Newspaper articles, some NGOs, statements by city government representatives and police officials, periodically express concern at the traffic and pedestrian movement related problems caused by hawkers in Karachi. These hawkers are of different kinds. There are those who set up small stalls on the pavements; those that sell on pushcarts and those that have trays slung round their necks and move from place to place.
Hawkers are everywhere. In the inner city and the markets and main nodes of lower and lower-middle income areas they sell a large variety of goods from trinkets, shoes and clothing to fairly sophisticated electronic items. At bus stops and informal cargo terminals, outside the entrances to parks (including the Quaid's Mazar), playgrounds, places of entertainment and recreation (such as the beach) and outside offices (including those in residential areas), they sell food on pushcarts and trays. One also finds them at shrines where they deal in items related to the rituals at the shrine.
In many posh areas of the city, such as Defence, their presence is not tolerated. However, in most other posh areas they do manage to pay bhatta and establish fruit and vegetable kiosks.
Hawkers encroach not only on pavements but also on road space. As a result of which pedestrians are forced to walk on the roads which in many case are partly encroached upon as well. Many of the traffic and parking problems in areas such as Saddar, the inner city and Liaquatabad, are the result of hawkers' activity, though inefficient traffic management is also a major cause.
No proper survey of the number of hawkers in Karachi has been carried out. However, based on surveys in 2000 for Saddar and Lea Market areas, the number of hawkers in Karachi today should be around 200,000. It is observed that their number is rapidly increasing.
Encroachment on public space is, strictly speaking, illegal. So to be able to occupy public space or even to be a mobile vendor, hawkers have to pay bhatta to the police and the city godfathers. A study conducted in 2000 by the Urban Resource Centre, established that at that time the Saddar Bazaar hawkers paid more than one crore rupees per month as bhatta. On that basis, one can say that the hawkers of Karachi collectively pay Rs48 crore as bhatta today. This is a modest estimate.
Hawkers serve the needs of lower income groups who cannot afford formal sector food, garments, electronic goods and other items necessary for their daily use and for accommodating the pressures that consumerism and an urban lifestyle forces on them. For this reason, the majority of hawkers are located in areas inhabited by the lower and lower middle income groups or in areas they transit through. Research shows that depending on the nature of the items, hawker-provided items can be twenty to fifty per cent cheaper than items sold at formal sector outlets. In addition, they provide economic activity to a minimum of 600,000 persons in Karachi.
Government attempts at getting rid of hawkers have not succeeded. They always come back after a period of two to three weeks after negotiating a higher rate of bhatta. Attempts to relocate them to specified areas have met with very little success because these attempts have not taken into consideration the close link the hawkers have with the poorer sections of the population and with transport and cargo terminals.
Attempts to remove them from Sea View subsequently failed but while the ban was in force, poorer people stopped visiting Sea View since cheap food was no longer available. Similarly, attempts by the city government to remove them from its parts of the Beach simply resulted in their moving to less lucrative locations around the neighbourhood. By paying bhatta they also periodically establish themselves at the entrances to the city government parks.
Given recession and inflation and an unemployment rate of well over 15 per cent in Karachi, hawkers play an extremely important role in providing employment and services and as such they have to be accommodated if the needs of the lower and lower middle income groups (who form the vast majority of the city population) have to be catered to.
To make this accommodation possible bylaws and zoning regulations for providing space for them at all parks and at places of recreational, entertainment, transport and religion related activities need to be developed. In addition, pedestrian areas need to be created for their relocation where their businesses can grow and prosper.
A number of studies dealing with developing the legal, administrative and physical aspects of how this can be done have been carried out. Some of this research work has been done in association with hawkers' unions and groups. These studies have also identified the various negotiations carried out between the hawker's representatives and the government agencies in the past. A number of decisions relating to the setting up of standard kiosks, registration fee for hawkers and of locations for their businesses were agreed upon as a result of these negotiations. However, no sustained action to enforce these agreements was ever carried out. Implementing the recommendations of these studies would lead us nearer to the creation of an 'inclusive' city, a much talked about concept in many of Karachi's development plans.
Many countries in Asia and Latin America have accommodated their hawkers in an economically viable and physically aesthetic manner. We can also do the same. However, the first step towards making this possible is to recognise and respect the role the hawkers play in providing services to the poorer sections of the population and to the economy of the city.