The Big Clean

There is much that needs cleaning up in Pakistan from corruption at every level to solid wastes in many cities and the tendering process for virtually any government contract no matter which party is in power. Much of the cleaning up involves a shift in the national paradigm – like litter, for instance.

Much of the rubbish we see on the streets is put there by the average citizen who carelessly throws to the ground everything from sweet wrappers to no-longer-needed sofas and much in between. Littering is a national disease, but not incurable.

Visit Hunza any time in the last 20 years and litter is virtually invisible – but very visible are the bins for rubbish that are frequently emptied, a consequence being that the streets and vacant plots are considerably cleaner than much of the rest of Pakistan.

A mindset had to change to achieve that, a tweaking of the national paradigm. It worked. Visit any town or city that has installed rubbish bins that are regularly emptied and the same change can be observed. It may take months, and never happens overnight, but cities can be cleaner and it need not cost several fortunes. Plus there is another consequence intended or not – a fostering of civic pride. A place that washes its face regularly has good reason to smile and be pleased with itself.

More contentiously there is a range of ongoing cleaning-up in the form of the demolition of encroachments going on across the country, and not only in those places where the actions of local authorities are hitting the headlines.

The Empress Market demolitions are just the tip of what is becoming a large iceberg. Towns and cities large and small nationwide are making pavements places for pedestrians that are safe to walk on. Some of the larger clearances are challenging in that they really do mean a loss of livelihood for thousands, with one recently published estimate being that at least 20,000 lost their income as a result of the Empress Market operation.

Resistance in most places is low-key or absent, and the majority of the encroachers, even if they have been paying rent to a local body or agency, know they are on borrowed time. Those that were happy to take the rent however have ducked under the radar, and they walk away richer and penalty free. There is no equality and little justice when it comes to wielding new brooms.

Utility theft, and especially the theft of electricity is today in the headlines because K-Electric in Karachi has finally taken the gloves off in a drive against defaulters and those that steal electricity via illegal ‘hooks’ over 7000 of which have recently been removed. Disconnection comes with an offer – we will supply consumers via a metered connection and a regularisation of supply.

Over 4,500 low-cost meters have already been installed and the campaign, which does not involve prosecution for theft, will run until 20th January. Steal electricity after that date and it is mailed fist time rather than velvet glove. This might seem like a poor deal when electricity had been free previously but there really is no such thing as a free lunch.

The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) plays a lopsided game on a corrugated pitch when it comes to corruption and clean-ups, and its current actions are arguably the most politically driven in its history. Appointments into the civil service and innumerable police forces could do with a vigorous scrubbing–up and there is no shortage of opportunity for a spring-clean in the higher education sector.

All that said Pakistan can and does muster the will to clean itself up when so minded. The efforts lack national coordination sometimes, but mindsets really can be changed and for the better. Pain, inconvenience, a bruised sense of entitlement plus a justified anger at the prospect of a jobless future especially when you are already poor are all there, and will continue to be so. Coming clean was never going to be easy.

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