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.

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Diary of a Feminist: The Key to the Future

Memories of my child­hood are pleasant. Unlike the tough times I had as a teenager. There are sooth­ing associations. Like trees and butterflies and romp­ing in open space and wild bushes.

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t born in any valley full of pine trees and flow­ing streams. But very much here. The hot, humid city with no mountains and only the sea which was far away; it wasn’t a forest. But Karachi was no con­crete jungle either when I was a kid. Some twenty years ago.

The houses were few and far apart. There were wild creepers, thorny bushes, cacti, jasmine and guava trees. The kids were numerous. It was a joint family.

My cousin sister and I loved to catch butterflies with bare hands, watch with fascination their dazzling patterns and hold them till our fingers were tainted with the colours of their wings. And then we would set them free.

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Diary of a Feminist: The Surprising Casualties of Catastrophe

When a marriage falls apart, who suffers? Either of the spouses, logically. The woman, most prob­ably. But there are times when logic fails in our peculiar social scenario.

When I saw Aapa lately, I was dumb struck. She looked like a ghost of her former self. From a plump, hefty woman she had been reduced to a skeleton. Dark circles had made her eyes sunk deep in her shriveled face. Her skin had broken into a rash and her body itched from eczema — a long suppressed ailment that re-surfaced with a ferocity.

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Diary of a Feminist: Men’s Distrust of Men

“In women,” Bertrand Russell said, “zest has been greatly diminished by a mistaken concept of respectability”.

Zest is an in-born human capacity to enjoy life, to be interested in the world and the varied and the beauti­ful things it has to offer. In our society, I think, this basic human instinct is, to a large extent, killed in wo­men not only by a mista­ken concept of respectabil­ity but also by a distrust of men inculcated in women by men themselves.

Take for instance travelling. Not till very late, a wo­man’s going out of her house for pleasure was considered a horrible, ignoble act. Times have definitely changed. The women who have the op­portunity and desire to travel in-land or abroad, do travel. Still, by and large, conven­tional thinking persists — that it’s dangerous for girls to travel unless they are duly chaperoned. Girls who do travel may have to face raised eyebrows and sarcastic remarks.

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Women Workers in Textile/Readymade Garments Sector in Pakistan and Bangladesh

This research report was written as a project undertaken by Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER) in collaboration with South Asia Alliance for Poverty Eradication (SAAPE) and was published in 2009.

This brief paper attempts to investigate the status of women workers in textile/apparel industries of Pakistan and Bangladesh, and explore the extent of mobilization and organization of women workers in the context of weakened trade unionism in the two countries. The study seeks to analyze the nature and extent of women’s contestation of barriers
and negotiation of space as defined through the institutionalized mechanisms of control and cultural barriers in the Muslim societies of the two countries.

Click the link below to view the full report:

Women Workers in Textile/Readymade Garments Sector in Pakistan and Bangladesh

Road Transport Workers in Pakistan

This research report was written for Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), Karachi and was published in 2006.

This study presents an overview of road transport sector work environment, labour relations and working conditions and examines workers’ response to address some of the issues relating to social security through collective action. Methodology includes literature review and assessment through informal discussions with a select number of transport workers/operators, representatives of transport workers’ unions/organizations/federations, and private transport companies.

Excerpt:

Mustachioed, grim-faced, 44-year-old Najibullah Khan is on the road for the last 29 years. He works  as a driver on long distance route—Karachi to Islamabad. “I get Rs. 1500 per trip. A trip takes 26-27 hours. I make about 6 trips a month and that adds up to Rs. 9000 per month”. Born in a village in Musakhel, Mianwali, Najib dropped out of school after class 6 and was pushed into the labour market as a child. Initially he worked as bus cleaner and helper. When he got his license at 18, he took to driving. In 1973 he came to live in Karachi where he shares a rented accommodation with another person. 

Najib’s family members (parents, wife and 5 children) work as sharecropper in the village. These days he is paying a monthly installment of Rs. 1000 to the money lender for a loan of Rs. 10,000 he took to help his family buy agricultural inputs. “There is one more driver along with me in the bus, and we take turns after 4-5 hours of driving, taking 2-3 hours rest in between. After each trip I am off the bus for 24 hours and busy with maintenance of the vehicles and carry out related errands. I get little time to spend with my family whom I visit fortnightly.” For Najib, there are no holidays, no medical or other facilities and no social security.

Click on the link below to view the full report:

Road Transport Workers in Pakistan

The Flood Affected Population in Sindh Rebuilding Lives and Livelihoods: The Case for Structural Reforms

This research report was written for Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), Karachi and was published in January, 2011.

