As well as revealing what people throw away, solid waste (garbage) provides important information about the intentions of municipal authorities: about who cities are intended for and how they are run. And so it is in Karachi, Pakistan, a mega-city with an official population of more than 16 million, unofficially acknowledged as an underestimate, where a new piece of research funded by the British Academy as part of the Global Challenges Research Fund Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme is underway.
Garbage reveals the social geographies of the city. Karachi’s wealthier neighbourhoods have better garbage collection and disposal systems, which keep streets clean. Low income neighbourhoods are strewn with garbage piled on roadsides, on any available piece of wasteland, and in drainage ditches, which become blocked and flood. Garbage reveals the fabrics of local material culture — plastics predominate. Systems for dealing with garbage reveal the city’s administrative, infrastructural and political priorities, showing how things work on the ground, on the streets where people live and work.
Garbage reveals administrative politics. In the 1990s, the Karachi Municipal Corporation (KMC) began phasing out direct employment of its solid waste workforce — sweepers, collectors and so on — and gradually outsourced waste to private operators, including Chinese companies. Chinese involvement is consistent with China’s other infrastructural manoeuvres in Pakistan — the highway connecting the north west border of China with the port of Karachi, for example, giving China land access to the gulf — and many countries beyond. Around the same time, and unusually, the Sindh Provincial Government divested KMC of responsibility for waste, replacing it with the Sindh Solid Waste Management Board (SSWMB). These two political manoeuvres resulted in an opaque, multi-channel, and chaotic system of waste management, much of it in the hands of informal private contractors. Low income neighbourhoods where streets are strewn with garbage suggest significant disconnects in the system between door and dump. But popular conceptions suggest otherwise.
Garbage also reveals city-building agendas and social priorities. Flooded drainage ditches blocked with household waste are incorrectly interpreted as evidence of poor sanitary habits in low income neighbourhoods. These views are widely reported in popular media and justify evictions. In Karachi’s Gujjar Nalah neighbourhood we witnessed an eviction in process. A large and increasingly angry crowd gathered on both sides of a drainage channel, as bulldozers set to work, razing homes and businesses, while so called ‘scavengers’ in the drainage channel’s underground sections were busy collecting recyclable materials.
Signs of the new city breaking out of the ground are never far away from these evictions: developers are building apartment blocks that only better-off residents can afford, at the expense of people whose livelihoods depend on the waste they discard. This new city, built on presumptions about garbage and the habits of the poor, yields profits for those with financial interests in real estate speculation, at the same time as extending the exclusions and disadvantages that erode life in low-income communities.
Following detailed research led by Jo Beall at the London School of Economics and collaborators at NED University of Engineering and Technology in Karachi, the research team is challenging this politics of urban exclusion and neglect with important new data [i]. Suspecting that the state of the streets might be due to failings in the city’s waste management system, and not the habits of the people, researchers are tracing how solid waste is actually managed on the ground in low-income areas of Karachi. They are following an opaque patchwork of relationships, parts of which are shrouded in secrecy and fierce competition between operators defending their territories, that runs from doorsteps to dumpsites. This trail winds through informal neighbourhood networks collecting and recycling waste, to official landfill sites run by the SSWMB. They have discovered that this is a leaky system with many gaps.
Researchers are exploring what people throw away, who collects it and where it goes? They are piecing together the size, composition and management of the ‘scavenger’ labour force who sort through roadside garbage for recyclables. They are locating and counting recycling yards, which work at different scales, and discovering how they fit together. They are working with the networks of cart-pullers employed by small recycling operations who buy directly from households. They are investigating who the operators making big money are, and how the Chinese contractors fit into this system. This is new knowledge: no one knows precisely how solid waste moves through the city and where the real choke points are. In piecing this leaky system together, researchers are identifying the gaps in the system which leave piles of rubbish on roadsides and in drainage ditches. In low-income neighbourhoods where provincial authorities are reluctant to take charge, patchwork territories of formal and informal private interests don’t lead smoothly to Karachi’s landfill site as they should.
This research has important implications. It shows that it is failures and gaps in the system of solid waste management, and not the habits of low income communities, which are to blame for the state of the streets. Feeding this into the city-wide conversation about garbage through news media and, hopefully attracting the attention of the city authorities, could lead to important changes in the treatment of both garbage and low-income communities. The research data forms an important riposte to popular misconceptions underpinning the city’s evictions and shows the way forward in making the system work better, challenging a politics of selective neglect which is practiced by provincial and city authorities.
Caroline Knowles is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths University of London and Director of the British Academy’s GCRF Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme. Caroline writes about migration and circulation of material objects — some of the social forces constituting globalisation. She is particularly interested in cities, having done research in London, Hong Kong, Beijing, Fuzhou, Addis Ababa, Kuwait City and Seoul.
[i] Led by Jo Beall (LSE), the research team comprises Nuno Ferreira-da-Cruz and Julia King (LSE), Mansoor Syed Ali (Loughborough and NED) and partners at NED University of Engineering and Technology, Karachi: Sayeeduddin Ahmed and Suneela Ahmed. The research team also includes Haris Gazdar and Hussain Bux Mallah from the Collective for Social Science Research and works with local NGOs that are close to the ground, including the Technical Training Resource Centre.