It started with a quarrel over burning garbage outside her apartment. Nargis Latif, now in her 50’s, fought and got the kachra kundi (garbage point) removed so that the burnings ended.
She told the garbage collectors that they should not burn the waste but recycle it. This meant unending arguments with men who did not know how to deal with this woman in a lab coat who would not take no for an answer. “I was much younger then, full of energy. Now I look back and wonder at the things I did,” she says.
It was in the 60’s that Latif advocated that garbage should not be burnt but recycled. People considered her to be mad. She set up a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Gulbahao which focused on using garbage instead of simply discarding it. “I talked to hundreds of Kabarias (junk dealers) to bring me back paper, cardboard, shopping bags, plastic, glass and metal. I paid them good money and that is when the mentality changed. Till then, Kabarias were only interested in buying old home appliances like radios and clocks.”
That network of junk merchants serves her well. It has evolved into an industry of its own where almost
everything in Karachi is recycled — from paper to animal bones and even hair.
Latif’s NGO Gulbahao has moved on from collecting to creating. It now promotes all sorts of products made from ‘clean’ waste bought from the junk dealers. After the earthquake in Pakistan, Gulbahao supplied its ‘Wastic-blocks’, made from shopping bags, with which temporary shelters were built in remote areas.
The ‘Safai-Kamai’ bank buys dry waste products and pays good money for it. These products are then used to make a variety of items - from cushions to mobile toilets.
But Gulbahao also promotes other cheap and cost effective ways to improve the standards of living. They encourage people to make their own compost. To make their drinking water safe by using plastic bottles placed in the sunlight.
In all this, Nargis Latif, who moves around Karachi convincing people to take matters into their own hands, is the driving force. She says that only a fraction of the 800 tonnes of solid waste produced in Karachi is recycled. Despite this she has not lost hope. For her, it’s a cause worth dedicating her life to.