When you first enter Thursday Bazaar, you stumble upon the uneven ground. The chorus of cumin, turmeric, chili powder mixes with the sights of sprigs of coriander in calloused hands, blue and white flowers on a dupatta, battered old books, and banana leaves in empty crates. The bazaar lives through its rhythm of cacophonous disorder.
Pressed into the ground are multiple footprints, of the women and vendors who haggle over mint leaves, squashes and bitter gourds, of the coolies that walk with bent backs, and of Shakil Abdul Razzak, a vendor who sells jewelry. Shakil Abdul Razzak stands before his stall, one he’s had every Thursday for ten years. On it is a display of second-hand watches that glint as sunlight falls through tears in the tent cover overhead. The light is veiled but it marks the ground like the stamped tracery of leaves.
He considers me as he speaks, his low voice mixing in with the rising crescendo of voices in the tent. The torrid heat of the afternoon presses to my skin but an April night, at another bazaar, in another time, comes into being as he spins memory into words.
A silhouette of a mass of men on an open ground that wait with bated breath as the mouth of the bulldozer comes closer. They have been there since midnight, the sun is soon approaching. The exits have been closed, and then destroyed. Their phones lie with the officials carrying out the eviction, their wares lie in the darkness, turning to dust as a mechanical giant rolls over stones, pillars, tables, and merchandise. It produces a dissonance that still echoes at sunrise, as they turn towards the exits, filing past security, leaving their livelihoods in the wreckage.
The night he speaks of was April 7th 2015 when Sunday Bazaar in DHA Phase 8 was closed down. A weekly flea market, it was built on what was originally an open public space, a space that was later allocated to private owners as the area developed by DHA. The bazaar had existed for 8 years, but when the area started being developed as a residential zone, the plot owners filed a case in the high court against DHA to get their land back. They won. On the night of April 7th 2015, the vendors of the bazaar were evicted and the stalls bulldozed because of a high court order sent out 7 days ago. The bazaar stretched across 17 acres, it encompassed five other bazaars in the area that were set up elsewhere. 2500 stalls had operated in the bazaar for 18 years. It was reduced to rubble in one night.
Munawar Alam, general secretary of Welfare Association of Field Organizers of Weekly Bazaars Karachi, speaks of the state of affairs before the demolition. For 5 years, the bazaar had been regularized, concrete had been laid down, and pillars propped up, labyrinthine pavements and hallways under the shade of a sturdy roof. DHA approved it, helped organize it by providing water supply, security, and parking; it also adjusted the cost of formalization in rent money. Alam speaks of notices given to the vendors to clear their stalls. For 2-3 months there were was a written notice circulated through the literate vendors of the bazaar by the organization, as well as verbal notices through a loud-speaker system and through word-of-mouth communication. If the vendors failed to evacuate and follow orders, it was their responsibility. The vendors had been warned. The bulldozers were coming any day.
Those who were vendors in Sunday Bazaar DHA have now shifted to other bazaars in the neighborhood after it closed down. This is why Razzak speaks to me now, narrates the events of the last Sunday right in the middle of his new workplace.
He tells me about how the deep sense of shock he experienced. He’d known it was coming, just didn’t think it was coming so soon. The precise date of the eviction in fact, of the bulldozing, was not communicated to vendors, as all the interviewees have claimed. Razzak claims that it was the guards that told them to clear out on the day of the eviction. This begs the question: why wasn’t a fixed date communicated by the concerned authorities?
Munawar Alam says “the bazaars are host to people from across all class backgrounds, some have stalls, some just tables, some are able to buy the stalls and have other shops elsewhere.” Considering this, the regulation regarding the clearing out of stalls was a problematic one. The wares of the stallholders took 7,000- 15,000 rupees to transport. A storage site was built to store items that weren’t possible to carry off by the people who couldn’t afford to. The authorities claimed that people stored their wares at the site at their own risk.
And yet, the risk faced, the losses incurred, losses of 67000 to 16 Lakhs, were for members of a certain class that finds it difficult to afford the transportation costs of three transport vehicles each week (each cost roughly 15000). Their incomes would not allow for a speedy recovery of the losses. “We can’t earn that back in 16 years,” says Murtaza Saleem, a fruit vendor at Thursday Bazaar.
The business risks were for a certain class whose employment opportunities are narrow, and that depended on a large bazaar like Sunday Bazaar for steady, certain, and profitable employment opportunities. Muhammad Shakeel reports a 5000 rupees loss in his monthly income from the closing down of the larger Sunday Bazaar. He sells towels now, at Thursday Bazaar.
I ask Razzak why people weren’t allowed to head home during the demolition. He said they were stragglers who were there encroaching upon land that was no longer theirs and that they should have evacuated. The land that they claimed as theirs just that afternoon, in fact for a decade, was lost to them as midnight struck.
Among the terms and conditions DHA communicated to the organizers and stallholders was the condition that the bazaar itself and the stall were a temporary set up. It was a temporary agreement that had to be honored as a temporary agreement despite vendors having bought the stalls (for 1.5-2 Lakhs depending on the size) and having an agreement for 5 years, as Razzak claims to have done.
As a consequence of the rapid growth in privatization and development in DHA, and across the city, open public spaces for bazaars have been shrinking. Colonel Naqvi, DHA’s former Public Relations Officer, says that all 47 square kilometers of land in DHA has been allocated. This has led to an erasure of the street vendor from the urban landscape, and reduced space for them to operate. The site of Thursday Bazaar has reduced as well; bits of it have been converted into a parking lot for a restaurant and allocated to private owners.
In 2015, there was a slight rumbling of dissent and sparse news coverage but this issue soon faded into the recesses of the public imagination. With the current “public” turn in popular imagination, the silence on the spatial politics of bazaars is injudicious. Since the informal economy provides incomes to 75% of Karachi’s households, the dwindling space for flea markets is an issue that needs to be included in the conversation on publicity. Perhaps it would be prudent to uncover the precarious landscape the vendors navigate. It would be prudent also to consider the desirability of the erasure of the bazaars that lend their chaotic energy to the pulse of the city, that grow into space, filling it, evidencing the lives that have passed through by imprinting them into the sand.
“Sunday Bazaar, the land, it is empty space now,” says Razzak.
The land where Sunday bazaar once stood is an open ground now. Creek vista in the distance, the brine of the sea creates the familiar hypnotic lull under the heat. As sand rolls onto the ground, it buries wrappers underneath. It has erased the footprints of the coolies, the vendors and the customers that once claimed it. The wind blows across the barren landscape, circling the boundaries, as a ritual, to help the land remember.
“It’s completely empty.” He says again.