It was February 10, 2014 when the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)-led Sindh government passed the Sindh Solid Waste Management Board (SSWMB) Bill, 2014. Power politics over Karachi’s garbage ensued in the city thereafter.
On March 7, Sindh’s then governor Dr Ishrat ul Ebad belonging to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the second largest political force in the province back then, which also had serious reservations with the bill – gave his assent to it.
After the controversial Sindh Local Government Act (SLGA), 2013, the SSWMB’s Act turned out to be one of the most effective measures taken by the Sindh government to control the elected local government.
The purpose of the board was to collect and dispose of solid waste in the province by outsourcing this function to a foreign firm. After the board was formed, the city’s elected municipal body Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) was relieved of the garbage collection function. According to the Act, the Sindh chief minister is chairman of the board, while the mayor of Karachi is an ex-officio member.
Mayor Karachi, Wasim Akhtar says he recalls just two meetings of the SSWMB over a span of three years, when Jam Khan Shoro was the provincial local government minister. But why did an MQM governor give his assent to the law? Akhtar says that back then the political situation was ‘strange’, and that Ebad made decisions on his own, without consulting the party.
Akhtar recalls the directive of a Supreme Court-appointed judicial commission on water and sanitation, headed by Justice (retd) Amir Hani Muslim, to restore the garbage handing function to the KMC and the district municipal corporations (DMCs). This, he says, was never implemented.
After the 2016 local government elections, the KMC and the six DMCs of the city had elected their councils. The board needed to seek resolutions by each district’s elected council to start its work in the district. In the seven cantonment areas of the city, the board has no power.
In four districts – Central, East, Korangi and West –the MQM won the elections. Malir and South went to the PPP. The MQM-led DMC East and PPP-led DMC South became the first two districts to pass council resolutions in favour of the board to start their operations.
A Chinese company, Changyi Kangjie Sanitation Engineering Company, was given a contract for these two districts in January 2017. This was the time when every nook and cranny of the city had heaps of garbage. Hundreds of red-, yellow- and blue-coloured plastic wrapped bin boxes, garbage-lifting machines, garbage compactor trucks, tricycle refuse vehicles, handcarts, dustbins of 240-litre capacity, several 280-litre steel dustbins, showers to clean trees, mechanical sweepers and street-washing vehicles reached the city. This raised hopes for a clean Karachi.
But not all that starts well ends well too. The situation did improve in a few areas of the city, but in the other areas the board failed to deliver due to several administrative and political issues. The Chinese companies did bring their mechanical fleet with them, but the labour was to be provided by the DMCs.
DMCs for East and South districts transferred their municipal labour to the board. According to an official of the SSWMB who requested to remain anonymous, “The Chinese companies do not have power to terminate or issue any notice to the labour.”
Later Malir and West districts also allowed the board to operate in their areas and the contract was awarded to a Chinese firm, Hangzhou Jinjiang Sanitation services, in 2018. However, no municipal staff was transferred to the board from these two DMCs. The Chinese company then brought in private labour. In August this year, the board terminated the firm’s contract for district West for failing to do the job satisfactorily. The same firm, however, continues to do its job in Malir district.
The board, according to an official in its finance department, pays $16 to $17 to the Chinese company for lifting a ton of garbage. “If the company doesn’t perform well, the board can reduce this rate,” the official says. At their Garbage Transfer Stations (GTSs), the official says, they have weighbridges, where the board weighs the garbage.
The board also pays to the Chinese companies for seven service components besides the per ton rate. All in all, according to the official, the board pays around Rs 140 million a month to the two Chinese companies. As for the salaries of the municipal staff that was transferred from the DMCs, the board roughly gets Rs 70 million from the provincial government.
For Korangi district, the SSWMB’s operations director Muhammad Tariq says, they have the council resolution in their favour. He says that in two months a contract will be awarded to a firm.
District Central chairman, Rehan Hashmi, of the MQM says they receive ‘zero funds’ from the Sindh government for garbage collection and disposal. That is how, he says, the provincial government has forced the DMCs to pass council resolutions in favour of the SSWMB.
The amount the DMCs receive under the head of Octrai Zila Tax (OZT), he says, is insufficient to pay salaries of its staff. Hashmi says that he is taking a principled stance on the issue demanding that garbage collection should not be a provincial matter. “Had the Sindh government paid us half of the amount they pay to the Chinese companies, we would have cleaned our districts,” he claims.
Responding to this concern, adviser to Sindh chief minister, Murtaza Wahab says it is all about money. If the provincial government hands the funds to the DMCs, he says, they may be embezzled as happened in the past. The DMCs, he says, generate handsome revenues through charged parking fees, immovable property tax and other departments. Hashmi claims that the Central district alone is facing a shortfall of Rs 96.75 million.
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The story doesn’t end there. There are serious questions over the performance of the board. For the four districts in which the SSWMB is operative, the board has four functional garbage transfer stations: at EBM Causeway for East district, at Dhobi Ghat for South district, at Sharafi Goth for Malir district and at Qasba Colony for West district. From these stations, the garbage is transferred to two landfill sites in the city at Jam Chakro and Gondpas.
Garbage brought to these stations is only left uncovered and poses serious health hazards for residential societies nearby. An official of the board’s GTS department says they are carrying out a feasibility study for covering and fencing the stations.
Ever since the board came into being, the provincial government’s budget has had schemes for the establishment of six stations with material recovery (MR) and refuse derived fuel (RDF) facilities in the city. But for now, there’s no work to show on ground.
As for the landfill sites, the provincial government has had a plan since 2016 to scientifically improve them. Another plan to establish a new landfill site at Dhabeji was initially meant to be completed by June 2019. No work has been initiated on the project so far.
*Names of SSWMB’s officials have been omitted on their request