By Mohammed Hanif
June 26, 2015
WHEN I go to buy my drinking water, I don’t
ask for water. I ask for Nestlé. Then I drive home with five 20-liter plastic
bottles and make sure that we make every cup of tea, and all our ice, from this
water. Like other people in this city, I believe the tap water is poisonous.
During the summer, many of us follow the practice of putting out a water cooler
on the street for passers-by. There are chic restaurants, cafes and art
galleries in my neighborhood, but not a single public source of clean drinking
water. Street vendors, security guards, trash pickers and maids rushing from
one job to another often stop by to have a drink from this cooler. Like most
such water coolers, mine is secured with a padlock; even the plastic tumbler is
tied to it with a small chain.
Ramzan, the holy month of fasting known as
Ramadan in the Arabic-speaking world, started last week, and like everyone
else, I stopped putting out the water cooler. I did think about the people who
wouldn’t be fasting and the non-Muslims not obliged to fast. But I didn’t think
much. I removed the cooler because everyone does. There is the Respect of
Ramzan Ordinance, which says you may be sent to prison for a few months if you
eat or drink during fasting hours, or if you give someone something to eat or
drink. I don’t really think I removed the cooler for fear of the ordinance: God
knows, like every middle-class, privileged Pakistani, I flout enough laws. I
did it because it would hurt the sensibility of those who fast.
Many of the 1,000 people who have died in
the recent heat wave in Karachi died because of this sensibility: Some people
were reluctant to ask for a drink of water, others were reluctant to offer it
to them. You can’t blame them. Even if they could get past their inhibitions,
there was no water to be had. All the little tea stalls, roadside restaurants,
small juice or snack vendors disappear from the streets during fasting hours.
In this month you can walk miles without finding a sip of water. And Karachi
has developed in a way that you can also walk miles without finding any shade
to cool down. Trees have been cut down to widen roads, overpasses have gobbled
up footpaths; there are few shaded bus stops. Without water and without shade,
while fasting or pretending to fast, people going to and coming back from work
just fell on the streets and died.
Karachi is known for killing its residents,
but weather had never been its weapon of choice. It is the world’s
third-largest city, and its population has nearly doubled in the last 15 years,
to 20 million. People come here to survive even though they know it can be a
dangerous place. They leave bombed-out villages in the tribal north or parched
hamlets in South Punjab to come settle at the edge of sewers in unplanned slums
and make a living, mostly in daily wages, building malls or guarding them.
Karachi hosts refugees from countries as diverse as Afghanistan and Myanmar.
One reason so many have flocked to the city is that the weather has always been
hospitable. You can sleep on the streets year round. Winter is only a rumour.
Summer is hot and humid, but usually bearable out in the open with the breeze
from the Arabian Sea.
The highest recorded temperature during the
current heat wave in Karachi was 45 degrees Celsius, or 113 degrees Fahrenheit.
Other towns in Pakistan have recorded temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius, or
122 degrees Fahrenheit, without ever suffering the kind of catastrophe that
struck here. The victims, mostly poor and working class needed some shade, a
drink of water and a bit of time to slow down. But shade and a respite from
work are hard to come by in Karachi — even in the month of Ramzan, the work of
being a megacity must go on.
Thousands of construction workers dangle
from high-rises. Traffic constables stand on city squares. Private security
guards sit outside banks and offices. All in the heat, with no shade. When it
is not Ramzan, these workers usually carry a bottle of water. When it is Ramzan,
they don’t. When it is Ramzan, the eateries where they could score a free drink
are shut. And when it is Ramzan, all the kind-hearted people take away their
Since an overwhelming majority of those who
died were poor, nobody is calling for an investigation or rethinking how the
city is growing. The victims were just dehydrated and not sensible enough to
protect themselves against the harsh weather. They don’t count as martyrs,
according to religious authorities, even though they died during the holy
month, many of them while fasting. The media express indignation, but over
power breakdowns: the assumption being that with enough electricity these
people wouldn’t have left their air-conditioned rooms and would have had
chilled water to drink. Just as we kindhearted people do.
But it really wasn’t the lack of
electricity or even the heat that killed these 1,000 people. What killed them
was the forced piety enshrined in our law and Karachi’s contempt for the
working poor. These people died because we long ago removed any shade that
could shelter them from the June sun and then took away their drinking water.
When they were about to die, we rushed them to hospitals in ambulances paid for
by charities and gave them medicines paid for by charities. We gave them white
sheets to recuperate in if they survived, and when they didn’t, those white
sheets became their shrouds. Karachi’s hospitals are now awash with chilled
bottles of Nestlé water donated by the kindhearted people of the city, but you
still can’t get a drink of water on the streets.
Mohammed Hanif is the author of the novels “A Case of Exploding Mangoes”
and “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti.”
killed them was the forced piety enshrined in our law and Karachi’s contempt
for the working poor.”
is why it is called ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF PAKISTAN!
enacting Ramadhan Ordinance and NO obligations.