Filthy rich: A Karachi sewer operation for a sick city

Garbage and not squatters is the real reason it floods

SAMAA |  and  – Posted: Jan 19, 2021 

Filthy rich: A Karachi sewer operation for a sick city

Two naughty little boys are having a conversation sitting on top of an empty king-sized sewerage pipeline behind a swarm of city officials surveying Manzoor Colony nullah.
“Tera ghar to gira rahey hain,” one of them says. They’re demolishing your house.
“Abey, tujhe kaise pata?!” How the hell do you know?
“Kyunke wo nishaan laga ke gae na!” he replies—and then, as if to assuage his buddy’s feelings, hastily and a tad mournfully, adds: “Meri to poori galli ja rahi he.” Because they marked it. My entire alleyway is going…

This pint-sized neighbourhood expert is talking about a massive demolition operation by the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation or KMC in which houses and shops lining the nullah are being removed so the muzzled waterway can be cleaned and widened. This work is being deemed imperative along its 6.5km length so that neighbourhoods to the north do not flood. Manzoor Colony nullah’s unenviable job, you see, is to daily carry sewerage and, depending on the season, the city’s swollen rainwater torrents away from the city and into the sea.

What the little chap got wrong, however, was that his entire alley is not on the chopping block. Far from it, the KMC guillotine is going to fall on specific ‘encroachments’. He was correct in telling his friend, however, that a red spray-painted arrow on his house means that it would be partly if not fully flattened.

This story is then, at least on the surface of it, about a nullah, and there is no shame in admitting that nullahs and stormwater drainage are topics that would put anyone to sleep. Mention ‘culvert’ and we would rather quarantine ourselves than be subjected to a lecture on hydrology. It is difficult to summon sympathies for inanimate urban infrastructure much less understand their inner workings. But what if we told you that whatever is happening today at this nullah will be make or break for Karachi when it rains next year? We trust that you have not forgotten what happened in August…


A map showing the neighbourhoods and entire network. Image: M. Obair/SAMAA Digital

How the Mehmoodabad nullah operation started
And so, this story starts in August last year when apocalyptic rains flooded Karachi. It had rained like it had never rained in ninety years. By October, the city had somewhat limped back to normalcy with its people permitting themselves recuperative amnesia of the monsoon’s terror—you have to move on after all—but the Sindh government did not have this luxury. The chief minister had already enlisted the help of old class fellows at NED University of Engineering and Technology. A technical team was to survey all of the city’s choked drains or nullahs in a bid to get them back to their wider 1987 Master Plan shape.

That month, the chief minister, corps commander, National Disaster Management Authority and top bureaucrats sat down to grapple with solutions. At that point the problem was said to be the 13,000 houses and nearly 3,000 businesses hemming in Karachi’s four major drains and its Malir River. The prevailing wisdom was that the city had flooded because encroachments were throttling these waterways.

People pushing their vehicles through flooded streets in Karachi on August 27, 2020. Photo: Online

The Executive was not the only branch of government to understand that something had to be done. By November, the Judiciary had thrown its lot into the fray. Irritated with the progress by the Sindh and Karachi governments, the Supreme Court instead ordered the federal government’s National Disaster Management Authority to dredge the nullahs and told the local government to make itself very helpful. Under this pressure, the local administration decided to at least start with the major nullah between Manzoor Colony and Mehmoodabad because KMC had complete jurisdiction here (unlike in other neighbourhoods where more powerful institutions ruled). A map from the Sindh Katchi Abadi Authority or SKAA was hauled up with the nullah’s measurements and up to 1,000 houses on one side were marked for demolition.

On November 19, the KMC and District East teams arrived with bulldozers. According to KMC Metropolitan Commissioner Afzal Zaidi, they thought they would clear up to 200 feet from the nullah by removing the lines of houses. Rioting broke out and the city teams were pelted with the very rubble they had produced. The mob blocked the Shaheed-e-Millat expressway and tore down the Mehmoodabad fire station’s boundary wall. Needless to say, the work had to be abandoned.

