An Elegy for Karachi’s Empress Market
The dismantling of Karachi’s markets and informal shops isn’t just robbing the city of its soul. It threatens the survival of the very people that make it a city.
A group of women in faded patterned saris sits by the side of a road, some shaded by umbrellas, with bags of dried nuts in front of them—almonds, pistachios, cashews. The image would rack up a lot of Instagram likes, if it weren’t for the devastating landscape—mounds of sand, steamrolled expanses, clouds of dust, debris, and the stark sight of a building smack in the middle. Or that these women aren’t sitting on a pavement, protected and secure in their work. They’re on the side of the road, an easy target for harassment, being pushed out from the only place they’ve ever worked, where their fathers worked, and where their children won’t end up, because Karachi’s rulers turn against the very people that make it a city.
While Karachi was once marked by seemingly unending urban conflict, the issues it now faces—gentrification, development, and control of land—threaten the lives of its residents and the city’s future.
Karachi is, perhaps, one of the greatest cities in the world. It is home to—if you believe the census—14 million people. (Or 20 million if you don’t.) It is the most populous and the most ethnically diverse city in Pakistan. It is defined by raw, unplanned development, chaos, and infrastructure that has teetered on the edge of total collapse for years, but also vibrant subcultures of music and style. It has been home to refugees passing through Karachi on their way to somewhere else, and it is home to refugees who made it into a city—one of such extreme absurdities that stories of crocodiles escaping from someone’s house or a fake immigration agency office doubling as a torture cell aren’t worth more than a few days in the news cycle.
Karachi’s informal structures are what has kept the city going—providing everything from water to housing and education. According to the noted urban planner and architect Arif Hasan, Karachi’s informal economy counts for 30 to 40 percent of its total economy. But for the last year, Karachi has quickly been stripped of its character. An “anti-encroachment” drive in the city led to the dismantling of markets and shops. The most significant of these was the Empress Market, which housed bazaars selling every item imaginable.
Empress Market served as a meeting point, a transit hub and a source of employment for tens of thousands of people. Hundreds of vendors worked in thousands of shops and stalls and pushcarts—at least 1,700 of which were demolished during the anti-encroachment drive. The market is based on the colonial-era building at its center, but what made it a market were the adjoining lanes and stalls, where there were dozens of markets clustered by type: meat, dry fruit, spices, betel nut, domestic animals. A dozen of these markets were destroyed.
The vendors had been there for decades, paying utilities and rent to the Karachi Municipal Corporation, the city’s governing body. However, in October 2018, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered the removal of encroachments while hearing a case about encroachments and land use in Karachi. The term encroachment is itself a source of confusion. Mohammad Toheed, a senior researcher with the Karachi Urban Lab at the Institute of Business Administration, says the city government often confuses ‘tenant’ with ‘encroacher,’ mooting the idea that encroachers had carved out a space along with lawful tenants. The city’s government interpreted the court’s order broadly, and began to tear down shops that it believed were illegal. (Many shopkeepers dispute that they were there illegally).
Encroachments—particularly on state-owned land—have long been a source of contention for the Supreme Court. In a 2011 ruling, the court called “land grabbers” and encroachers one of Karachi’s biggest problems. But action against those who misuse land is often largely directed at the poor, who are powerless in front of bulldozers and who are only left to bewail how Karachi’s heart was ripped out in front of them.
By the time I arrived in Karachi this spring, Empress Market was a ruin. Gone were the scorpion sellers, the bags of spices, the sidestepping around people offering to carry your groceries. Instead, my feet sank into the piles of sand as I made my way to a building that now looks more like an incongruous eyesore than anything else. Rumors had begun to spread: The city government wanted to build a park. The British—whose crown jewel this once was—were allegedly funding it. The thought of the British government coming to reclaim an old building in a former colony may seem laughable, but it is perhaps because the dismantling seemed to be so incomprehensible, so beyond the scale of normal, that conspiracy theories filled the gap.
The authorities, shopkeepers say, came at night. There was law enforcement on the site. There were only a few hours to scramble around. There was little anyone could do: stores spilled out, people tried to rent vehicles to get the goods to safety. In times of crisis, some Karachiites band together, and others seize on an opportunity. Several shop owners say there was looting. People must have grabbed what they could, when they could, in the frenzy of impending demolition. Over the course of at least two days, 1,000 shops were pulled down, including the markets for birds and used clothes.
Ultimately, everything was crushed: shops, goods—and friendships. “We’ve all dispersed,” said one former restaurateur. “The people working with us are all jobless now. Some of them are unwell. Our entire family was here—almost 15-16 households. Now someone is in Islamabad, someone is somewhere else. There is no employment.”
