Karachi, on guard

Ayesha Salman grew up listening to tales of her parents’ childhood – of them cycling to the nearest shops to get baked goodies and playing cricket on the streets with the neighbourhood kids. Her parents grew up at a time when words like ‘terrorism’ and ‘suicide blasts’ were not in one’s daily dictionary. But a great deal has changed since then, and Ayesha is well aware of the harsh reality that her life and that of her children could never be the same.

Karachi, which was labelled as the world’s most dangerous mega city by a US magazine Foreign Policy for its high rate of homicide, may pose extraordinary challenges to its citizens looking for security, but from self-defence training to installing safety checks, it’s also fast coming up with ways to address them. However, one thing’s for sure complacency has long stopped being the answer.

Life in the country’s financial hub now has transitioned to employing private guards, installing security systems and coping desperately with rising inflation just to make ends meet. How did we end up in such a situation?

“It starts from recurring news reports of street crimes – you hear of a relative or of a friend whose mobile was snatched and you get scared. As the frequency of the stories increase, you begin to flinch each time someone on a motorbike passes by your vehicle,” says Ayesha Salman, a resident of Defence Phase VIII.

Sadly, citizens of Karachi have lost the sense of security they were accustomed to till a decade ago. The small things people took for granted, such as walking down the street without fearing for one’s life or valuables is now a distant memory.

“It is a growing fear that something might happen to you if you don’t take necessary precautions,” Ayesha adds.

Dressed in uniform or plain shalwar kameezchowkidars stand on duty at many houses in Karachi. Earning anywhere between Rs10,000 to Rs20,000 the presence of a chowkidar is expected to serve as a deterrent to possible break-ins.

In many cases the chowkidars are none other than the relatives of housemaids or are drivers who are given the additional responsibility of serving as guards. Meanwhile, there are others who prefer hiring private guards but some people remain sceptical of their usefulness.

“Employing guards certainly gives one some peace of mind but stories of crimes committed by armed guards continue to haunt as well,” Ayesha says. “In such cases, it also becomes necessary to stay vigilant about the people you employ for security.”

Chief executive officer of Aftershock CEM, a freelance security consultancy, Naveed Khan agrees with the need for people to be vigilant about their safety. While people are spending, and in some cases significant amounts of money, on security they are not going about in the right manner, Khan warns.

Khan, who has assisted various multinational organisations with a crisis management programme, says he has yet to meet a trained security guard for a private or corporate security firm.

“If people were serious about safety checks, they should inquire about prior training and experience of a security guard before employing him but that doesn’t happen,” he says.

“Even corporate clients who pay as much as Rs18,000 to Rs 25,000 don’t make an effort to find out if the guards have had ample training. They just want to get the guy as long as he is in uniform and has a weapon,” Khan explains. After a brief pause he adds, “If he (security guard) looks scary, that’s a bonus.”

However, Khan may be a bit simplistic in his definition as security officer at Aqsa Security Guards Mohammad Asghar explains. “There are procedures in place before recruiting guards such as verifying their CNIC details,” he says adding, “Their information is corroborated by two witnesses and someone physically visits the address they provide to make sure everything checks out.

Speaking about guards’ training he says, “They are trained to handle a weapon once they are employed and most of their other training revolves around tackling various situations depending on whether they arise at home or on the street.” At this point Aqsa Security Guards does not provide their employed guards any training on first aid.

According to Khan, security in Pakistan is a ‘numbers game’. Security companies are ranked not by the services they provide but by the amount of manpower they employ, he claims. “Basically a company that employs more guards will be ranked higher,” he says.

Additionally basic life security and lifesaving skills are also found lacking. These include first aid, victim transportation, patrolling, reporting, conflict management and resolution and marksmanship.

Another popular precaution taken by individuals and businesses is setting up security systems. Installing panic buttons, motion detectors and round-the-clock monitoring by security firms are among the most common services.

When deciding between employing a guard or installing a security system what do people prefer? Ayesha relies on both a home security system, as well as the services of an unarmed guard and says, “Installing a home security system sometimes is much cheaper than employing guards and also allows you to feel more secure.”

Meanwhile, the Farooqi family residing in North Nazimabad feel that though a security system sounds more reliable they prefer hiring the services of a guard.

“People residing in houses instead of apartments might be prone to install a security system. But in our apartment building families prefer to hire a guard to oversee the neighbourhood and we collectively pay the guard’s salary,” says Ahsan Farooqi.

Residing in Soldier Bazaar, Zeeshan Ali feels differently. “Seeing guards everywhere is terrorising in itself. I prefer installing a security system which is less frightening and more efficient.”

Meanwhile, there are also some companies who exclusively deal with ‘security fencing’. While there is debate on this service being more effective, home owners and small businesses continue to largely rely on the services of security guards.

Saad Amanullah Khan owns a fast food joint, Big Thick Burgerz (BTB), in Defence says, “There is no proper way to handle the security challenges that exist today.” He strongly believes the only permanent solution is for the government to address the security concerns of the city and take concrete remedial measures.

Small business owners can mitigate some precautionary measures but all these efforts can be easily compromised, Saad Khan explains. Further, even if they do prove effective they end up significantly increasing the over heads.

“The cost of doing business in Pakistan is going up by the day,” Saad Khan says. “It is worse for SMEs and start up business owners, as they are already working with limited resources.” The opportunity cost for businesses remains high as the deteriorating security situation affects them from various directions. People avoid going out now and delivery staff are often robbed, on the other hand during strikes businesses shut down early or for an entire day which also disrupts the supply chain.

