Street stories: Working class triumphs and tribulations

They hustle on the street from dawn to dusk, they serve our needs and desires. Meet the street vendors of Karachi.
Published 03 May, 2015 12:06pm

They hustle on the street from dawn to dusk, they serve our needs and desires, and they provide a window into how a city, its demographics and dynamics are ever-changing. Meet the street vendors and service providers of Karachi

A roadside vendor sells mosquito nets
A roadside vendor sells mosquito nets

More often than not, Karachi’s Empress Market shows the inseparable bond between commuters, transport and street vendors — a murgh cholaywalla, a person selling fruits or juices, a magic potion or an aphrodisiac, a bird too, and sometimes, just plain water.

These street vendors and service providers are the heart of Karachi’s informal economy, refusing to be dislodged despite desperate efforts by many of Karachi’s administrators.

And yet, street vending and provision of services in an urban space escapes attention despite it being the primary means of combating poverty and of economic survival for many inhabitants of the city.

Street vendors and service providers are often portrayed as obstructions to grand schemes of order and development; in truth, they are drivers of the economy, as they offer easy access to a wide range of goods and services in public spaces and in fiercely contested urban spheres. Much of this sector works through roaming, mobile or makeshift arrangements.

Their entrepreneurial skills and resilience is not properly appreciated, even by the beneficiaries of that circuit of the informal economy.

Finding reliable data on the size of the street vending population in any given city can be challenging; perhaps it is due to this reason that official statistics on street vendors are available only in a few countries.

In the case of Karachi, what pervades research on street vendors is migration demographics: in search of better livelihood, migrants to the city set up some kind of makeshift arrangement to sell their products.

Some researchers suggest that there exists a correlation between the duration of the stay of the immigrants in the city, age of the migrants and their income levels.

If we treat official census figures as authentic (though researchers and political parties contested against the 1998 census results), then between 1972 and 1998, some 3.8 million migrants were added to the city — about 40 per cent of the total reported population of 1998.

Of the 2.15m migrants between 1981 and 1998, 40pc were from Punjab and NWFP. Also of the total migrant population, 43pc were illiterate and 58pc of the migrants were men.

Some 91pc of those who migrated between the two census periods of 1981 and 1998 settled in urban Karachi. District Malir and West cumulatively accommodated 55pc of the migrant population. Sindhi and Pashto are the dominant languages of Malir, while Urdu and Pashto are the dominant languages of District West.

What is clear is that the dynamics of street vending and service provision lend themselves well to newcomers to the city trying to settle in. Their choice of taking up street vending or service provision goes beyond economic factors too: there are flexible work schedules, which enable workers to take care of family-related responsibilities as well.

But there is a place for everybody in Karachi, even though they might not have a “place of work”. As the middle-class of the city has expanded, it is street vendors and service providers who have catered to their little and large desires, providing low-cost alternatives to expensive wishes and wants.

The following stories attempt to capture an essence of Karachi’s street vendors and service providers, their sets of rationale, and their struggles to make things work in the absence of traditional caste, biradari or tribal security nets. In equal measure, their lives point to the little changes in the society’s fabric of Karachi and its attitudes that often go unnoticed.

The ‘cutting’ business

Sometimes, taxi driver Wakeel curses his luck. His father migrated from Rahim Yar Khan, Punjab, to Karachi in 1973 because their lands had gone barren and there were no jobs left. In a twist of fate, Wakeel’s clients are now decreasing by the day, just as his families crop yields did in Rahim Yar Khan. He feels that it is probably time to sell his cab. He’s not the only one.

“There is a ‘taxi-cutting’ business going on in Manghopir and Katti Pahari,” says Wakeel. “Pakhtun scrap sellers pay between Rs45,000 and Rs50,000 each for old taxis, retrieve usable spare parts, and scrap the rest. Spare parts and anything useful is sold as ‘Kabuli’ merchandise, while the rest is sold to iron scrappers. Cab drivers who are running out of business sell their taxis to these Pakhtun scrap sellers.”