Where are Mehmoodabad and Manzoor Colony?
Manzoor Colony and Mehmoodabad are not neighbourhoods of the elite imagination. They are impenetrable working class sprawls generally forgotten by planners. Over time, they were rendered invisible by big roads that allowed people to sail past them without even realising it. And so if you ask people if they know these neighbourhoods, you have to also forgive many of them for drawing a blank. But perhaps this will help.
Go to the end of DHA. If you take a left at the KPT flyover jalebi at Qayyumabad (from the big Imtiaz superstore), you will turn on to the long curved shortcut to Shahrah-e-Faisal. As you speed along, look left. You’ll pass the Express news office, white prison Iqra University, furniture and Moltyfoam shops, a Byco pump and a dumpster that is perennially on fire. The abadi behind all this, which disappears from sight, is Manzoor Colony. Stop. Just before you get on to the flyover by City School PAF Chapter, on the left, is the Mehmoodabad fire station. If you turn in here and go down, you’ll be at the mouth of the nullah and in the middle of Manzoor Colony and Mehmoodabad, which are part of a greater interlocking triangle of abadis that include Liaquat Ashraf Colony, Rehman Town, KAECHS, Azam Basti…

You can’t see the nullah because it was covered with concrete slabs, which give it the appearance of a seam. If you retrace it from here, you will go through multiple katchi abadi neighbourhoods, back to Qayyumabad from where the nullah crosses Korangi road and heads back into DHA Phase VII until it reaches the sea and falls, unfiltered, into Gizri Creek at Creek Road.
If you have been watching the news, you would have repeatedly heard reporters and officials say an operation is being conducted at Mehmoodabad nullah. This is a mistake because the strip where the demolition is taking place at the time of this story’s publication is Manzoor Colony nullah. The two join up at right angles as the Mehmoodabad nullah comes travelling down from Shahrah-e-Faisal.

The second mistake is perhaps one of semantic drift, for the word nullah (nala, nallah, natural stormwater drain) conjures gutter, the kind that slithers past thresholds like a black liquid tapeworm. Manzoor Colony nullah never actually was a nullah in the first place.

In this old OPP map you can see the Malir River branch off and form a little island marked Manzoor Colony. Image: City Press

History of Manzoor Colony and its nullah
If there had been a river here, you would not be able to tell today, but mercifully, the old maps bear witness. In the starkest one, you see an arm of the Malir River branch off for a bit and then rejoin itself a short distance down. (See the map). This meandering gave birth to a tiny island, which is what came to be known as Manzoor Colony.
The history of the area was documented by engineer Salim Aleemuddin for the Orangi Pilot Project a long time ago. “It was Pagganwala land and was used for agriculture,” he told SAMAA Digital. “People say garbage burning used to be a problem here even back then.”

In 1969, this island was unofficially ‘sold’ to two or three land grabbers. In his research, Aleemuddin discovered that the agriculture department, police and KMC were involved. The land grabbers divided the land into parcels of 200 to 400 square yards. They were laid out on a grid-iron pattern with a hierarchy of primary, secondary and tertiary roads and streets. This new colony was spread over 295 acres and divided into nine sectors and is roughly the same size till today. “In 1986, Manzoor Colony was notified as a katchi abadi for regularisation by the Katchi Abadi Directorate of KMC.”
Down the line, those plots were further subdivided into 120 square yard ones as demand grew. It is an interesting side story that when people were kicked out of Jacob Lines and Khudadad Colony so that Shahrah-e-Quaideen could be built, they ended up buying those Manzoor Colony plots. (They had initially been sent to New Karachi on the outskirts, but sold those plots to return to the centre of the city to stay close to work).

This brings us to the history of Manzoor Colony’s nullah. Remember the errant distributary of the Malir River? At one point people used to fish in it, so clear were its waters. But it is unlikely that the stream would have survived the forces of demography and real estate. And indeed, two developments—mostly for the profit of the Korangi factory seth—set in motion the stream’s depreciation from a distributary to a drain.
Proof surfaces in a 1972-4 topographic map by the Survey of Pakistan which shows the Malir River outlined in black and filled with dots. But then, the river is suddenly cut off with a road marked ‘under construction’ from Shahrah-e-Faisal. This road would become the extension of Shaheed-e-Millat. It cuts the river off at Manzoor Colony.

