IN its original form, Karachi’s Empress Market had 280 shops and stalls inside the building. In 1954, the KMC increased this number to 405 and built an additional 1,390 shops and cabins on its periphery. These were leased out to individuals and came to be known as ‘leased markets’. Some of these emerged as lucrative businesses with turnovers of many crores annually.
Prominent among them were dealers in dry fruit (with connections in Afghanistan), tea (with connections in Sri Lanka and Kenya), and egg wholesalers (connected to poultry farms all over Pakistan).
Each of these shops employed about 15-20 persons, not including the huge supply chain that acquired, distributed, and managed transactions. The majority of the cabins, however, were small businesses, operating at subsistence level. Many of the shops were illegally sublet and/or subdivided by their owners, some of whom also extended them onto the pavements. This was done with the connivance of the KMC staff and large sums of money were exchanged to make this possible.
Empress Market was a major transport hub in Karachi and hawkers increased to serve the commuters and the visitors to the markets. It is estimated that there were 4,000 to 6,000 bhatta-paying hawkers in Saddar in 2018. These hawkers sold all sorts of produce, from trinkets to shoes, clothes, and electric goods which were manufactured in low-income settlements and were a source of income for the small workshops that manufactured them. For example, middlemen supply material and credit to kite-makers in Korangi and Landhi, who in turn supply to the vendors in Saddar. The same process applies for other items such as spices, fruit, and vegetables.
The plan for excluding the poor from Karachi’s Saddar area is taking shape.
As a result, a whole interconnected economy, for the most part informal and with a yearly turnover estimated at more than a billion rupees, developed around the Saddar area. It provided approximately 60,000 jobs directly and many more indirectly through the supply chain and manufacturing sectors.
It is true that this development created congestion and difficulty for vehicular movement but no attempt was ever made to reorganise space to keep this economy and culture alive and at the same time remove congestion as has been done in many cities of the world. It is also true that the Empress Market was badly damaged and needed a serious conservation exercise.
Through the Supreme Court’s Oct 27, 2018, order, a massive demolition process took place inside and outside the Empress Market, and 1,795 leased shops and cabins were demolished. Surveys carried out at that time (March 2019) of over 200 affectees showed that the large enterprises had lost crores of rupees of business and stocks due to the demolition.
Meanwhile, due to displacement, hawkers lost their daily incomes and so did the porters who served the visitors and businesses, and musicians and performers who entertained the commuters. As a result, a large number of families (including the Hindu women who sold spices on the street) face extreme poverty to this day. Many vendors are now in debt and many others, in search of jobs or daily wage labour, both of which are difficult to access.
Today, a year later, unlike before, hawkers themselves and not only their goods are taken away if they try to function in Saddar. Many shopkeepers have been offered alternative allotments in locations only to discover that they were already occupied by others. Meanwhile, commuters have decreased by more than 50 per cent and there are rumours that public transport will no longer ply through central Saddar. As one hawker puts it, “when this happens, the poor will no longer visit this area and will have to find alternative locations”.
Also, the owners of the remaining shops inside the Empress Market feel unsafe due to a large number of aggressive men who gather in front of its now gated grounds, claiming that the market belongs to them. They also complain that no plans for the future development of Saddar have been shared with them and as such, they do not know what is in store for them.
It is interesting to note that the orders of the Supreme Court have not been complied with. The marriage halls, the shops and buildings on the nullahs, the encroachments in the other markets, all remain — then why has so much interest been built around the Empress Market? It is obvious that the plan for excluding the poor from Saddar is taking shape and one more area, like so many others will be lost to them.
A question needs to be asked here: was it not possible that Saddar could be gentrified while keeping its 70-plus years-old culture, its economy, and those who created it, alive? This was and still is a great challenge for the architects of this city who along with others such as the UN and the World Bank believe in equity and the development of multi-class spaces.
The writers are architects.
Published in Dawn, December 1st, 2019