He is not happy in the city and wants to go back. “Had we not migrated, we would be better off. We would have our livestock, our setting and our people. Business is not good, and I had to ask my children to leave school. Here, I live in a rented house and pay Rs7,000 per month (inclusive of utilities). In the village, I would have my own shelter.”

Wakeel’s father began a career as a mason in North Nazimabad soon after he arrived in the city. They lived in a clan-based neighbourhood in Block-R, which accommodated some 30 to 40 households. It was his mamoo (maternal uncle) who first stopped being a mason to start taxi driving in 1991-92. Wakeel found his inspiration, learnt how to drive and started driving a taxi in 1993, at the young age of 20.

“You know, when I was 20 and when I had just started taxi-driving, I didn’t know the city. But the biggest advantage was that we had functional meters,” says Wakeel. “If we didn’t know the route or the destination, passengers would guide us and they would happily pay according to the meter. In fact, many used to give a tip as well. ”

Over time, explains Wakeel, meters went out because of the fluctuation in petrol prices and also because vehicle fitness inspection systems fell prey to corruption.

“First of all, passengers complained of meter-tampering, and with some justification. Secondly, when meters were operating at Rs10 or Rs12 per km, petrol was sold at Rs72/litre. Then petrol prices went up, to Rs108 per km. How can one operate on Rs10 or Rs12 per kilometre?” asks the cabbie.

“Thirdly, we were allowed to drive taxis without functional meters by the authorities. Nobody monitors us, so it became the culture to operate a taxi without a meter. Recently, the police have started asking about meters again,” he says, adding that he was sure that taxi meters are an advantage to passengers as they can relate the distance covered to the fare.

Two teenage boys weld a silencer.
Two teenage boys weld a silencer.

But today, the scales have tipped and taxi driving in Karachi has become extremely expensive. Wakeel starts his day at 8.00am but is unhappy at the low turnover of customers. There are the obvious costs in car maintenance and getting a fitness certificate, but Wakeel also holds the law and order situation of the city and the Qingchi phenomenon responsible for the downfall of old taxi services in Karachi.

“The official fee for car fitness is Rs50 for six months, but I give Rs1,000 to my contact there. If I do not bribe them, they would take a year to give me the certificate. Their office is in Baldia Town, and you know that area is not safe. We’ll waste petrol, trips and time ... so it’s better to spend Rs1,000 and forget about the rest,” says Wakeel. “And now there is another mechanism to it: fitness personnel come to our place, the tea shack where we all sit, charge Rs1,200 per vehicle and deliver the certificate.”

A boy makes new keys
A boy makes new keys

Times are fast changing for drivers of old taxis such as Wakeel, even though it was only three years ago that he had purchased the one that he drives today. There is simply just not enough business, as people prefer Qingchi over taxis as they are cheap.

Nor does Wakeel do business after dusk. “I don’t go to some parts of Malir, Orangi, Korangi, Manghopir, New Karachi and Shershah. Due to the law and order situation of the city, we all go home by evening. I am thinking of selling this taxi, and finding a job at a bungalow.”

Perhaps, the taxi-cutters of Manghopir and Katti Pahari will have a new client soon.

From North Nazimabad: “Defence is not safe for young women after sunset”

Beautician Parveen hailing from Sheikhupura, now lives in North Nazimabad and provides services to the clientele of the same area. She used to work in Defence, but not now, not after how unsafe she began to feel in the area.

“Defence is not safe for young women after sunset; travelling home in the nights was often filled with trouble,” says Parveen, who would spend three hours on the road on any given day to reach to her workplace and spent Rs70 daily in commuting fares.

This was the same beauty parlour where she paid Rs30,000 to be trained. She was then hired at Rs12,000 per month; although official work timings were from 9.30am to 7.00pm, she was asked to stay late if there were clients in the parlour after 7.00pm.

During Eid days, Parveen would stay at work till 2.00am and there were no holidays either. Her biggest aspiration is to establish her own parlour near her residence, and while she is still struggling to achieve that aim, Parveen has been successful in establishing a network of clients for at-home services.

Many times, Parveen has to go from door to door in sweltering heat, but this isn’t time wasted. The hours that she used to spend in commuting are now spent in marketing and sales.

