On a sleepy Sunday afternoon in the capital of Pakistan, Islamabad, 6 high school students from an elite school are spending a few hours doing the unexpected. As shiny sports cars take languid rounds of the outdoor arena in Jinnah market, a posh shopping area, they slow down to get a closer look of what these youngsters are doing.
They're picking up trash. Wearing gloves and holding big black garbage bags, sweat rolls down the side of their faces and matts their hair. " We're tired of hearing people complain and criticize about what's wrong with this country -- picking up trash is such a basic thing, and everyone complains about it. But when people join in, it turns in to a movement, and that's what were here to do, make everyone join in a movement to make Pakistan a better place" says one of the volunteers.
These high school kids believe in the power of social responsibility. They call themselves 'zimmedar shehri' (responsible citizens). Donned with posters that read messages like 'time to reclaim Pakistan' and 'become a responsible citizen', they're hoping to encourage people to join in. The project began when a group of friends in Lahore, including Shoaib Ahmed Murtaza Khwaja and Saif Hameed, decided that they had had enough of 'talk' and were ready for action. Ali Khwaja, another friend, decided to start the Islamabad chapter by attracting students from his elite school Froebels. The environmental society of froebels took up the task and since then have gotten together twice every Sunday for a couple of hours to clean up a certain area. Last week, they spent hours cleaning up a busy shopping area called aabpaara, and this week they targeted a more elite shopping place called Jinnah super. Their output is dependent on a number of factors, including the weather. On that partially cloudy day they are thankful for the otherwise cruel humidity and heat of Pakistan's august summers.
As they continue wading through the sporadic patches of grass, Hina looks up to show me a small paper flag of Pakistan, "look isn't it ironic that were cleaning up from 14th August celebrations". If only they felt that celebrating Pakistan's Independence Day meant keeping their country clean. Boota an employer of the Capital Development Authority that has collaborated with the young volunteers adds, "we wouldn't see any dirt around, if everyone united together to do this work."
They receive a mixture of reactions. A calm and soft-spoken Nida Sattar, one of the volunteers says, "no one is really inspired when they see us doing this. Only one shopkeeper joined us, the rest just seem to be laughing." As we walked towards the front area of the market the young shopkeepers laughed loudly calling the girls "kachra raani" (garbarge queens). But the girls seem impervious. "A lot of girls are hesitant to do this work because they don't want to be seen picking up trash -- but we really don't care, we just keep going on." Their experience in a less opulent, yet busy shopping area was a little more different. "Nobody joined us at aabpaara but then no one laughed or mocked us like they are over here," said Ghani Rajput.
The contrast in this upscale market is indeed sharper. A bunch of boys sit in an open top jeep and chuck their plastic glasses on the road. One of the six high school students carrying a black garbage bag wearing plastic gloves walks over to the car and picks it up. The boys' reaction is a mixture of embarrassment and mockery. " I pay my taxes," says a boy arrogantly as he simultaneously speaks on his cell phone, "I mean this is the governments job to clean up the city -- but yeah, I guess its good that these kids are." He continues defensively, "well only if this project is sustainable does it make sense." Ali has a different opinion of their reaction, he said, "It's laziness, doing things the conventional way, expecting others to pick up/clean up after you, these are phenomena that have been bred due to class conflicts, but have, ironically, surmounted, and permeated all the classes. They need to get over their own embarrassment."
Towards the end, Hina happily jogs up to us to tell us that a shopkeeper joined in. A ray of hope for the volunteers. He's wearing gloves and picking up trash with the kids. "I think this is a great initiative and I would love to help them out whenever I can," adds the new volunteer.
During the course of their campaign that day, friends kept joining in -- they show up later, sleepy eyed, but reach out for pairs of gloves. They joke around and chase each other with dirty gloves and various items of garbage as people watch on, some in shock, some with curiosity. In a country where there are very clear class divisions, their practical example of good governance is showing that jeans-clad and designer-wearing youth are trying to create a practical sense of social responsibility, and that although a challenge now, will slowly but surely have a domino effect.