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Homeless in Karachi

October 12, 2018

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A HOMELESS man sleeps on the pavement in the Saddar area.—Stephan Andrew / White Star
A HOMELESS man sleeps on the pavement in the Saddar area.—Stephan Andrew / White Star

KARACHI: Karachi; the city by the sea. Karachi; the city of lights. Karachi; the city that never sleeps. Karachi; (once) a jewel in the British crown. Karachi; a tiny fishing village turned into a scenic littoral town by the likes of Richard Keith Pringle (1847-1850), the first commissioner of Sindh and Bartle Frere, the man who followed him.

More than 170 years on, the city is now a huge mismanaged piece of land –– extremely overpopulated, with countless jerry-built structures, mind-numbing traffic issues, short on amenities and in constant danger of becoming affected by the ever-deepening ethnic fault-lines. And yet, there’s something about it…

No matter how hard we try and reclaim the lost charm of the city, the unbridled demographic boom will remain the biggest hurdle in the way of making Karachi, borrowing a phrase from the incumbent US president, great again. The rapid increase in population is one of the reasons, if not the main reason, that the city is in tremendous socioeconomic strife. That socioeconomic strife often becomes manifest in unemployment, family disintegration and psychological ailments.

Far too many in the country’s economic hub are sleeping on the streets

There is a sizable number of people in the Sindh capital who sleep on the streets, under the open sky, every night, sometimes even in the afternoon when the sun is beating down on them. Obviously, no one does that willingly. Each homeless person has a story to tell, but they either prefer not to or paint a picture that may not be completely true.

If you happen to pass by Seaview very early in the morning, there’s likelihood that you’ll see a man sleeping in one corner of the lane that leads from Seaview to Badr Commercial. Also visible will be a cycle standing beside him on whose handles hang a variety of things –– handbags, chadors, small pieces of cloth, polythene bags etc. His name, he tells me, is Ghulam Sakhi.

Sakhi is fifty-something. He has salt and pepper hair, a bushy beard, wears shirts with floral patterns on them and bead necklaces around his neck. No, he is not a fashionable Sufi. Still, he is pretty nonchalant about his homelessness.

Sakhi wanders around the area, district South, in the daytime, and reaches this particular spot after dusk. He takes some rest, sleeps, and gets up as soon as the sun rises.

Sakhi doesn’t like to reveal much about himself. He says he has a son who sometimes visits him. The reason that he gives for not living under any roof is “financial difficulties”. He could not bear the expenses of his family therefore left the house and now has found this quiet corner near the sea to live.

According to Sakhi, his father was of Persian descent and mother came from an Urdu-speaking family. He doesn’t like to talk about his wife, though.

So, how does he survive? Or eke out a living? Well, he says, people ‘help’ him.

Morning is also the time when Saba Avenue, a posh Karachi locality flanked by big bungalows and has a stretch in between that contains high-end restaurants and pricey supermarkets, hosts on its pavements quite a few homeless men. You will find them sleeping, sometimes until 8am, on footpaths outside shops and banks. Unlike Sakhi, they don’t like to reveal their faces, let alone stories, because you’ll find them sleeping with pulled-up sheets over their entire bodies until the traffic becomes loud and heavy to disrupt their dreams — if they have any. They are labourers, who, once they wake up, start looking for work in bungalows and apartments.

This is only a single neighbourhood in the city which is often referred to as the economic hub of the country. There are many men, and in certain cases women too, in localities such as Gurumandir, Nazimabad and Gulshan-i-Iqbal where the homeless spend their nights on pavements.

Time to reclaim Karachi’s people.

Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2018