Inside a dark corner of the City of Lights

Inside a dark corner of the City of Lights

February 6, 2019

On a usually warm mid-January evening, a few barefoot children play on a small cemented pitch outside a makeshift Hindu temple in Bhagwan Goth – an informal settlement of scheduled caste Hindu tribes and Sikh community. All of them stand still on their spots as one runs around trying to get someone to move so he could take their place and stand while the other runs around. They tease the runner, laugh and shout away, enjoying the innocence of a young and carefree life.

The fun comes to an abrupt end from an ear-piercing bellow from Dildar, the local leader of the Hindu community. He orders them to go home before darkness descends. The kids run to their homes as the older dwellers start making their way to the nearby neighbourhoods as well as local Mandirs and the Gurdwara to collect their battery-powered torches and flashlights which have been charging there during the daytime.

As dusk turns to night, Bhagwan Goth, with its more than 3,000 residents, plunges into darkness. Hundreds of torches and flashlights switch on in the houses to provide at least some light. This has been the norm every single day since 2005.

The slum, spread over 16 acres, is located on Hub River Road in District West’s UC-37 of Baldia Town. It is bordered by Naval Colony, Jannat-ul-Baqi Graveyard and Baldia Town’s Sector 12-A and 9-C. It lies smack in the middle of this developed or semi-developed locality, but the settlement is completely devoid of essential amenities, including electricity, drainage system, clean drinking water, health care unit and a school. The majority of residents don’t even have Computerised National Identity Cards.

Big city lights

Around 700 Hindu and 18 to 20 Sikh families, displaced from various areas of the city over the years, live here. Yet, these citizens of Karachi, the famed ‘City of Lights’, don’t even have lights in their homes for the last 14 years.

Always on the move

Bhagwan Goth is one of many slums located across the city. Its Hindu and Sikh dwellers had migrated to Karachi from Ghotki, Umerkot, Tharparkar, Mirpurkhas and Sanghar in search of better earnings. In their native towns, they used to grow crops for landlords, said 35-year-old Kathor Maharaj, who has lived in the slum since 2005.

Its current residents first moved to various areas of Karachi and lived in similar slums. However, over the years, they have been forced out of their previous homes around 14 times. After the last displacement in 2005 from a slum near old Ruby Cinema in Saeedabad, Baldia Town, they have settled in Bhagwan Goth. Locals claim that at the last eviction, the then Baldia Town Nazim had promised to provide residential facilities to them, but it has been 14 years and the said rehabilitation is yet to occur.

“This area was a garbage dumping location and KMC officials would also set fire to the garbage collected from District West here,” said Maharaj. “It was a wild scrubland and many of us have died from bites of venomous snakes and scorpions.”

The residents evened out the land to settle there and named it after Bhagwan Das, an elder of the community. Now, they are insistent that the land belongs to them. “We will not tolerate any fresh eviction order from any authority because we have been developing the area without government assistance.”

Even though some 40 rural areas falling in District West and District Council have been regularised under the Sindh Goth-Abad (Housing Scheme) Act 2008, Bhagwan Goth has yet to be regularised.

The slum is inhabited by mostly daily wage, low-income labourers. The women go door-to-door selling bangles, cloth and cosmetics in various neighbourhoods, while the men are mostly vendors who sell fruits and vegetables on pushcarts or deal in scrap. Even with two people earning, the families don’t even make enough for a decent two meals a day. They each bring in Rs150 to Rs200 a day.

Similarly, a significant part of the slum’s population is children. Almost all of them are out of school and spend the day collecting recyclable plastic and iron pieces from garbage in nearby neighbourhoods to help add to their parents’ income.

Flanked by developed localities, Bhagwan Goth remains disconnected from the rest of the city. The residents have found refuge in makeshift houses and a strong community system. Irrespective of their religion, caste or creed, they live in harmony relying on their local elders to sort out problems and disagreements if they arise.

“Miseries, difficulties and the tales of survival and helplessness – that is our lifestyle,” said 50-year-old Ghana Singh, an elder of the Sikh community.

Political participation

Despite living on the fringes and having no basic facilities that citizens deserve, the residents of Bhagwan Goth have continued to maintain a strong sense of political participation over the years.

They are zealous supporters of the Pakistan Peoples Party and attend PPP Jalsas whenever they are held. However, for many, discontent with the party has been growing. “We used to leave the funeral rituals of our deceased relatives uncompleted to go attend PPP gatherings, but the leadership has forgotten our sacrifices,” claimed Dildar.

“The party didn’t even include our poor people in the Benazir Income Support Programme, an unconditional financial support programme for poverty reduction.”

He claimed that PPP local leaders would send vehicles to the slum to pick people up to show strength in party gatherings. “We had hoped that if the party comes into power, we would get at least our basic rights, but that has not happened,” he said.

According to Dildar, when they approached the MNA elected from the constituency, Abdul Qadir Patel of PPP, to voice their problems and get them resolved, he denied even knowing about them.

Officials’ view

“Voters have to understand that members of national and provincial assemblies do not deal with civic amenities,” said Babar, a PPP local leader and former media coordinator for the constituency’s MNA, Abdul Qadir Patel.

He suggested that the dwellers of Bhagwan Goth should have approached the relevant bodies like the District Municipal Corporation or the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation. When The News reached District West Vice-Chairman Azizullah Afridi, he said: “I am not in a position to say anything about Bhagwan Goth as I am not aware of the situation there. But, I will personally visit the area to listen to the concerns of the residents.”

At the local government level, Saeedullah Khan Afridi, the chairman of the UC that Bhagwan Goth falls under, said that only residents of regularised areas can avail amenities like electricity, water and sanitation.

He claimed he had tried to talk to K-Electric to provide electricity to Bhagwan Goth but since 60 per cent of houses there are makeshift, the company refused to install connections in the slum.

According to Afridi, the then Baldia Town Nazim Kamran Akhtar had evicted these communities from their slum in 2005 and had made no alternate arrangements for them. “The area on which these communities have built their houses has been allotted to different people from Baldia Town,” he said. “Sooner or later, they will be displaced once again.”