Mehmoodabad nullah, manzoor colony
A snippet of a 1972 map by the Survey of Pakistan. It shows Shahrah-e-Faisal in orange and Baloch Colony. The Malir River is marked in black with dots. Manzoor Colony and Mahmoodabad show up here as well. This is before the Shaheed-e-Millat road cut off the river. Courtesy: Arif Hasan’s website

The second development seals the stream’s fate. In 1985, according to businessman Zubair Chhaya, industrialists demanded the Sindh government make it easier for them to travel to their factories in Korangi from their homes in the plushy side of town (MAHS, PECHS…) When the government refused, they spent Rs500,000 to do it themselves. The party that paid the most money got to name the single-track 2.5km road from Baloch Colony embankment or bund to Korangi bund. As this happened to be English Biscuit Manufacturers (Rs100,000), this road was named the EBM Causeway. By 2011, it was widened to a double track for which the government coughed up Rs120m that came from the Rs250m budget for the industrial zone.

And so, that slim branch of the Malir River that led to the creation of Manzoor Colony was forever cut off and over time, turned into a sewer. The NEDUET experts record these developments plainly in their report as well: “Historically Mehmoodabad Nallah was connected to the Malir river taking its flow to the sea and was originally 100 feet wide at the fire station. But with the passage of time [it] was cut off from Malir River mainly because of the construction of the expressway and new settlement across the expressway.”

If the nullah’s waters had run clear at any point in time, the population of Manzoor Colony would have sullied it with their sewerage. They used to empty their bucket latrines into the street and wastewater used to flow in the lanes. A few houses had cheap soak pits but they needed to be emptied every fortnight. “However, soak pits raised the underground water table and also caused health problems,” Aleemuddin wrote for OPP. The rising water table damaged walls and it didn’t help that rainwater would enter the low-lying colony’s houses when the Malir River flooded.

By 1997, the colony’s residents asked the OPP for help and its team (Perween Rahman, Anwar Rashid) developed the nullah as a boxed trunk main and rainwater drainage channel. This would make it easier to clean and improve the flow of water.

NEDUET Manzoor Colony nullah width drawing
The NEDUET map showing the nullah and a 15-foot border from which houses (in red) have to be cleared.

NED’s plan to fix Manzoor Colony-Mehmoodabad nullahs
Fast-forward two decades to 2020 and experts from NEDUET’s Department of Urban & Infrastructure Engineering become the second entity after OPP to take on the nullah’s health.

Its team is headed by VC Prof. Dr Sarosh Hashmat Lodi and includes Prof. Dr Syed Imran Ahmed, Prof. Dr Adnan Qadir, Assistant Prof. Engr. Shoaib Ahmed, Asst. Prof. Engr. Syed Muhammad Fahad Abdullah, research associates, lab technicians and undergraduate students. They used GIS mapping, flooding projections, drones and computer simulation to generate a full picture of the entire Mehmoodabad nullah network that empties into Manzoor Colony nullah.

NEDUET projections Manzoor Colony Drain
NEDUET’s projected flooding scenarios for rain in 3hrs at the nullah.

To put it very simply, they studied rainfall records and made liberal and conservative projections of how flooding could take place. They found that the network was generally adequate but some revamping would be needed in a 3.5km section and at some major spots.

They said that if garbage is removed, it will considerably improve the flow of water. They recommended that the nullah’s width be increased gradually from 20ft to 80ft and it be dredged to improve its carrying capacity. As part of the redesign, they recommended that 15 feet be kept clear on both sides. The 15 feet will be used for a 12-foot road on both sides and a three-foot pavement.

KMC restarts the anti-encroachment operation
If 15 feet have to be kept clear on both sides of Manzoor Colony nullah, this means that anything coming in its way will have to be removed. The NEDUET plan is slightly less destructive for it found that only 238 structures were falling within this perimeter and of them only 56 would be damaged beyond 30%. This was a far cry from the 1,000 houses and shops that the KMC tried to remove with its SKAA map back in November as a result of which it was violently driven out.

