KARACHI: “Twice a day, when the local train chugged along the tracks through here, the floor trembled and the dishes and utensils inside our homes shook. Some also fell off the shelves. And this despite its moving slowly,” said Hajra Begum, an aged resident of one of the homes by the Liaquatabad-Gharibabad railway line, as neighbourhood children helped her move her rickety iron cot from her little veranda to the other side of the said to be buried tracks as all sat there awaiting their fate on Tuesday.
Up ahead, heavy police contingents stood watching in case the Railways and city administration faced any hurdles or trouble from the people after the joint director of land and railways Imtiaz Siddiqui had said that they would be starting their anti-encroachment drive along the Karachi Circular Railway lines from the well-known furniture market in the area.
The work was to start a day prior, on Monday, but after giving shopkeepers a day’s respite to move their belongings and merchandise they were back early on Tuesday to clear up the over 150 shops there.
The children of the residential area, meanwhile, watched the Railways men in lime safety vests getting busy with their pickaxes and shovels. They were looking for the buried railway tracks as if searching for treasure.
“The tracks are there alright, but they will have to dig deep. Somewhere here they unearthed them after digging as deep as four feet and somewhere [else] they found them two feet under,” the old woman said to them. “Come children, let them do their work,” she said to the kids to divert their attention from the inevitable.
Over 5,650 houses and shops have been illegally constructed on Railways land
One of the youngsters asked then: “If you were living here in the same home when the trains passed by, why are they saying they need to remove our houses now? The trains will still have enough space to pass through.”
Two brothers, Kashif Raza and Qamar Raza, also residing by the tracks for many years now tried giving some hope to the others. “Don’t worry, DC Sahib has said they will not be demolishing our homes, only the commercial area because the shops there have even encroached on the tracks,” said Qamar, the older of the two.
“DC Sahib who?” someone from the crowd asked. And neither Qamar nor Kashif were sure about the man’s name. “Well, this guy who came earlier. He seemed important,” said the younger brother.
Khalil Ahmed, living there for 35 years, had more information. “Well, I heard that they need 20 feet on either side of the tracks. I measured the distance between my home and the tracks. Initially it was 20ft away but then I have come a few feet forward. I believe that portion of my home will be bulldozed,” he said.
A debate between him and one of the brothers started then about whether they needed 20ft or 50ft of clear land on either side of the tracks because both had heard different things.
Looking for alternatives
But they were clear about one thing. “If we are provided an alternative option to live, we will move. We know this is no place to live but we are not rich people. This is what we could find as a roof over our heads on God’s land,” they said.
Abdul Rahman who also lived there was showing everyone a document he had. “It is a letter issued to us in 2009 assuring us that our homes won’t be broken,” he said. “But someone told me that it is a useless piece of paper now as this is not the same government,” he said worried.
Another resident, Zahid Pervez, said that no one had slept a wink for several days now. “There is no food being cooked in our homes because no one is hungry. And where they are preparing something, they are doing for the children only,” he said as one saw women standing in clusters listening to an elderly neighbour trying to calm them.
Panic among shopkeepers
There was a cardboard factory falling before the furniture shops where they were hurriedly loading up rolls of cardboard on Suzuki pickups. At a shop for glass window frames nearby they said that they had moved most of their merchandise. “We have no place to take the rest of our things as our homes are full now so we are sitting here, staying on guard,” said the shop owner.
Another shopkeeper, Junaid, said that he was sure that they would remove them but do nothing for KCR. “Does this government even have the money to resume the KCR or are they just out to remove us?”
Islam Akhtar, who besides running a furniture business in Gharibabad also happened to live by the railway line, said: “I earn Rs400 a day but now after packing up my second-hand furniture shop from here I am not sure about where to go. Will I be able to send my children to school even?
“When those thrown out of Empress Market and other places are not clear about getting a place to earn their livelihood in place of what they lost, can I expect anything in exchange for my shop?
“This government after they come into power had said that there won’t be any poor person in sight. Gharibabad literally means the dwellings of the poor so they have started their KCR anti-encroachment drive from here,” he said.
There happen to be some 5,653 illegally constructed structures encroaching on about 29 acres of Railways land required to restore the KCR.
Published in Dawn, December 12th, 2018