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Fatima: vulnerable lives

Fatima: 'We can just hope that after listening to this conversation the government will give us some help'

Fatima is 60, and lives on an old houseboat on Manchar Lake with her husband Allah Bux. Her family has fished for generations, but pollution has all but destroyed the fish stocks.

Her sons take on casual labour whenever they can – and even manage to catch ducks for a little extra income – but the family cannot survive without loans. Any illness represents a major financial problem, and their vulnerability makes it hard to take risks. They are reluctant to migrate away for work, fearing the loss of their few belongings and simple home in their absence.

She has had bad experiences of more powerful groups. Aid gets diverted to those with influence, she says. “It’s a country of powerful people where there is no place for the poor.”

[My husband] has just left to go fishing. The poor man has become very old now and he is also handicapped. My children take on casual labour… Since the water of Manchar Lake became brackish, fishing has become almost non-existent. We neither have any land of our own nor any vehicle through which we can earn some money…

We have been living here for many generations…We have not gone anywhere else… we have stayed here through thick and thin. Earlier, Manchar Lake was a nice place because the water from Indus River used to flow in and a lot of fish would breed. We used to have a good living and our children would live in peace. But now our children remain hungry…

The poisonous water from Chhandan (the Right Bank Outfall drain) has eliminated our jobs…The rain water gives some benefit [by diluting it], but…the contaminated water is so concentrated [that] if you put two bowls of plain water and mix it with one bowl of poisonous water then the plain water will also become poisonous…

If we had money then we could buy a bus or vehicle or a piece of land to make our living. We can only earn by doing casual labour, because jobs are not provided for us. If we had been given any job, we would have lessened some of our burden.

“We remain jobless”

All men, women and children do fishing… old and young… Fishing is our profession and our children take up this profession at a very young age… We have no other source of income, so we remain jobless and take loans to feed our children. We have no one except God to help us…

Whenever our children fall ill, we usually do not have money for their treatment… there is no hospital here [but] since we do not have money then how could we admit them anyway? …There is no doctor…nor any medical store…

When water is supplied [by electricity], then we get drinking water [but] in cases of power breakdown, there is none. [Even when there is power] those who reach there early get the water but those who reach there later come back with empty pitchers. Then they use the contaminated water of Manchar Lake and fall ill.

The basic reason for the absence of fish in Manchar Lake is the lack of fresh water. It’s a simple formula: wherever we get good food, we prefer to live. Fish are like us – if they get poisonous water in the lake then why should they stay? Either they’ll die or they will go away…

No money for healthcare

Our women die here during delivery without treatment, but we do not have the money to take them to the hospital. Yes, there are dais (local birth attendants) but some cases are complicated, so in such a situation how we can take them to the city? The vehicle charges 300 rupees and the doctor also charges at least 1000 rupees…

A lot of diseases have surfaced here due to the water. Our children have fallen sick. They are suffering stomach ailments and fever… Doctors also come here but they only give the same one tablet. The remaining medicines they prescribe can be bought with money – and money we do not have. So we can’t purchase the medicines. These doctors also give an injection to the patient. But we do not know what type of injection this is that does not even cure a headache.

If we go to a private doctor then he gives good medicines but he charges a lot of money. From where can we poor arrange this money? This is the reason that many people have migrated from here. Almost half of the population has left.


We are 15-20 family members who live in a hut together… Only two or three are literate while the rest have only learnt the Holy Quran… All of our mohallah (neighbourhood) people migrated from here, but we never went anywhere. We cannot leave our area…

Even if it becomes really necessary to move from here [for work], then in such cases our males go, but the women do not…. They hope against hope that the rains may fall in their area [and clean the polluted water], then they will become prosperous.

[Women may go away] occasionally but only for a few days because we do not have bungalows there where we can stay… if we want to build a hut there we need money and we do not have it. It is also possible that in our absence that our existing huts would be destroyed. You can well imagine that if we abandon this hut, then people will dismantle it. So we prefer to stay here.

