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The Other Side of the Line

Barely two miles north of Karachi’s upscale food street, Port Grand, is a colony of nearly eight hundred thousand people. The colony is called Machar Colony – a name originating from the local word for fishermen. There is a line, not etched on a map, but known to everyone, that separates Port Grand and the colony. The line, separates those who spend extravagantly and want to surround themselves with rich aromas of expensive, carefully cooked meals and those who only get to eat burnt or stale bread soaked in unclean water every day of the week. This line does not just separate have and have-nots, but those who exist and those who do not. Indeed there are nearly a million people, of flesh and blood, living in the Machar colony, but without any identification, citizenship or residency status, they are non-persons. The hopes, aspirations, fears and anxieties of these people remain irrelevant, non-existent.

Most of the residents of Machar colony are ethnically Bengalis. For the majority of Pakistanis, this itself is an unforgivable sin. At one point in time, there were two parts of Pakistan. An eastern part and a western part. The vast majority of people living in eastern half of the country were Bengalis. The western half, where the seat of the government was, treated the Bengalis unfairly, thought of them as second-class citizens and had open hostility towards their rich heritage and culture. Tired of living like this, the eastern half rebelled, with a civil war resulting in creating the state of Bangladesh in 1971. The new state of Bangladesh was not immune to corruption, nepotism and economic chaos. Many poor Bengalis decided to do what others had been doing for years – move from one part of the country, i.e. East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to come to another part of the country, i.e. Karachi in West Pakistan (now just Pakistan). There was, however, a problem. The lines on the map had changed. This was no longer the same country. It was two countries who had just fought a bloody war. The Bengalis who came to West Pakistan soon found that they were not just poor, they were also people with no right to be in Karachi. They were too poor to return to Bangladesh. The new state of Bangladesh was a country struggling with political chaos and economic woes and did not want them back. And so it happened – hundreds of thousands became stateless in their own country. Like other places in the world with those who are unwanted, their children and grandchildren inherited the exclusion. Those who were born in the colony, having seen no other land, were stateless, and for all intents and purposes, non-existent.

This happened nearly fifty years ago. Today, the colony is much larger than it was in 1970s. The colony, on the edge of the sea, continues to grow and the line between the land and the sea is blurry. The Arabian Sea is not known to be kind, or calm, yet it has been more accommodating than the people around Machar colony. It has ceded part of itself so new families can build on that reclaimed land. The people around Machar colony are unwilling to part with their money or humanity. But while some things have changed in Machar colony in half a century, many important things have not. There is still no access to healthcare, no right for education for those who live there. While those who dine at Port Grand get to choose their doctors and arrive at elite private clinics in imported cars, the bleeding pregnant mother, might come to one of the only two clinics in the colony, in a rusted wheelbarrow, only to be told that the small clinic has no capacity to treat her. She is told that she should immediately go to the nearest hospital, where she will be denied care, because the line in which she needs to stand to wait for her turn, does not exist. That line was erased from the system long time ago. Just like her.

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