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Allah Bux: older generation

Allah Bux: 'Most of my age-mates have already died and only a few of them are alive'

At the age of 50, Allah Bux refers to himself as “old” and says many of his “age-mates” have died. His poor health means there is little he can do and, like his peers, he is deeply in debt. Although the moneylenders treat them quite well, lack of work has lost them the respect of others:”No one likes our conversation.”

His relatives have been fishermen for generations; now only one of his surviving sons fishes. The brackish water has not only devastated the fish and bird populations, but also poisoned the environment for the reeds they used to build and make mats.

They still go to the melas (fairs) they can reach by boat, and celebrate Eid as best they can. But they must be careful to limit their expenditure at such times.

Twenty years have lapsed since [my boat] was made. [It cost] 1 lakh rupees. We used to earn a lot of money at that time. The water in the Manchar Lake was sweet and abundant fish would breed. Now the water is brackish and has ruined us…

When we were 10, 12 years old, there was plenty of fish here and birds too…In the past, everyone had money… we used to earn something from the reeds, but now there is neither fish nor reeds… [The reeds] provide feed for the fish and we also build our houses with [them and] make floor mats.

A large number of people used to live here when the reeds were in abundance. Now, those who depended on reeds for their livelihood have left…Now we are not earning our livelihood from Manchar Lake because of the brackish water…

I have nine sons and daughters and they are all married now and have their own children. Every one of them has five to eight children each. …My younger son lives with me while the elder [two] live separately. He catches fish and the other sons do labour work; they carry soil. What else they can do? Because no other work is available in the area.

We Meer Bahar (fishermen) don’t get educated: if fish are available we remain busy fishing so we don’t get an education… Fish are not available now, but still we cannot acquire education because we do not have the money to study.

“Now everybody is indebted”

[My father] also used to fish. We have been engaged with this profession since our forefather’s time because there is no other job available to us. We neither have land nor anything else… In my father’s time, there was good business; fish were in abundance so everybody was happy. At that time none of us was indebted. Now everybody is indebted with lakhs of rupees.

Since there is no job, we live by taking loans. Traders give us loans and their loan is never repaid. It increases day by day… they think “these are poor people and are jobless and their children are dying of hunger”, so they give us loans.

I have taken about 1.5 lakh rupees in loan. I spent it on my children. We old people only eat only three to four rotis (unleavened bread) but these children take more food than us and they also have other needs…

If fresh water would be poured into the lake then we will be able to pay back this loan… not only that but we would also save some money… [Some traders] don’t charge interest. Had it been so, we would have never been able to pay back those loans.

Normally [my son] catches 1 or 1.5 maunds of fish (1 maund = 37.5 kg). Now he hardly catches beyond 10 kg. And only pomfret fish are being caught, which are very thin. He goes to catch fish, and I sit on boats all day. What else I can do in this old age? Only healthy people can work, but people like me cannot do anything…

“My purpose is to kill time”

I do go to the dam daily… We just do kachehry (group discussion) there, or sit there with people and then come back. My purpose is to kill time… All of them [at the dam] are my friends. Most of my age-mates have already died and only a few of them are alive…. they are unhappy too… they are [indebted]. Mostly, we discuss our past life.

Our elders used to have good friendly relations with a lot of people… But now when we old people sit [together], no one likes our conversation. Since we do not earn money, they don’t like our talk. On the contrary, everybody likes those who earn…

People used to love each other when jobs were available. They used to help each other… They used to meet each other and do kachehry. Now since there is no employment, everybody is fed up with everyone else…We sit quietly with each other and come back home…

“We often remain hungry”

Earlier we used to make roti (unleavened bread) three times a day but now if we cook roti at noon then we would not be able to make it in the evening; and if we eat roti at noon and in the evening then we would not be able to eat it in the morning… we often remain hungry…

We only take tea occasionally because it needs tea leaves, sugar…we cannot buy all these things… We take bhat (rice) at supper. Sometimes if sugar is available we mix it with the rice; otherwise we take only plain boiled rice…

Hundreds of guests from faraway places came to my wedding. We slaughtered livestock and served good food to the guests…Nowadays marriages are arranged very simply. Now we…do not offer even a morsel to the neighbours. What else can poor people do?

Earlier, the population of our village was very large. Now people have migrated away….because employment opportunities dwindled… Manchar Lake has been destroyed over the past 10 to 12 years. This is the reason that all the fishermen have become without work…

No, we never [migrated]…Why we should live outside? Our whole livelihood depends on this lake. We have our boats here. What would we do after going out of this place?