Living on a houseboat

Yes, we have had this houseboat since the beginning…our relatives also live in these houseboats…We get them made by the carpenters… Earlier, they used to build such a house with 1 to 1.5 lakh rupees. But now this would take 2 to 2.5 lakh rupees. This one in which we are sitting was made a long time ago.

Today poor people, instead of building a new house for themselves [which they can’t afford], prefer to sell the old houseboat and live off that money. We use small boats…to visit each other on [special] occasions. We have wedding functions in these boats…these were built long ago and this is why they are deteriorating now.

[This one] was built 15 to 20 years ago, when there used to be a lot of water in the Lake. Now the water [level has dropped] and so life has become difficult…we can live at the dam but we need money to build a house there. We cannot even feed our children, so how we can build a new house?

Aid reaches those with influence

The government is not giving us any help. If any aid comes for us, it is taken up by influential people. It comes to the elders of the village. They give it to some, kicking others out. If they give this aid to five people, then they refuse another 10…

[The people in a nearby village] hail from the Chandio caste and they are very powerful…They also murdered one of our youths. We can’t do anything against them… Even the police cannot do anything about them, so how they will listen to us? …These are very powerful people [with] a lot of money. This is a money market. It’s a country of powerful people where there is no place for the poor.

Passing on skills

Had we had money, these [homes] would have been much better… Our women know the art of home making. We also have machines for sewing and cutting clothes. Similarly, our women and girls are all well versed with embroidery and stitching work, while our men only fish….

I started stitching clothes [before I had] children and I am still doing it. But we give our maximum time to fishing. Now I must be 60 years old. [All my life we have] been busy earning our livelihood. We could not do anything else [because we were] totally trapped in the cycle of earning our livelihood…

We perform the same chores as other women – for example, cleaning the house, fetching water, washing clothes. Sometimes we go to fetch water from the dam. And still if there is some time left then we stitch clothes and also make our bedding…we make rillis (traditional patchwork quilts) besides doing embroidery… for our personal use. We do not sell such things. Nobody teaches us…We all learn it at home. Our girls of your age know embroidery very well [but] they are not educated.

Why the rich get richer

First of all we do not have any tradition to educate girls. Secondly there is no school in the area… However, had the males allowed us then we would have developed a liking for education. But…the school is quite a distance from our village. How can our girls go so far to study?

Even the boys do not go. If they study then who will earn for the household? Our boys remain busy in work the whole day. They have learnt the Holy Quran…

The rich [get richer because they] educate their children and get them jobs. They have their own vehicles, which ply the roads. They have given over many of their houses for rent, so they get the rental money. Their women also take on jobs. So their lives are prosperous. And they can also save some money, while we poor do not even get enough flour to fill our stomachs. How we can make progress? Our employment has been totally eliminated…

Family and marriage: “a daughter is another’s property”

I have three sons and five daughters. All my sons are married and all of them have five to eight children each. My daughters also have children. Only one daughter is unmarried… We give the [girls for marriage] inside the family and also to other castes. But we only give our girls in marriage to other castes if we are also getting a woman in exchange from that family. So it is done on an exchange marriage basis.

We have had this tradition since the beginning… if we do not have a girl in our family for our boy, or the girl in the family has not reached marriageable age, then we take a girl from other caste. And in exchange we give a girl from our own family.

Sometimes we give our girl’s hand in marriage to relatives without taking anything in exchange. But in such cases we do not care whether the girl is young or old… I had not even reached the age of puberty when my parents married me. We marry our girls at a very young age. After all, we have to marry the girl whether she is young or old…

If a girl even tries to [think of refusing], then her parents will kill her. The girl has to marry where her parents want her to marry. But our boys also do not ask their parents about marrying a particular girl…

One daughter is still unmarried. Her [future] in-laws are insisting on the marriage but I do not have money… If I have it, I will marry her. Yes, she is young….a mother may want her daughter to remain with her because when she bears children after marriage then her life becomes a hell, but…what else can we do? Our parents married us the same way. The daughters have to be given in marriage one day…Wherever her luck will be, she will have to go there.

