Plastic pollution and Naya Pakistan

It seems not only plastic but all kind of pollution has been a non-issue for forty years of ‘democratic’ rule

Rasul Bakhsh Rais November 28, 2018
The writer is a professor of political science at LUMS, Lahore. His recent book is Imagining Pakistan: Modernism, State and the Politics of Islamic Revival (Lexington Books, 2017)

There are things that can be done, and must be done without wasting any time. The politics, policy of change and its mechanics are neither difficult to comprehend, nor require much of the resources in many areas of national life. Some of the most critical resources required for change are intellectuals, ideas, political will, direction and commitment. Plastic pollution is so visible floating in the rivers, canals, and eventually landing on the farms of end users of waters for irrigation. It seems not only plastic but all kind of pollution has been a non-issue for forty years of ‘democratic’ rule. The question is, will the political crowd of Naya Pakistan spare some time from rhetoric to doing to what is doable — clearing the country of plastic pollution and the poisonous fumes that hit every man, woman and children in every corner of the country.

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The choice for us is either to live with the deplorable environment conditions that we inherited from the four decades of misrule, including that of Pervez Musharraf, or raise our voices, and become civically engaged in public affairs. No democratic government, how good it is, can be adequately responsive without citizens’ feedback. The challenge in Pakistan is more complex than may other developing countries for three reasons. First, the character of the ruling classes is predominantly oligarchic and feudal. The social and physical spaces neither connect nor are close to living spaces of the ordinary Pakistanis. The military and bureaucracy, the two other pillars of the ruling classes, have also carved up separate spatial and privileged locations. It is the same pattern of the elites during the colonial times living at a distance from the people.

Second, the media, which could play an effective role in highlighting public issues, is too much subservient to the interests of powerful political forces, lobbies and business interests. Their ‘formula’ programmes are empty of any public spirit, social substance, cultural sensitivity or genuine public interest. How come they don’t see the fumes of plastic burning billowing from the streets they travel every day?

Finally, we talk overly about the resilience of the Pakistani people, but forget that they have little political energy to engage with local issues, even in the streets. Irresponsive political elites and municipal services have turned them very pessimistic about their ability to influence behaviour of public office holders and concerned bureaucratic departments at local level.

We still have good amount of time to entertain the idea that we are living in Naya Pakistan. There are countries in the world that have banned the production, sale and use of plastic bags; and there are those who have the resources to collect and recycle them. In our case, we burn plastic, and the fumes of carcinogenic — cause cancer. The quality of air everywhere in Pakistan has deteriorated: it is worsening in the urban areas, where people, and even those who are supposed to clean the streets burn it. Controlling, and gradually eliminating air and water pollution should be a critical element of the greening Pakistan.

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In the past, governments have come, gone, alternated in power, and have done nothing about plastic pollution. Let us hope Prime Minister Imran Khan will not disappoint the nation. He has very successfully brought environment, trees and forestation of Pakistan into the public debate. On these issues, we don’t see any political disagreements. We need policies, laws and strict enforcement. The bold steps like removing encroachments and recovering public lands gives some confidence that we will end plastic pollution and hopefully breathe in cleaner air.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 28th, 2018.

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