Thursday, 6 June 2013

Strikes and fuel shortages – life of a daily wage earner in Karachi

by Mysbah Balagamwala 

Photo Credit: Collective for Social Science Research - Naila Mahmood
For the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project, we visited a low-income neighborhood in Karachi to document the impact of food prices on residents and asked them about their food consumption, livelihoods and hardships faced. We found that the main source of vulnerability for households in Karachi was not a rise in prices but rather strikes in the city and fuel shortages.

In our field site situated in Gulshan Town Union Council of Karachi, the poorest households depend on wages earned on a daily basis. Their main occupations are daily wage labourers, hawkers, shopkeepers and auto-rickshaw drivers.

While daily wages were reported to have increased in the last few years (from 100 - 150 to 400 - 500 rupees), a labourer has no guarantee that they will find work on a particular day and be able to earn a wage.
Daily wage earners everywhere face similar constraints in terms of finding work due to an increase in the number of labourers vying for the same jobs as well as fluctuations in the number of jobs available. But for daily wage earners in Karachi, two other constraints have come up - strikes and fuel shortages.

When we asked our respondents which days are difficult for them and why, we got many responses such as: "Twice a week there are strikes here. Then we starve for days."  And: "When the Compressed Natural Gas (CNG)  stations are closed, transportation closes down too. If CNG stations are closed, we cannot reach anywhere." 

In Karachi, political conditions are volatile and political parties or groups often call for strikes as a protest or a day of mourning.  On such days, businesses are closed and transport on the roads is at a minimum. The brother of one of our respondents had to stop going to work at the carpenter's shop because of violence in the area.

Moreover, due to a shortage of natural gas in the country, there is fuel rationing and CNG stations are closed on certain days of the week. This affects transport and hence livelihoods for many since public transport such as buses and rickshaws have converted from diesel to CNG in the last few years.
Mrs K's husband who is a rickshaw driver told us: "CNG is unavailable on Fridays and Saturdays and the stations open at 9:30 on Sunday. Because of this, the rickshaw doesn't run for two days. Then from where can we arrange money to run our home?"

Being a resident of Karachi myself, political instability or violence in the city are disruptions of normal working life for me. However, the impact is limited to not being to get work done on time or not being able to run an errand I was meant to.

For daily wage labourers, such as our respondents, a strike day or a CNG closure means a day's worth of wages (or sometimes even more) is lost. Most poor urban households buy food items such as vegetables and even at times wheat flour and ghee (cooking fat) on a daily basis and their earnings for the day does not stretch beyond daily household requirements. On a day when they have not managed to earn money they have to resort to cutting down food consumption.

Fuel shortages and rationing of energy along with state fragility are important crises being faced by Pakistan and both were key political issues in the election campaigns last month.

Our findings reflect how these macro-level concerns manifest at the individual and community level. We know that a link between food and fuel exists at the global level. In 2007-08 during the world food price crisis the increase in the price of oil further escalated already high food prices ; affecting food accessibility. We can now see the connection between food and fuel on a more local level in Karachi, and possibly other urban parts of Pakistan, where CNG shortages is the cause of vulnerability to food insecurity.

This blog originally appeared on Oxfam's Policy and Practice Blog in June 2013.

Mysbah Balagamwala is a Research Associate at the Collective for Social Science Research and is one of the lead researchers in Pakistan for the IDS-Oxfam GB Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility.