Filling a vacuum


By Zubeida Mustafa

Wnen I went to call on Safina Siddiqi on her return from South Africa where she had gone to receive UNEP’s Global 500 Roll of Honour award on the World Environment Day, she was not home. Her house-help who has been with the family for over 20 years duly informed me that she was somewhere in the neighbourhood. I set out to hunt for her, being familiar as I was with her favourite haunts. Within five minutes I had located Safina. There she was at the roadside supervising the planting of saplings. Her hands were full of soil, for she considers her supervision incomplete if she does not show her personal involvement in the work by joining the gardeners in their task.

That did not surprise me. For that is how I have always found Safina — down-to-earth, unassuming with no airs about her and always ready to pitch in when help is needed. No sooner had I asked her how she was, that her eyes lit up and she went on to give me the details of how she had planted sixty-two saplings further down the road before she left for Pretoria.

“Nine of them had died by the time. I returned,” she remarked ruefully. But in the next breath she added, “I have now replaced them, so hopefully they will be fine.”

“Tell me something about your trip and the ceremony,” I said trying to get her to talk about herself and not just the plants and her work with which she identifies herself totally. Again her eyes lit up. “It was really thrilling,” she enthused. “You should see South Africa’s parks, they are so beautiful, so huge and so well-kept but with their natural environs intact,” she went on.

Here was a woman who had received the United Nations Environment Programme’s prestigious award a few days earlier. She was obviously pleased with the honour. But all she wanted to talk about was the planting of trees, repairing of sewers and fixing of roads. To get her to tell me something about the occasion which focused attention on her seemed impossible. With a lot of prodding and questioning I finally managed to get her round to describing it all. She had received the loudest applause. “May be because I was the oldest recipient among the 25 award-winners who were present,” she told me modestly — Safina is nearing 64. Quickly she went on to add that she did not deserve the award singly. “There are so many people who have worked with me and I feel I owe this honour to them. Something more, I can’t describe the thrill and pride I felt when I saw Pakistan’s flag at the venue of the award ceremony,” she said.

But it seems that not everyone in Pakistan feels that way. President Nelson Mandela found the time to make a brief scheduled appearance at the gathering to congratulate the award-winners and make an inspiring speech in which he spoke of being a member of the “planetary human family” and the need to preserve the environment. But no one from the Pakistan embassy in Pretoria bothered to turn up. Safina is the second Pakistani (journalist Nafisa Shah being the first) to have won this award which was instituted in 1987 to highlight the work of environment workers. She has emerged as a community leader showing the residents in her neighbourhood the way to operate as a pressure group to obtain from the civic agencies basic facilities like roads, sanitation and drinking water which are the rights of any citizen. In addition, she has also sought to mobilise the residents to work on a self-help basis in areas which are not too capital intensive such as tree plantation, maintaining parks, keeping street lights functional and garbage collection. The Karachi Administration Women’s Welfare Society which Safina founded seven years ago has helped transform the area in which it is working. Not that the neighbourhood is an epitome of cleanliness and perfect roads. It is a middle class locality and problems are there in plenty. But without Safina’s driving spirit it would have been immensely worse, as the “before” and “after” pictures which she has methodically fixed in her album testify to.

And yet only 16 years ago, Safina had had limited exposure to the professional world outside. She was a simple housewife running her home for her journalist husband, Zuhair Siddiqi, and the two daughters living with them, the son having taken up a job in America. But the sparks of the undaunting courage and initiative which have brought her where she is today were always present in her. Thus not many housewives study at home and appear privately for examinations to get a B.A. degree as Safina did when her own children were in school. She, however never ventured to take up a job apart from a stint of voluntary social work she did for an institution for the handicapped in Lahore.

And then came the turning point. Her husband was killed in a car accident in Islamabad in 1979 and the sheltered life Safina had been accustomed to came crashing down. Although her son proved to be a great support, she had to find a focus in her life and find something to do to keep herself busy. She turned to what came so naturally to her — her culinary skills. She started conducting cooking classes at home. But after some time she felt her methodology must be more scientific. “How could I teach a person to bake a cake or make jam without knowing the nutritional values of the various ingredients. I also had to have an understanding of the scientific principles involved in cooking and preserving food,” she observes. That prompted her to take up courses at the Ran goon wala C o m m u n i t y Centre and the Pakistan Hotel Management Institute.

That was Safina. She had to approach whatever she was doing correctly and in proper style. When she moved to her own house in the Karachi Administration Society, there was no time for the cooking classes. Living conditions in the locality were in a terrible state. No paved roads, no garbage collection, no road lights and overflowing sewers. At first she attempted to approach the authorities to get them to set things right. But she soon discovered that a lone voice — and that too a female one — carried no weight in the corridors of power. It was then that Safina set out to organise a women’s group. Since then there has been no turning back. Initially she worked on the agencies to get the roads built. Then came street lights, trees, a garbage collection system of sorts where none had existed, five parks, the cementing of the storm water drain which had been no more than a kachcha nullah , repairing of sewerage lines and much more.

But as had happened with her cooking classes, Safina was not satisfied with simply getting the finished product. She wanted to understand the processes that went into the working of the system. “I felt I had to familiarise myself with the structure and functioning of the different agencies to get the work done. I had to operate within the existing framework or try to change it if possible.” she says.

