had your regular illnesses, like any place does, but nothing like what we have now.

Children didn’t contract skin diseases from rummaging through trash.”

It is the locals alone who resist the garbage mafia’s onslaught. Sometimes, in anger, the residents will surround the dump trucks and send them back but they return again, like clockwork, a few days later. Defying the Pakistani stereotype of the silently suffering multitude, local organisations and activists agitate for change. But they are up against the insatiable greed of their own community leaders, politicians and civil administrators who form the core of Karachi’s land encroachers, the public servants in office allegedly protecting them.

The locals first respond to these powerful networks by approaching the largely unresponsive local authorities. “We go through all the relevant authorities first,” says PFF activist and spokesperson Sami Memon. But our claims are ignored or delayed. They never reach the courts.” His words are not surprising: A stone’s throw from an unpaved road, newly built on reclaimed land and punctuated with piles of dumped garbage (some of it set alight), sits none other than the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency. Even abortive attempts to move the government against garbage dumping is too much for the mafia to tolerate.

“We receive threats all the time. You have to be careful where you tread or the local wadera will have you shot,”

Memon tells the Herald. But, he adds, “We are not afraid to talk about what is happening to Ibrahim Haideri.”

On May 6, 2011, two senior PFF activists, Haji Abu Bakar and Abdul Ganai Mirbahar, who advocated for the protection of the mangroves, were kidnapped and murdered by land grabbers – drowned in the sea they were trying to protect – according to PFF director Mohamed Ali Shah. He alleges that two local members of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which runs the provincial government in Sindh, are behind the deaths. Shah lodged a First Information Report (FIR) naming the two as accused.

“The police manipulated the FIR, manipulated the investigation report and manipulated the post-mortem,”

he told an American journalist three months after the incident.

In an indirect endorsement of the PFF allegations, the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) issued a statement condemning the deaths. “It should be noted that PFF had brought to the attention of the government of Sindh, on several occasions, the threats faced by [its] activists.” The same year, in November, the Coastal Coordination Council was formed, comprising of government officials and civil society actors, to have the beaches of Bin Qasim Town, of which Ibrahim Haideri is a part, declared a protected zone. But government involvement hindered rather than helped the cause. “The initiative didn’t work because the ones benefitting from garbage dumping became the members of the council,” Faisal says. “We need the authorities to recognise our problems and take them seriously, but these initiatives should be driven by fishermen, by locals, by those affected who have a vested stake in the matter.”

Who will hear this community when politicians and big business resort to bullets to gag their voices? Faisal and others display a touching faith in the media to highlight Ibrahim Haideri’s abuse. But stories are quickly forgotten and reporters move on. He also concedes that journalists would rather not get their hands dirty. “If we are holding a protest on the street and I call 100 journalists, maybe seven or eight will come. But, if we hold some kind of a meeting in a hotel lobby, over half of those invited will come, and others will call me up and ask why they weren’t invited.”

Ibrahim Haideri is a microcosm of global environmental degradation meeting the local breakdown of civilian administration. The mafias – be it those controlling land, water, timber or any resource in short supply – which spearhead so much of Karachi’s degradation are the result of a city unable to provide basic facilities to its booming populace, roughly half of which live in squatter settlements. “The state’s failure to provide basic public amenities, combined with widespread unemployment and poverty, promotes crime and violent competition over meagre resources. The criminal underworld provides alternative routes to accumulating wealth,” writes the International Crisis Group in its January 2014 report Policing Urban Violence in Pakistan. In essence, these profiteers of scarcity couldn’t exist without poverty or mismanagement and the subsequent law and order failures they create.

But are the mafia’s activities any more harmful than those legally undertaken by governments and other powerful institutions, be it earth filling in army-run DHA or the city’s gentrification projects? Karachi’s waterfronts have been long transformed by development projects which harm the majority of its citizens. Relatively recently, in 2011, the Grand Leisure Cooperation unveiled the gated food and shopping complex Port Grand, built on the historic Native Jetty Bridge, constructed by the British in the mid-1800s. Writes celebrated architect and social activist Arif Hasan, “From the time the Native Jetty bridge was built, it served also as a place for gatherings and various cultural activities.

“Common” people sat at the edge and watched the water … The water catered to a number of religious superstitions; fish were fed, birds were released from cages, trysts were consolidated and many religious processions terminated at the water edge.” But the patrons of Port Grand had to be shielded from the rawness of Pakistani crowds and barriers were built around the overlooking Jinnah Bridge so those that congregated there could not see into the new entertainment centre, writes Hasan.

