Life is stripped to the bone as a portrait of poverty spreads bare at Jogi Morr in Qayyumabad. A sea of low-hanging sheets of cloth over dark hovels, many bodies, and naked refuse in a mesh of lanes create a typical landscape of destitution.
Aashi, a fiery activist and feminist, stands at the corner of the path leading into her slum. She has a triumphant smile and speaks excitedly of last night’s battle at the neighbourhood’s water supply office.
“We didn’t have water for over three days. They were selling it to homes in their vicinity and we survived on these dirty puddles. I led a large group of protesters and we created havoc; broke everything and set their pumps alight. Now there is a steady stream despite the destruction,” she smirks.
Smells of weed and spices rise through a taut community. Men are scattered in slothful huddles; the women in bright sarees, breeze through homes and paths carrying their brood or cooking ware.
“There is a surfeit of nasha here. We don’t have the means to control this scourge, even my husband is an addict,” adds Aashi as we approach a cement platform under an old pipal tree, strewn with languid bodies, goats, garbage and strays.
Perhaps the affluent patch here, the space belongs to Krishan Bhandari, a temple attendant who was formerly a poultry seller. He pulls up two charpoys and a few older women play hosts.
“We have been without electricity for a while. I can’t put a pedestal fan for you but we will wave the flies away,” he smiles.
Between laughs and banter, we talk about the magnitude of this 60-year-old settlement comprising three separate sections of over 1,500 homes and nearly 4,000 Marwari-Gujarati Hindu inhabitants.
As Bhandari cuts to the heart of their collective distress, it’s clear that the air of nonchalance is just another habit.
“Our children left school because they don’t have identity cards as Hindus, and problems of livelihood have escalated because not a single government team has visited since 2008 when 10 per cent of us procured cards.”
Women and young men clutching faulty paperwork lament that repeated visits to Nadra offices cost fare and fortitude, without gain. “They make us go in circles. People with IDs are told to get marriage certificates for their wives and children to have official documents. But where is the law that grants Hindu marriage permits?” says an aged mother of four sons.
“Three of them are wastrels. In the ongoing Karachi operation the security situation demands credentials hence our movement is acutely limited. Even government hospitals turn us away as Zakat funds cannot be used on us. So we beg for the body and intoxicate the mind.”
Dhaniya, now 20, was a mill worker for five years before he was dismissed for lack of an identity card. “From earning 10,000 rupees, I have become a daily wage earner. We make less than 300 per day to support a family of eight.”
Aashi explains that debt is one of the area’s greater curses. “I have a loan of 55,000 rupees which I am paying off in monthly instalments of 3,500. It is not our cost of living but for our religious festivals and expenditure on worship rituals.”
An imprint of brutal social injustice, this populace is shackled by vulnerability — deprived by the state and enslaved by rogue administrators. A band of four men barges in to inspect us and monitor the flow of information.
“How did you enter without ustad’s permission? We are not responsible if anything goes wrong … you don’t know this place,” threatens the chief ruffian.
Aashi and Bhandari make attempts to placate without taking ownership of their visitors.
Fear is a heavy leftover. “Please meet Rashid Pawar when you leave. He sits in his nearby PPP office and supports us in daily battles,” requests Aashi. Others maintain that his bureau is a jirga where their disputes are defused in favour of wealthier contestants.
“The next mohalla is Lalu’s and it’s sealed for outsiders to the extent that drainage work cannot be implemented. They trade humanity for land.”
Speaking about the squalor and desertion of his community, Sanjesh Dhanja, president, Pakistan Hindu Seva, says that his organisation has a strategy to salvage aspects of their sad condition.
“We want to install a health care helpline, arrange regular home tutorials, involve women in handicrafts and work with the municipality towards a sanitised environment. These measures will address health issues, restrict begging and drug use. But the primary dilemma of government documentation is beyond us,” says Dhanja.
These people present the disturbing contrast between humanity and reality. But what they cannot come to symbolise is a nation’s desire to assimilate at the cost of personal belief and identity.
Published in Dawn, August 23rd, 2015