Parveen started with losing the wealthy clientele of DHA; but equally, it was a decision that she simply had to make.

Trivial courtesies

“My biggest challenge these days is how to avoid possible blasphemy charges while clearing the walls of religious and religo-political parties’ posters,” says Parvez Masih, a janitor in the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC).

Parvez lives in Pahar Ganj, North Nazimabad and his duty is also in North Nazimabad Town. “Many years ago, our occupational hazards included only health hazards, mostly from dust. But now, when I sweep the main roads, I am afraid of rash drivers too,” he says.

Because of poverty and low income from agriculture, Parvez migrated from Sheikhupura in 1972 and started working as a gardener in the same vicinity. He later got a job as a sweeper in the KMC; he gradually solved his housing problem by obtaining an 80-square-yards plot and constructing a two-storey house, currently valued at Rs900,000. He is paid relatively well but says he cannot draw a salary without greasing the palms of the relevant officials.

Parvez wanted to provide an education for his siblings, but due to the non-conducive environment of his area, even his son was unable to proceed beyond matriculation.

According to him, people’s attitudes were friendlier, rather more humane, in the past.

“Now, it’s difficult even to get a glass of water from a house,” asserts Parvez. He sees it as a sign that more middle-class neighbourhoods in North Nazimabad are becoming intolerant of minorities.

A daily fight

A street vendor who sells dandasas also offers barber services
A street vendor who sells dandasas also offers barber services

In Osama’s case, the lines between labour and begging are blurred, as some people buy books from him and others just give him some money. Osama is happy to accept both.

Young Osama is a bookseller and his area of operation is the Board Office, near Sardina Pan Shop in North Nazimabad. He used to wash cars some time ago, but after being accused by the police of stealing side-view mirrors, he left that occupation.

His father migrated from Rahim Yar Khan and used to sell prayer mats in the same vicinity. The family resides in Kandho Goth near railway line in North Nazimabad. Osama earns Rs300 to Rs400 per day. His father and brother cumulatively earn another Rs800 per day; together, they push the total daily earnings of the household to Rs1,200.

Background interviews with other persons in the locality revealed that Osama is a part of large network, which brings books to him on a daily basis, which secures places for the bookselling business, negotiates with police, and at the end of any given day, does the financial books too.

Osama aspires to attain an education education, but in the immediate, the struggle is real: he needs to make Rs300 to Rs400 everyday or the family is in trouble.

Trash talk

In 1971, the longing for respectability drove Nasir’s father from Sheikhupura to Dhak Tabla, in Karachi’s Jubilee area. Nasir’s father initially served as a chowkidar in the compound of Dhak Tabla, which over the years was converted into a clan-based neighbourhood of a little more than 70 households.

As he grew up, Nasir opted for a career in scrap dealing. Since the past 30 years, Nasir has been roaming the streets, from Jubilee market to Sindh Secretariat and to Urdu Bazar, to collect trash and used items to resell for his livelihood. He can earn anything from Rs500 to Rs 700 per day.

An everyday wait for work.
An everyday wait for work.

“Getting old in this profession is a problem, since my voice is failing and fatigue takes over sooner than later,” says Nasir. “This was certainly not the case in my youth.”

If he had things his way, Nasir would have set up a shop by now. He couldn’t realise his ambitions, but he ensured that his children did not follow suit. They are all now ‘respectable’, educated members of society.

A matter of dignity and respect

Water scarcity and the shortage of electricity forced Fazal Hussain, a carpenter by training and profession, to move out of Rahim Yar Khan. He migrated in 1992, at the age of 19, because water was not available to till the land due to load-shedding.

The landowners had fixed generators and motors to fetch water from the canal, but they charged according to the location of the land; the further you were from the motor, the more was the cost. The rate varied from Rs300 to Rs500 per hour. He learnt the trade of woodwork in the village, but there was not enough work for him to allow him to live a respectable life.

Karachi and its challenges embraced him.

He soon found employment but the wages were low and so left the first employer, only to be employed at lower rates in a furniture shop in Gulshan-i-Iqbal. He then decided to pick up his tools and start work on a contract basis; he joined other freelance artisans sitting at the Water Pump roundabout in wait for work.