By January, news of the NEDUET plan had trickled down and government promises of the 12-foot road seemed to mollify the people who thought it would improve the value of property along it. By the time the KMC bulldozers returned, the mood was rather sanguine.

“Whatever is in principle is in principle,” said one man. “If the government wants to take 20 feet… the Manzoor Colony folks are happy that at least all this garbage will end. We were sitting in filth… Everyone is stuck. So if the government is working, it should be allowed to work. Now if we can’t even give 12 feet…”

The KMC marked the houses for demolition. Some people went around with their own spray paint and tried to create confusion. Image: Mahim Maher

The KMC teams were able to go around and identify structures to be taken down by spray-painting on them the NEDUET numbers 0 to 238 in red. This did not mean that some people were still not desperate to save their properties. By January 9, KMC senior director Mazhar Khan from Katchi Abadies was found tramping up and down the strip with a team fumbling with a mile-long inchi-tape they held from edge to edge. “We’re re-checking the markings,” Mazhar Khan explained. “Some kids from the neighbourhood went and spray-painted over our marks.” The punks had figured out that a red arrow meant cutting so they went around either writing “no cutting” over KMC signs or tried to spray paint over the arrow. One enterprising bigwig from the area by the name of Javed Kumboh was rumoured to have had his house whitewashed overnight in an attempt to hide the spray paint. Needless to say, this manual subterfuge was no match for a satellite’s science.

The yellow is PTI and the blue is PPP on both sides of the Manzoor Colony nullah Map: SAMAA Digital

Leases, conspiracies and politics: PTI vs PPP
It is at this point that this story becomes difficult to tell because it moves beyond civic engineering and enters the realm of politics and messy geographies. The journalistic instinct is to be able to prove and document beyond a shadow of a doubt what is transpiring on the ground. The simple instrument to deploy is one of corroboration by cross-questioning the actors. But what we found in Manzoor Colony was too slippery to develop into conviction—and it would be misleading to do so.

Karachi’s anti-encroachment operations tend to be political battles because they almost always risk voter affections. But add sarkar (or government) to the mix and you are possibly looking at a deep conspiracy to alter constituency fortunes. While reporting on this story, we came across one accusation in particular which surfaced from multiple mouths.

The accusation is that since the NEDUET folks were class fellows of Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah (PPP), they are sparing an illegal PPP vote bank on the left of Manzoor Colony nullah and demolishing legal houses in a PTI constituency on the right.

PTI MPA Bilal Ahmed, who won from Liaquat Ashraf Colony, Mehmoodabad No 5 and 6, says he will not allow anyone to demolish legal houses—a statement he would be amiss not to make. He wants compensation at market rates and not the Rs15,000 a month for two years to anyone who loses over 30% of their property. He said the NEDUET plan should have been shared with the people and he accused PPP MPA Saeed Ghani of using his influence to protect illegal houses in his constituency across the nullah.
For his part, Saeed Ghani said that when all of this was being discussed he had meetings with the PTI’s Ali Zaidi and Asad Umar. Everyone knew what they were heading into. “I own all these people,” he said, referring to the neighbourhood. “Ye sab apne log hain.”

There was one way to check. The NEDUET list has a total of 238 houses or shops or structures that fall inside the nullah’s wider new boundary: 122 are on the PTI Mehmoodabad side and 116 are on the PPP Manzoor Colony side. This is nearly an equal number. There appears to be no ostensible bias and the properties were marked with satellite imagery and not government maps.

SKAA map with lease numbers
A Sindh Katchi Abadi department map showing houses that were given leases by number.

But the accusation deepens that leased properties are getting the axe on the PTI side and illegal ones on the PPP side are not. “Out of 56 units, 43 leased houses of Mehmoodabad No 5 and 6 [PTI side] are affected on the right side, and only 13 non-regularised houses would be in line in Manzoor Colony Sector I [PPP side],” said KMC senior director Mazhar Khan, when asked about the split between illegal and legal properties.

