May Issue 2015

Cover Story

By | News & Politics | Published 2 years ago

Cover Story: Forsaken CityHaji Ghulam Qadir, a 79-year-old resident of Faqir colony, Orangi town, has spent all his life in Karachi, except for the few years he worked in the Gulf. He has been associated with the business of public transport for about three decades. Qadir started as a cleaner at the age of 16, moved into the transport sector, and with time, became manager of a transport company, eventually coming to own a few buses himself.

He has very good memory and can recall many incidents of his life in the city with amazing detail, down to year and month in some cases. He speaks eloquently about these past memories and his experiences.

“I was born around 1936 or 1938 – an estimate I deduced from the age I started working. I began as a cleaner with a bus driver in 1952. In those days we were living in Gulistan Colony, an area adjacent to Lyari. Later we shifted to Faqeer Colony, after purchasing a 400-square yard plot, when late Faqeer Mohammad Khan started carving plots in the area around the ‘Seerhi wali Masjid’ (mosque with stairs). He was selling these plots ostensibly to generate funds for the further construction and enhancement of the mosque,” Qadir reminisces.

He describes in vivid detail how his locality went through several phases of regularisation, how various public utilities appeared there in the decades following the seventies, and how these utilities have become increasingly scarce today.

His reveries of the past are interrupted by a question about the recent appearance of graffitti reading, ‘Makaan Baraye Farokht’ (‘House for Sale’) on the walls of every second house in the locality. Why are these people going?

He sighs and replies in a sombre tone, “Most are leaving for one reason,” he says, “little or no hope, given the worsening situation of public utilities and the shrinking economic opportunities in these old localities.”

The ‘worsening situation’ is visible, palpable.

The area has an old but adequate infrastructure for supplies of piped water, but it has not seen water flowing through these pipelines for the last four years.

“The Rangers’ action against illegal water hydrants has further aggravated the situation as they have demolished not just those hydrants with potable water being stolen from the reservoirs of the Karachi Water Board, but also those hydrants providing non-drinkable water extracted through drilling in the ground,” says a former general councillor of the area, Abdullah Baloch.

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Zafar Baloch, the owner of a water hydrant at Mawach Goth, Baldia Town adds, “We were supplying boring water to the dairy farms at Mawach Goth, Bakra Pedi and Sector 8, 9 and 12, and construction block-makers in different areas. We do not supply water for home use, but still they have demolished our facility and taken away machinery worth thousands of rupees.”

As a result, residents now have to rely on private tankers, Suzuki pickups or donkey carts carrying potable water, or wait for hours, sometimes the entire day, in the seemingly endless queues outside the Karachi Water Board premises guarded by the Rangers.

“They are providing drinking water at an admittedly reasonable price, but to get it, one has to take leave from work or have a family member queue to obtain the receipt required for a water tanker,” discloses a resident of Swat Colony, Baldia Town. And, of course, not everyone can afford the facility of water tanks at their small homes to store the water provided by tankers or other means. Meanwhile, some others who have the tanks, or have recently built them, are selling water in 50 litre containers, charging Rs 15 for each.

Water, or the absence of it, is not the common man’s only plight. Low pressure of domestic gas supplies is now also commonplace.

So first there were queues of vehicles at CNG stations. Now, in addition to an acute shortage of CNG, there is a huge dearth of gas. Ergo, gas load-shedding, more and more frequent at the domestic level. The new Karachi: “Long queues of children standing outside public ‘tandoors’ (bread kilns) sporting trays of dough on their heads, afternoons and evenings, waiting for their turn to bake their rotis,” says Haji Abdul Qadir.

And then there is the electricity crisis. The only PMT supplying electricity is overloaded due to illegal connections (known as kundas). Furthermore, K-Electric, the company distributing electricity in Karachi, has disconnected supply to the area twice in the last six months, citing lack of recovery and arrears from the locality.

This is not the story of just one Karachi locality; it is mirrored in settlements throughout Karachi. And to add to the paucity or complete breakdown of the infrastructure are the abysmal hygiene, ecology and aesthetics of a city once known as the ‘Paris of the East.’ Today Karachi is reflective of a huge garbage dump, with overflowing gutters choked by plastic bags and trash which has nowhere else to go, mountains of refuse, illegal deforestation (all of Karachi’s mangrove forests have been chopped down to make way for commercial enterprises) resulting in serious environmental degradation, and ugly wall markings.

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And yet, it is a city bursting at the seams with a huge emigrant population from across Pakistan, as well as from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Burma. In the past, those from rural and even other urban areas, who managed to increase their sources of income, opted to move to the city even if they had to pay more for land or residence, for a perceived ‘better’ quality of life, and so that they could provide enhanced educational and work opportunities for their kin. The poor and disadvantaged meanwhile, moved to Karachi because it was seen as a city bursting with the promise of jobs and get rich schemes.

