Whereas the cash-strapped government is busy the record dollar reserves augmented primarily by the export of wheat, rice, cotton and other commodities, the cynical moneymaking exercise is taking a heavy toll on human and environmental life in the port city.
During the concluding financial year FY11 the exports of wheat fetched over $301.44 million for the country which on the back of healthy dollar inflows on account of exports and remittances raised its foreign exchange reserves at record high of $17.3 billion during the first 10 months of FY11.
According to the State Bank of Pakistan figures, the country’s private exporters have dispatched wheat worth $164.171 million and $81.859 million during only the months of March and April FY11. But these exports are coming at a heavy price to the country with very serious, rather, deadly side effects that is claiming not only precious human lives but also causing environmental degradation in the economic hub of the country. In what is an extreme case of what economists refer to as ‘negative externalities’ which are spillover effects of any economic decision, the area has been adversely affected by the export boom.
Yet not recovered from the environmental damage sustained due to the KPT coal terminal at Keamari Groyne, area residents, mostly fishermen and dock workers, are now faced with another health hazard as wheat dust spreads and is causing respiratory diseases among them.
According to various medical researchers, those having even a periodical exposure to the wheat-dust are likely to fall victim to a spectrum of respiratory diseases ranging from a mild allergic rhinitis to tuberculosis and perennial asthma.
The residents of port neighborhoods are nowadays greatly exposed to these diseases with some already suffering from allergy caused by coal soot as well as wheat-dust blowing with the wind onto the on-port vessels, boats, houses and every breathing human being living or visiting the port vicinity.
Veritable mountains of powdery coal and wheat-dust being handled in open/bulk on dedicated berths at Karachi Port have become a major source of trouble for the poor people living in areas adjacent to the port. The areas most affected by the wheat-dust and coal soot include Keamari, Manora, Baba Island, Bhit Island and Saleh Abad. “I have got allergy due to this wheat-dust,” said Kamran Ahmed, who works as a stevedore at Karachi Port and frequently keeps moving from one berth to another. “The workers at a wheat ship use masks but the passerby are in a deep trouble,” he added.
A recent tragic incident at Karachi Port made many laborers raise eyebrows over their safety at the country’s seaports through which over 80 per cent of Pakistan’s trade is carried out with rest of the world.
The eyewitnesses said it wheat-dust enveloped 52-year-old Ameer Nawab Shah reducing visibility to such an extent that he was unable to see a heavy loader coming from the front to crush him to death on the spot. “Yes, he (Shah) was crushed by a shawl as he had failed to see it due to wheat-dust,” confirmed Abdul, a relative of the deceased dock worker.
The port operators from KPT usually allocate Berths Number 4, 5, 22, 24 and 25 at the East and West wharves of the Karachi Port to handle vessels chartered to transport the exportable wheat from Pakistan. While a wheat ship is loading cargo inside the port, the wheat-dust blowing with the wind makes it almost impossible for the drivers, commuting through Jinnah Bridge to Khamis Gate at MA Jinah Road to see the way ahead and even have a normal breathing.
The visitors at the newly-built Port Grand also came up with the complaint that wheat-dust blowing from a wheat ship anchored at berth number 25 of West Wharf was making them breath hardly. “Coal dust was already making us sick. Now brace for another disaster,” complained area resident Saeed Khan.
“They should at least use the begged cargo that might reduce the dust,” Khan suggested. The areas people and laborers working at Karachi Port attribute this problem to the usage of grips and pressure pumps being used by the profit-conscious stevedoring companies, who carry out every practicable tactic to increase tonnage in terms of cargo handling, for the handling of wheat ships.
“The wheat-dust blows out when grips (equipment used at ports for the handling of bulk cargo) lift bulk wheat from the berths,” a docker Amjad Amin told Pakistan Today. An official of a stevedoring firm confided to Pakistan Today that the pressure pumps being used for quick loading of the wheat ships were in fact creating the dust. Local traders and port operators have long been under fire for pocketing millions of dollars every year, respectively, through exports and seaport operations but caring little for the safety of dock workers as well as those living in the vicinity.
Once vocal in their demand for the dismantling of coal terminal from densely populated Keamari, the so-called people’s representatives, Abdul Qadir Patel and Akhtar Hussain Jadoon, PPP’s MNA and MPA from Keamari Town, seem to have lost interest in resolving the longstanding problem of their voters.
In December 2008 when Patel informed this scribe that the KPT had assured him of shifting its coal terminal to the Port Qasim from densely-populated Keamari. “KPT has assured me of shifting the coal terminal from Keamari to Port Qasim as soon as a second coal terminal is constructed there,” the MNA had said.
However, the suffering of the residents continues unabated with Usman Umer from Bhutta Village saying: “This is damaging as people are inhaling coal mixed with the air.”