Muhammad Anwar of Liaquat Ashraf Colony says he has a lease and has been living there since 1975. “Bad-qismati dekho yaar… katchi abadi mehfooz he aur pakki abadi kay makanaat toot rahay hain,” he said. Look at my bad luck. The slum is protected and the formal settlement’s houses are being broken down. “Hum ko PTI ka saath dene ki saza di ja rahi he.” We are being punished for voting PTI.

Some people on the right side also blame the Orangi Pilot Project, saying that when it fixed the nullah in 1997 it did not “construct it” in the center of the road. They maintain that they are paying a price now as their properties are too close to the nullah. According to Arif Hasan, who was around when the OPP did this work, this does not bear out. The OPP teams did not alter the route of the nullah (they couldn’t ‘move’ it) and it was flanked by a 24-foot wide space back then. Where has that space disappeared since then?
What is a more likely explanation is that over the years people illegally extended legal or leased properties to keep creeping in on the nullah on both sides. But either way, KMC leases have a condition that gives it the power to ask for land back if it is needed for public works.

Malir River Karachi topographic map 1970s
A 1975 topographic map of Karachi by the Survey of Pakistan showing Manzoor Colony and how Shaheed-e-Millat road cut off the river. Courtesy: Sumaira Zafar

It is with almost no conviction that one can explain why the KMC SKAA map of houses marked for demolition was abandoned in November and the NEDUET one was used in January (except that it was overall less destructive). Under the first map, most of Saeed Ghani’s constituency was to face damage. Compared to this, the NEDUET map says that some leased plots of (the PTI side of) Liaquat Ashraf Colony will be hit. They were not on the earlier map. This is why people have been accusing the PPP and the university of being in cahoots.

One thing that can be said with conviction in this city is, however, that its rulers want to make money. In time, we will be able to see if illegal properties on the PPP side are made legal and if the 12-foot road that the government is building, according to the university recommendation, will be used to the advantage of real estate developers.

All said and done, the wheels have been set in motion. On Wednesday morning a single mazdoor was swinging a mallet at the very first shop in line opposite the fire station. People have been undertaking the demolition if their shop or house has been marked for they would rather take the offending portion off themselves—the KMC bulldozer’s steel claw is not terribly discerning. If an RCC column can be spared, then at least the rest of the structure can be saved. This is the scramble going on these days.
Two young men, Atif and Faheem, were watching the digger from the vantage point of their rented appliance shop, which is on the list. Its owner Mian Jawad, a lawyer, had said, “Do it once and get it over with.” They point out a plot right opposite. “That was Danish Burger Wallah’s,” says Atif. “The house was razed. He is now selling burgers on a thella.” They are all wondering what will happen to bakery and mithai shop magnate Haji Baqir’s monstrous five-story building sitting half on the nullah. “They broke it partially in 2016,” says Atif. “But he built it back up.” By Monday they had started hacking it apart as well.

URC TTRC Arif Hasan survey
(From L-R): Zahid Farooq of the URC, Sirajuddin of the TTRC, Younus of the URC sitting with Arif Hasan as they study the Manzoor Colony nullah. They did their own independent survey of the entire network. Image: Mahim Maher

A second survey and critical view
When news of the demolition operation initially spread, some activists from the neighbourhood went back to their old friends who had been at the Orangi Pilot Project and its allies. Perween Rahman’s mapping student Muhammad Sirajuddin now runs his own research and mapping centre, TTRC. He was joined by Zahid Farooq and Younus of the Urban Resource Centre and Fazal Noor from Sir Syed University of Engineering and Technology. They went around with community leaders for 21 days and based on old OPP knowledge did their own shoe-leather survey of the entire Mehmoodabad-Manzoor Colony nullah network from Noorani Kebab house all the way to its end at Gizri Creek. They visited and measured each house along the Manzoor Colony nullah down to how many floors and load-bearing structures. This was important because they had learned the importance of documentation for compensation from the devastation of the Lyari Expressway case.