But with the scarcity of public utilities, deteriorating infrastructure, volatile law and order situation and other economic factors, the city of dreams has evolved into an urban nightmare.

And so, despite the resilience of first, second and third generations of settlers, another diaspora borne of compulsion. People from various strife-ridden localities have been forced to leave their homes and find shelter elsewhere. Members of the Katchi community, for example, who have lived in Lyari since partition, have been compelled to leave their family homes due to violent attacks by the gangsters of the outlawed Peoples Aman Committee (PAC), and have shifted to other towns. Some have migrated back to their native lands in Thatta, Badin and other parts of Sindh.

Zahid Katchi was one such resident of Lyari, having lived there for 24 years. He was forced to flee along with his family when his brother was killed and he and his family were threatened.  They left taking nothing with them. He maintains their tormentors were essentially criminal land-grabbers who wanted their property. “They had been threatening us for a while and demanding we move, but we resisted because I realised that if we vacated, our house would be grabbed and sold to someone else.  Our hesitation cost us dearly: they killed my younger brother,” says Katchi.

Lyari residents who have moved to other parts of the city have settled in Yousuf Goth, Dawood Goth, Naval Colony, Mauripur, and Raees Ghulam Sarwar Goth among other areas, depending on their financial position and sources of income. Some have shifted to the towns of Hub and Winder, bordering the Lasbela district in Balochistan.

Asif Moosa, another long-term Memon Lyari resident, says he moved his family to Hussainabad because his children were terrified by the sound of incessant gunfire in their neighbourhood. “My grandfather came to Lyari after migration from India at partition. My parents have always lived there.  But I have been forced to move.” Moosa still yearns for Lyari and hopes to move back one day. Says Katchi, “The situation in Lyari has improved in the last six months, but most of the gang leaders are still at large, so the fear lingers that they still have the capacity to attack and harm their opponents.”

Lyari is not the only area to have witnessed an exodus. During some of the worst years of ethnic violence in Karachi – i.e. 2009-2012 – garment industry workers from the poor vicinities of Orangi Town and Gulshan-e-Bihar  making their way to the SITE area, or students on their way to college and university, were unable to pass through the Pashtun localities of Benaras, Frontier Colony and Gulshan Ghazi due to a fear of beating, arson and killing by the criminal gangs backed by the ANP. Hence, they had to move to other areas like Paposh Nagar, Rehmanabad and Baldia town to access their places of work or educational institutions.

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Similarly, hotels and tea stalls owned by Pashtuns coming from Pashin, Zhob and other districts of Balochistan, located in a multitude of localities and marketplaces in Karachi, were attacked by armed elements from the MQM, who killed many Pashtuns and forced others to vacate their restaurants and hotels.

An employee at one such hotel in Gulshan-e-Iqbal readily points to the bullet marks on the shutter and in the tables made of stainless steel at a Pashtun establishment.

Perhaps due to the recent deescalation of ethnic violence, some Pashtun restaurant and hotel owners have returned to their businesses. One reason is that the indiscriminate ethnic killings of the past now seems to have shifted focus, targeting largely political or sectarian nemeses. But how long this status quo remains, is anyone’s guess.

Pashtuns have not been the only targets of violence. Hafiz Abdul Qayyum, a scrap dealer from Lahore, ran a business at the Shershah scrap Market for 19 years. He had a room permanently allotted to him in a hotel in the Lea Market area and had purchased a shop worth 3 million rupees in a huge godown in Shershah.

He relates, “In 2012-13, when Lyari was going through its worst yet phase of intra-gang wars, Shershah market was badly affected by violent crime, extortion demands and kidnapping for ransom. I had no option left but to sell my plot in the godown and move back to Lahore.”

However, after the situation improved in the last few months, he has returned to Karachi and is considering starting his business again.

“I am still not sure about the coming days, but the situation is better than when I left two years ago.  So I have taken a place on rent and have started doing business again, though on a smaller scale,” says Qayyum.

Many labourers, artisans, skilled workers and businessmen who moved to Karachi from other areas of Pakistan, particularly the Punjab, have, however began a process of reverse migration. They have started the move back to their native towns in Punjab since they contend, that province seems like a relative haven compared to Karachi.

Many traders and businessmen have, in fact, already shifted their businesses to Lahore, Faisalabad and the northern districts of Punjab, such as Bahwalpur, Raheem Yar Khan and Multan.

