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A tale of bulldozers, excavators & livelihoods

Updated December 05, 2018


Livelihoods in ruin.
Livelihoods in ruin.

KARACHI: It is quiet now around the stone building of the historic Empress Market. A passenger with a big straw sack leaning by his feet watches as the rickshaw he is inside passes by. It seems like he is seeing the place for the first time after the anti-encroachment drive; his eyes like his mouth are wide open. “Empress Market ki ronak chali gayee [The glamour of Empress Market is no more],” he murmurs to himself while shaking his head.

There is rubble all around and inside as well. Even though you are prepared about what to expect here you wonder if the actual Empress Market building was really so small. The Lunda Bazaar of second-hand clothes and shoes is gone. The fruit and vegetable vendors are nowhere to be found just like the dried fruit, dates, and tea sellers. The pet shops and kite shops have also been bulldozed. Jahangir Park which you couldn’t see from the New M.A. Jinnah Road side is quite easily in sight now from afar, too.

The Empress Market area isn’t an exception.

Karachi Metropolitan Corporation’s (KMC) anti-encroachment drive isn’t sparing anyone who has overstepped boundaries. The shops along Saddar, Regal Chowk, Plaza Market and many other old city areas look like caps with their visors torn off. Most are missing eaves and steps because they had unintentionally, or intentionally, come on to or covered a portion of the pavement. The cleaning up has also resulted in the removal of shop signboards, display windows, doors and lights. Thus many of them have had to get their shop names printed on panaflex which they have then tied above for the time being.

Covering up facades with tents.
Covering up facades with tents.

Mohammad Arsalan Memon of the automotive market at Plaza said that while they were bulldozing his front steps they also broke the telecommunication wires, disconnecting their landlines and Wi-Fi internet.

The elderly Ijaz Ahmed of Gracious Automobiles at nearby Noor Chambers still tries to locate his missing goods. When asked why he hadn’t made sure everything was safe inside his shop when the bulldozers and excavators came, he says that it was just too chaotic then.

Empress Market under the claws of excavators.
Empress Market under the claws of excavators.

“I have been running my shop here since 1969 and the KMC has been charging us rent for signboards which I have being paying regularly and still they pulled it down,” he shares.

More shops in the vicinity, especially motorcycle showrooms, are in such bad shape with all their display windows broken that their owners have had to pull tents around them.

“There was no intimation beforehand. Had we been given even a few hours to prepare we wouldn’t have suffered too many losses. What can one say then?” Mohammad Atif near the Regal Chowk electronics market asks aloud.

Trying to work around piles of rubble.
Trying to work around piles of rubble.

“We got news that there was some action under way against the encroachments around Empress Market. We had no idea it also included us,” says Faraz Sarmad of Kamal Electronics, a corner shop at Regal, which had over the years stretched out on to the footpath.

“They have done so much damage. See all this rubble everywhere. It looks like we were in a war or something,” Faraz shares.

Meanwhile, there is also Altaf Ali there, whose little electronics shop did not encroach or step on anyone’s toes and remained out of harm’s way. “I have been working here for over 25 years now,” he says. “I always eyed that corner shop with envy as he had such a big footpath before him on both sides to sprawl. If I had that shop maybe I too would have spread out on the footpath,” he adds.

Asked whether he realised that he would have been encroaching then, the shopkeeper nods slowly. “Yes, I know it would have been wrong. But I also knew it was Pakistan after all where I could take liberties without being questioned about it,” he concludes.

Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2018