She adopted a holistic approach. Thus getting the municipality to set up the parks on the plots earmarked for them and planting the trees meant that she had to look into the water supply system as well. Working with women also required her to address problems like the crime situation, insanitation and contamination of water lines in the area. That brought her face to face with issues of membership of housing societies for she soon discovered much to her chagrin that obsolete laws gave the residents and plot-holders who were not original allottees no membership rights and as such no say in the administration of a housing society. In her own way she has become quite an expert on the workings of the civic agencies. She has put her knowledge to practical use by challenging them in cases where she has unearthed illegal allotment of amenity plots and other unlawful activities and even managed to get them revoked.

Safina’s ultimate test came in 1992 when she filed a human rights case in the Supreme Court to obtain clean drinking water for the residents of her locality. Armed with photographs and laboratory test reports of water samples she got residents to collect, she convinced the court that the leaking water mains and sewers were contaminating the water supply and thus posed a health hazard. The court ordered the concerned agency to change the pipes. “But there is much more to be done,” says Safina. “Since the Supreme Court bench dealing with such cases now sits only in Islamabad, it makes it difficult for me to seek legal redress,” she adds.

But she has made legal history for this was the first case of its kind in Pakistan. Similarly her effort to make the Sindh Cooperative Societies’ Act effective so that all plot-owners enjoy membership rights has yet to make a breakthrough.

What sets Safina apart from the innumerable NGOs working in the field of environment? Her goals are the same, namely, to improve the surroundings and thus better the quality of life of the people. For that she also believes that public awareness is essential to enlist the participation and cooperation of the people. This awareness has been created but involvement is lacking. Hence unlike most others she works at the grassroots level, not afraid of soiling her hands. Rather than sitting in airconditioned offices churning out jargon-filled and cliche-ridden reports and programmes, Safina actually goes out in the field and works to set an example for others. You can see her in the company of gardeners and sanitary workers motivating them to complete a task. If something illegal is happening, say an encroachment is taking place, Safina makes her physical presence felt in an attempt to stop it, while she approaches the concerned authorities.

When Safina first got involved in this kind of work she would strive more to bring public pressure to bear against the civic agency to resolve a problem. But gradually she has discovered that this does not always succeed because financial constraints are numerous and administrative hurdles prevent something from being done. Hence she has started mobilising the residents to undertake projects themselves on a self-help basis where possible.

Thus of the five parks she managed to get fenced before encroachments swallowed them up, one has been reserved for women. Safina has concentrated all her energy and resources on its development to demonstrate what can be achieved by the people themselves if they are motivated enough. Spread over 1900 square yards of land which was previously a sewage pond, the women’s park is lush green and well-looked after. The KMC has employed a maali for the park but the supervision and maintenance comes from Safina and her other colleagues. They not only keep an eye on the gardener’s work but take it upon themselves to buy plants and seeds and get the water pump repaired when it goes out of order so that the park does not go dry. Small wonder the park draws crowds of women and children, especially on days the city is in the grip of tension.

She now has a full understanding of where group pressure on the civic agencies is needed, where media exposure is necessary and where legal action is called for.

“My immediate goal is to revive public interest litigation to help citizens obtain their civic rights. After all potable water, sanitation, public parks and clean air are the basic rights of the people. I hope to win these rights through the courts. “But I must stress that we need public involvement as well. Environment awareness is not enough by itself. It must be followed by action, which unfortunately is not forthcoming in most cases. Public participation can come through mohalla committees which people in every neighbourhood of Karachi should set up. These committees should have in their folds public spirited men and women who are willing to work to obtain clean water, sanitation, tree plantation and security. We are willing to share our experience with them,” Safina says.

She also hopes to develop the four parks in her Society which are at present no more than vacant plots with a fence round them. Additionally she is trying to devise a door to-door garbage collection system in her Society in the near future with the cooperation of the residents. “I am confident that this can be done especially now that sufficient awareness has been created and people themselves want it. They approach me for advice and help and are also willing to pay for some of the services,” she says.

To mobilise and lead women for their own uplift comes very naturally to Safina. She went for a year to Murree to get her house built on the land that she had inherited from her father. Within no time she had mobilised the women in the neighbouring village to set up a vocational centre, obtain clean water and open a dispensary.

And yet Safina is working against heavy odds. She realises it. “The major problem is that the community feeling which was such a source of strength to the people in yesteryear has broken down all over the country. Pakistanis have become more individualistic and more selfish in the process. They do not want to share anything — be it their wealth, their knowledge, their time, or their effort. Money and upward mobility has destroyed their collective spirit,” Safina observes sadly.

“Not that they are not concerned at the garbage littered around or the shortage of potable water. They are quite articulate about their concerns. But most of them are not at all prepared to take collective action by getting involved in common corrective measures. Thus they do not want to join hands to demand water. Instead they will go and buy bowsers for themselves. If there is crime in their locality, they do not opt for a neighbourhood security system. They will hire an armed guard”. If their own garden is clean they will not do anything to get the garbage dump outside their home cleared. Of course there are some people who are an exception and I derive a lot of support from them, but their number is not substantial enough to make a wide impact,” she adds.

“You will be surprised that the worst are the so-called educated people, especially the professionals, who can and should be doing the most. But no lawyer from our neighbourhood offered us his services when we went to court although we have so many lawyers living in this locality. None of the doctors who lives here has taken any interest in the sanitation work we are involved in. Even the religious leaders do not want to take up the cause of the environment. They never talk about issues such as planting trees or keeping one’s neighbourhood clean in their khutbas and dars. Probably they consider such matters as too mundane. But when we planted trees around the mosque the pesh imam was delighted — could he not have undertaken this job himself with the help of his congregation?” Safina asks. The public approach and behaviour very often leave her in despair.

Source: Dawn 11-07-1995