“My greatest challenge is the law and order situation of the city. Since the past seven or eight years, I manage to get work for only 15 days in a month,” says Fazal. He explains that the advantage of contract work is that he usually gets a place to sleep and eat and there is no expense on commuting.

Every now and then, workers from the KMC come to displace labourers of different trades from their Water Pump adda. The recently-built flyover on Water Pump has already had a negative effect on business; the adda has disappeared from attention and imagination because of the new construction. Fazal describes this as a “problem.”

“Clients used to be better in older times than now,” he says.

“Earlier, they were respectful towards labourers but now, they are full of arrogance and disrespect.”

Going bald

A boy selling spectacles listens to cricket commentary on his radio.
A boy selling spectacles listens to cricket commentary on his radio.

Nawaz Baloch from Lyari is a pushcart handler at the Paper Market in the old city. He takes loads of paper rims to printing presses and to Urdu Bazaar. On any given day, his earning ranges from Rs500 to Rs700; except when it is Ramazan or the weather is extremely hot.

A pushcart can be rented for Rs50 per day, while a new one costs between Rs5,000 and Rs7,000. For one trip, Nawaz earns Rs150, in which he carries a maximum load of 150kg. There is still much to take home from between Rs500 and Rs700 that they earn: Nawaz’s children are not manual labourers and are receiving an education instead.

Because he lives close by, he doesn’t have to spend much time or money commuting. Another Baloch colleague of his comes from Malir; he spends one hour on travelling and loses about Rs70 every day in doing so.

“Before unloading or loading paper rims onto my pushcart, I usually have to put all the weight on my head. I have a constant headache because of this. I think this is the main reason why I went bald,” says Nawaz.

The writer is a freelance researcher with a specific interest in the functioning of urban centers in Asia. He can be reached at

Editorial note: Reading the city through labour stories

There is beauty in Karachi’s chaos and knowledge in its narratives.

In working class lexicon, Karachi is seldom a father. Many tend to describe the city as a mother, always worthy of gratitude because of how it accepted them and nurtured them when they had nothing. Many put their faith in the city to help them build new lives; perhaps the city only banked on their promise when it welcomed them.

The story of the city, any city, is a collection of the varied lives that its inhabitants live and their many interactions across cultural geographies. A compilation of such stories, either in the media or through the academia, provides a window into today’s social processes and today’s cultural realities. Read as a trend, a clearer picture of society begins to emerge, of how society’s fabric is evolving and what is shaping it.

Karachi is a collection of migrants, from various ethnicities and backgrounds, some having arrived soon after Partition and others after having been squeezed in their ancestral villages and towns. With growing population and competition for resources, many entrants were forced to find gainful employment on the street. Most revelled in this opportunity.

From a bustling working class bloc to being brutally thrashed in 1972 at the hands of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the labouring classes were once a stakeholder in the development of the city. Their systematic dismantling by successive governments has meant that younger generations of working class migrants arrived in Karachi with a particular aim: to make ends meet, by any way possible.

The individual found an opportunity to shine in this framework, albeit in their limited, personal sphere. Away from factories and working class organisations, there were many labourers who found creative ways to deal with whatever the city had to throw at them. Most arrived with nothing; but as is the wont of this city, it rewards those who show invention and innovation.

Through the voices of street vendors and service providers, we attempt to capture the mood, temperament, and temperature of the streets in Karachi today and those who roam them. Their successes and failures are not grand or pompous, nor are they earth-shattering, profit-maximising triumphs; these are small, mundane accomplishments that have been carefully accrued over a period of time.

But it is through their voices that we discover how we are beginning to lose Karachi’s softer side. Matters associated with respect, dignity, or even basic courtesy are fast being lost to intolerance and a culture of lawlessness. Serving a glass of water to the postman or a janitor is out of vogue, class biases have turned into blind ignorance of others’ realities, compassion and camaraderie are in short supply, and those who can’t live by the city’s new rules are being forced out by those who will.

File photos: White Star

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 3rd, 2015

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