We as a society are not research oriented, our education system in general has not really helped in developing a knack for it either. Those who decide to venture into this odyssey mostly do so because of a natural inclination.
Nargis Latif, in her signature lab coat and black Peshawari chapals, fits the bill of a researcher.
Looking around her office or research centre,I silently searched for any signs of it. An unpaved mud floor with scrap material of all variety piled around, a structure with water in it accompanied by another structure in which a couple of employees were seated.
Gul Bahao is Pakistan's first research centre on waste management, focusing on environmental issues and their solutions, basing them on simple and cheap technologies.
'The purpose of research is to come up with products that are beneficial for people. This is the most satisfactory thing for any scientist.'
Nargis's primary interest was in agriculture - she wanted to attend the Agriculture University in Faisalabad. This, however, was not possible as in those days sending girls off to a different city alone, even for their education was not common in Pakistan. As an alternative she enrolled in Karachi University to study Botany.
Later in life, Nargis's life took a turn. Suffering complications during childbirth, she was hanging between life and death. Unwell for a long time and holding on to the last of her strengths, she prayed for life or death, and to be relieved of hanging in between. Her prayers were answered in the form of her miraculous recovery. This is when she committed to doing something for the betterment of society.
It all started off when Nargis took charge and helped resolve the water issue of her neighbourhood. The neighbours then requested her assistance to the area's uncatered mounting heaps of garbage and as they say the rest is history.
Karachi is the sixth most populated metropolis of the world with approximately 20 million people living in the city. On average the city generates more than 12,000 tonnes of garbage per day. Its economic wealth, as well as its rapid industrialization, makes it an ideal case study in waste management and this is exactly what Gul Bahao has been doing. In a period spanning over two decades, the research and experimentation efforts, supported by a budget of little more than US$ 90,000, have covered several aspects of waste management producing some highly effective products ranging from mobile toilets to a most sophisticated futuristic concept like the Garbage n Gold Bank.
One of the most effective campaigns that brought Nargis Latif and Gul Bahao in the limelight was You Give Us Garbage, We Give You Gold which spread over two years and successfully motivated junk dealers, the cottage industry and the informal economy to separate their garbage at source. The philosophy at play here was to exploit the close knit nexus between the environment and the economy.
Plastic packaging material forms a bulk of inorganic waste which, if used sustainably, can serve as raw material for many products and in doing so becomes recycled. Sadly, the general practice is to burn this waste resulting in toxic fumes, aadding to the already staggering issue of air pollution. Gul Bahao has designed daily use products from the plastic packaging material.
Nargis Latif draws parallels between the chandi technology with that of mobile technology. In her opinion once the world fully understands its potential, it will be incorporated as a key raw material.
Chandi technology incorporates clean waste material from various products that range from furniture, carpets, water reservoirs, mobile home structures to even a small dam. So far the highlight has been the mobile home, the chandi ghar. A structure that can be fully erected in approximately two hours by a few people only.
Chandi ghar is a prime example of how a solution can be found playing on the link between the environment and economy. Three basic needs of people that have been overly promoted but have not materialized for many are; roti, kapra aur makan (food, clothes and a house). Pakistan's markets are flooded with clothes, despite all the discrepancies food is available in some form (the shrines of sufi saints coming to the rescue of those marginalized) but a proper shelter is a glaring issue, both in urban and the rural centres. The chandi ghar can come to the rescue.
These structures can provide shelter to tenants, serve as workers' colonies, examination halls, entertainment units etc in urban centres where it is difficult for the majority of residents to own land. In rural areas, the chandni ghar is a sustainable alternative to mud houses, which are a source of mounting health bills on the already strained financial status of families and also a victim of natural calamities, another frequent occurrence these days. With these structures as homes, the rural population will have a clean upgrade in their living standard with adequate protection from nature's wrath as these homes can be easily disembled and later reconstructed with ease.
So far some 150 to 200 chandi ghar structures, with a life span of a decade, depending on the upkeep level, have been successfully installed all over Pakistan, from post-2005 earthquake installations to an entertainment unit for foreign dignitaries. Given the frequency of natural calamities all over the world due to which many lose their homes, this can truly be a gift from Karachi to the world.
Gul Bahao the organizational is going through a rough patch, both in terms of human resource and finance. In the initial phase, Nargis Latif started off with a team of seventy rag pickers with whom she would to go out in the form of a small caravan to collect garbage. She emphasizes that the input of all those who were once part of the organization needs to be acknowledged. Getting teary eyed, she narrates an incident of an employee who not only to build 80 to 100 kg blocks out of material Gul Bahao was selling but had to transport it on his back, walking on an unsteady ramp on a factory manager's demand.
From the outside this looks like easy and low skill level work, but in reality it is the complete opposite. In order to make practical end products it requires intellect and patience of any social entrepreneur. Nargis's driving force is her undeterred faith in God, who has put her on this path and has blessed her with a mind that is constantly searching for solutions to man-made problems.