Right to the City

Published in Dawn, March 7th, 2017

“Contemplating those essential landscapes, Kublai reflected on the invisible order that sustained the cities, on the rules that decreed how they rise, take shape and prosper, adapting themselves to the seasons and then how they sadden and fall to ruin.” — Italo Calvino

KARACHI is a city of incongruities and contradictions. Every morning as you leave your habitat, be it a palatial place, modest abode or a makeshift hut, and negotiate the space to reach your workplace you confront a city that lies in ruin: pot-holed roads, pools of sewage, garbage heaps, snarling traffic. But amidst chaos, disorder, missing rule of law and inequity, there is palpable energy, dynamism, a certain hope, a cosmopolitanism, that constantly draw people to this city to find work and a living. Karachi is ranked near the bottom — 134th among 140 cities in the Global Liveability Ranking 2016. The cities of the world are assessed on this index according to five key criteria: stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure.

Continue reading

Dangerous Industry

Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2016

AS you drive down the Super Highway, past Sohrab Goth in Karachi, your eyes fall on mammoth excavators — huge truck cranes, bulldozers, loaders and cement-mixers parked left and right in the open katcha land. Around the dangerous-looking machinery you spot drivers and cleaners in faded shalwar kameez squatting and chatting, or resting on charpoys.

In between are patches of dust and bushes, raiti-bajri adda with mounds of gravel, stand-by trucks and junkyards full of rusted vehicles. The first thought that springs to your mind: ‘Construction business is booming is Pakistan!’ Indeed, the machinery, high-rises, upcoming residential schemes, underpasses and flyovers — all highly visible — are indicative of the 7pc growth rate of the construction industry and its 2.4pc contribution to the country’s GDP.

Continue reading

Coolies on Contract

Published in Dawn, April 17th, 2016

“…Every acquisition that is disproportionate to the labour spent on it is dishonest.”

— Leo Tolstoy

BRONZED-FACED, wearing faded red shirts with a number stitched in white, soaked in sweat, coolies old and young sit astride a pavement under the scorching sun, waiting for passengers to arrive at the Karachi Cantonment Railway Station. A few balance loads of luggage on their red turbans as they walk briskly towards the platform. A precarious livelihood, you might say. Indeed it is, and worse: coolies have to pay a 30pc commission to their contractor from their meagre daily earnings, plus a monthly fee of Rs750 — sans any workplace facilities.

Yet the contractor is not satisfied: he wants his cut raised to 40pc. Sounds outrageous?

Continue reading

Collective Struggle of Lady Health Workers

Published in Dawn, March 30th, 2016

ONE of the many contradictions of our society is between its loud avowal of its love of the ‘family’ institution and its devaluation of woman, the pivotal figure in the family. Not only do we look down on women inside the family, we give two hoots about women who commit themselves to door-to-door healthcare services for the women and children of the family. No wonder the issues being faced by lady health workers — job security, timely payment of wages and supplies of kits and medicines —remain to be addressed fully by the state.

Continue reading

Justice and Impunity

Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2016

IT was an early March morning in 2009 and I was cruising along one of the primary roads in the central business district area of Dhaka city where many of the ready-made garments (RGM) factories are housed in old buildings.

Young girls in droves, dressed in shalwar-kameez, were emerging from the side lanes, stepping down from the buses, crossing the road, chatting on the footpath, bending over street vendors’ wares now and then and heading towards their factories for the morning shift.

I was in Dhaka to get a sense of what makes Bangladeshi RGM women workers organise for their rights. I climbed a narrow staircase of a building where many girls had gone. The factory was on the first floor. From the small landing I looked through the iron grille padlocked from outside: women bending over sewing machines in rows. A surly young man guarded the door: “outsiders are not allowed”, he told me.

Continue reading

Dark Underbelly

Published in Dawn, February 3rd, 2016

‘Democracy is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder.’ — Plato

AS the democratic process unfolds in Pakistan, one wonders what kind of a hybrid would emerge in times to come. Don’t get me wrong: no sane person would argue against the supremacy of democracy. But yesterday’s turn of events — the state shooting down the peaceful protesters at the Karachi airport — indicates this hybrid democracy could be worse than martial law. The dark underbelly of our democracy is marred with bloodied repression of workers’ rights, the military calling the shots, co-optation by the political elite, and a parliament that passed the draconian PPA 2014 and 21st Amendment without batting an eyelid.

Continue reading

City and the migrant labourer

Published in Dawn on June 30 2014

“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspective deceitful, and everything conceals something else.” — Italo Calvino

CONCEALED within a leafy neighborhood, crushed between 1,000 to 2,000 square-yard bungalows, in Jamshed Town, Karachi, invisible to the world of comfortable living, exists an enclave of narrow alleys, haphazard and shabbily constructed one or two-room dwellings of the city’s migrant workers. Called Bano Colony, this surreal settlement, with upper storeys jutting out here and there, reminds one of the narrow labyrinthine alleys in Shagai, one of the katchi abadis in Mingora, Swat.

Inhabited exclusively by Pakhtuns, this enclave has two entry points: the east side leads to male-only living; the west end opens to family quarters. On entering the male-only section, for a second you feel you are stepping into the ruins of a demolished structure. Here the rent of one small, windowless room, shared by six (or more) males — minor, young, old — along with a communal kitchen, is Rs6,000 per month.

Continue reading