A monstrous smog engulfs our lives...
My visit to the mega city of Karachi last December, had a terrorizing impact. It hurt me to see that its lovely sights and sounds of the glory days, had faded away into oblivion. Someone with the wildest imagination, had turned Karachi into a forest of billboards and plastic rubbish.
A new image of this city now, has reintegrated itself with the silhouette of a dying monster, gasping for breath. Like the other prodigious cities of Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi and Dhaka...Bangkok, Cairo and Beijing, this city on the Arabian Sea, portrays an impression of a woman going through her seizures, as she groaned under the weight of roughly 20 million souls. The inhabitants continue to live and go about their lives here. They also loiter and live under a protracted blanket of 'smog', that engulfs the port city and the suburbs.
Medieval cities of Bokhara, Baghdad, Constantinople and Delhi were lost to assailants and marauding soldiers, several times in history. When it dawned that the cities' decay had set in, due to nonchalance of negligent and morally weakened inhabitants, mother nature intervened, to step in and invite outside forces of wind, storm, attrition, disasters and galloping invaders to fix the mayhem. There is no construction without destruction. Not once, not twice. It has happened many times in its past.
Lack of awareness and responsibilities exhibited by the city's local factories, coupled with criminal laxity of a few, responsible for dispensing fossil fuel to the millions who own or drive their vehicles, continue to procreate the hazards of toxic emissions. All this has wreaked havoc among precious lives, spread around the parameters of the mega cities of Dhaka, Mumbai and Kolkata.
This is true for all the mega cities of our region, which have contributed in efforts to welcome the smog. Pollutants from contaminated fuel and/or chemicals released in air, react in air, and make it impossible for sunlight to play its vital role in creating the delicate environmental balance. The city dwellers, including the rich and powerful, the poor and the helpless, in all their complacence, refer to it, as the 'fog'. This smog is their common denominator!
I have lived in both the cities of Dhaka and Karachi. Since my early days, I have been a frequent visitor to some of the favourite cities of the Asian continent, which I mentioned earlier. Over the years I noticed that the landscape of the these cities started to change quickly....far too quickly. The planners jumped directly from the primary development phase to the tertiary phase, bypassing the necessary secondary stage that consolidates the cohesive stages of any development.
The hurried pace was chaotic, the expansion not well planned and without regard to established principles of urban design, traffic engineering or creation of forest reserves. The city fathers endeavored to create urban miracles out of limitations of space, capacity or the well being of the communities, that were destined to live here. In the end, each one delivered his own signature mess.
As populations exploded across cities, the availability of the prime real estate, went on a steep decline. In Mumbai and Tokyo, parcels of land are so valuable, these are quoted and sold in black market, per sq. inch. The metropolis and its constituencies have shared a unique history of decadence, to be quickly followed by revival and augmentation, enabling each to enter into the fold of recognized, modern cities of our planet.
Last week, Delhi witnessed India's finest Diwali season, full of sweets and fireworks. A few hours of happy indulgence and traditions, turned the city into a monster of smog.
The climate pundits say, this time, the smog is here to stay, in this region. It is our newest contention and the emerging 'fifth' season that has surprisingly managed to pop up with its brief cycle, squeezed between the regular seasons of autumn and winter. You name the city. It has its lion's share of smog. Lahore, Delhi, Karachi, Varanasi, Dhaka, Beijing, Shanghai, Bangkok....the list goes on. The air quality in this brief cycle worsens, without prejudice, in each city.
The painful reality is that smog in the cities and their suburbs, are the continuing waves of severe, harmful, air pollution events, that have resulted directly from human interventions in nature's grand scheme of sustenance. And, of our global eco system. This phenomena has given rise to an impending doom that is waiting to be delivered. It combines God's wrath with mother nature's consequent fury, in action.
Cities are choked. Breathing has become difficult. Asthma and gastro intestinal diseases are very, very common. The worst casualties are our own children and our aging population...to include undernourished, the weak and the sick segments of our society; some of whom can hardly afford even one basic meal in a day.
Each metropolis relates its own tale of an estrangement with past history. Large or Mega, whatever the size, it must also go through the cycle of birth, infancy, growth, its zenith and its ultimate final decay, emulating the life cycle of its inhabitants. City fathers have continually struggled with crumbling facilities, that extract a heavy toll from an ever growing population.
Pollution on the roads generated by high traffic volume, have made it difficult to breathe and live here. Obviously, over the years, the cities and their lifestyles have changed. Perhaps for the worst. A mega city is a symbol of a mother, who keeps her alms open for years, to welcome her poor, deprived, hungry and slaving children, who crave for shelter, and are looking for opportunities. There is hope in their eyes and a prayer that God's special, urban people may have something to share with the children of a lesser god.
A foreigner visiting the urban centers of our many model cities, has to tread a shocking journey. As in Karachi, one can see layers upon layers of composted garbage and filth, which never ceases to reek an awkward, pungent smell. Garbage and colourful plastic bags adorn the medians of the main thoroughfares. All this has symbolized an urban decay, and it's certain direction towards its catastrophic future; that includes the millions, who own this city or have a stake here.
It is indeed pathetic for us, that we have to draw parallels of this once bustling, lively city, to the unpleasant scenes of life that exist in the streets of the notorious African cities of Mogadishu or Lagos. Karachi is indeed the city of paradox. The city's blessed south, boasts of the residents and parlors of the rich and the famous. The ultra rich, the filthy rich and the not so rich, who are now united to subscribe the membership of an elite club. Today's billionaires and powerful rulers are the same people who joined the elitist club a few short years ago. On the other side of Karachi's great divide, live the real people of this city under a spell. The line of poverty appears to have risen up steadily over the years, sucking in the 'middle class' that constituted Karachi's lifeline.
The stories of other mega cities....Dhaka, Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi and Lahore are copy book stories with only minor variations. The sweat, tears and blood tell the individual tale of heroic struggles for survival for all those who have a stake ...in the jungles of the 'Mahanagar'
Life has continued to thrive in this bubble under the most trying circumstances.
The city Leadership appears to have run out of money, dedication and options. Obviously, it has become convenient for the known elite, to utilize their own or acquired talents and acumen, to profit from the economics of chaos or opportunities arising out of anarchy, and further, cash out on colossal human sufferings. Therefore, the will to fix the city's woes is missing. And, this is likely to continue till our bustling hubs of the past are placed on the ventilators, for life support.
However, there is also a silver lining that I can see. The chaos accompanied by common suffering and a state of helplessness, has united people, creating a bondage among the diverse ethnic nationalities that make up the population. This unique bondage has also ended ethnic violence and conflicts that had plagued our cities for many, many years. There is hope in the bewildered eyes of people, that someday, sometimes in the future, someone will rise up to the occasion and fix this mess.
The author is a former educator, based in Chicago (USA)