Pakistan’s devastating floods caused by extraordinary rainfall in July-Sept 2010 affected over 20 million people, causing 1,985 deaths and injuries to 2,946 people. The floods wreaked havoc, washed away crops and rural settlements, flooded towns and urban centres, damaged roads, bridges and irrigation canals, schools, hospitals and all social and physical infrastructures. The disaster led to unprecedented displacement of 1,550,000 people from flooded areas to dry places, mostly nearer homes and to urban centres in the home districts. A large number of people from the affected districts in Sindh, took refuge in the cities of Karachi and Hyderabad. The families who had resources, assets and support systems in dry districts cities stayed with their relatives and friends. The majority of the IDPs who lost their abodes, meagre assets and means of livelihoods had to take refuge in shelters and makeshift camps put up by the provincial governments, NGOs and international humanitarian agencies. The displaced persons in the camps overwhelmingly belonged to the lowest stratum of society.

In addition to relief work, PILER undertook a profiling and livelihood needs assessment survey to gauge socio-economic indicators and the livelihood status of the IDPs prior to the floods and get an idea of their future plans and aspirations. The objectives were to share the findings with relevant stakeholders (i.e. state, civil society, resource institutes) for possible linkages that would facilitate the IDPs in the reconstruction and rehabilitation phase and provide a basis to the PILER advocacy inputs towards a rehabilitation plan that commits to upgrading the living and work conditions of the IDPs and facilitate their access to fundamental rights and citizenship based entitlements.

Click the link below to view the full report:

The Flood Affected Population in Sindh  – Rebuilding Lives and Livelihoods: The Case for Structural Reforms

Karachi’s Ethnic Violence – Women and Crisis Management: A Study in Microcosm

This research report written for Shirkatgah, Karachi was published in The News, Pakistan on 21 May, 2000.

According to media reports, an average of 630 violent deaths (95 per cent male) per year was recorded in the city of Karachi during the ten-year period from 1990-99. No accumulated figures were released or studied–by any quarter–of men arrested/tried/incarcerated by criminal courts or gone underground. Yet media reports and unofficial estimates indicate that these figures ran in thousands. Armed conflict/ethnic strife in Karachi, thus, has left innumerable (middle and lower-middle income) families without male wage earners, leaving thousands of women and children survivors to cope with psychological trauma and economic hardships.

The following story presents in a microcosm the turbulent life of women affected by forces beyond their control, and attempts to document, courtsey Shirkatgah, the sheer grit and courage of women, and their struggle for survival.

Click the link below to view the full report:

Karachi’s Ethnic Violence – Women and Crisis Management: A Study in Microcosm

The World of the Wandering Circus

Dated February 2000. Previously unpublished.

The sunlight on that 22nd January 2000 forenoon had washed away the magic of the previous night. Shorn off the glitter and the glamour, the circus arena and the surroundings were bathed in a homely, rustic glow. The tusk-less elephant stood morosely, flapping its ears. The white majestic horses with long manes had their nozzles in the hay bins. The panoramic cupola of the tent was folded up, exposing a criss-cross of thick ropes and poles still pegged on the dusty ground, giving ample space to the children artistes to glide by on their roller skates. The full circle of the make-shift stadium was broken as the workers pulled apart the raised iron benches and were busy stacking them. The stage floor was half gone, exposing the wagon of the caged lions. The raised floor of the musical band was still up, hanging in mid-air, with a disorderly queue of drums and other instruments. Beyond the remains of the stadium, were rows of small tents pitched side by side. Some of the curtain doors were flung open, exposing artistes on bed, curled up in comforters, some yawning, some still asleep, with the crumpled shiny costumes of the last show heaped on the top of the huge zinc trunks.

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Notes from a Diary: Independence Day

(First published in Daily Dawn, Karachi, Pakistan, in its Sunday Magazine edition, on 10 August 1997. Later published in Sampark: Journal of Global Understanding, Pakistan: an age of violence, Vol. 4, Issue 1, 2004, New Delhi)

14 August 1996:  It’s quiet outside. No traffic. But something is amiss. On this 49th anniversary of Pakistan. What is that? I try to figure out. Oh, yes. Now I remember. It`s the sound of cannon-fire. Twenty-one salutary shots to be exact, in the morning. Yes, I didn’t hear cannon-fire this morning. We are too far away from the Naval post in Manora Island. Is it 25 km or 30 km from Gulistan-e-Jauher?

I recall the morning of the Independence Day just a year after the 1965 war with India, when I was 13; I had woken up with a start at the sound of the cannon-fire and thought another war had begun. ‘Do you hear this sound?’ In panic, I had rushed to my parents’ bedroom. ‘Go back to sleep. They are celebrating Independence Day’, my father had told me. But somehow, for many years, that salutary cannon-fire kept disturbing me annually. Why can’t they fill the air with chimes, or some kind of music, instead of this thunderous, terrifying, terrible sound?

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