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Mircho: losing dignity

Mircho: 'There is no appreciation of an honest and hardworking labourer…'

Mircho has worked all his life, initially as a tailor but mostly at hard labouring jobs. With the income of his wife and sons, it seems that Mircho’s family has avoided permanent debt. But extra expenses, notably the marriages of their three daughters, necessitated taking out loans on punishing interest rates.

Rising prices have made life for the poor much worse. With greater competition for jobs, lines of labourers queue to be picked for a day’s work. Mircho is saddened by their desperation and loss of dignity: “Everyone is busy flattering [those who hire them] to acquire work.”

Mircho sees illiteracy as a major cause of their poverty, because it limits their employment options and contributes to the fact that they”are not a big political force”. He believes that education of the next generation is vital.

My place of birth is Khandia Kot, Jodhpur, India. After Partition, we migrated to Sindh. First we came to Sanghar, then our parents shifted to Amno village. My father farmed for some time there and then shifted back to Sanghar. At that time, Sanghar…had a very small population. We have been living here ever since and we mend shoes. Our old women sell bangles and other accessories for women….

We live in a joint family system. We were five brothers, one of whom died. Now I have three brothers. Two of them mend shoes; one brother runs a small shop. Initially, I did some labour work, then I sold clothes on a bicycle for about 15 years. Later, I fell ill and presently I am not doing anything.

Breaking out of the caste occupation

By the grace of God, I have six sons and three daughters. Of them, three daughters and three sons are married… The married sons live separately. One of them is a dispenser at a doctor’s clinic while the other two are cobblers and my younger sons also do shoe-making. My father spent his whole life in this profession. I never did this job.

First, I did tailoring work for 15 years, where I used to get daily wages of 1.5 rupees. After I got married, the expenses became two-fold, so this work could not meet my expenses [and] I started working as a labourer in construction.

While Habib Bank’s Sanghar branch was being built, I worked on it – from the laying of the foundation stone until completion. That building has been made by my own hands. [It took] more than two years.

“I did all types of labour work”

Afterwards, I started loading and off-loading goods on trucks – cement, sand and stones in bags – I did that for 30 years. When I started…they used to pay 3 rupees for loading and off-loading…Then [it was] 25 rupees and then 50 rupees and nowadays they pay 150 rupees in wages, but I left this work 15 years ago. During that period, I also did supervisory work and I used to be the ‘in-charge’ of 10 to15 labourers.

I also laboured at the Sugar Mills…off-loading fertiliser and sand… I always did my work with honesty. Once I got 35,000 rupees from the factory as a bonus. I did not keep a single penny with me but distributed the whole amount among the labourers. I always sympathised with the people…

Although I am poor, I have faith given by God and have lived with my neighbours through thick and thin. I did all types of labour work. I sold cloth (fabrics) for 15 years, which would earn me 200 to 250 rupees to run the house. Now I have stopped working and only my sons work. My wife sells cloth in different mohallah (neighbourhoods) of the city and earns 50 to 100 rupees daily. So this is how our household is being run.

Labourers’ lost dignity

Normally, we manage but sometimes we face difficulties…on the occasion of weddings and deaths, then we do not have money and we have to take credit or loans on interest that we pay back later. Earlier, the labourer had a lot of dignity. They used to do less labour, but were given good wages. Things were very cheap.

Now tens of labourers wait for work at a single shop and when one truck arrives, 10 labourers are in the queue to grab the work. Everyone is busy flattering [those who hire them] to acquire work. There is no appreciation of an honest and hardworking labourer…

“Sky-rocketing” prices

There is a big difference [with the past] – it’s like day and night. Earlier, we were getting 1.5 rupees as daily wages and…would say we were prosperous and happy… Out of 1.5 rupees we used to spend 0.75 rupees and save 0.75 rupees or…we used to save 1 to 1.25 rupees because everything…sugar, aata (flour), ghee, wheat and every other thing was very cheap.

At that time, gold was also very cheap. At the time of my wedding, I bought gold for 80 rupees a tola (10 grams). The total expenses incurred on my wedding were to the tune of 12,000 rupees. At that time, the Barat (wedding procession) used to stay at the bride’s house for three days; even then this money was enough.

Now, we need at least 3 lakh rupees to arrange such a wedding. Sources of income have been reduced and prices have gone up. Prices of routine items like ghee, sugar, tea, aata and clothes etc are sky rocketing.