While a fool proof method to ensure security is yet to be devised, some organisations are offering self-defence classes. Specialised classes for women to deal with gender-based crimes such as sexual harassment are also available.

Published in Dawn on February 5, 2013.


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Photo Blog – “Not Just Another Street”

Botal Gali – First Looks

When Disney decided to take over Lucasfilm, I wasn’t surprised. When Snape turned out to be the good guy at the end of the Harry Potter books, it didn’t surprise me. But when I walked to Botal Gali and actually found bottles, my mouth dropped to the floor.

What? Real Bottles? At Botal Gali? I mean, to be fair I had never seen Rashid Minhas standing on the middle of the Rashid Minhas Road, or found a single boat floating about Boat Basin or heard of anyone finding God in the Allah Waala Chowrangi.

Then, how was it that there were actual bottles in Botal Gali? I guess the thing about the place is that you get what you’re promised.

Cement and bricks.

By the looks of it, the place isn’t exactly dapper. It’s a narrow street located in the heart of Karachi, otherwise called Saddar, off the Frere Hall road. Foreboding at first, the place grows on your gradually once you learn to look past its deteroriating exterior.

The buildings! It’s a wonder they are still standing like they are. Colonial in its construction, the buildings surround the street like a protective wall on its either side and clearly date back to pre-independence times.


Parsi Gali

Right when Pakistan was being wrangled out of the subcontinent to appear as its own country, this area was busy being called Parsi Gali. No surprises there actually, for then the area was thriving with Parsi residents, most of whom had also migrated from India. There were barely any shops, recalls one shopkeeper.

Botal Gali as a Public Space

It is the people that make up a public space. If we are to believe that statement, Botal Gali is a street of unimaginable variety. What appears to be shady street straight out of a scary film on a Sunday night takes on an indifferent air on a Monday evening.

Eid 2012

On Eids and public holidays, a boy is seen hitting a swirling ball with a bat.

Spirited Away!

The emotional attachment that the people of the street feel for it is evident in their determination to stick by it, no matter what. It’s almost like they are living in the past as if today doesn’t matter.

Giving Back

The thing about Botal Gali is that you get what you’re promised, but sometimes, it’s worth giving back.



Mall’d Up

It has been a while since I ran into somebody I knew. As much as I want to say this, I can’t, for the many Dolmens and The Malls that have sprung up in our city have not only brought with themselves a fresh supply of I-will-have-to-sell-a-kidney-to-get-things-from-here brands but also a million opportunities for one to run into all sorts of people. Now avoiding Sunday Bazaar like the plague doesn’t cut it. Gone are the days when you could roam around window shopping with an iPod hanging by your neck (not in the way you just pictured) sporting last night’s slept-in PJs. The non-brushed ponytail look can suck it for not only are the likelihood of you running into someone you know increases disproportionally to how ancient you appear but even just lazing looking around shops and trying new shoes get you nasty stares from the shop-keepers.

“I may look homeless, but I do have a job, hello!” (Or probably the only reason I look homeless is because I have one.)

Since I refuse to mend my ways until I absolutely, completely have to, it was  just last night that I found myself going around the same shop in circles to run away from an estranged ex-employer only to end up running headlong into a friend’s bhaabhi (brother’s wife). For someone who doesn’t even know the names of their own extended relatives, stopping to exchange pleasantries with someone else’s is a moment that calls on you to undertake an intense episode of self-reflection.

And then, the cherry on top goes to the designer bag sporting thirteen year olds, texting away with their groupies and roaming around with cream dripping cupcakes making you feel like you are the only one figuring life out while others are busy living it.

When all is said and done, maybe one can bring themselves around to wearing iron-pressed clothes when they go out but getting yourself to laugh at the “a relative, school friend and ex walk into a mall” jokes is surely going to take a while.


The People, The Place

Even though the general impression of the shopkeepers at Botal Gali is that they are rude, what’s really heart warming about their stories is the fact that they date back to Partition times, with most of them having set up shop when the Gali was the life of the place. Going by the infrastructural loopholes of the area, the lack of suitable drinking water being one of them, one is forced to admit that it’s more emotional attachment than a necessity for the shopkeepers to operate from here.

They can’t really kid anyone. The business isn’t thriving and most of the visitors are mere commuters. But talking to them makes you realize that they look at the place and they don’t really see the place for what it is now but rather something that it was when they came here: a busy marketplace, a place where people came together to interact and hangout and where there was a sense of community and ownership about the place.

For someone, who has been observing the place for more than a month, the idea is to think of something to bring that back, or to at least find a way to identify if there’s one.

Keep to Your Space

Keep to Your Space


Botal Gali is not exactly an overwhelming public space when it comes to its physical parameters. It’s just a street but within it lies an amalgamation of so much, from perfumes to colonial buildings and from people buying to people selling  that what you see at the end of the day is an interesting palette of people interacting. If one talks about the specifics, there are particular nooks and corners of the Gali that do not appear to be used, per se. By that I mean closed shops, or blank walls that for now are just used as a support for dumped trash. Sometimes, bikes line up against those closed doors because they have no where else to do and this is something that is a cause of nuisance for the shopkeepers, who are one of the primary users of the street.

“There’s hardly any space. We can’t really do anything,” said one, while peering at us over his table.

And that’s something that came to me as passing thought but has now established itself as one of the major problems of the street. The space or the lack thereof, to move about is actually what hinders most of the people from interacting or coming together as a group to hang out. What you see are just shopkeepers keeping to their shops and people passing by. For it to become a space that is happily used by the public, it needs to have space to allow them to.

 (Written as part of a course called Mediated Cities)