Everyday Javed hauls his three-wheeled bike and delivers plastic bags to shopkeepers in Karachi. photo: Express
KARACHI: Most Karachiites care about the environment. Given drastic changes in the weather in recent years, various calamities in rural Sindh, the air quality deteriorating by the day, climate change is a reality we have been forced to grapple with. As the world around us becomes increasingly uninhabitable, the urgency of climate change has not evaded Karachiites, and as indicated by various tree plantation drives, other citizen-led campaigns – the Climate Action March for one, most of us have accepted that in order to ensure our world remains inhabitable, human beings as a collective, need to make some drastic lifestyle changes. And yet, when it comes to avoiding plastic, despite knowing its harmful effects on the climate, many of us struggle to eliminate it completely. How can we? When most of what we consume is packaged in plastic – from water bottles to various kinds of containers, straws and grocery bags – let alone novelty items, plastic predominates our everyday lives. Alternatives remain far and few and while the government has been adamant to ban single-use plastics it has also failed to provide a sustainable alternative.
One Karachiite, however, after earning his livelihood by selling plastic bags in various localities of the city, now intends on giving up his business to protect the environment. For Syed Javed Gilani, plastic has quite literally been his bread and butter. For years, he has hauled his three-wheeled bike and delivered plastic bags to shopkeepers in Karachi. And at the age of 68, while managing a disability, he is willing to abandon it completely.
Bread and butter
Javed, who is originally from Peshawar, lives in Azam Basti of Karachi and started his petty business of selling plastic bags in the 1980s. “Earlier, I used to work in a plastics factory. After that I left the job and started this work,” he tells The Express Tribune.
For 30 years, Javed has bought plastic bags from the wholesale market and sold them at retail price in Mehmoodabad, Manzoor Colongy, Azam Basti, Akhtar Colony, Kashmir Colony and Defence View areas, among others. “I leave my home at 2 pm and continue this work till 2 am at night, earning around Rs1,000 to Rs1,500 daily.”
Referring to his disability, Javed says, “I am not disabled by birth, but a bone disease has partially disabled me. I can’t walk and move without support,” he adds. The doctors had referred his case to the AO Clinic Institute of Trauma, Orthopaedics and Sports Surgery – a hospital specialising in the relevant disease in Nazimabad – but Javed found it to be too expensive. As he could not afford treatment, he now relies heavily on painkillers to keep him going.
“When God has given me courage, why should I beg and seek financial help from others? I work hard and will earn till my last breath.”
Plastic is prevalent. Most shopkeepers rely on plastic bags for their day-to-day business needs. Whether it is for storage of their products or to deliver or hand over items to customers. A handful of shopkeepers in Karachi might opt for paper bags but most grumble that paper bags are inconvenient and not always sustainable for their use.
“Milk shops, medical stores, restaurants, fruit vendors, ration stores are among some of the places where I sell plastic bags,” says Javed. “Apart from plastic bags, I also sell flour bags which are made of paper and rubber bands.”
In light of the ban on plastic announced by the Sindh government, Javed says that he is aware of how detrimental plastic bags are for the environment. “I sell them because they are high in demand,” he says, while acknowledging that using plastic is no longer sustainable for the environment. Despite knowing that it would take painstaking efforts to convince shopkeepers to switch to environment-friendly biodegradable bags, Javed is adamant that if the government succeeds in implementing the ban, he will quit selling plastic bags to shopkeepers.
A world inhabitable
As a father of two children, Javed is acutely aware that we have a collective responsibility towards protecting our environment and ensuring it is inhabitable for future generations. Like all parents, Javed strives to provide quality education for his children and wishes to see them lead healthy and successful lives. “My elder son has now done graduation in business administration and the younger one is in class tenth.” He has no qualms turning his back on a life-long relationship with plastic for the sake of his children and future generations. At 68, Javed is proud of the life he has built for himself. “Looking at my disability, many people offered zakat. Why should I take it when I can earn? I even pay zakat and fitra to poor and deserving people,” he says proudly. Javed is certain that with discipline and hard work, he’ll be able to make his living despite the ban on plastic.
This story is part of a weekly series that seeks to bring to light the unsung heroes of Karachi – the hawkers, traders, doctors, teachers, engineers, lawyers and daily-wage labourers. It is they who make Karachi the city of lights.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 30th, 2019.