The Karachi cattle market sits quietly for now, miles away from the heart of the city. It won’t be long though before millions descend upon it and it is engulfed in familiar chaos.
Beyond the roped barricade that serves as its makeshift entrance, men move around with varying degrees of urgency—vague silhouettes in the dust-covered night. Most of them are wearing green surgical face masks, their brows furrowed as they try to prevent the dust from getting into their eyes. The mask doesn’t do much against the dirt and the grime but for Rs5 a pop, it prevents the wearer from being knocked out by the stink.
Its entrance may look like a post-apocalyptic dystopia but administrator Malik Najeeb has a grand vision for the market.
“We will have a huge food street this time around,” said Najeeb.
The aim is to have more than 150 stands. Concerns of hygiene mean few of the big brands will ever venture into this wasteland but other steps are being taken to make it more welcoming.
The administration seems to have realised that the market isn’t just a bazaar. For most of the people of Karachi, it is a source of entertainment.
Plans are in place for a children’s play area right in the heart of the market with rides and other attractions for the entire family.
The large map nailed to the wall just behind him has no mention of a play area but Najeeb says that room has been made for it in the real world even if none was made on the map.
“Hum ap ko khud lay ker chalaingay ser keranay ke liye is ki,” (I will personally take you on a tour of the place) he says, hand on heart.
The market is still in its early days and, as Najeeb pointed out, hasn’t been officially inaugurated yet but regular visitors claim it seems to be cleaner this time around.
“We are taking extra care of hygiene and sanity,” says Najeeb. Just a few feet away, the road is smeared with cow faeces but in this part of town merely being more road than dung represents improvement.
The plan is to make the market not only better but also bigger, expanding from 700 acres last year to 900. Najeeb estimates that the number of animals up for sale will also go up from 250,000 to 400,000, an increase of 60%.
Demand had vastly outstripped supply last year, causing asking rates to sky-rocket last year as Karachi ran out of animals to sacrifice. That should not be the case this time around if the expected numbers arrive.
The grand plans to expand haven’t gone down too well with the vendors though. “We had this same piece of land last year and it was part of the general enclosure so it was free. This year it is part of the VIP area so we have had to pay Rs175,000 for it,” said Shaukat Ali, a vendor from Rahim Yar Khan wearing what must have once been a perfectly starched white kurta shalwar.
Why not just get a piece of land in the general area then? Ali extends his arm in response. “Wahan jungle main kaun ayega?” (Who will come there in the middle of nowhere)?
By expanding the mandi, the administration has increased the number of VVIP and VIP enclosures and hence the number of vendors that will have to pay for their stalls. The general enclosures, where the poorest bring their animals, have been pushed out further into the wilderness—the nowhere within the middle of nowhere.
The vendors have other concerns too. Water is as scarce and precious at the market as it is in the rest of Karachi.
“We provide 16 litres of water per animal for free,” said Najeeb. “Anything more than that, they have to buy at Rs1.5 a litre.”
Baseer scoffs at the 16 litres. “It’s the middle of summer. Each animal drinks that much in a day. Then we need water to mix their hay with, we need water to wash the animals and we need water for the sand so that it doesn’t just blow away everywhere.”
Ali feels they aren’t getting what they have paid for. “They made us buy eight water barrels for Rs2,500 each but provide enough water to fill just two or three each day. They are charging us Rs1,600 in tax for each animal that we have, they can surely provide us water in return.”
Getting the animals into Karachi is no cheap feat either. “The tolls in Punjab are a little high but they are still reasonable. When you enter Sindh, each toll plaza wants a bribe,” said a vendor from Chichawatni, his voice rising with righteous indignation. “We had two trucks and they usually wanted Rs5,000 for each of them even though we had all the documents they asked us to show them. We had to bargain and bring them down to Rs1,000 for each vehicle. We encountered 10 tolls along the way and had to pay Rs20,000 extra for no reason.”
For all its flaws though, the Karachi cattle market is an expanding beast that hosts millions each year. “Lakho log har roz atay hain (hundreds of thousands of people visit every day),” claims the administrator.
This year, if the administration’s claims are to be believed, it will be bigger and better than ever before—more mela than mandi.