But aside from the details of the houses, they also discovered, as they had suspected, that the problem was not what the government thought it was.
Sewerage and rainwater from three nullahs above Shahrah-e-Faisal connect to form the Mehmoodabad nullah network, explained Siraj. They drain the areas of Tipu Sultan Road, Hill Park, Mohammad Ali Housing Society, PECHS, KDA flats, Nursery, Ambala Sweets, Tariq Road. The NEDUET mapping also shows this network in detail. In fact, both groups document in detail severe blockages throughout this network.

DHA outfall at Gizri Creek Photo by Mahera Omar
Filmmaker Mahera Omar photographed this point of DHA where the nullah and sewage enters Gizri Creek. The raw sewerage is not filtered or treated.

For example, opposite Habitt, under the railway track, the nullah’s three openings under the road out of five are clogged. “At Gizri Creek, where the nullah meets the sea, there are 18 gates,” explained Zahid Farooq. “Only five of them are working. The rest are silted up and choked.” So even if you clean Manzoor Colony nullah, unless you unplug the exit point in DHA, you’ll still have flooding above Shahrah-e-Faisal.

What we also know is that these areas above Shahrah-e-Faisal flooded in August, as did DHA. The joke is that Manzoor Colony and Mehmoodabad did not. But ironically, demolitions are taking place in these neighbourhoods. “It is not an issue of encroachments,” says urban planner Arif Hasan. “Until you clean [the outfall at] Gizri Creek there is no point in any of this. They can demolish as many houses as they like.”

NEDUET’s Dr Adnan Qadir agrees. He said that they found blockages at Zehri House, Mehmoodabad, Nursery and Noorani Kebab House (above Shahrah-e-Faisal). They found a mosque squatting on the entire drain at Noorani Chowrangi. Even a CPLC office was found in violation. At Mehmoodabad Road, people had built four houses with their foundation columns inside the nullah. Sure, the people of Manzoor Colony built a little extra, but their infractions pale in comparison to what the moneyed folks did in the upper levels of this drainage system. For whatever it is worth, KMC’s Mazhar Khan said that in the next phase they will be demolishing houses along these richer strips. He even hopes that the powers that be will consider a recommendation he made: to build a new nullah from Shahrah-e-Faisal that runs under Baloch Colony flyover and would ease pressure on the rest of the drains.

No one disputes that garbage and entire buildings need to be removed from these drains but it would have been far more equitable if the encroachments pointed out by NEDUET in the richer areas were taken down first and then the houses of poorer people. (This might have even deterred rioting). And given that NEDUET has pointed out that the drain was reduced from a width of 80ft to 40ft as it flows through DHA to the sea, why is no one talking about reclaiming that space?
Administration after administration can fork out the cash and pay the Frontier Works Organisation (for the NDMA) to keep removing the ‘encroachments’ on the nullahs (which would be rather fortunate for the FWO’s pecuniary conditions.) But unless the choke points such as the mosques and mansions on the drain and its exit point to the sea are cleaned, the problem will not be solved, as the independent survey found.

KMC Mehmoodabad nullah encroachments
The original SKAA map with yellow marking areas to be demolished along the nullah. This map was abandoned and the NEDUET one was used. Source: KMC Katchi Abadies Department

Wrong approach to rainwater
Arif Hasan adds that even if all the encroachments are cleared from the entire sewage system, it still won’t work fully in the long run unless two other major considerations are made. Will the city’s garbage be regularly removed so it isn’t dumped in the sewers? And, will the city plan ways to handle rainwater beyond assuming the sewerage system will absorb it and drain it away from our neighbourhoods?

“We are told that rainwater disposal is through natural nullahs but this is not explained: how it will get to those natural nullahs,” says Arif Hasan. “All the conversation about it has revolved around natural nullahs being blocked.” It is no wonder then that our roads turn into rivers. They’re acting like stormwater drains.

This happens because the rain flowing down from roofs across Karachi has nowhere to go. And as the city’s love affair with concrete and paving grew, the water was even less absorbed by the ground.