Earlier, one person used to earn and 10 family members would be fed. Now all family members earn but still all expenses are not met. If we buy sugar then we do not have tea, if we purchase tea then aata is not purchased and if we buy aata then we cannot purchase ghee (clarified butter)…

Putting pressure on politicians

We have recently been supplied with potable water; before we were quite worried. We had approached the government but nothing happened… we have borne all the expenses for supplying water to our houses. We laid down a 200 to 300 foot-long pipe along the road at our own expense [and have had] water for the past two years. Earlier, we used to carry water on our heads or by donkey cart from faraway places.

There is no sewerage line to drain out the sewage. The place used to stink so much so that we could not eat anything. Passersby used to cover their nose with hankies and some would [have to] save themselves from fainting from the horrible smell. Now the elected head of the Union Council has dared to cement some of the streets, drainage lines and roads.

In the past, whenever we wanted to meet some elders then we were told that they had gone to Hyderabad. On a second time, they would say that he had gone to Karachi; third time, to the farms; fourth time, he was sleeping; and the fifth time, he was busy with some guests. They used to quote such lame excuses and they would not even meet us, let alone do any work.

Now these people listen to us and our works are also being done. We told them categorically that there are at least 200 houses with a minimum of 300 votes; if they would not do our work then we would not cast votes for them. We told them – no matter if you shoot us but we will not vote for you. After this, they paid heed to our pleas.

Celebrations and ceremonies

We celebrate Hindu religious festivals such as Holi (festival of spring), Diwali (festival of lights), Raakhi (festival celebrating love and protection between brothers and sisters) and Satwaro (Sindhi wedding tradition) with great fervour. Satwaro is celebrated after Holi [which] continues for seven days…On the last day, we cook sweet roti and distribute them among the children.

There are no exchange marriages in our community… If the groom has a job and is a hardworking boy then his proposal is accepted happily… All marriages of boys and girls are arranged by the parents and everyone has to accept it.

According to our customs we only give 400 rupees to the boy’s family for sweetmeats, while it is up to the girl’s family to give her as much jahaiz (dowry) as they can bear. We have to spend a lot of money on the wedding of a girl because everything of daily use has to be given to the bride… Everyone gives dowry according to their economic status.

Expenses following a death

[When someone dies] we carry the body of deceased on a doli (sedan chair) and set it on fire…. We put the ashes into flowing water such as a stream or river and we take the remains, the bones, which are called phal, to India to put them into the River Ganges. For that purpose, if we are four brothers then everyone contributes 25,000 rupees each and after we come back from Ganges then we give alms.

When somebody dies, after burning the deceased we donate khairat (food) for 12 days. All this is done by the biraderi (family group)…they bear the food expenses of the deceased family for 12 days. After 12 days, the relatives of the deceased give food to all the biraderi.

If any one of us is poor and is unable to go to India to float the phal in the Ganges straightaway, then they bury the phal…and say that we are keeping this phal as a trust for you, for 5-10 years. We take out the phal before the stipulated time and put it in Ganges…where the Pandit (priest) recites the mantras (sacred verse or prayer), which also costs us 5000 to 10,000 rupees.

“Dual standards” in health care

Earlier, there were hakeems (local healers) whose treatment was good and they were also honoured. Now the situation is not the same. If the illness is significant then we consult the doctor. But there are dual standards.

An influential person or an important officer gets the right medicines and treatment at the government hospital but those who are poor are given “No 2” (sub-standard) medicines, due to which most of the patients die. They survive only by luck.

This is the reason that we prefer to go to a private hospital. But they are very expensive and getting treatment there is not possible for a poor person [without loans]…

Loans, interest rates and a father’s advice

In our biraderi (family group), everybody lives with each other through thick and thin, and helps others in their difficult times. We take loans on interest and the loan givers are our own biraderi people. But the interest is also a burden on the poor.

Normally, they charge 10% interest but on concession they charge up to 5%. The amount of interest rises if the payment is delayed for two years or sometimes up to four years. Sometimes, one has to pay 25,000 rupees in lieu of 5000 rupees, due to interest. Repayment of loans depends on income…

The Government does not provide any loans to the poor. But CARITAS (international Catholic relief, development and social service organisation) provided some loans to people which benefited them a lot. No other person or organisation provides loans here.

However, only those people who work hard benefit from loans. If somebody takes a loan from the biraderi and doesn’t pay it back then the lender comes daily and taunts that person: “I helped you and gave you a loan, but you are not paying me back.” Some people even bear the abuse but do not pay back the loan. Then nobody gives them [another] loan.

