Some of the women of Clifton have had it with the damaged roads outsides their houses and their children’s schools. They went to their union council nazims and administrators, they have spoken to the men who run their building associations and they have written letters to the City District Government Karachi. All they received in return were figurative pats on the back and empty promises.
As empty promises don’t build roads, the women decided that if they wanted the job done, they would have to do it themselves.
For one or two hundred rupees a day these women have found an initial although workable solution to get rid of the potholes and ditches. “We promise the garbage pickers on the road that if they fill up the ditches in an hour or two we will give them cash,” explained one of the women living in Block 5 of Clifton, Muniza Saleem.
The women were surprised to learn that the garbage pickers are usually more than happy to perform the task. They fill up the hole with mud and then top it off with stones and pebbles to secure it. It may be a temporary solution that lasts till the end of the month or the next heavy rain, whichever comes first, but at least something has been done.
Saleem started this alone, she did not ask for anyone’s help, and she did not advertise her idea to the rest of the women in the building. But over the course of three years, that’s how long she has been doing this, her neighbours, other women, began to follow her example.
“If we don’t do this, then who will?” asked Rehana Gulfam. “My husband is part of the government but no one listens to anyone. The best way is to do it yourself.” The ditches and potholes, which suddenly appear out of nowhere when you are driving, make it dangerous to drive at night, especially since the street lights rarely work and oncoming traffic uses the high-beam to blind you. They have also contributed to traffic jams. Gulfam also got the run-around when she went on her own to try and get the civic authorities to help. The defunct union council nazim “understood” their frustration with the damaged roads but he refused to help them because he said he had no funds.
To make matters worse, the roads that the government does build, or the patchwork, is so shoddy that it takes a burst sewage pipeline or rain to wash away the work. “They only allocate a budget to build the road, not to maintain it,” she said she also discovered.
Not all the women ask garbage pickers to fill up the ditches, they offer the job to anyone they see loitering on the street. They explained that the best job is usually done by the street children. In return, the children are promised food and drinks and they work faster than others and do a better job that lasts longer. At other times, they even ask newspaper vendors or errand boys who are employed by the grocery shops nearby to fix the roads in exchange for one or two hundred rupees. “The biggest operation we conducted was when they tore down a building nearby and left behind a pile of rubble,” said one woman. “We went and spoke to the construction workers there and asked them if we could have the rubble. The labourers helped us load it into our cars and transport it to different roads around our houses in Block 5.” The man filled up the patches with the rubble and the women discovered that the ditches remained fixed much longer that way than with the mud and stones.
“This city is ours and so are these roads. Initially I would think the government should maintain these roads,” said Gulfam. “But now I think that it’s best if you clean up the mess yourself.”
Published in The Express Tribune, August 24th, 2011.