Living off 400 rupees a day

Updated 07 Jun 2015

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There are hundreds of thousands of people across this country who can barely manage to survive on their meagre earnings. —Photo by Vaqar Ahmed
There are hundreds of thousands of people across this country who can barely manage to survive on their meagre earnings. —Photo by Vaqar Ahmed

We are quick to haggle with the daily-wage owner and the man who sells fruits at the corner shop, not truly understanding that the small profit he makes is essential to his survival.

Think for a moment about the man whose salary 10 years ago was Rs9,000 and today is Rs12,500. Think about how he supports his family. How does he pay for utilities and his rent? How does he educate his children or take care of his ailing mother?

Let me introduce you to Obaid ur Rehman, who works in a five-star hotel in Karachi. The breakdown of his household expenses is as follows:

  • Rs1,800 as school fees for his three children
  • Rs1,560 on transport
  • Rs3,000 on electricity
  • Rs500 on gas
  • Rs5,000 for house rent
  • Rs4,000 rupees on monthly groceries

If we total that, then his monthly expenses come to Rs16,000, meaning he has a monthly shortfall of approximately Rs4,000.


No regularisation, no laws and sometimes no work even for daily wagers; how do they make ends meet?


“This gap is filled by my sisters, wife and mother, who take on stitching and embroidery work. We have kept a small fridge where they freeze tiny lollies to sell to the neighbourhood children for Rs1 or 2 each,” he says.

For most of us, pay day is a day of celebration. For Obaid, that is not the case.

“Perhaps, people get happy the day they receive their salary but for me, and my co-workers who don’t even make Rs8,000, there is little reason to celebrate.”

Then imagine your daughter is unwell and you delay taking her to the doctor because you cannot afford to.

“My daughter has some skin allergies, for three months I haven’t been able to take her to the doctor … we went a few months ago but his fees was Rs300 and the medicines they prescribed was another Rs300. I could not afford to take her after that,” says Obaid.

This is not all, the day we met Obaid his mother was also unwell. “In 48 years, this is the first time my mother is angry at me,” he told us.

“Today is the third day in a row that she hasn’t stopped coughing because of some dryness in her lungs. I have been avoiding her because I can’t take her to the doctor.”

When Obaid galvanised his fellow workers to rally for better wages, his employment was terminated and he began receiving threats.

“I have received calls where people have told me that in a city like Karachi, one finds bodies in bags; road accidents happen; the police can also make people disappear and that I have no worth, so I should stop.”


For most of us, pay day is a day of celebration, for Obaid that is not the case. “Perhaps people get happy the day they receive their salary but for me, and my co-workers who don’t even make Rs8,000, there is little reason to celebrate.”


This of, course, only made his resolve to fight stronger. “After these calls came, I made the decision that I will give this work and this fight for the rights of labour, the same importance that I give to worship.”

Obaid and his colleagues have legitimate demands.

“Our wages have remained the same over the past 12 years. Our first demand is a raise in our salary in accordance with inflation. Our second demand is that two of our temporary employees should be made permanent every month. The last time this happened was 12 years ago,” he says.

The fight is long and hard and victory is nowhere in sight. Some days, Obaid comes home and doesn’t know how to handle the stress.

“My children, ask me for things and they whine when I cannot provide it to them, so I end up hitting them and then I regret it.”

This is just one story. There are hundreds of thousands of people like Obaid across this country, barely managing to make ends meet. We won’t know what they are going through on a daily basis unless we walk in their shoes.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 7th, 2015

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