An Escape From Darkness

 (Asim Rafiqui)The streets dance with life and all its accompanying consequences. I step over carpets of litter, jump past pools of sewage as small children play pick-up games of cricket and football all around me. The narrow alleys leave little room to drive through, so we choose to walk from house to house. But even then I have to negotiate my way past parked rickshaws, donkey carts, food vendors going from door to door, cattle tied to walls, men sitting playing games of cards or simply talking, women rushing past carrying the days groceries, women cutting vegetables or washing dishes on the streets, men hawking snacks and suspicious looking colored drinks, and the ubiquitous water delivery trucks. There are mosques on practically ever corner, worshippers are constantly flowing in and out. Men, both old and young, sit outside their homes smoking cigarettes or simply talking. They eye me as I walk past – an unusual sight here in these neighborhoods with my camera and tripod. I hear whisper of ‘media’. Earlier I had sat with some at a local tea stall and talked about life in the community. They all consistently talk about the violence, the sense of entrapment, the inability to find work, the constant struggle to make ends meet, and the absolute lack of possibility of finding a better, or even just another, kind of life. As I listened to these men, I kept coming aback to the same question: Why do the come and why do they stay?

This question has been in the back of mind ever since I arrived in Baldia Town some days ago. The families I met here live in the most desperate of conditions. Small, dark rooms suffice for an entire house where six to eight people somehow manage to eat, live, play and sleep. One room that is a kitchen, bedroom, living room and play area. Most of the buildings are rudimentary brick structures, providing just enough shelter to offer shade and protection from the elements.

They say that the growth of slums is part of the process of modernization and a natural result of a globalized economy. Mike Davis’ book Planet of Slums underscored the fact that all across the world, more and more people were migrating towards cities, and more and more people were finding refuge in the slums around these cities. But I kept wanting to know why they came here. After all, why would you inflict the misery of this life on yourself and your family if you had a choice?

Walking the streets of this neighborhood I have tried to understand the reasons for people having to come and live here. It is difficult to imagine, based on what I hear about life and conditions of work in their edge neighborhoods of Karachi, that people come in search of the ‘bright lights’ of the city. It seems more that they come to escape an even darker world they have left. Despite the hardships, and the seemingly hopelessness of building a dignified life, almost all of those whom I spoke to insisted that they were going to find a way to stay on. There was no going back to the ancestral village, or the birthplace town. This life of struggle and fear was a step up from the one they have left. So what was that other life like?

Their homes have no running water, and electricity is usually stolen from a mains line down the street. Local electricians can help you make this arrangement, or an allegiance to a political party can also be very useful in getting these services. Here, in their tiny one or two-room apartments, each of which can house eight to ten adults, they have found a lease of life that is by all measures tenuous and desperate. Rents remain high – a typical one room home can cost anywhere from Rs. 5000 to Rs 8000 a month. The fortunate ones have found dwellings that include electricity and water. Others have to pay extra. Buying a home will put you back nearly Rs 18,000,000 or more. A cost far out of reach of most of the people who have drifted into these areas. And yet they come. Despite the squalor, the violence, the uncertainty of work, the back-breaking hours for little pay in the garment factories, and the constant threat of being fired, or left homeless, they keep coming.

Once here finding a reasonable job requires connections and contacts. Often nepotism is the only way to find any work and to enter the grinding world of the garment factory. Officially they work eight hours in the day, but everyone will admit to working twelve or even fourteen hours. For the garment factory worker, there is no such thing as hours, only the number of pieces produced, and the pay-per-piece added. In a world of hand-to-mouth survival, you cannot count hours, and each period of leisure is an act that deprives the family of food, shelter and clothing. Most all the families I spoke to worked in the factories on a ‘contract’ basis. Factories recruit workers through contractors, thus absolving the factory management from providing social security, insurance and other benefits to the workers.

Many had worked there for over a decade as ‘contract’ workers, earning anywhere between Rs. 6000 to Rs 12,000 in a 15 day period. Most of the time it was less, and in the slow season it was practically nothing. Factories could close depending on demand, or even the illness of the owner. The uncertainty scars the life of the worker who is not sure whether there will be work the next day. An injury can get you fired, an illness of a child can mean you lose your place to someone else. The fear of losing their jobs keeps the workers at their stations even when there is nothing to work on. Quite often the management itself would demand that workers remain on site even when there were no orders to fill and no one would be paid since there were no pieces to work on.

And yet they come. The trade unions are banned, and workers attempting to organize themselves can be threatened and fired. A recent case in Faisalabad where six men attempted to organize a strike in protest of working conditions resulted in the men being sentenced to life imprisonment on ‘terrorism’ charges. The managers of the factory arranged that. And still they come.

Perhaps because there is no where else to go. Or that they are fleeing something even worse: hunger, humiliation and death. The unemployment, lack of opportunities and lack of any meaningful future in the hinterlands of Sind or Baluchistan where the landless and land poor suffer terrible degradations and misery bring them here to this eviscerated urban existence. They come because they must, pushed here out of desperation. Today the Pushtuns come because of the wars. The Sindhis and Balochis come because of the emptiness and unsustainable living offered in their ancestral lands, or because they are escaping the tyranny of landlessness and jagirdari. There are probably as many reasons as they are people, but the broad social and economic forces pushing them to these settlements are known and, as I research this issue, clearly well understood. And they are perpetual and seemingly permanent. But the migrants don’t come empty-handed. They come with dreams about saving their children and their children’s future. They come in the hope that they will be the last of their family to suffer these indignities and injustices. I hear about these dreams when I sit and talk to the families here. I can’t help but wonder how many of those dreams die here in the slums. I saw some of those ruined hopes in the homes of the families of the Baldia factory fire I have visited. Fragile threads hold everything together around here.

To understand the growth of these edge neighborhoods we have to go into the rural towns and villages and ask broader questions about the life there. There is a direct link between the growth of Karachi’s slums, and the timeless nothingness of the rural communities in Sind and elsewhere. And it is not a story of natural disasters alone, as these trends have been in existence for decades. It is a story of land tenure arrangements, and of a conservative land owning class that not only protects its interests, but retains a strangle hold on political power in the state itself.

To understand the emergence and growth of these slums, I have to leave Karachi and trace the journey the people make from the rural regions of the country. The millions of under-paid, desperate and tired people, fighting for every penny every day, can only be understood by looking at the reasons why they leave their villages and towns and drift into these tired and dangerous neighborhoods. Just as the violence that pervades these regions as a specific political history – one that we prefer to forget in our haste to blame ‘mafias’ and ‘criminal elements’, the misery and desperation of the people here too has a specific social and economic history.

And so we come right back to the question of structural violence and injustice. We return once again to trying to understand the social, economic and political forces that trap human beings in undignified, miserable lives and from which their only hope of escape is a migration to the edges of cities like Karachi. We are seeing this pattern all across the world, and yet somehow seem oblivious to seeing the forces that are compelling it. For the people I met in Baldia Town, Karachi is not a beacon of hope on the horizon. It is an escape, albeit a miserable one, from a darkness that lies beyond it. I want to know more about this darkness.