Other traders from Mohmand agency, who had their businesses of construction goods and combustible wood in various parts of Karachi, have, after extortions demands, threats and attacks on some of them by the TTP-Mohmand faction (rechristened TTP-Jamatul Ahrar) moved their businesses to Rawalpindi, Faisalabad and other cities of Punjab. Yet others have moved their businesses to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

“In Karachi, the TTP (Mohmand) had established an arbitration committee (jirga), an informal court at Kanwari Colony, Qasba near Manghopir and were settling financial disputes among the tribes linked to Mohmand Agency – whether we wanted it or not,” says a former associate of the party.

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Says a Mohmand businessman on condition of anonymity, “if your business opponent had approached the local TTP for help, you had no option but to accept their verdict in a dispute. And we would have to sign a document agreeing to pay a huge sum of money as a fine, if we did not abide by their decision.” He continues, “So we moved to the Punjab, and while we know we cannot escape extortion demands and militant threats there, at least the perpetrators of such crimes are unable to hit and run as easily as in Karachi. Just stop and consider how they have been killing members of our community here.”

Those vulnerable migrants who are left in Karachi have remained because of a lack of options: Either they cannot muster the funds to make the move or they have established family connections with the militants.

Pathan Colony, Benaras, has for several decades served as the departing point and last destination for the people leaving and coming from their native towns in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. More than two dozen passenger buses arrive from this colony or depart daily.  But in recent times, the business has seen a decline due to tough competition, fluctuations in fuel prices as well as a decline in the flow of traffic.

“For the last couple of years, there has been a sizeable decline in the number of people arriving at Benaras Town. But the number of people leaving with their families and belongings has significantly increased,” says Usman Ghani, manager at Shahid Coach Bus Services.

Rehmatullah, the owner of a marble factory in Mangophir, sold his business and shifted with his family to Swat. He has started a furniture business there and has forced some of his other family members residing in Karachi to move to their native town as well.

“The Marble Market was the worst affected by armed goons of political parties, terrorist outfits and other criminal networks. On many occasions I was deprived of my belongings and the cash I was carrying to pay the salaries of the labourers working at my factory,” says Rehmatullah. To add insult to injury, he says, “I had to pay a good sum of money for water tankers every month. Finally, I decided to move back to my home town. The law and order situation there is now better than in most parts of Pakistan, given the presence of the army around the many checkposts in the area.”

Rehmatullah continues, “My uncle Peer Muhammad Khan has run a cloth shop in Karachi for the last 32 years. But now I have asked him to come back and start the same business here in a market at Tehsil Kabal. My nephew Ikramullah is making good money in the property business there, but I have also asked him to move.”

Nisar Ahmed, the owner of a marble factory in the same market, laments about how many of his friends and counterparts – the owners of marble factories – have left the area due to persistent security threats and extortion demands. Ahmed tells of one Ameer Marble Factory owned by an Urdu-speaking businessman. “The man was once offered 30 million rupees for his factory, but he declined the offer. He was demanding 50 million. When the situation worsened, he had to sell it for 20 million rupees and leave the market altogether,” says Ahmed.

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And while the situation has improved in the last few months, it will take a long time to regain the trust of businessmen and bring them back to the markets, and to the city.

As for the authorities’ reaction to the situation, the Sindh government recently introduced a new piece of legislation, aimed at opening tenders for private entrepreneurs and builders to assume responsibility for the provision of the basis infrastructural needs of residents. One cannot understand how the innumerable new mega housing schemes in the city will provide such utilities.

In a seminar held at the Mohammad Ali Jinnah University Karachi this month, experts expressed alarm about these projects, saying they would get the lion’s share of the already scarce water and electricity resources in the city, and would further tax limited civic services, aggravating the overall situation further.

Specific concerns were voiced about an alleged anticipated move to divert supplies from the newly-constructed power unit of the K-Electric and proposed additional water supply from the K-4 project, to the six new under-construction housing projects along the Super Highway.

These proposed new projects have also engendered serious concerns among historians, academics and civic rights activists about the hugely damaging effect they will have on certain heritage sites such as Shah Latif ka Takya, Zoroastrian graves, the grave of Haji Notak who fought the British, other 200-year-old graveyards, Buddhist stupas and Stone Age rock carvings in the east of Karachi. These sites will all be endangered if the land the builders are seeking for their projects is allotted to them.

Some academics, historians and activists have now formed the Karachi Indigenous Rights Alliance to protect the city’s historic sites, lands, goths, waterways and culture by organising awareness campaigns and motivating students, civil society organisations and political workers to become more proactive in regards to saving their past.

The question is, how can we save our present and our future?

This article was originally published in Newsline’s May 2015 issue.

Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order