The last week of February 2019 brought with it a strong stench of solid waste that was scattered on most roadsides and streets in the city. The pedestrians, especially the school-going children, were the most affected as they had to walk along this waste lying about over long distances.
Additionally, the heaps of waste in areas with busy markets and bazaars hurt the businesses bad, as the smell made it impossible for common customers to stay there. People were spotted covering their noses with handkerchiefs. The situation worsened in the event of a rain, as the abandoned solid waste now started to float in stagnant pools of water.
The citizens who were directly hit made their utmost efforts to have the waste taken away from their areas; to no avail. The standard answer they got was that the workers of the Lahore Waste Management Company (LWMC) were on strike and so the management was helpless in this regard.
There was some relief when the vehicles of the Turkish contractor, post suspension for five or so days, started to visit different waste collection points for disposal at the designated landfill site.
During their period of strike, the sanitary workers had been in the field and collected waste on a regular basis. The real issue was with the vehicle drivers who were on strike and not picked up the waste — their vehicles remained parked at the depots throughout this time.
The strike has now been called off, and sanitary workers have resumed duties after the payment of one-month salaries to them. But the question remains as to how can more than half of the city be allowed to be held hostage by a handful of drivers. Why wasn’t there an alternative plan in place to remove this toxic waste, and what were the other civic departments doing? Also, have the LWMC and district administration taken any steps to avoid a similar situation in the future?
It is quite likely that these government organisations shall come up with a standard answer about a better strategy being worked out. But the situation on ground seems quite challenging, that is, if one believes in the information shared by credible sources in the Punjab government. The sources predict many similar strikes in the times to come, provided the underlying issues are not resolved sooner.
The sources also reveal that the real issue was the forensic audit of the seven-year contract period having perturbed the Turkish contractor Albayrak that feared heavy deductions under different counts. Similarly, the managing director of the LWMC had ordered deduction of salary amount to the tune of Rs98.8 million for ‘ghost workers’ (who were getting wages but not doing any work). The company instigated its drivers to go on strike, and put pressure on the government so that it could avoid deductions suggested by the auditors.
Muhammad Mujtaba, an ex-councilor in Lahore, terms the disassociation of local government representatives from the waste management system the major reason for the ever-worsening performance of the company. As most of these representatives belong to the PML-N, he says, the sitting government does not want to give them any role in solid waste management.
According to Mujtaba, the LWMC officials are disturbed and, hence, avoid taking any initiatives over fears of being grilled by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) just like the latter did with their former head in 2017. Besides, he says, the government takes long time to clear the dues of the LWMC and contractors, and even release funds for salaries.
The strike in Lahore was announced by the drivers employed by the Turkish contractor Albayrak that manages area on the side of Ferozepur towards North Lahore. The area beyond this point towards Raiwind Road is managed by the second Turkish contractor Ozpak.
In terms of union councils (UCs), Albayrak manages solid waste in 135 UCs, Ozpak in 117, and the LWMC in 22. Albayrak is paid $14 per tonne of solid waste it carries to the dumping site whereas the amount payable to Ozpak is $18 per tonne because the latter has to travel longer distances to reach the landfill site in Lakhoder. If the labour cost is added, the amounts swell to $31 and $14 respectively.
The general perception among the PTI government bigwigs is that the Turkish contractors had a field day during the contract period for being the brainchild of ex-chief minister Mian Shehbaz Sharif. That is why it called for forensic audit soon after coming to power.
Sohail Malik, Manager Operations at LWMC, denies any negligence on the part of the company, saying that the “teams worked tirelessly to clear the waste backlog even after the strike ended following the payment of salaries.”
He also says that the company even called the machinery working in rural areas and sought help of the Water and Sanitation Authority (WASA) to lift the waste from different spots in the city. “There was need to do extra efforts to clear the backlog and the company succeeded in this.
“The citizens can submit complaints by calling at the helpline 1139, or using the free mobile phone app, ‘Clean Lahore.’ They can take pictures and send them to the company using the same app.”
The issue at hand is that the contracts of Turkish companies are about to expire, and the handing over of the UCs to the LWMC will be done phase-wise to be completed by March 2020. After that, as per the LWMC plan, international tenders shall be floated and a company (or companies) with competitive rates, experience and credibility shall be awarded contract(s).
Recommendations submitted by related government departments in this regard include bringing the contract period down from seven years, awarding contracts to multiple companies to promote competition and discourage monopoly or blackmailing, increasing powers of the LWMC to impose fines in case of poor performance by companies, inclusion of provision of a 90-day notice to companies to improve their performance or quit, enhancing LWMC’s coverage to housing societies, DHA, cantonment area, Railway lands etc.
Jamil Khawar, an LWMC spokesman, is hopeful things shall improve with time, as the company remains committed to the cause of keeping the city clean and its environment healthy. Through TNS, he requests the citizens of Lahore to play their due role by not littering the roads/streets, especially with non-degradable plastic material. “This will decrease the workload of the company as well as make it more efficient and responsive,” he declares.