It isn’t so bad in December, January, February, when cool air and mild sunshine lulled the city into good cheer. Winter in Karachi has the same effect that summer has in Europe, luring people out of their houses to enjoy the beautiful weather; a rainstorm can send them out into the streets, faces upturned to the water and wind. We are not afraid to come out of our houses at midday; whole families zigzag across the city on motorbikes, dressed in leather jackets, woolen shawls, and even the odd snowsuit worn by a toddler held tightly in his mother’s arms. At night a snappy breeze drops the temperature down even further, as the poor light smoky wood fires in the lanes of their slums and the more affluent pull out creaky heaters and don warm socks and vests to guard against winter coughs and colds.
In January, if the lights go out while you are in a store, you can bear with the suspension of the credit card machine, the dim sunlight filtering through the windows. You and the shopkeeper exchange quick smiles, a shorthand comment: Phir se bijli gai (the electricity has gone again). At home, you can’t watch television or use the Internet, because even if you had electricity, the cable operators and Internet providers don’t, so you miss out on your entertainment – but that too can be borne easily enough. The power cuts themselves are infrequent and short, anyway, and you have developed a slight case of amnesia; forgetting last year’s nightmares enables you to survive another year in this city.
But come June, when the lights go out three or four times a day, in temperatures of anywhere from 35 to 42 °C, it’s impossible to imagine or forget your way out of this cruelty. And it’s not just the heat – it’s the humidity, that succubus that pushes the heat index up by ten degrees, makes the roads shimmer with sultry mirages and dehydrates labourers so fast that they collapse and die of heatstroke within hours. Children faint while at school; hospitals are unable to operate incubators and other vital equipment; water pumps stop working. Students can’t study for their exams, factory outputs fall by twenty, thirty, fifty per cent. The city has been crippled like this every day for the last four years, and all signs point to even worse conditions in the future, with Karachi’s population expanding faster than the city’s grid has the capacity to bear.
The daily loss of power is like having a relative in the hospital who teeters between life and death. One minute he’s going, going, gone – and then he suddenly strains back towards life, vital signs up, respiration good, pulse steady. Only, in the case of Karachi and her electricity supply, the patient never dies, never fully recovers; in fact repeats the same feat every day, several times over.
Imagine: you are sitting in the middle of traffic on a busy Karachi street, when the traffic lights suddenly go out. Cars start moving in every direction, smooth- flowing traffic deteriorates into chaos and motorcycles squeeze between the lines to escape the gridlock and into the wild, empty road beyond. A lone traffic cop stumbles his way into the middle of the intersection and tries to rein in the madness; if he succeeds, it’s only because the weary commuters find it easier to go along with his instructions than to forge ahead in their own style. This can happen anytime, anywhere: at night the streetlights will often cut out too, for good measure, so that only the headlights of the oncoming cars stand between you and a fatal accident. And the pedestrians dash across the street: dark, shapeless forms, far too many of them appearing as casualty figures in the newspaper the next morning.
Pakistanis stopped asking ‘why’ a long time ago: slowly but steadily over the last forty years, coups, corrupt governments and military dictatorships have taken away our ability to question. We are like the frogs who jump out of boiling water, but will remain happily submerged if you only turn the heat up on them little by little. The denial of our electrical power is a petty sin in comparison to the theft of our political power.
To appease us, the government offers a myriad of reasons for the shortfall: dry seasons, electricity theft, non-payment of taxes and bills, ancient infrastructure. The government also claims that the power companies are not operating at full capacity, or they’re not selling all the electricity they produce to the government (the rumor is that it’s being shunted off to Afghanistan instead, for the US Army and its activities across the border).
But when the Karachi Electrical Supply Corporation simply triples its rates for home users while supplying one-half or one-third the power they did before, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for the benighted company. And when federal ministers and other government officials are caught red-handed using illegal connections for political rallies and private weddings, any patience you might have had evaporates into the sweltering Karachi air.
