ISLAMABAD: Munir Ahmed, 52, has been living in Rawalpindi, where he works as a hawker at the Pirwadhai Bus Stand, for years.
Originally from Peshawar, Mr Ahmed said he earns around Rs1,000 a day, calling out to passengers and trying to persuade them to get the bus to Peshawar. Sometimes he doesn’t get any work at all, because of the lack of buses, transporters’ strikes or a protest in the city.
“I used to spend Rs200 a day on food, and at night I would get a charpoy at the bus stand for Rs60. But since the Panah Gah opened in I-11 last month, I first try to get a charpoy there, because it’s provided for free, and failing that I go to the bus stand,” he told Dawn.
Whether or not he gets a charpoy, Mr Ahmed has breakfast, lunch and dinner at the new shelter - altogether, he is able to save around Rs300 every day, and send more money back to his family every month.
Two shelters — one at the I-11 Sabzi Mandi and one in Tarlai — have been opened by the district administration under orders from the prime minister.
Both the shelters were set up in 20 days; the one in Tarlai can house around 150 men and 50 women, while the one in Sabzi Mandi can house 150 men and women.
There are a number of homeless shelters that have opened across the country, but most are run in tents. Islamabad is the only city with fully functional shelters in buildings, with staff deputed there as well.
But Mr Ahmed said the capacity at the shelter is insufficient. “The capacity for charpoys should be increased by tens of times. There are thousands of people who cannot even afford charpoys available for just Rs60 a night,” he said.
Jehangira-native Umer Daraz, 65, has a handcart on which he carries people’s goods.
“I have been working as a labourer despite becoming a senior citizen,” he told Dawn. “It is good that the Panah Gah has been established, but I suggest the government also introduce some honorarium for the elderly.”
Mohammad Kamran, 35, has also been staying at the shelter. Mr Kamran is from Abbotabad and works as a labourer; the free meals and accommodation at the shelter mean that he is able to save some money.
Ghulam Naseem Khan, 56, who belongs to a village near Mianwali, has been staying at the shelter as well. Mr Khan said he was forcefully retired from the army in 1993 because a gun was recovered from his possession.
The following inquiry proved he had a licence for the pistol, based on which it was decided that he would receive two-thirds of his pension.
“I have been running from pillar to post since then, but no one has listened to my problem,” he said. “I am staying in Rawalpindi so that one day I might get someone in [General Headquarters] who would listen to my problem.” In the meantime, Mr Khan is working as a labourer.
The caretaker of the I-11 shelter, Rosh Dil Khan Hoti, said the shelter building was owned by Haji Allah Rakha - also known as Mukhtar Shah - who would distribute free meals in a street in I-10 in the early 1980s.
“Some of the residents complained to the district administration that the street would be blocked because of the distribution of food, so the district administration stopped him.
“Later the assistant commissioner, Chaudhry Mohammad Ali, forwarded a request to President Ziaul Haq to allocate land for the free distribution of food, and in 1986 a two and a half kanal plot was allocated for the Langar Khana in I-11. They used to give free curry and charge for naan; initially it was just a few paisas, and by last year it was Rs5 per naan,” Mr Hoti said.
“When Prime Minister Imran Khan directed to establish Panah Gahs, we held a camp at the fruit market giving away free food.
“The Langar Khana contacted us and asked her to move the Panah Gah there. We involved philanthropists and not only contracted the building but a number of other facilities, such as a dispensary, food and residence have also been provided there,” he said.
Chief Commissioner Amer Ali Ahmed visited the site every day and pushed the staff, because of which the two-storey building was finished in 20 days and other facilities, such as televisions and so on, were also provided, he added.
“We provide residence on a first-come-first-serve basis daily, and all the particulars and every person’s details are not only registered but also shared with the police. We cook here, a tandoor has also been established here, and we pay all the staff,” he said.
In response to a question, Mr Hoti said commodities such as flour and pulses are preferred to cash donations.
A senior district administration official, who asked not to be named, also told Dawn it has been decided to increase the number of charpoys to 400 and arrange food for 1,000 people.
He added that the dining hall will be moved to the basement, and another floor will be added to provide accommodation to up to 1,000 people in a few weeks.
Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2019