A nascent group in Karachi rises to take control of their city; raising their voice through protest, community projects and action.
“It was Good Friday and I had some spare time that evening. I was toying with the idea of creating a Facebook group to tackle community issues. I strongly felt that unless we the citizens applied pressure on the government to solve the numerous civic problems, our city would eventually collapse”, says Imran Ahmad, founder of Mera Karachi Group (My Karachi Group). Karachi is a swarming and expansive metropolis. It is Pakistan’s largest city ranked by population, and it is plagued by political mafias and interest groups, issues of public land and housing, traffic congestion and air pollution, sewage and sanitation problems, as well as a contracting green cover. Imran Ahmad feels anger when thinking of the city’s dilapidating infrastructure, violence and next to non-existent administrative oversight – a frustration that is so widely shared that it took him almost no time to set up a vibrant public activist community.
Taking it on as it comes
“I had no clue how to recruit initial support for the group. Eventually I put up a brief vision of what I had and posted it. At the same time I invited a few families and Facebook friends to join if they liked the idea.” Initially Imran named it the Karachi Pressure Group. It attracted 1500 people in just two days. “Here was a group of people who thought this was going to be an organized “movement” and here was I without a plan”, Imran recounts. A humble businessman, it was his prior experience with a civic organization that was the motivating factor for him to start this group.
After these initial two days, Imran invited a few trusted people to join him. Veqar Islam and Zulfiqar Ramzi accepted immediately. Together the trio decided to take on issues as they came. By using the Facebook group they would be able to connect with people to get a better idea of what exactly are the most pressing issues in the city of 20 million.
One of the first suggestions from the community was to strike the word “pressure” from the group’s name since it sounded provocative. This highlighted the potential consequences of creating such a collective: It directly puts you up against political interest groups and mafias – all trying to control a part of the metropolis. “Obviously we are a threat. We are bold enough to call a spade a spade but also careful so that we do not push someone against the wall. In an intolerant society we have to practice caution”, says Imran.
Still within the first ten days of its conception, the group rapidly grew in members – about 200 each day. The time had arrived to organize the group. A transitory governing council was formed, comprising of Imran himself, Veqar, Zulfiqar, and four other collaborators: Mr. Salah Uddin, Mahmood Nanji, Zahoor Motiwala and Rayhan Ahmad. Three further group members – Sameena Adamjee, Rana Siddiqui and Sabiha Wahedena – volunteered to act as moderators. Together, they can monitor the group 24/7, as Sameena and Rana are based overseas, in a different time zone from Karachi.
Hitting the ground, focusing, decentralizing Following the web launch, the newly named Mera Karachi Group initiated its first offline activity: a Goodwill Walk. On a sunny Sunday morning, a group of 200 people including Imran and his friends walked along Seaview, Karachi’s public beach. The governing council personally met some of the people attached to Mera Karachi Group on Facebook. In that first face-to-face meeting, they signed up 100 volunteers.
“Out of the myriad of problems we picked a few issues that we would work on initially. Those were: sanitation and cleanliness, traffic education and tree plantation.” Forming three teams to address these issues, the group realized that with limited resources it made saner sense to focus on building volunteer groups to take care of their own neighborhoods, respectively. Essentially that meant devolving the centralized group and its structure. Today, the group functions as an unregistered community. “Everyone involved is here for the good work we want to do, not for fancy titles or financial benefits. We do not solicit financial donations, we encourage people to donate their time and talent”, Imran elaborates.
Challenges and hopes
But in some instances, an institution would be needed to back the community’s work. A case in point, Imran explains, is a recent legal action against the cutting of trees and the illegal installation of billboards in Karachi. The group members had to use their personal names in the legal documents. In the founder’s assessment, the group is now “at a point where we will have to take a decision if we want to continue as an unregistered group or set ourselves as a registered society or a foundation.”
There are other obstacles to the group’s effectiveness. Social media has been pivotal in enabling Mera Karachi Group to communicate and disseminate information. But access is limited by class privileges. Not everyone in Karachi has digital exposure or the capital to get their hands on a smartphone. “It is a challenge to reach out to those who do not have a digital presence”, says Imran.
But the group’s founder himself has not given up hope in the potential of collaborative work: “If we can provide simple solutions to complex issues when involving the stakeholders, then we can bring relief. Over three decades of exponential and uncontrolled growth, Karachi-ites have given up. We want to work with them on a path that takes us towards recovery. This can only be achieved when we work together.” Think realistically. Think big.
Out of the de-centralization arose a number of leaders. One is Abida Iffat, an accountant. Through the group’s umbrella, she initiated the 1000 tree campaign to increase the city’s green cover after the city’s heatwave in June, 2015. Living in Karachi’s district of Gulistan-e-Johar, Abida approached the civic agency responsible for providing services there, leading to a pilot planting project. This year, Abida was able to plant 1000 trees in collaboration with the local authorities in Cantonment Malir. Initially all parks and green spaces under the agency’s purview were selected for the campaign. The Cantonment Board assured the maintenance of the saplings throughout the year and even involved the local gardeners.
Decentralized activities like this campaign tie back to the larger group, using its reach. For instance, in May of this year, in a spate of illegal chopping of trees, Mera Karachi Group organized a protest. Abida’s feelings about all this: “I am really upset about the misplaced priorities of my fellow citizens. I am not an expert on environmental issues but the simple thing I know is that trees are essential for us. I am annoyed at why the government or private companies fail to realize this point.”
Neither this loss nor her ill health can stop Abida’s vigor and drive to continue in action. She has a message for people facing similar scenarios in the rest of the world: “If you see something and you don’t like it – change it! Nobody will be there to solve your problem. If you want to do something for your people, your area or your country, you should do it. Think realistically. Think big. You can do anything you want to!”
Basil Andrews is a cultural photographer and writer. His work revolves around urban spaces and indigenous narratives on land and water. He tweets @_basilandrews.
Originally published by Future Perfect