Book: Streets Smarts
Author: Rumana Hussain
Published by Karachi Conference Foundation, 2015
Reviewed by Prof. Dr. Noman Ahmed
NED University of Engineering and Technology, Karachi.
Distinguished social scientist Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan stated in his writings and works that people in Pakistan, and elsewhere in the developing world, are living in an age of social dislocations. Geo political upheavals, emergence of new modes of production, gradual decline of certain livelihoods and social and economic vicissitudes of various kinds are the root cause of this progression. Karachi, the evolving urban region of our times, displayed these alterations in a very detectable manner during her post-independence history. The informal sector became prominent during the early 1950s when the state institutions and infant private sector could not address housing, employment, commercial and social needs of the teeming millions. People ventured into many new forms and formats of occupations and modes of livelihoods. These innovative initiatives were more than the proverbial art of survival. Many treasured additions to services for ordinary people were developed, albeit labour and effort intensive in nature. Many of these businesses – if one may accept them with this classification – became an inseparable trait of the normal functioning of the city. The volume on street professionals by Rumana Hussain presents a very stimulating account of these diverse functionaries of our vibrant metropolis.
Rumana has chosen a wide variety of street professionals. For the purpose of a quick review, a summary has been worked out that shows interesting relationships. Of the 65 professionals covered, 07 are women while the remaining are men or male children. The place of origin of these professionals displayed varied references. 06 professionals belonged to different locations in Sindh (including Karachi) while 11 came from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA); 05 from Baluchistan and 16 from Punjab. The others had their roots in other parts of Indo-Pakistan Sub-Continent including Dhaka, Kashmir, Indian Punjab and Gujrat and Rajasthan. Almost all of them currently resided in new or older katchi abadis (squatter settlement). Very few people acquired formal education. Despite this core short coming in attainment, these professionals learned their respective trades either through the sharp observational skills or through some form of apprenticeship. Most of them had extremely limited wages and seemed to possess negligible assets. With their meagre sources of income, the street professionals depicted a resilient existence, and appeared honest and honorable in professional conduct. A deeper probe into the types of professionals unveiled many important issues.
Almost all the street professionals showed the acute levels of vulnerability. It is obvious that the routine breakdown of law and order, calls and enforcement of strikes, selected operations of administration to ‘clear encroachments’ and lack of institutionalized access to public space for temporary existence act as usual dampers for this business and operations. While not discussed in the profiles, the multiple clandestine interest groups, supported by political parties and religious outfits, cast a direct influence on the operations of street professionals. Boundless pliability of these professionals has often been challenged by terror attacks, police operations and gang fights. But the narrative and content of this monograph give the re-assuring message that these courageous professionals continue with their lives and work as bravely as ever!
The book is written in a simple and reader friendly style. The chronicle keeps clear of dense and verbose texts which make it attractive for readers of a wide category. The opening essay by Ghazi Salahuddin sets the scene for the intricate fables of each professional that follow. The photographs are professionally taken and depict the energy and moods of the interviewees in an insightful way. In many cases, the rich and happening background, within which these professionals operate, is also captured in a profound way.
The book shall make a useful reference for students of sociology, economics, anthropology, physical and development studies. Addition of maps may render the volume richer in terms of reference. The author may consider translating and publishing an Urdu version to enhance the readership. There is also a possibility of adding to the list of professionals covered. Shoe shine boys, petty mechanics (announcing to fix home appliances), Kulfi sellers, fish sellers, corn sellers, sugar beet sellers, insecticide sellers, balloon vendor and transgender folks and many more categories may he considered.