Throughout the 2000s, the DHA officials proposed various luxury beachfront projects which involve land reclamation, often destroying bird and marine life and threatening fishermen’s livelihoods. Sugarland City (which involved the privatisation and development of the Hawkesbay, Sandspit, Cape Monze and Manora beaches), the Diamond Bar City (involving the sale of two islands to a large real estate company) and the DHA Waterfront Development Project were all discontinued due to pressure from fishing communities and civil society organisations including, in one instance, the World Wildlife Fund. Within this climate of greed and myopia, Ibrahim Haideri battles to stay afloat.

To understand the land mafia problem you must understand the housing crisis, says Tasneem Siddiqui, a veteran urban development expert, whose organisation Saiban helps low-income residents acquire housing. “Karachi was an organised city before Partition,” he explains. “With a population of a little over 400,000, people’s needs were met.” But the influx of refugees created an ever-worsening housing crisis which lasts to this day. What is now called a mafia grew out of the more innocuous title of “land sub-divider” — men who divided vacant state.

land into plots and informally sold them to low-income groups, an act the government could have legally done had it possessed the will to cater to society’s lower strata.

“There is no reason why the government couldn’t have legally made similar use of the empty land,”

says Siddiqui.

As Karachi became an industrial hub in the 1960s, waves of migrants from the northern parts of the Pakistan squatted near the factories and construction sites where they had come to work and bought the cheap plots the sub-dividers purported to own. The government alternated between turning a blind eye to the enterprise and evicting residents from hazardous land — plots situated right under high-tension electricity wires, over drainage systems or built in riverbeds and other places susceptible to flooding. While the sub-divider was a relatively powerless individual, by the mid-2000s, Karachi’s main political parties decided to partake in the old game, spawning a deadly, weaponised turf war, Siddiqui tells the Herald. Communally shared areas like Ibrahim Haideri, where personal property rights were non-existent by tradition and records of state ownership nebulous, became favoured spots for politically influential encroachers, with the active help of officialdom.

Like the rest of the city, Ibrahim Haideri has not been spared from untenable population growth and waves of migration, particularly of Bengalis who began emigrating to its coast after 1971. Such an influx of people continues to defy ideas to stem it, spurring a huge demand for land, both for commercial and residential purposes.

Improving healthcare facilities, especially for children, may to some degree curb high population growth in Ibrahim Haideri. At the South Asian Cities Conference held in Karachi this past January, funded in part by the Harvard University and the Government of Sindh, Zaidi contended that reducing infant mortality was the key to controlling Pakistan’s – and Ibrahim Haideri’s – explosive population growth.

“Demographers have shown that, anywhere in the world, where infant mortality rates drop, fertility rates drop too. When children dying is a fact of life, parents invest in quantity over quality.”

She cited the example of Bangladesh where, after independence, the private sector invested heavily in reducing infant deaths, which were far higher before independence in the then-neglected East Pakistan than in the privileged West Pakistan. In 2011, the average Bangladeshi household was found to have between two and three children, according to Unicef.

Such NGO remedies, however, cannot address the fundamental issue of scarcity and abuse of resources which are the state’s domain to handle. In the absence of a comprehensive government plan to reverse and overcome the environmental pollution and resource degradation caused by the land mafia, these solutions are attempts to cover bullet wounds with band-aids.

The world’s seas are rapidly emptying – being emptied rather – by, among other things, the high acidity levels in the oceans caused by human activity and pollution, and rising temperatures which kill the plankton that forms the basis of marine ecosystems. According to some scientists, 40 per cent of the sea’s plankton has disappeared already. Fisherfolk in Ibrahim Haideri, as well as elsewhere in the world, and the environs which sustain them, are asphyxiating.

For centuries, Ibrahim Haideri lived communally on shared land, by shared waters. Now, boundaries are built, plots allocated and chunks of coastline parceled off. And those becoming prey to such exploitative development know this. “The land grabbers and powerful community leaders are essentially saying, ‘You can only breathe because we allow you to breathe. You can only leave your house because we let you,’” Memon says.

“We are not trying to make enemies with the authorities. All we are asking for is our basic human rights.”

The fishermen, the voiceless, the so-called wretched of the earth — they may be the first to go, pushed out as the growth, and garbage, encroach upon more and more space. Eventually, however, there will be nothing left for the drivers of growth either. It may be a short-lived reign for these emperors of filth, these slumlords of the sea.