We do not ask the girl. Instead, the father of the girl asks her mother whether to marry their girl in a family or not, because a daughter is another’s property… she has to be given in marriage when she reaches puberty. After puberty, she can stay with her parents at the most for two to three years but she has to leave their house one day…

“We were prosperous”

The life of our elders was better, ours was also better – but the life of our new generation is very difficult. Our elders used to live in peace because…the lake used to be replenished with fresh water from the Indus River. Fish were in abundance… They used to earn a lot… There were so many happinesses…

In contrast, our life is filled with miseries. We are passing through a very difficult time. But even today, if the water from the Indus were to flow in to Manchar Lake, then prosperity will again sit in our houses.

We were prosperous when the rains used to fall and Manchar used to be filled with water from the Indus and there used to be good fish catches… Our children also used to earn good livelihoods. We were also able to save some money. We used to buy grain from this and new fishing nets. We also used to make new boats and buy new machines for boats. We had a good source of income. Now the boats are broken…

There are various prices of net, which range from 500 to 2000 rupees. We all pool money at 50 rupees each and collect 1500 to 2000 rupees and buy a new net. We buy a new boat for 15,000 rupees. The motor also costs 15,000 to 20,000 rupees. We also purchase motor oil. After covering all these expenses we are able to arrange for food for our children. If fish is in abundance then we will be able to recover all these expenses. Otherwise, we will remain with empty stomachs…

The quantity of fish caught is such that we hardly earn 20 rupees. Earlier, we used to earn 600 rupees from fishing. How we can run the house with this meagre amount? …We purchase firewood. We also pay the bill for the water supply and also purchase flour (aata) and vegetables for the children. What else we can purchase from this 20 rupees? If a good catch is available then we can arrange for all these necessities of life….

Trapping birds with tapes

The boys have purchased this tape recorder only recently and all of them sit in the same boat to listen to songs. They also hunt birds with the help of this tape recorder. They record birds’ voices on cassette and hunt the birds this way. They spread out the net and switch on the tape of bird song. The birds come, after listening to the voice of their fellow birds, and are trapped in the net.

In this way, they earn some money. They sell them for 20-30 rupees each. But those traders who purchase from us later sell them on for thousands of rupees. [They catch] ari (wild duck) and the other is badak (goose), which…is sold for 40-50 rupees. [These birds] only come in the winter season, while fish is available throughout the year.

Only bribes win jobs

Even if we were educated then what benefit would it have brought to us? We could not have found any work. Jobs are not available even to those who are educated, so who would give jobs to poor people like us? Those who give money are given work…. The middlemen grab all the jobs.

We read in the newspaper that some vacancies are available, but they do not give these jobs to the poor. When our men go to the dam then they read newspapers or get to hear news. When they come back home, they tell us that such and such news has been printed in the paper…

Getting hold of news

[Sometimes] we hear that such and such an officer has made this promise that they will drain out contaminated water from Manchar Lake. But it never happens. Once a minister came here. We raised a lot of hue and cry and pleaded with him to do something for the poor.

We asked him to drain out this contaminated water and release fresh water from the river into the lake so that the fish would start breeding again and we would get our jobs back. He promised us he would do so. But as yet nothing has happened…

[The minister] came to the city of Sehwan (18 km away). Our male family members went there. Then they came back and told us about it…This is how we get to know what is happening in the world. We do not have radio and television…We stay sitting silently at home…

“Make others listen – pay heed to our voice”

This is how we are living and this is what we have told you. We can just hope that after listening to this conversation the government will give us some help. We also want this whole conversation to reach the President of Pakistan so that he gets to know how poor people are leading their lives. He is enjoying his presidency but the poor are suppressed, under difficulties…

It is because of this contaminated water that we have lost our only source of income… We raise a lot of hue and cry but all in vain. People come here and write [down] our problems and complaints. Then they keep them to themselves… our problems were never solved by anyone…

Whoever comes here make tall promises, but nobody ever helped us. We just hope that after listening to our conversation through you, the government might help us – may pay heed to our voice.

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.


Fatima: vulnerable lives is produced as part of the Living with poverty: Pakistan oral testimony project.


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


Political representation


Insecurity and conflict


Food security and health