Arif Hasan points out that the government approach has always been to “channel” nullahs or direct them as we wish, not acknowledge them. This is done by planners because they want to make optimum use of the land, as in, extract neat plots. “The planner wants a particular environment, which is linear,” he says. And so when he encounters a natural nullah running its course he imposes a straight line on it—its natural shape is not acknowledged. They do this so they can configure their network of roads, and by corollary their plots. “The problem surfaces when the linear and natural collide.”

Our bylaws and zoning regulations do not bother with this. “The engineer’s thinking, according to his education, is that Man and Community, if ordered, will dance to the dugduggee’s tune like monkeys,” says Arif Hasan. “But this is not what happens [in reality]. A discussion on management becomes necessary and the community in that case takes over the management.” If the KMC and Sindh government expect Manzoor Colony’s nullah to stay garbage-free, it will have to involve its people, or in the very least, ensure their garbage is collected.

The filthy, the ugly and the rich
Nearly a century and a half ago, famous writer Robert Louis Stevenson, the creator of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, wrote an essay, whose title one would have gladly borrowed for writing on Karachi: On the Enjoyment of Unpleasant Places. Stevenson opened it with an admission and a prescription: “It is a difficult matter to make the most of any given place, and we have much in our own power. Things looked at patiently from one side after another generally end by showing a side that is beautiful.”

If you look patiently at Manzoor Colony, from one side of the nullah and the other, it will generally end by showing you beautiful. Many beautifuls. Some of them were captured by Metropolitan Commissioner Afzal Zaidi, one of the top bureaucrats tasked with implementing the university plan. As he walked up and down the nullah while the work was underway, he photographed the teeming animal life of this neighbourhood and posted them on Twitter. It is here that you can find blanche egrets in neem trees, caramel puppies gambolling on the nullah’s cover, donkeys feasting on mounds of carrot peel the colour of Hot Cheetos, kittens slipping and sliding through the plastic baggage.

Mehmoodabad-Manzoor Colony’s other beautifuls are spatial, for all along the shared nullah exists a wideness which is rare in such dense built environments. It is here that you will find space for charpoys groaning under gossipy old men and creaking merry-go-rounds laden with shrieking children.

But perhaps the greatest beautiful in this place is one that cannot be seen but only felt. It is one of potential. Consider this: There are two types of filth in Karachi, one is a removable, temporary kind which just requires a bit of KMC elbow grease, and there is a stubborn kind which bakes into its bone to become historic. The long running length of the Manzoor Colony nullah is marred by the first kind of filth, the removable kind, for this neighbourhood’s only misfortune is to be located at the receiving end of the gastrointestinal and commercial activity of richer real estate. It has immense potential to be turned into a public space within which to play, laugh and run around, all of which is already in ample evidence.

These are small considerations that might be worth the decision-maker’s time, for at this point, the nullah of Karachi is seeing somewhat of a remarkable resurgence in reputation and municipal attention (operations are planned for Orangi and Gujjar as well). These attentions have arisen from the workings of Mother Nature but were given impetus by the Supreme Court.

The irony is that history appears to be repeating itself, for, loosely speaking the previous decade was also one that attracted judicial comment on our urban fortunes. Only then it was for another kind of blockage: the traffic jam. If that was the decade of asphalt solutions to the flow of traffic (flyovers, signal-free corridors), this one might very well be of the flow of excreta (and the sewerage drain). Both products of engineering are just as much fashioned a vehicle for movement as the other, with the only exception that one is ulterior and the other subterranean. The tragedy is that both are equally blighted by bureaucratic shortsightedness and stupidity.

The crime then—and there are many of unpunishable ilk here—is not necessarily of the man who paid for a 120 square yard plot in the wrong place with his sweat and bone. It could perhaps be of the one who thought intentions alone would justify the application of power to decide the fate of entire neighbourhoods along a 6.5km drain. Perhaps the crime is of those who expect this city to magically function but who do not want to take the moral responsibility of knowing what happens after they flush their toilet. A price is paid somewhere. It always is, even if you are too blind to know. And this time, it is being paid by the man with the 120 square yard house.

Leave a Reply