Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Today's Lyari

by Natasha Ansari and Ebad Pasha

Photo credit: Dr. Nida Kirmani

Often in mainstream discourses on Karachi, the alleged “most dangerous city in the world,” Lyari continues to be routinely framed as the most dangerous address within Karachi.[1] Though it is undisputed that the “gang-war era” certainly wreaked havoc on the lives of Lyari’s residents in overt and covert ways, and the post-conflict trauma thereafter is an active remnant of those times. Nevertheless, through our recent fieldwork for the UNDP-Youth Employment Project, it is evident that persisting perceptions of it being a notoriously volatile place due to gang violence are not helpful. Not only is this oversimplification arguably no longer a lived reality for most of Lyari’s residents post-operation—it moreover reductively masks and betrays a more complex relationship with the structural nature of violence, and can therefore be a harmful generalization, if not a misguided one. We attempt to tackle some tropes and misconceptions regarding violence in Lyari’s current context in terms of unemployment, Rangers’ “security” framework and gender based on some initial findings from our research.

Violence and Employment

“Even though I had cleared my job interview I was told by the employers “Sorry yaar (friend), we do not hire Baloch,” after they took a more detailed look at my NIC (National Identity Card). So instead I made sure they paid my transport fares to and from Lyari because they wasted my time. Like all the other employers they should have never called me in to begin with because my name is literally the first thing on my CV” – U.B. Baloch[2]

The notoriety associated with gang violence and the resultant typecasting have created circumstances for additional subjugation of Lyari’s residents outside of it; nearly all of our respondents complained about rampant racism in the rest of the city against Lyari residents and its adverse effects on their employability – and the fear that this might lead to more violence in the future if the image of notoriety is not shed and unemployment not addressed soon. Being Baloch in addition to being a Lyariite compounded the problem more so.

Respondents mentioned two reasons for the basis of this discrimination. The first being the fear of the employee being an informant for backdoor extortionists and the second is potential for frequent absenteeism issues in the wake of a violent outbreak; even though there haven’t been any such outbreaks since over a year, post Rangers’ operation. Respondents also feared that if the issue of unemployment persisted it might re-create conditions for more cyclical violence. During the gang war, youth were routinely recruited by offers of daily payment worth PKR 500 plus doles such as a weapon or a motorbike. Some respondents insisted that it was the state of unemployment that led to the gang war in the first place, as the gang economy replaced the more formal one.

Rangers’ “Security” Framework

“The Rangers picked up my brother-in-law and killed him. One morning they picked him and dumped his body in the sewer at night. We retrieved it the next morning. The Rangers don’t do good here - they should first do a due process; a full investigation and try to understand why the person enters this line of work (gang violence), the problems the person is facing at home; what is their environment and conditions at home. They should encourage them and give them a chance to become better individuals first. If they don’t improve or listen repeatedly then punish them. Not directly jump to killing them.” - Mariam

The situation drastically changed overnight for Lyari when the Rangers were given complete autonomy to operate in Karachi. During the operation, legality and procedures became non-issues and “encounters” became the norm. The result has been hundreds of young men being picked up by the authorities with impunity, some to never return. Anyone who cannot sufficiently prove their identity and reason for being present in the area is interrogated or held for hours or even days.

A different kind of violence has replaced gang violence in Lyari over the past year. Most of our respondents’ first answer indicated that they were overwhelmingly thankful for the Rangers’ operation and their continued surveillance in Lyari, since they attributed the return of peace and safety to them. However, upon probing further, it was evident that not all of our respondents shared the same thoughts. Hesitant voices mentioned that raids routinely take place, people are frequently picked up, and their bodies dumped back in the streets during the after hours. There is no due process and often people become a casualty of mistaken identity. Thus there is a very real climate of fear created by the authorities that has replaced the former one which they curtailed.

The Rangers have occupied a women’s college as a station and this has made it difficult for students to access the campus and feel comfortable there. Another school that had approximately 150 students in attendance prior to the conflict now has around 35 regular ones attending it. A third one only has two rooms available for educational activities, and the rest of the rooms have become living quarters for the Rangers. Rangers have also occupied parts of playgrounds, to the dismay of footballers and their coaches. The police patrol the relatively safer areas and have re-started collecting ‘kharcha paani’ (small compensatory bribes) – a practice that has replaced bhatta (extortion) charged by the gangsters some years ago.

Women’s Mobility

"Our Lyari is very safe for us women – our streets are safer for women than other places in Karachi. However much I praise Lyari in this regard it is less. Even if we leave the house alone, late at night there is no fear. It is just that because of a few bad seeds all aspects of Lyari have a bad reputation" - Sara

The Rangers’ presence has created unique challenges for women in the post-conflict setting, such as the occupation of the girl’s college by them mentioned above. Nevertheless the extent of mobility and the relative lack of restrictions described by some of our respondents around issues of respectability and safety, strictly in a comparative sense with other localities in Karachi, were surprising for us to learn.

Nearly all of our respondents said that they increasingly made major decisions about their lives, especially of those pertaining to marriage. Those that were married mostly had had love marriages without major objections from their elders (unless they were marrying across ethnic lines, in which case they faced relatively more opposition). Street harassment to the same degree was not reported by our female respondents within Lyari, unlike the other two localities in Karachi where this research was conducted[3]. Most Baloch women we talked to preferred to work and complete their education. However, it is important to note, this was not an unmitigated reality experienced by all respondents. The jobs many women hold are low-paying teaching jobs at local private schools because they are a walking distance from their homes, and many young women do struggle with family restrictions on their mobility.[4] Nonetheless the diversity of women’s experiences of Lyari are scarcely mentioned or acknowledged in dominant discourses.

The barriers women continue to face are largely due to economic or infrastructure issues. Rickshaws in Karachi still do not prefer to go to Lyari for its notorious reputation. As such, the way back home is an issue. Some public busses have since long changed their routes because of the (now obsolete) extortion issues.

Thus the importance of not stereotyping a people is key as it can potentially erase other kinds of narratives of violence. The stereotypes placed on Lyari take away from the lived experiences of its people and perpetuate conditions for more subjugation in different and complex ways.

[1] A short-term consultant once mentioned to one of the co-authors that she only took part in a project on Lyari to get street credit in the development world for having physically worked in the area.
[2] Names have been disclosed or changed to protect privacy.
[3] Sultanabad and Korangi are the other two localities in Karachi where the fieldwork for this project was conducted. 
[4] The writers would like to thank Dr. Nida Kirmani for her feedback on this issue.