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Moving pursuits: Life under Karachi's flyovers

In the city of lights, life under flyovers and on pedestrian bridges is far removed from the pace of traffic over them.
Updated 26 Jul, 2015 01:28pm

In the city of lights, life under flyovers and on pedestrian bridges is far removed from the pace of traffic over them

Organised chaos

Under the flyovers of Karachi, between robust structures of concrete and iron, there exists life — of the marginalised, the poor and the not-so-poor. These aren’t wasted spaces; they are claimed and reclaimed by common citizens. Meet some voices who turn dead spaces into a bustling hive

For many dwellers of the city, space under a bridge is the only available or affordable living space.  Some of these spaces are also contested: come in too late, and you might not find room to sleep. — White Star file photo
For many dwellers of the city, space under a bridge is the only available or affordable living space. Some of these spaces are also contested: come in too late, and you might not find room to sleep. — White Star file photo

The rumbling noise of trucks on the recently constructed Ayesha Manzil flyover is not simply a distraction for Fatima Bibi; it is a reminder of her misfortune constructed out of cement.

“Drivers seldom stop their cars to give us alms any more. I have arthritis and nine kids to feed. Beggary has taken a great hit because of the flyover,” she tut-tuts.

Not too long ago, Fatima Bibi used to beg at the Ayesha Manzil traffic signal. But late 2013 spelled doom for her, as a flyover track was finally inaugurated and the traffic signal became concealed by concrete.

“In the days of the traffic signal, I used to take home between Rs400 and Rs500 every day. Now, it is between Rs150 and Rs200,” she says.

Flyovers were once the cornerstone of how development needed to be carried out in cities. If a city had a flyover, it qualified as being on the path to becoming modern. These bridges hid all that was ugly and undesirable, while providing motorists with as clear a path to their destination as possible. In very subtle ways, flyovers encouraged motorists to live by being indifferent to the life below them.

Despite being waterlogged after a downpour, the space under the FTC flyover provides a resting spot for two gentlemen — Online file photo
Despite being waterlogged after a downpour, the space under the FTC flyover provides a resting spot for two gentlemen — Online file photo

But as the barely two-year-old history of the Ayesha Manzil flyover shows, as soon as a new bridge is constructed, new dynamics and challenges emerge under it. With governments often writing this space off as “dead space”, this space automatically acquires a life of its own since ordinary people begin filling the vacuum. Food vending, night dwelling, begging, vehicle parking, dumping of waste and beautification becomes a regular feature of the utilisation of space under these bridges.

Fatima Bibi comes all the way from New Karachi, spending two hours in commuting and about Rs50 in fares. Her day starts at 10.00am and finishes by 7.00pm.

Why the hassle, I ask.

“I started begging after my husband went blind,” she says. “He used to do construction work, but with dirt almost always piercing his eyes, he lost his eyesight.”

The space under the Ayesha Manzil flyover is used not only by Fatima Bibi but also by other actors of the street.

Whether it is outside the University of Karachi or near the Empress Market, pedestrian culture in the city is to avoid overhead bridges and risk the main road instead
Whether it is outside the University of Karachi or near the Empress Market, pedestrian culture in the city is to avoid overhead bridges and risk the main road instead

Parked in one corner is a fruit vendor. “I give Rs80 per day in extortion money to park my pushcart here,” he says. When asked whom does he pay this extortion money to, he simply smiles and says, “You know it well.”

In another corner stands an ambulance driver, working a 12-hour shift in return for a monthly salary of Rs15,000. He works for a charity wing of a political organisation and claims that his selection for the post of ambulance-driver was rather methodological and robust one.

One of the two pedestrian bridges on University Road that were built at a cost of Rs400 million —White Star file photos
One of the two pedestrian bridges on University Road that were built at a cost of Rs400 million —White Star file photos

“We don’t charge for road accident cases but we do charge money for the transfer of patients to a hospital and back home. The rates are Rs200 per patient and Rs1,000 for critical patients (those who need oxygen support),” he says.

According to the driver, an ambulance fleet operates in a radius of about 10km to 15km. Instructions are sent to the drivers from the main wireless room, which he says is not too far away from the Ayesha Manzil flyover.

Tax on the loo

Young Shakir is a Christian by faith, and he has been made responsible for cleaning the toilets under the Liqauatabad flyover and collecting money from those who use them.

There are five toilets, three for men and two for women. All of them were constructed by the government and leased to private contractors.

Under the Fatima Jinnah flyover, a permanent spot to offer prayers and drink water — Dawn file photo
Under the Fatima Jinnah flyover, a permanent spot to offer prayers and drink water — Dawn file photo

The charges to urinate are Rs5 per person while those for defecation are Rs10 per person. This needs to be specified before one is allowed in by the gatekeeper. “I have to ask every client: ‘chota karo ge ya bara karo gey?’” Shakir says.

The janitor starts his day at 8.00am and ends at 8.00pm. While Shakir gets only Rs300 per day from a 12-hour job, his contractor makes between Rs1,000 and Rs1,500 per day. Business booms during the two Eids but crashes on strike days.

The electricity tariff, meanwhile, is fixed at Rs800 per month.

Fuel for the police

The police mobile stationed under Karimabad flyover often does not have fuel. Or at least that is the impression created by a police constable stationed besides the mobile.

The routine is familiar and works often: first, the constable aggressively stops a car and asks the driver for relevant documents. If all documentation is complete and up to date (driving license, national identity card, etc), the constable asks for tax papers. If those too are current, the constable simply whispers: “Sir, kutch to khayal karen… gari maen diesel bhee naheen hae”, (sir, please take care of us, we don’t even have fuel in the mobile).

