Illustration by Shafaq Bashir


In Pakistan, the job of sweeping the streets and cleaning the gutters is usually reserved for the poor Christian community.
Published July 23, 2023

He sits in the narrow street between a tangle of tiny houses, a path so thin no two men could walk it side by side comfortably. Scrupulously, he sifts layers of sand with running water in a stainless steel parat [pan]. The profession of cleaning, this knowledge of the city’s drains and what flows through them, has taught him how to extract a modicum of luck from misfortune.

To separate a semblance of winking joy from the muck they toil in every day, sometimes he strikes gold — literally — in the deposits dredged up from the garbled veins of the Old City.

Around him stand men from the colony in a tight knot, watching him pan for gold, their dark faces animated by quiet anticipation as they wait to exhale a whoop of exaltation, should something shine in the sandy grey sediment that the prospector is busy stratifying — soaking and combing through with fingers, busy hands agitating the water, as if cajoling his luck to rise, to rise from the dregs of the drains of this city.

Christian Colony

They need it tonight. Tonight, more than ever, they need their luck. It’s the Saturday before Easter, the “Joyous Saturday” of the Christian tradition.

On this day before Easter, all that everyone here in Christian Colony in the Old City of Peshawar — and Father’s Colony in the Tehkal neighbourhood along the Jamrud Road — wants to talk about is the “grievous” omission that is the failure of the Water and Sanitation Services Peshawar (WSSP), the local government’s municipal utility, to pay sanitation workers salaries on an occasion as august as Easter.

For the last four days, the workers have been on strike — the city and its various garbage collection points drawing rodents, flies and strays as waste rots everywhere, under a lingering miasma of decay.

Sharafat Masih*, a resident of the Colony, shakes his head in disbelief as he says, “The delay in salaries has been going on for years now, but to not pay poor workers on Easter is callous.”

To make a point, this 60-year-old man, who wears his thick hair like a white crown over his face of molten chocolate, offers, “It is like your chand raat,” the night of the moon before Eid-ul-Fitr — the annual festival that celebrates the end of the holy fasting month of Ramazan. The analogy rings startlingly immediate, and true, if only because of the occasion.

In Pakistan, the job of sweeping the streets and cleaning the gutters is usually reserved for the poor Christian community. Generations of Christian families have been caught in a cycle of poverty working as sanitation workers — a cycle from which they find no escape. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan recently commissioned profiles of sanitation workers as part of its Shakeel Pathan Memorial Labour Studies Series. Eos is presenting here one of these profiles, from Peshawar…

These last couple of years, Lent, the 40 days during which Christians fast and repent for sins, and Easter, have coincided with the time of Ramazan and Eid. It makes you see the Christian community — their humanity, in all its fragility and struggles, and their aspirations as both people of a faith and just plain flesh-and-blood humans — in the light of your own familiar context and experience. You see them through the pang of your own hunger, your own excitement at celebrating Eid at the end of a month of fasting.

Here on the “Joyous Saturday”, brought together by a happy coincidence and compelled to recognise similarities in a people we tend to ignore, and stay ignorant of in our ardour to build walls across caste, colour and creed, one can’t help but see that this place is less a “Christian Colony” and more of a “ghetto” for Christian sanitation workers.

Most here have little choice but to earn their bread from the dirty work of sweeping and cleaning streets and gutters that the majority faith recoils from, its attitudes made hard and rigid by the sanctimony of social and religious conditioning. A vocation that, says a Christian resident of the Father’s Colony, “the state and the society has reserved for the people of this Colony and others where the lowly sanitation worker lives.”

What has been an enduring lament against the apathy of the state towards their condition has turned to fear, the quiet despair of a cornered, impoverished community, caught up in a cycle of targeted violence, a stagflation that crushes all but the abjectly poor totally, a pandemic that not only brought a plague of heightened ostracism and unemployment for sanitation workers in household work, but also exposed them to its taint in hospitals and the public health sector

 Christian Colony, Peshawar is filled with a huddle of mis-shapen, windowless houses with bad ventilation, open drains and manholes | Photo by the writer
Christian Colony, Peshawar is filled with a huddle of mis-shapen, windowless houses with bad ventilation, open drains and manholes | Photo by the writer

In the Ghettos

This community in its ghetto-like organisation — a tiny-walled settlement, knit together not only by a kinship of faith and a common occupation, but also the social consequence of structural exclusion — is surrounded by the cavernous sprawl of the Old City, which remains divorced from the realities or festivities of its inhabitants.

In this, the Christian Colony is a microcosm for Pakistan, bringing that ardour to build walls — made righteous and unremitting by the heft of a majority faith and the power and privileges it brings — into sharp relief.

