We are all responsible

When was the last time any of us offered a bottle of water to a person standing on a roadside under the blazing sun?

Mehr Tarar June 25, 2015
The writer is a former op-ed editor of the Daily Times and a freelance columnist. She can be reached on twitter @MehrTarar

In the early hours of Wednesday, the number of dead was 750. As morgues overflow, graves are being dug on double the regular rate. An overwhelming number of deaths push the price of coffins and graves up; that happens in countries where human beings are mere statistics, and everything has a price tag as per the demand. Hospitals are running out of medical supplies, and even the most basic supplement for dehydrated bodies, like ORS, has either been used up or the stock is precariously low.

The people who have died are not victims in a warzone. They were not even hit by an unavoidable natural catastrophe like a flood or an earthquake. In the month of June, the deaths have occurred due to an unusual heatwave that scorched Karachi for days. While millions prayed for rain, many fell prey to the heat; a heat that is so much a part of our lives that it seems like a scene from a horror movie to hear of people dying because of it. Let’s blame it all on climate change. Notwithstanding the inevitability of all natural phenomena, there is much that is at play in this horrific scenario, and it is time all of us thought long and hard: millions in our cities live in worse conditions than animals, and there is nothing but absolute apathy that is displayed vis-a-vis the conditions in which they exist.

Consciences are awakened when pictures of frail, weather-beaten, emaciated persons are shown on HD screens and cluttered social media timelines. The leathery faces, the hard, calloused hands, the jutting ribcages, speak of a life where the body died long before the heatwave sealed it with a fatal blow. The dead bodies of nondescript men, women and children from that class of people who exist amidst us as invisible beings: peripheral, indistinguishable and insignificant. We ONLY talk about them — for a few hours, days — when we hear of them as statistics in another tragedy.

Bearing the Lahore summer in this blistering June, I’m no stranger to the hell this season brings. I grew up in simpler times when houses were huge, cities were greener, and long summers were spent in villages where one gust of wind meant no electricity for hours, and a strong shower of rain took away the electricity, along with mango-tree branches and sleep. I know what heat does to bodies and land, and to know that so many of my compatriots died simply because they were exposed to heat that we deal with every day of the summer in Lahore, numbs my mind. It’s so tragic, so preventable, so unnecessary that it’s macabre.

All around us, these people exist toiling amidst heat, cold, rain, darkness, long hours, tiny breaks, bad food, little or no water, dirty water, and endless days. And we drive past them grumbling gosh-how-hot-this-Monday-is, ensconced in our air-conditioned cars. Working on daily wages, they build houses, multi-storied buildings, flyovers and underpasses, perched without any safety gear on girders, climbing flimsy ladders, wiring newly-made walls and ceilings without any rubber gloves. They don’t put too high a value on their lives while they give their all to earn a living for their families.

While waiting for public transport they feel the heat burning holes in their bodies but they bear it with nothing more than a grunt. Most roads are stripped of trees, and there are not many places where they can take a few minutes of refuge from the heat. Leaving the dark, electricity-and-water-less hole that they call a house, those on bicycles ride for miles under the sweltering sun to workplaces where the labour is intense and the breaks very few. In the month of Ramazan, eating and drinking is prohibited in public places, and these people who work the entire day — unlike those who work from 8am-2pm in air-conditioned banks and offices during the holy month of prayer and patience — would be arrested if seen taking a sip of water, as their heads spin, hearts beat faster, and blood levels drop low.

And we become aware of their presence only when they appear as dead bodies on our TV screens and Twitter timelines. It’s not just power outages, shortage of water, shoddy governmental policies but also our apathy that is responsible for all the dead bodies in Karachi. When was the last time any of us offered a bottle of water to a person standing on a roadside under the blazing sun? Stopped the car to give a ride to children walking in heavy rain? Reached out to a frail person on a pavement who seemed almost comatose being hit deeply by cold or heat?

Published in The Express Tribune, June 26th, 2015.

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Javaid Bashir | 8 years ago | Reply Good take on the senseless deaths of citizens of Karachi. It is a grave tragedy that has fallen upon us this summer. It is natural catastrophe plus man made mass murder ordered by the minister of Water and Power. The government alone is to blame The corrupt , insensitive and inefficient and incompetent government that has not moved on this tragedy. The humanity is bleeding before us but we have shut our eyes. Where id the conscience of rich elite ? Can any tell us where are those politicians who make promises to uplift the lot of the people ? Do they feel the sufferings of these heat wave victims, who died at the alter of the governing class. I live in America, where the government and the people are sensitive to the people's plight. Who help others selflessly, and without any consideration or hope for any reward. There are countless organization that help people in trouble. They donate blood on regular basis. They share food with their neighbors and strangers in need. But still there are callous people who kill for fun or love hate crimes. But we can not compare them with us. We are proud of being Muslims. The question is do we follow the tenets of Islam ? We chose not to act according to moral and religious principles. We think these dead were not one of us. The number of heat stroke victims is rising and people continue to die, The mass graves are dug to bury them without giving bathing and performing other rituals, They are piled up in the Edhi morgue. Is it the duty of Edhi alone to come forward in any calamity and bury the dead ? Shame on us all.
lashkari | 8 years ago | Reply Exploitation - do unto others more than is done to you - is our yardstick for success, it's our creed. Why, ?, maybe it stems from a basic lack of surplus and harsh climate or, endemically bad upbringing bolstered by an uninteresting education. Or, this population is just closer to real truths of human existence and understands Capitalism in its unfettered glory. Either way, one cannot assume that just by being a little nicer to people, good things will happen. We will expect 'more' in return. Maybe not you or I, but people in positions of power will certainly learn to expect a little 'leeway'. Like they do for publicly displaying their devotion. There is no free lunch - people aren't going to become good people out of the goodness of their hearts. If we want to let the ordinary people be able to catch fish, we need a working system of accounts - tax-deductions for charity, welfare subsidies for transportation, power, minimum thresholds, and property rights for sitting tenants. What we had, was a feudal gift of 'fish' - except these govt.s, while undoubtedly having a nose for money, unfortunately seem not to see that nose.
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