A trash site full of plastic bags on the outskirts of Islamabad
A trash site full of plastic bags. Pakistan is being smothered by plastic due to a lack of poor waste management (File) Image Credit: AFP

All news is defined by proximity. If you are a resident of Lahore, one of the subcontinent’s oldest cities, home to footprints of civilisations dating back to thousands of years, besides being the provincial capital of the largest federating units of Pakistan, the Punjab, you will not worry as much about the pandemic nor even a grim economic outlook.

Your days and nights will be spent wishing you were living as far away as possible from the dozens of waste dumping sites that have made the whole place smell like, well, certainly not roses.

Like all big cities, Lahore produces thousands of tonnes of solid waste every day. Because it is a financial hub and offers the best possible business opportunities after Karachi, the place has been expanding exponentially.

It is peppered with small industrial zones that feed an ever-growing consumer market and also link up with sub-industrial units within reachable distances from the area. It is a place that is abuzz with activity, human, financial, and commercial.

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It is but obvious that a place like this would have downtowns and even ghettos. It is also predictable that not all the corners of the city would offer clean sites to behold. This happens everywhere.

That being so, Lahore’s waste management has acquired a dimension that many of its citizens had never imagined they would ever discover in this day and age — thousands of tonnes of garbage being dumped all across the land without any distinction between upscale corners and shanty towns.

Except for the most posh or the most powerful areas like the cantonment it is difficult to move around in the city without either bumping into piles of litter or encountering bad smell that hangs in the air. This challenge to the city’s profile is rather new. Or it has re-emerged after being solved a few years ago.

Workforce only on paper

The previous government had practically disbanded the city’s waste management department after struggling to make its seven thousand plus strong force to clean up their act and the streets. The problem with the department, known to be corrupt, was that most of its workforce only existed on paper.

Either that or it was deployed to serve the prima donnas of the powerful local bureaucracy. So, while it consumed massive amounts of budget, it delivered nothing.

Through a competitive bidding, a foreign company was invited to pick up the trash and manage solid waste. The company had to hire practically a new team — some 2500 persons according to media reports — and deploy big machines to start the work. This new broom did sweep clean, and in five years the city’s outlook changed drastically.

With the change of political guard, a wave of “lets do-it-ourselves” spirit prevailed and the “foreign” arrangement was discontinued. It then fell back to the same department that had necessitated the outside help to manage the city’s waste to meet the new public expectations built around a fairly smoothly performing system.

As it has turned out now, the department that had been disbanded for being incompetent has now become so inefficient that it cannot even account for more than half of its workers, nor have functional machines — this generally means rickety trucks that run around throughout the day to pick up garbage from different sites — to do the work. The result is that the city’s centre and periphery both are now choking with trash.

Trash is a daily product

The local minister whose job it is to make the system work now says that the city has a lag of a “month of trash”, which has to be picked up first in order for the system to start functioning.

The problem is that trash is a daily product; it does not end and every passing day keeps on adding to the existing stock — and to the stench that fills the air. Predictably, the opposition has locked on this dire situation and has used it as a hammer to beat the government with.

This politicisation of trash is nothing new. Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, where the present government’s opponents rule, had become a favourite reference point for the party members’ criticism.

They often cited the example of a “dirty city” to prove that the previous governments were all incompetent. Now that this situation has emerged in the ruling party’s own power base, Lahore, is something of an embarrassment.

There does not seem to be an immediate solution in sight to provide some breathing relief to citizens. Reforming the department that is tasked to clear the roads and move the garbage to incinerators will take time. New machinery has to be bought.

Moreover, waste management is not easy pickings, financially. It costs dearly. According to one report waste management “can be the single highest budget item for many local administrations. In low-income countries, it comprises 20% of municipal budgets.”

Pakistan is cash-strapped. Authorities are struggling to make the waste collection system work. Further delay can be disastrous for both health and environment. Those in charge have to make a move — and make it quickly as the trash clock is ticking fast

Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. Twitter: @TalatHussain1