On Karachi’s footpaths, misery and commerce live together

Aasha Raj has a husband who doesn’t work, four children to feed but no money to afford renting a shop.

So, for years now, the 50-year-old has been hawking dry fruit on the streets of Karachi, one of thousands of the city’s ubiquitous footpath vendors who sell everything from snacks and cups of tea to toys and shoes on pavements.

“We don’t have enough income to buy shops or sell our stuff in a store, we don’t have enough sales for that,” Raj told Arab News as she sat on a roadside under a black outdoor umbrella, plastic buckets of dry fruit spread before her.

“We sell it on the footpath and it helps us manage, earn a little bit for our children.”

Atiq Mir, the president of the Karachi Tajir Ittehad, an association of the city’s traders, said footpaths offered a “parallel economy,” which was growing given that millions of Pakistanis were grappling with record inflation and a cost-of-living crisis due to one of its most daunting economic crises to date.

“We don’t have the exact number for the economy footpath vendors generate, but they must be trading around Rs500 million daily,” Mir told Arab News.

According to veteran architect and town planner Arif Hasan, who has spent a lifetime studying Karachi, at a modest estimate there are currently around 150,000 hawkers in Karachi and, at Rs1,000per day, their earnings amount to Rs5,475 million per year. The informal economy employs a whopping 72 percent of the total labor force of Karachi, as per Hasan’s research.

When asked how much he earned daily, Muhammad Ramzan, a drummer who came from Lahore to Karachi years ago in search of a better life, laughed and called the income from being a footpath vendor, “hawai rozee,” which roughly translates as aerial or celestial income.

“We arrive here around 10-11am and then we keep sitting on the footpath, trying to get some work. We stay here until 12am-1am,” Ramzan told Arab News, a large dhol hanging around his neck.

On a footpath near Cantonment Station area, Muhammad Yar, who has worked as a street masseur in Karachi for 35 years, too spoke about the unpredictability of being a street vendor as he spread a sheet on the pavement and waited for customers.

“At night, you can find empty space here as shops are closed and then we sit down and we start working,” he said early one evening last week. “We make whatever is in our destiny, sometimes Rs400, sometimes Rs500, sometimes 1,000-1,200.  Sometimes we make nothing.”

When asked about his earning, Barber Zafar Hussain scoffed as he cut a client’s hair at his roadside stall comprising a chair and a broken mirror.

“This is not a royal life, this is a footpath after all and we are poor people and this is our source of income,” he said. “That is why I have spent a long time working here.”

He lamented that during various anti-encroachment drives in the city, footpath vendors were cleared off the streets, rendering many of them jobless and desperate. But he also seemed resigned to the uncertainty of his life.

“Sometimes, they (the police) have us closed down for 10 days, 15 days,” he said as he applied oil to an elderly client’s hair. “But of course, this [footpath] is not our own place, it belongs to the government, so one also has to tolerate things here.”

Given the state of the economy, said Mir from the traders’ association, “you cannot clear the footpath.”

“But this situation [of encroachment] can be managed by allocating footpath vendors to specific streets with low or no traffic,” he said.

But what about those in Karachi for whom the footpath is both a place of business and the only strip of land they have for a good night’s sleep?

“We don’t have enough resources to afford a quarter or eat something good, whatever we earn is not even enough to feed our children with,” daily wage laborer Muhammad Mustafa Ahmed said as he removed his torn plastic slippers and lay down to sleep on the pavement.

“We work the whole day on the footpath, earn a living for our children on the footpath and at night we come and sleep on the same footpath.”

Published in ArabNews 13 Jun 2023