During Musharraf’s presidency, he proposed the construction of two major dams on the northern stretch of the Indus River; the political controversy these plans stirred up became one of the major reasons for Musharraf’s unpopularity and eventual downfall. One of these dams, the Kalabagh Dam, would have destroyed the agricultural industry in the southern province of Sindh, where Karachi is located.
This year the United States has pledged one billion dollars to the energy sector; technical support is to come from General Electric and other American power companies in the private sector. But the recent floods have caused even more damage to the power stations and infrastructure, and valuable aid money will be diverted to repairing that devastation for a long time to come.
But Pakistanis are even more suspicious of American promises than they are of GoP ones. Who will accept American electricity when that other symbol of American power, the Predator drone, flies so freely in our airspace? And the people of Karachi need a solution now, not five years down the line.
In the meantime, we are left to our own devices, the tool of choice being the humble but sturdy generator. Silence used to be the sound of a power cut; now it’s the industrial symphony of a dozen Chinese generators, supplying an entire city with its electrical fix.
In his 1999 novel Moth Smoke, Mohsin Hamid wrote about the air-conditioned classes – the elite – and the non air-conditioned classes – the masses. Today, the divide falls between those who have a generator and those who do not. The moment the lights go out, generators are fired up; they roar and drone like a hundred speedboats, drowning out noise, conversation, traffic, thought. The stench of diesel spreads all around, black smoke belching up into the air and staining walls with soot. At least with a generator, life can go on, hamstrung but not halted. The generator-less come out on the streets to riot against the power cuts every few months or so, but return to their homes, defeated at the end of the day when nobody listens to them or does anything about their plight.
Everyone with a little money in this city has a generator. Every business, every store, every office, every restaurant. The elixir they deliver, uninterrupted electricity, is more valuable than the sixty litres of diesel that a large-size generator can burn through in two days.
The government has announced austerity measures: two-day weekends, forced closures of shops by eight p.m., the switching-off of all billboards and unnecessary streetlights, and the banning of air conditioning in government offices. But businesses and shop owners say that they cannot make any profits if they close down in the cooler evenings when most Pakistanis emerge from their houses to do their shopping. The province of Baluchistan has declared outright they will not comply with some of the measures, especially the two-day weekend for schools, as they will harm an already dire economy and education system. In Sindh, Punjab, Khyber-Paktunkhwa, shopkeepers simply flout the curfew hours, and the government turns a blind eye. Instead, the police concentrate on raiding marriage halls and having the lights closed at midnight, forcing wedding guests in all their finery to creep home in the dark.
In Pakistan, we deal in darkness every day. We get by in conditions that the developed world would find unbearable, unacceptable; in ways that are by turns clever, conniving, original and criminal. Look up at an electricity cable in Macchar (Mosquito) Colony, a slum with over 700,000 inhabitants, and you’ll see a dozen or so wires called kundas hooked on to the connection points. These kundas are ubiquitous in Karachi, siphoning electricity off the grid that never gets paid for and costs KESC about a billion rupees each year. People pay their local electrician a nominal sum to reverse or slow down their electricity meters, or bribe the meter-readers into overlooking or fudging the numbers. Rich industrialists refuse to pay their electricity bills and enjoy enough influence to escape punishment. And corruption within the KESC allows the cycle to continue without end.
It’s a vicious circle that leads to more and more shortfall, but Karachi’s port, industries and businesses must all have electricity to keep the economy going. Pakistan depends utterly on the revenue that Karachi brings in, billions of rupees that far outweigh any other province’s contribution. So deals will be done, both over the table and under it, and life will limp on. There is something particularly dogged and stubborn about the people of this Karachi, who manage to find ways around their obstacles, like vines that break through the thickest of walls: a peculiar sort of consolation for those of us who live in this maximum city with minimum voltage. In fact, I’m convinced that if you were to look at Karachi from a great height, say a plane thirty thousand feet in the air, or even a satellite, you would see miles and miles of darkness, and then suddenly a well-lit city, black in some places but brilliant in others, powered by a hundred thousand generators, rumbling late at night and into the early hours of the morning.
Photograph by Sebastian Vandrey