Karachi ... and the WSF ...
The appearance of more habitations, freight & storage yards,
fuel depots, interspersed by drab multi-storey apartment blocks
tells us that we are now on the edges of Karachi, almost 24 hours
after we have left Lahore. There are large industrial complexes
on one side of the rail-line but we can't tell what factories these
are. Karachi is Bombay's doppelganger we have heard, time
and again, and by the look of it, it is and it isn't. It does not
seem anywhere near as congested as Mumbai does from the
train lines - but it certainly seems like an enormously important
economic and industrial center. On one side, we pass a
sprawling air-force base with several parked jets and trainers
and then a large Pakistan air-force museum complex. To our
right and somewhere close enough is the International Airport
and we can see the highway signs from the train. We pass by
an enormous water body to the left - which is perhaps the
delta area of the Malir river. The train slows to a crawl and
then stops-and-starts as it gets closer, and it is 6pm by the
time we roll to a stop at Karachi Cantonment Railway Station.
I am not sure if we are in any way violating our visas which
clearly exclude 'cantonment areas' (!) but we have little choice
as the train terminates here. The weather is surprisingly dry
for a coastal city on the subcontinent and we find, later, that
most evenings are quite cool.
The drive from Karachi Cantt Station to the KMC Sports
Complex, in the mid-town PECHS area, takes us 45 minutes -
and it is rush hour. Traffic is better than Mumbai (and therefore,
of course, far better than Bangalore !) but is heavy, nevertheless.
We are received at the KMC complex by the tall, gaunt, disarming
Aslam Khwaja, a veteran peace & human rights activist, who
puts us at ease, instantly. We are told that the plan is to go
straight to the opening event and that we'll worry about finding
accommodation and 'settling in' afterwards. He and his outstanding
team of volunteers have been working days and nights, for several
weeks, along with countless other volunteers drawn from NGOs,
schools and colleges in Karachi and Sindh to make the WSF
happen. We realize later that this is going to be the flavour of
our stay in Karachi. We will be hosted and chaperoned to
most places and 'looked after' at all times - unless, of course,
we ask to be left alone.
In many ways, it is remarkable that the WSF is being held, at
all, in Karachi. A military government and official ally of the
US-fashioned "war-on-terror" makes an odd bedfellow of an
event such as the WSF, whose central message, "another world
is possible", sets for itself an unambiguously dissenting tone.
Given this awkward alignment, we wonder if the event will
throw up any uncomfortable questions at all about, say, the
suspension of democracy in Pakistan. We learn later, in
conversations, that the Karachi event is also really cash strapped,
having received only logistics and organizational support and
very limited financial support from the government. This is
in contrast to other WSF2006 events in Caracas, Venezuela
(which was liberally underwritten by the hugely supportive
Hugo Chavez government) and in Bamako, Mali. Even
the central WSF organization was unable to step in and
help. So something quite remarkable, although perhaps
scaled down, has been achieved by the Pakistan organizing
committees in even getting this off the ground.
Picture: Tenzin Rigzin
It is evident that the event has caught the public eye in Karachi,
at least to some extent, and not the least because it was postponed
from its earlier dates in January. There are banners on the
main thorough fares we pass along, welcoming attendees and
delegates to "Karachi - Gateway to the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan
and West Asia". The periphery of the venue is strung with banners
from participating NGOs and organizations expressing solidarity,
protest or condemnation on a whole variety of issues and causes.
Passing traffic slows to a crawl as it goes by the gates and there
seems to an air of a 'mela' at least in the immediate vicinity.
Armed security personnel are evident, but not really intrusive in
any way. The show is on. TV channels and newspapers also
seem to be covering the WSF quite extensively and giving it
prime-time and front page space.
Links to selected WSF coverage:
From The Daily Times - Lahore:
From The Dawn - Karachi