What sets apart this evening in Christian Colony, though, is the absence of fervour about Lent or Easter on the part of a minority, compared to the manic festivities that mark the approaching end of Ramazan and the arrival of Eid, on the part of the majority in the streets outside.

Little is joyous about the “Joyous Saturday” here — this delay in getting paid becomes another occasion of waiting for deliverance, an illustration of the liminal state between suffering and redemption that our religious minorities are forever caught in.

Few here see how the metaphor of suffering could well apply to their life in the here and now. Fewer still dare to speak of it that way. What has been an enduring lament against the apathy of the state towards their condition has turned to fear, the quiet despair of a cornered, impoverished community, caught up in a cycle of targeted violence, a stagflation that crushes all but the abjectly poor totally, a pandemic that not only brought a plague of heightened ostracism and unemployment for sanitation workers in household work, but also exposed them to its taint in hospitals and the public health sector.

Later, as Sharafat leaves the Colony to sit with his fellow community members out in the shade of a mulberry tree, he stops by the man who is panning drain-sediment for gold in his path. The Colony is close to the old Sarafa Bazaar, the Jewellers’ market and its glittering shops, through the chaotic Ghanta Ghar Road with its clock-tower.

Through the city’s substrata run a vast network of drains, where gold from the jewellers’ workshops in the Bazaar’s neighbourhood sometimes find its way into its ancient bowels. It is rare that the prospectors in the Colony find a glint of hope in the muddy sands they dredge up but, today, everyone is home and idle, with time on their hands and desperation on their side.

Around them, the Colony — a shoddily built, half-formed thing with open drains and manholes — is rendered worse still by the recklessness of those too poor to pay mind to the niceties of aesthetics or comfort. Its people move with the tired motion of a community weighed down by its own cares and upkeep, because no one else will.

With no one to look up to, they look down into the drains. And rare though it is, sometimes they get lucky.

As a child, Sharafat had no time for school. Within two years of his father’s death, he was out sweeping roads and cleaning toilets, filling in for members of the family so they could take care of him and other children

A Lifetime of Bondage

Sharafat never found gold, but he had his wife. She was right by his side for the 36 years he swept the Grand Trunk Road out of Peshawar every day. To him, Noreen Masih* was a pillar of strength. When he brought her here as a young bride from Faisalabad in Punjab, he was able to find her a job with the “committee” — the Municipal Committee Peshawar, before it became the Municipal Corporation.

“My wife worked with me mardwaar [like a man],” says a reflective Sharafat, sitting lotus, like the Chinese figurine of a plump sage, in the gloom of the Colony church, age having robbed him of his teeth. “There was no way I could have brought up eight children alone.”

Noreen’s salary of Rs1,100 complimented his own. Back in the early 1980s, jobs were easy to come by, since “Muslims did not want or claimed the janitor’s job back then.” These days, the sanitation jobs are “inherited”, as are most of the houses in this Colony, bequeathed by a dying elder to the young.

The houses here have new rooms stacked atop the original homes to accommodate a growing next generation that has nowhere to live but this shanty settlement behind the Mughal caravanserai of Gor Gatri.

Much like the dwindling jobs, the cul-de-sac of Christian Colony, with its corroded brick walls around a huddle of mis-shapen, windowless houses with bad ventilation, its open drains and manholes, is emblematic of the perennial struggle of the community to cling on to the threatened little they have — space, security, identity, faith, opportunity.

Noreen’s dead now and Sharafat cannot speak long before starting to wheeze — he is on medicines for a pulmonary condition that may have to do with decades of sweeping dust, he thinks.

Before his wife, there was another woman who took him in at a critical juncture in his life. He was only 10 when his father, Nazeer Masih*, a sanitation worker for the Government Transport Service in the 1960s, died. His mother’s death he does not recall since she died when he was very young. On his deathbed, his father put Sharafat’s hand in the hand of his son-in-law, the husband of his elder daughter. “He is yours to bring up,” said the dying man.

His sister became his mother and, years later, when Sharafat’s elder brother passed away, he adopted his two little daughters. “Back then, two people worked and could feed 10,” he says of his wife and himself, who brought up eight children, including two of his brother’s children.

“We were poor but there was no inflation. Now 10 may work and cannot bring up two properly. We earn more but can afford less. As a community, as individuals, we remain where we were, if not worse off.”

As a child, Sharafat had no time for school. Within two years of his father’s death, he was out sweeping roads and cleaning toilets, filling in for members of the family so they could take care of him and other children.