For its part, the city government has said that it is seeking to restore Empress Market to its original state—from over a hundred years ago. The government is also working on a ‘Karachi Neighborhood Improvement Project’, supported in part by the World Bank, which seeks to “enhance public spaces” in Karachi, including in Saddar. Empress Market seems like it will become an attraction for a showpiece downtown district. So far, there have been press reports of a museum and an art gallery to be built on the premises. The Karachi mayor, Waseem Akhtar, seemed to have summed up what “progress” looks like, telling the New York Times: “Spices and lentils, parrots and pigeons—that isn’t heritage,” he said. “We need to have something to show for our next generation. I think we’re moving toward progress.”
One man’s progress is another’s march towards gentrification.
“The mayor is playing this game with us—a game that even a tyrant wouldn’t play with the oppressed, that Israel wouldn’t do to Palestine,” said Muhammad Qasim, the head of the Empress Market traders association. Qasim’s words may seem like hyperbole, unless you see the ravaged space and hear how many people, who had been tenants for decades, were turned out onto the street.
Where would we go? This is where our earning comes from, how we earn for our children. All of our customers are here.
Months after the demolitions, the mood inside the Empress Market building is grim. A vegetable vendor is bitterly angry at being cheated out of his shop years ago. The customers aren’t laden with large bags anymore. There isn’t much to buy there that one can’t find elsewhere in the city. A rat roamed around near the butchers.
Lado has managed to stay put at Empress Market, along with a group of women, still in their faded saris and their displays of nuts. She was the only woman who agreed to speak with me. Another woman to whom some in the group steered me seemed wary, and said she would speak if I could compensate her for the time she would lose talking to me when she could be making a sale. But perhaps it is also that these women are tired of speaking up. They spoke at the press club and made a speech at the Women’s Day march, and they are still sitting by the side of the road, uncertain about their future.
Lado has worked around Empress Market for 25 years. She looks young. She doesn’t know her age, but she’s married and has three children. Lado’s father worked there before her and she took over from him. “We’ve always been on the footpath,” she said. “The police keep trying to chase us off, and there was a lot of strictness before and we couldn’t sit here. We would set up when their morning shift was over. Where would we go? This is where our earning comes from, how we earn for our children. All of our customers are here. People should think about us, about us poor women.”
Some of the displaced vendors have tried to base themselves out of other places, such as a plaza called—the despondent-sounding—Empress Mall. Some say there are plans to move them to another area of Karachi altogether. Some moved into shops across the street from Empress Market and are trying to make another go of it, putting up posters near the market building declaring that they were still around, still open for business.
One of them is Syed Safir, who is running the scissors shop his father had opened in Empress Market 40 years ago, and Mohammad, whose family had run a restaurant for 52 years. They served tea and parathas and had a staff of about 30 people. But once the restaurant was pulled down, it was hard to start again: they couldn’t find an appropriate location. He is now running a store that sells groceries, detergent, and other basic household items. There were also no customers in his shop. Safir said his father was very worried. “Obviously when people lose their business they get into a state of tension, but we have faith in Allah.”
After about 20 minutes, he said: “Have you seen a customer as yet?” No one had come in. No one did for the next hour.
There are very few things—or people—in Karachi that are indispensable. But Empress Market was a vital cog in the food supply chain of restaurants and vendors and households. It supported an economy in and of itself: the vegetable vendor hawking fresh pineapple and basil; the nut vendor, and then the person who would crush the nuts and extract oils; the boys who would carry your purchases in large jute bags; the pushcart vendor who would sell you, at the end of your long shopping trip, a glass of cold Pakola.
One of the hundreds of people who fed off the ecosystem was Siraj Ahmed. Ahmed was young when he started working—so young, he said, that his height came up to only to the cart he now pushes. Ahmed had no other choice. “It was me in the house and my father. And praise God”—he says with a tinge of sarcasm—“we had a big family. So I had to earn.” Ahmed sold slices of coconut on buses. Coconut-slice vendors spend their day in traffic, jumping in and out of buses, with a tray of coconut slices. They weave between parked buses, passing slices through windows in the few minutes before the bus takes off again, heaving across Karachi.
It took him a few years, but Ahmed managed to get a cart of his own, selling whole coconuts in Saddar. He is an expert: “The customer doesn’t know anything. We do.” Ahmed sells coconuts for another buyer. Some of them are imported from Indonesia and Sri Lanka. But even now, Ahmed’s living can be tenuous: as a thelay-wala—a cart vendor—Ahmed has no rights. He is constantly at risk of being asked to move. He has to pay off cops: 100 rupees (60 American cents) to one police station, 100 to another. He’s had a police report filed against him, which means you have to spend a night in jail before someone can bail you out. Ahmed came to work one morning and saw the destruction—and people distraught at losing their shops that had been around for over 30 years.