My father once advised me not to provide loans to any poor people. I asked him why? He said that poor people…are unable to pay it back, so it would result in unnecessary feuds and misunderstandings. Secondly, since you will have to visit him many times, it will cost you more than you had actually given him.

Local development initiatives

There are few organisations from outside. [CARITAS] provided loans…A tuition centre is run by Sanghar Rural Women Welfare Organisation. We have formed an organisation named Sewa Mandli at biraderi level. Our experienced elders pondered the welfare of our community and formed this organisation on a mutual help basis.

I am the president… The main objective is to help each other through thick and thin… Sometimes our youngsters, boys and girls, develop bad habits due to urbanisation and its effects and just wander around aimlessly. We have to control them and provide guidance… In our community programmes, we…delegate different responsibilities to them – to arrange for water, to serve the food, to guard the crockery [and] other commodities, to welcome guests…

All these jobs are the responsibility of Sewa Mandli so that….everybody is given proper welcome, service and honour. Besides this, we also work for the welfare and development of our mohallah (neighbourhood). For this purpose, we collect funds…Recently, we installed wooden poles for the electricity wires that had fallen onto the roads…

Earlier, the CARITAS workers came here, who provided a loan to Kishore (another narrator). They also opened an adult literacy institute, where many men and women got education… There is no other school here now…. [but] if the children get education then it will be in our interest.

Once I gathered our girls and made them realise that they all have sewing machines at their homes. I told them: “You all sit together in a house so that I can teach you tailoring and embroidery”… Now many girls come here regularly and [leave] after completing their training…

Home ownership needs bribes

Earlier, these plots were encroachments (illegal settlements) and nobody had any ownership. Later on, this colony got registered but not everybody got the property documents. Now they have sent a notice asking us to get our houses registered.

But the land officials don’t listen to us without money. We also contacted the Union Council and the Taluqa (district division) Nazims (elected heads) in this connection. Earlier Tahira (councillor in Taluqa council) and her husband used to come here but now at least two years have lapsed since they last came.

Avoiding debt

There were times when I was quite worried and did not know what to do. It happens usually when the community has a problem or there is an issue of a girl’s marriage. I faced that type of problem at the wedding of my daughter. I had taken a loan on interest to solve that problem.

[But] I was prosperous when I was the ‘in-charge’ of labourers at the sugar factory. There were 10 shops run by Hindus in the city. I was also made the “in-charge” of collecting rent from them. As many as 80 subordinates used to work under my supervision.

I was very happy at that time. I never usurped the right of any labourer nor did I do any injustice to them or cheat them. That’s why I remained poor throughout my life but I saved my faith… By the grace of God I am not indebted to anybody. My sons and other family members earn money…

Causes of poverty

The main cause of our poverty is illiteracy, due to which we could not get a job. Secondly, we are not a big political force. We are labourers. We could not get an education, but now our children are studying. Our politicians and bureaucrats have been ignoring us. We go to government officials but they do not pay heed…

But a lot of work has been done. Our eyes have opened now…We have to move forward…We want big politicians of the area to give us respect so that we can share our problems with them.

Political patronage

Mangi Lal is the elder of our biraderi (family group). He takes all our decisions. He also takes advice from us but whatever decision he makes later is acceptable to us. For example, he decides the voting responsibilities of the biraderi. We have been living here for the last 60 years, but we always vote for Pir Pagara (most famous of Sindh’s pirs or religious leaders).

He takes care of every poor person and pays special attention to us. He never came to us or our mohallah (neighbourhood)… but we went to meet Pir Sahib at his bungalow. He asks us about our wellbeing… he told his Khalifa (assistant), that these Sochis (caste, traditionally shoemakers) are very poor, so look after them carefully the way you people look after me. So the Nizamanis (another caste group) have not harmed us yet…

Let down by representatives

First of all, we want a school. There was a plot allocated for the school. That plot belonged to Nizamanis [who said] if you put in writing that you want a school here, then [we] will build it. But then they occupied the land. We are poor and cannot do anything about it. We also told Pir Sahib about it. He asked them to vacate the land but even then they did not…

We also went to the elected representatives but nothing was done. We also asked a Member of the Provincial Assembly who said: “This is a matter between you and Nizamanis” – as if he was not our representative. Now we will elect our own people in the local elections so that our educated youth are provided with jobs and the school building plot is recovered…

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

Mircho: losing dignity 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