Flyover is a windfall

Three brothers run a tyre-repairs shop under the Daak Khana flyover. The shop remains opens for 18 hours a day, from 8.00am till 2.00am. Bikes puncture costs Rs50 to fix, car Rs80 and tubeless tyre costs Rs100 per puncture. Due to the large number of bolts (eight in a wheel rim), a rickshaw wheel puncture costs Rs60. The shop was acquired with an accumulated amount of Rs50,000 which includes official charges as well as invisible money.

Whether it is outside the University of Karachi or near the Empress Market, pedestrian culture in the city is to avoid overhead bridges and risk the main road instead
Whether it is outside the University of Karachi or near the Empress Market, pedestrian culture in the city is to avoid overhead bridges and risk the main road instead

Electricity is provided through ‘kunda’ (hook) connection and a fixed amount of Rs500 per month is paid for the service. The occupation needs only a meagre amount of water, so a water bowser is not required.

Perennial daily-wager

An unkempt Bilal lives under Nazimabad flyover but he says his scruffy appearance is out of choice.

“I do not bathe and I do not shave. I prefer to remain in this state because otherwise I would not be able to live under the bridge nor will I get any food from Chhipa,” he says.

Bilal hails from Kamokee, and actually ran from his home in Gujranwala some 12 years ago. When he first arrived in Karachi, he lived in Malir and then in Saddar, but now lives under the flyover. For him, stealing and scavenging are two sides of the same coin.

The young man is an addict; his daily expense on drugs is Rs400, which he describes as “essential.” He started with hashish and later switched to “poder”, commonly known as “token”. Depending on the quality, one dose of token costs anywhere between Rs50 and Rs100.

“I procure it from nearby, but sometimes I also have to go to Katti Pahari,” says Bilal, claiming that he consumes six tokens per day of Rs50 quality. “I sleep here and nobody bothers me. The police wallas know that if they were to pick me up, then they’d have to drop me back here, so they don’t bother. But I still have to work seven days a week.”

Nazimabad flyover is also the permanent abode of a balloon seller from Tando Jam and his entire family. The male members sleep throughout the day and start work in the evening at a park nearby. Every member of the family works, as the women and children beg on the street and earn Rs300 per day on an average.

According to the balloon seller, nobody in the vicinity rented a house to them, and so they simply started living under what used to be unclaimed space at the time. He gets food from Chhipa and does not believe in educating the children, “It is an absolute waste of time,” he asserts.

The writer is a freelance researcher with a specific interest in the functioning of urban centres in Asia. He can be reached at mansooraza@gmail.com


The pedestrian predicament

Sanctioned by the Liaquatabad Town administration when it was being built, this parking lot under the Liaquatabad flyover was meant for “picnic and party” buses. The buses did eventually arrive but so did many other vendors  — Dawn file photo
Sanctioned by the Liaquatabad Town administration when it was being built, this parking lot under the Liaquatabad flyover was meant for “picnic and party” buses. The buses did eventually arrive but so did many other vendors — Dawn file photo

Overhead bridges for pedestrians seem to be an afterthought in development, whereas they should perhaps be among the primary considerations

Let the figures sink in for a moment: Karachi, a city of approximately 20 million citizens, only has 93 pedestrian bridges.

To walk with safety is a basic human right. Perhaps the first right-of-way also belongs to pedestrians. In a city where moving fast is almost considered a necessity, pedestrian bridges provide, at least in theory, a safe way for pedestrians to cross the road, in less time and without much effort or worry.

Officials of the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC), speaking on condition of anonymity, claim that it costs about Rs20 million to build one pedestrian overhead bridge. While a lack of funds is a major hindrance in installing more pedestrian bridges, it is estimated that because of design flaws and other problems, only about a quarter of the city’s pedestrians use them.

One of the primary reasons for this underuse, according to a survey that we conducted for the Urban Resource Centre, is mugging and snatching. Most people on foot shy away from using pedestrian bridges at night. If they are compelled to use them after dusk, they prefer to do so in groups. People also complained about the absence of proper lighting on these bridges, making it difficult to figure out who is walking next to them.

Then there is the reality that many of the city’s pedestrian bridges are not very well maintained and their iron sheets are rusting away. Take the pedestrian bridges in Saddar, Korangi, Jama Cloth Market and Nazimabad for example; all need more attention and greater repair.

Older citizens cannot use these pedestrian bridges either because their large flight of stairs causes fatigue. The same holds true for patients suffering from arthritis or other muscular or orthopaedic ailments. In most cases, there is no way for somebody to take their wheel chair up the bridge. Only one pedestrian bridge in the city, constructed outside the Aga Khan University Hospital entrance, has the provision of an elevator with it.

In Gulshan-i-Iqbal, Korangi and DHA, most pedestrians prefer to cross the road (rather than any pedestrian bridge), even if they have to jump over the grills at the median. Many people also fall prey to laziness: respondents suggested that they don’t use pedestrian bridges in order “to save time” or that “it is a long process to go up, walk and then come down.”

The official of the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation whom we interviewed mentioned that when ramps were made near Natha khan flyover, alongside pedestrian bridge to facilitate the disabled, people started riding motorbikes on them.

The parallel tracks were thereafter blocked by the authorities concerned.

It is important to note that despite all misgivings of pedestrian bridges, respondents were unanimous in recommending more of those for the city.

Hence more pedestrian bridges are recommended and at locations of high density: factories, hospitals, shopping malls, interchanges and schools. —Mansoor Raza

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine July 26th, 2015

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