Of Lost Lands & Dying Rivers

Humnah Farooqui

He stands before a well. It is a vast crater in the ground, its dark water shallow, draining out. Rags and candy wrappers float on the surface. It a dying well, its worn condition suggesting disuse, but he stands before it, and speaks life into it, telling us of how it feeds the fields around us. He is gesticulating, mapping the source of water with his pointing finger.

His voice is difficult to hear over the sound of rushing water from a tube well nearby and the chatter of women. They wash clothes on an elevated marble surface above the field. Their bangles catch the light and gold flecks fall in to the water below them. The rushing water that they use and that feeds the well comes from the tube well. The tube well is connected to a wall of a factory, it gushes out pink water under the shade of a banyan tree into a small water channel that the women bend down towards.

The guide assures us that the water isn’t for drinking, that it is to water the fields, to wash their clothes, but our disgust does not dissipate. This unnatural water is treated chemical waste from the factory, given to water their land and stain it pink.

On our way back to the village, we walk across a field covered in cracks. Our guide tells us that some of the land has fallen to disuse, and that rice and vegetable fields are few and far apart because the river is so polluted. He tells us that the entire area fed all of Karachi once. Now they can barely sell enough produce to sustain themselves.

We are in Goth Shahili, in Korangi, Korangi that was once completely rural was developed as an industrial zone by the allocation of rural land. Its fields are a vivid green, a sudden burst of life as you turn into a narrow street away from the monotony of drab grey factories of Korangi.

Korangi is the industrial area whose smoke, dust and concrete is the litany of the urban cityscape Industrial Pakistan has now fenced in these fields from all four sides. This has occurred through the forcible seizure of farmers’ land through the Land Acquisition Act from 1984 which entitled the government to private land that was meant for public purposes.

“The public good,” scoffs Malik later, a Goth elder as we huddle around him in his courtyard with its silence and its trees, neem leaves and dusk light falling on to us as we listen to his stories. “They never put us into the equation of what public good was.”

He tells us about this rural heart, how it was the agricultural hub of Karachi, how the 5 dehs were responsible for the main agricultural output of the port city. But that is before industry came and concrete spread over grass, before farmers’ lands were shrunken to lots, and the open horizon at the edge endless fields was closed in by the facades of factories.

He tells us how by 1966, 1500 acres were taken for industry, when 300 were promised. He tells how his land was lost, bit by bit, falling through his fingers like sand and turning to the concrete grounds upon which rich factory owners staked their claim. He reminds us of the violence of development that took his ancestral land and gave him, in compensation just 20 million (when the land’s value is 88 million) to be divided amongst three generations of his large family.

He tells us how the Malir river was drained, during the 70’s, to build the city’s residential zones of DHA and Gulshan-e-Iqbal, how silt, stone and sand built the edifices that made modern Karachi but led to 85% top soil erosion. Its beds have been erased; wild grass grows at its edges with dead dogs nestled within the grass. The expansion of industrial and urban development in Karachi has led to this shrunken river, to the fields that can grow only grass.

“Lost rivers, lost land, lost our way of life, but we go on.” He smiles at us.

Note: Source: Making Karachi. Shahana Rajani, Shayan Rajani. Tanqeed.

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