Times were tough and they could not afford any more than a single pair of clothes for a child every year. He wore his to work and came back home with faecal stains on them, from cleaning latrines. “Back then, people did not have toilet commodes but raised footrests above the floor, and no running water,” says Sharafat. “They were generally kind but wouldn’t want to come near us due to our profession and the stains on our clothes.”

His sister would wash his clothes for him daily after he returned, to wear to work the next day. Later, she arranged for him to get married. His brother-in-law, who panned for gold in the drains of Andar Shehar or Inner City, covered the expenses.

In time came the children and he watched as the Colony — that couldn’t grow horizontally in any direction — grew upwards, rooms added to the Corporation houses to accommodate growing families. Now it is so crowded that “there is no place to even keep out a dead body in case someone dies.”

A few years ago, the community that keeps the city clean sacrificed its own sanitation by razing the 10 communal bathrooms in the Colony to make room for a church inside. The one in Kohati — the All Saints Church where a 2013 bombing killed a hundred people — was the closest church but still a fair distance from here, and security concerns demanded that they have one of their own.

 Residents of the Colony have little choice but to earn a living by sweeping and cleaning streets and gutters | White Star
Residents of the Colony have little choice but to earn a living by sweeping and cleaning streets and gutters | White Star

Generations Down the Gutter

Sharafat’s children couldn’t continue beyond high school — one son dropping out to take up a sanitation job at the secretariat, the other to take up drugs. When he retired, Sharafat built them two rooms above his house, and arranged for them to get married. Now their families occupy most of his hut-like house, with him sleeping under the terrace at the front of the home.

He worries about his son’s drug addiction — a problem that figures eminently for its wide prevalence among the Christian community — even as he hopes his children get an education if they wish to “get rid of the broom.”

Where there is poverty, he says, there is addiction and it keeps us pinned to that state. He laments, “I am here to cover the school fee for my granddaughters but I won’t be tomorrow. What happens then?”

Education, then, holds the key to redemption. Looking back, Sharafat says that conditions have worsened for his community with time.

“Back then, we could say our forefathers who migrated from Punjab were poor and illiterate and therefore fit for no other job but the lowliest. But where do we stand now, generations down since the Partition? You only have to look at this Saturday, this Colony to see where we are.

“Back then, even when we had a single room, people from our community would come here for a janam din [birthday] or Easter. We would have chand raat parties where women would participate without fear. We would sing hymns and take out festive jaloos [processions]. Now we are holed up here, with late salaries and no celebrations.”

Early next morning on Easter, Sharafat and others from the Colony go out at 3am to join a jaloos that gathers at the All Saints Church in Kohati Gate as part of the day’s festivities. From there, it meanders through the streets of Lahori Gate, Rampura, Qissa Khwani and back to the church at Kohati. Hundreds of faithful from the Christian community join from streets in the Old City, where people stay up late till sehri, as is the tradition in the month of Ramazan.

For Sharafat, it’s a happy occasion, but also one where, he feels, the Christian community can gather in a public space as part of their celebrations and let people know that they too are ahl-i-kitaab [People of the Book] and bear witness to the rare occurrence of their Lent and Easter coinciding with the Ramazan and Eid of the majority.

Later that day, he sits outside with other men, watching the road. The afternoon is still and quiet, the road empty. “This is our Easter,” he says, pointing at his children playing on a portable, austere swing set.

“When I was young, the world was open. Once we would have a proper fairground as part of our festivities, and organise theatre here, both Christians and Hindus. Now there is hadbandi [ghetto limits within which a community lives or operates] everywhere.”

No Way Out

Early that Easter morning, Ilyas Masih*, an employee of the WSSP, went out to clean a street close to the Christian Colony where he lives. Even though on strike like other sanitation workers against the delay in salaries, he desperately needed money to get provisions for Easter.

When someone died in a street nearby, the family came looking for someone to clean the street to lay out chairs for guests that came to offer condolences. Ilyas went along, coming back with Rs 1,000.

“They were grateful that I agreed to clean their street despite Easter,” he says, sitting in a shaft of light coming in through the door of the church inside the Colony, darkened due to a power cut. His seven-year-old daughter steps in tentatively to whisper in his ear — she wants him to get him the sandals that her cousin in the Colony is wearing.

These last few years, the debts that Colony residents have accumulated have gone up in direct proportion to the delays in their salaries. Needy at the best of the times, their want for resources heightens around festivities.

“The Easter today is like Eid for the soodkhors,” he says of the proprietors who sell their wares, particularly motorbikes, on usurious rates in the warrens of the Old City. The sanitation workers in the Colony buy motorbikes on monthly instalments, only to sell them to get the immediate cash they need, thus piling up debts in the process.

