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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

Karachi: People and Places