Avoidable Deaths

FOR the last two years, the entire nation, led by the media, has been preoccupied with issues of corruption, offshore companies and Supreme Court verdicts. As a result, issues such as water, sanitation, education and environment no longer figure seriously in the political discourse. But there is also another issue that does not figure, and has never figured, in any manifesto or political discussion ie avoidable deaths which are increasing in geometric proportions as Pakistan struggles with the repercussions of unplanned urbanisation.

People die when it rains. They drown or they are electrocuted. This is accepted as normal although flooding takes place at the same place and for the same causes every year. In Karachi, the cause given is encroachment by katchi abadis on the natural drainage system. Attempts are often made to remove these encroachments. However, even if they are removed, Karachi will still flood as the outfalls of the drainage system to the sea have, for the most part, been encroached upon, by elite formal-sector housing. Also, though Karachi’s 50-plus large natural drains are still intact, thousands of minor drains that fed into them have disappeared, and in the absence of a planned drainage system, the roads and neighbourhoods have been turned into drains. The process of eliminating the sub-drains continues unabated as the Sindh Building Control Authority grants approval to plans that do not safeguard them.

Another major cause of avoidable deaths is road accidents. In Pakistan, it is estimated that some 5,500 persons die in road accidents every year. The figure for Karachi is just over 1,000 annually. Fatal accidents involving pedestrians in the city have more than doubled after the development of signal-free roads. In addition, buses carrying passengers constantly fall off mountain tracks or trucks overturn because of unchecked overloading.

In media interviews, police officials have put the blame for these accidents on unskilled drivers (60 per cent without licences), overspeeding and overtaking without indication and a general sense of fatalism in society. But there are other reasons also. The general public and drivers are more often than not unaware of traffic rules and also of safety-related precautions that need to be taken while navigating traffic. Then, planners plan for the automobile and their projects do not take into consideration the needs of pedestrians and low-income settlements.

Known urban hazards remain unaddressed.

Over the last five years, regular fires in factories and offices have been reported from all over Pakistan. Usually, a short circuit is identified as the cause of fire. This means that substandard wiring has been used or the electrical system has not been properly designed. The question that arises is why the manufacturing of substandard cables is allowed and who is responsible for the substandard designs.

Building by-laws, zoning regulations and engineering standards have appropriate fire-related laws and regulations, both for prevention and emergencies. Where fires have occurred, regulations have either not been followed or systems have not been maintained by the owners.

Except for the large cities, fire-fighting facilities do not exist. Even in the large cities they are inadequate and incapable of putting out fires quickly. Under the law, water hydrants for filling up fire engines have to be provided at various locations in the city and/or on the factory premises. These either do not exist or do not function, with the result that the fire engines have to go back to their stations to get water while people burn to death. The facilities that do exist are inadequate and have difficulty in accessing fires beyond six storeys. This is serious because Karachi is becoming a high-rise city with more than 100 buildings of between 20 to 50 floors currently under construction.

In addition, formally and informally built buildings often collapse killing the inhabitants; a large number of people die because of firing in the air to celebrate weddings and national days; and the number of persons drowning in the sea, manholes and cesspools is large and on the increase.

With urbanisation, these trends are rapidly increasing and the public response is one of violence, leading in many cases to social anarchy. The most important aspect in dealing with these issues is the need for the promotion of a civic culture of which the introduction of appropriate curriculum at schools and colleges and sustained public awareness-raising programmes would be the major ingredients. Also, institutions of urban management must be created where they do not exist, and strengthened where they do. But the process for creation of such a culture cannot even be initiated in the absence of a recognition by political parties and policymakers that this is an important development matter and that building expensive infrastructure alone, will not overcome but aggravate it.

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