Wrecking ball to the food scene

April 9, 2023

Burns Road is at risk of losing its radiance because of an anti-encroachment drive

Wrecking ball to the food scene


akistan’s biggest city and commercial hub Karachi was once famous for its lively nights and delicious food. Think biryani, think gol gappas or anything in between and Burns Road comes to mind right away.

Karachi’s downtown Food Street at Burns Road used to draw food lovers and tourists from across the country. The venue was a testament to the metropolitan’s love for diverse and eclectic cuisine. It also received footfall from foreign visitors.

The city’s residents have diverse associations with Burns Road; the nostalgia of their childhoods, memories of good times, and comfort food. Many still fondly remember the taste of dishes they enjoyed as well as the warmth of the people who made them.

My last visit to Burns Road coincided with an iftar, The streets were packed with people. Generosity was also on display; several stalls offered free food so the commuters could break their fast.

As a child, I used to visit Burns Road with my family. It was almost a ritual, ripe with anticipation that came with knowing that within minutes we would get to enjoy our favourite delicacies. As an adult, I continued to go to the century-old food hub with my friends to sample traditional Pakistani cuisine and desserts like rabri, jalabi and gulab jamun when we had an insatiable sweet tooth.

“I was born and brought up at Burns Road. My grandparents had migrated from Delhi after the Partition and settled at Burns Road. My father was also born here so we can say that Burns Road has been our home for generations,” Muhammad Arsalan told me.

Arsalan recalled that in the past, people did not use the term Food Street. “But even back then Burns Road had food stalls with a variety of foods,” he said.

“The Burns Road food street started gaining popularity with the surge of social media. “People started taking interest in Burns Road and ultimately it was formally declared the Food Street,” said Arsalan.

In January 2021, an approximately 656-foot two-way iconic food street was formally inaugurated after restoration and renovation. The entry of vehicles into the area was banned in the evenings.

Initially, the move was welcomed as an attempt to bring back the ‘lost glory’ of the street but the plan went south when some of the residents began complaining about the ‘encroachments.’ They claimed that the food stalls and the commotion were disrupting their daily lives.

A notification issued by the district administration added insult to injury. The notice declared the encroachments legal and caused a rift between the residents and the food vendors.

The matter came to the attention of Sindh High Court when the residents filed a petition against road closure and encroachments.

Last month, the SHC ordered that the encroachments be removed. The order took effect right away and an anti-encroachment drive began in the area. Many stalls were removed to clear the area and re-open the lanes.

Shop and business owners of Burns Road raised their voices against the anti-encroachment drive and filed a petition against the decision.

On March 25, the SHC dismissed the plea filed by Burns Road Traders’ Association seeking the re-opening of Food Street.

Wrecking ball to the food scene

Last month, Sindh High Court (SHC) ordered that the encroachments be removed. The order took effect right away and an anti-encroachment drive began in the area. Many stalls were removed to clear the area and re-open the roads. Shop and business owners of Burns Road raised their voices against the anti-encroachment drive and filed a petition against the decision. 

Some of the residents heaved a sigh of relief after the clearance operation. Mrs Asma Najam, a housewife was one of them.

She says she supported the drive because the ‘encroachments’ that had sprung up under the pretext of establishing Food Street had become a constant inconvenience for people who lived in the area.

“We used to confine ourselves in our homes after 7pm because of the ‘encroachments’ that occupied the entire roads, sidewalks and by-lanes,” she said.

The daily wage workers who lost their jobs as a consequence have another story to tell. Waqas, who owns a food business on Burns Road says the closure of Food Street was appalling for many.

“At least 70 per cent of the people became jobless because of the shutdown of Food Street. If there were eight boys working at a restaurant, six of them were fired,” he says. “Some tables had been setup by the roadside where various shops served the visitors. The setup has been eliminated,” he says.

“Even though people are still coming to Burns Road, the footfall has dropped because most people cannot find a place to sit,” he says. “Only a handful of businesses that offer dine-in facilities remain,” he adds.

Waqas points out that part of what made the experience of eating at Burns Road special was the ambience. It became considerably sombre after the drive. “People have been deprived of good food and a festive environment,” says Waqas.

Muhammad Faraz Khan, president of Burns Road Food Street Association, says that the closure of Food Street post-encroachment drive had grave impacts on the local economy. “We were forced to scale operations down to 50 per cent,” he says. “As a result, we had no option but to fire some of the staff,” he claims.

“As we speak, eight to ten big restaurants are wrapping up their business,” says Faraz. “Several people and their families were dependent on what they earned from the food street. Now they are unemployed,” he explains.

“People come to us and tell us they are close to committing suicide because they are unable to feed their children,” says Faraz.

Rebutting the concerns of the residents of the area, Faraz says that all the hue and cry was over only three streets of 300 feet which opened from front to back with a diversion of 60 feet. “There was no harm in shutting them at night,” he maintains.

“Even now, those three streets are congested because people have started parking cars there and eating there instead,” he points out.

He says the whole world is embracing the food street culture. it is about time that Karachi did too. “When the food street was operating, the environment was good. People enjoyed food with their families,” he says.

“We approached Sindh High Court against the closure of Burns Road Food Street,” says Faraz, “We will go to the Supreme Court if we have to. We are not giving up. We only want to run our business,” he says resolutely.

For some though, business goes on as usual at Burns Road. “We have been selling samosa and pakora here for 30 years. My father had set up this stall here,” says Arshad, a roadside stall owner, while frying samosas amidst a rush of customers.

“Food Street didn’t make it any different for us. Our work is not seasonal. It goes on twelve months a year. The reason behind this is that residents of the area are our customers. We share a bond,” says Arshad.

Karachi Municipal Cooperation (KMC) is a key stakeholder. Despite several attempts to include their take on the situation, officials did not respond to a request for comment.

In a sprawling metropolitan deprived of basic civic facilities, eating out is one of the very few ways citizens can spend quality time with their loved ones. It is pertinent that all stakeholders involved in the encroachment dispute resolve the issue in a manner that does not affect the common man as the Food Street at Burns Road is a centre of good food at a reasonable price.

The author is a Karachi-based journalist. She tweets @asifaidris

Wrecking ball to the food scene