“Not a single bird is seen”

We have hunted birds a lot. Yes, birds were in abundance at that time. They used to be in such large numbers that there weren’t enough buyers. But now, not a single bird is seen.

Many kinds of birds were available here including Neergi, Bidak, Khara Khooh, Aari, Ronharo, Rito, Chhor and Phirahoo… This is a migratory season for the birds but they don’t come here now. Earlier, when the grasses would grow in this area, the birds would hide in it and we could hunt them. Not a single bird comes now…

At that time all kinds of fish were available here like Karo, Sihar, Singhari, Jarko, Chhito, Joki, Morakho, Kararo… Now only pomfret is left which is small and thin. No other fish can survive in this brackish water. If fresh water was available then not only would the fish breed, but the birds would return…

[Then] the former Chief Minister of Sindh used to come here and hunt large numbers of birds. I have assisted many other ministers in hunting…We would go with them in our boats. They used to give us some money for this service. Whenever we asked them to solve our problems they always solved them, but now no one listens to us…. [they] only make promises but they never fulfill them. Probably they do not do anything for us because we are poor…

Health

Although there is a lot of water in the lake, it is poisonous… it tastes brackish… [But] there is a hospital at the other side of the dam where free medical treatment is provided. Had this facility not been available we would have faced many difficulties. Where we could have gone for treatment?

There are thousands of diseases here…many people have died. My elder son died…A lot of time is wasted bringing drinking water from faraway places. Both elders and children keep suffering from fever. Every day, one or other child falls ill. Some of them…die.

Middlemen decide prices

[My son] hardly catches fish worth 100 rupees. So we don’t spend more…We sell fish to seths (the bosses). They don’t give us a good price… if the fish is worth 5 rupees, then they would give us only 2 rupees. We have to take this price for our catch because we are indebted to them. These are the people who actually earn something [from the catch]; we do not get any profit….

[But] they don’t bother us. We salute them because they don’t create trouble for us at all. This is the reason why we have been managing our livelihoods. Had they been strict with us [about loans], we would have not been able to feed ourselves…

This is the time of starvation. We used to buy 20 to 30 maunds (1 maund = 37.5 kg) of wheat annually. Now we hardly eat 5 to 7 maunds of wheat. Due to the shortage of funds we do not dare to buy it in any great quantity. In poverty we have to use aata (flour) with much care…

[The fields nearby?] They belong to people from Baluchistan, but these lands have become barren because, due to the brackish water, no crop can be grown…I do not cultivate anything. However, my neighbours farm. Other people also grow crops while we do casual labour on their land. We cut the crop and carry it to its specified place and we are given wages for this labour.

Counting the cost of celebrations

We usually take 40 to 50 rupees along with us and go in our own boats…to melas (fairs), which are held at faraway places… If we have money then we can go by some other transport…In the past, we used to take 10 rupees with us… At that time 5 kgs of sweets could be bought for 5 rupees. But now 5 kg of sweets costs 500 rupees….We only buy a quarter or half a kg of sweets and distribute them among the children in small quantities…

I only take a sharbat (sweet drink), which is sold from 1-2 rupees per glass. If we earn more money then we can also have cold drinks… We don’t stay at the mela because staying at night would take further expense. We take food along with us from home and eat it there.

No, we don’t eat meat…We cannot afford such dishes… we don’t buy meat even on Eid (Muslim festival celebrating the end of Ramadan) – and even if we do buy it then it’s in quantities of a quarter or a half a kg, because it needs ghee (clarified butter) to cook it and we do not have money for this…

This interview has been specially edited for the web and cut down by more than half. Some re-ordering has taken place: square brackets indicate ‘inserted’ text for clarification; round brackets are translations / interpretations; and dots indicate cuts in the text. The primary aim has been to remain true to the spirit of the interview, while losing questions, repetition, and confusing or overlapping sections.

Project

Allah Bux: older generation is produced as part of the Living with poverty: Pakistan oral testimony project.

Testimonies

Allah Bux: older generation

Basran: desperate times

Chhutta: migrant’s tale

Fatima: vulnerable lives

Hodat: diversifying business

Karim Bux: lacking support

Khamiso: looking back

Kishore: living prudently

Mircho: losing dignity

Nasreen: just surviving

Nazeer: high standards

Salma: independent spirit

Key themes

Introduction to the project

Loans and debt

Survival strategies

The cost of poverty

Environmental decline

Gender

Political representation

Powerlessness

Insecurity and conflict

Education

Food security and health