“Seventy-five per cent of the Colony’s residents here are in debt to someone,” says Ilyas, who recently borrowed Rs20,000 from a shopkeeper to clear the accumulated school fee for his daughter’s annual exam. “It’s better to take a qarza [loan] than to lose a year of education.”

Ilyas, 45, couldn’t continue his education beyond the third grade. His father was a singer at the local church and a sweeper at the Frontier College for Women. He was also an alcoholic who fed his habit with whatever little money he made. When his grandfather died and left his position with the Municipal Committee vacant, Ilyas’ father pulled him out of school to take up the job.

“I cried hard that day,” he says. “I was only nine and school was where all my friends were. My father said, ‘What is there for you if you don’t take the job?’”

To leave school for a sanitation job was the last thing Ilyas wanted. “My schoolmates live in these neighbourhoods and I was ashamed that they would see me cleaning theirs,” he says, voicing the stigma around sanitation work in Pakistan.

For years, he swept the roads in the Old City as a child with a shawl wrapped around his face to hide it. To people and his community, it appeared he was covering it to protect himself from dust — for him, he did not want to run into a school friend who would recognise him.

Eventually, they did, but some ignored him like they did not know him. Others were kind to him, saying they didn’t know he belonged to a family of sanitation workers. Some were incredulous when they ran into him cleaning streets where they lived. “Ilyas, is this what you do?” they would ask. To them, he would say, “Yes, your fathers and grandfathers left you a comfortable place, mine had this to leave me. What else is there for us to do?”

In time, he turned impervious to the shame such encounters brought. He still went out to work with the possibility of shame, but fought fear with logic. “I thought, even if my friends find out that I am a sanitation worker, what can they do about it? One of my friends said, ‘Relax, it’s fine, you are still our brother.’ Today, he is in Germany and I am still here, sweeping city streets.”

Like his elderly neighbour Sharafat, Ilyas says that lack of education and skills has kept the community at the lowest socio-economic rung, but “the desire to acquire both is not present here because the opportunity is not present here.”

When you are part of a community, he says, which is ostracised, whose potential is held back in ghettos, “you stay a Class Four person”, with a Class Four outlook on life. You aspire to the position of a sweeper, a clerk, a nothing.

Class Four is the classification of the government-graded jobs wherein falls the “cleaner” position reserved for sanitary workers. Other positions of driver, peon, gardener, guard, barber and cook also exist in the same category, but they are taken up by people of the majority Muslim faith due to their “clean” nature. The dirty, defiling and therefore degrading work goes to the sanitary worker. In Pakistan, 80 percent of them are from the Christian community. If the authorities do not find a Christian to fill up a position, it then goes to a member of Hindu community.

“There is a ghutan [suffocation] of outlook,” he says. “The generations before and after us fail to recognise opportunity, to aspire to it, because we never see it. My generation is better educated than the one before, but there are few that dream big. Kaam to yahi karna hai [this is the work we have to do], so why study? And so, Class Four becomes a generational aspiration, a generational occupation.”


Politically, there has been some progress over the generations, and the community has managed to have representatives within the provincial and national assemblies. But they are ‘selected’ by political parties, not elected. Those who are selected to work for the welfare of the community are “beholden to the whims of their political masters,” according to a resident of Father’s Colony in Tehkal.

“They have no real strength, no vote bank,” he says. “They sit in the country’s supreme parliamentary authority but they are from Class Four backgrounds, they know little about lawmaking and development planning.” In ‘selecting’ minority representatives politically, he says, the state and the governments offer “half a democracy to a people who have half a status as citizens.”

On Good Friday, the Friday before Easter, Saleem Masih*, a worker of the WSSP who lives in Father’s Colony, sits in the market square in the middle of the colony. All he wants to talk about is the delay in the payment of monthly salaries. He has no time to talk about other matters because he needs to find temporary work to make some money before Easter. All he wants to know is if he can get away from here, from this place in the province, from this country.

As jets and airliners thunder over the Colony built across the road from the airport runway, sparrows flutter out in fright from their perches in the lone mulberry tree in the market square. Children playing with stray dogs look up at the booming jets in silence, sometimes in awe, sometimes in irritation at their having scared away their street pets.

Asked if he has any children of his own, Saleem, 35, shakes his head and says, “I never got married. I don’t mean to ever. Why would I want to bring children to this place where all we have in store for us is misery?”

*Name changed to protect privacy.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s Shakeel Pathan Memorial Labour Studies Series, of which this profile is a part, includes real-life stories of sanitation workers across Pakistan, as well as in-depth analyses of wages and working conditions and policy recommendations.

The writer is a journalist based in Peshawar

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 23rd, 2023