Karachi’s Empress Market Pet Shops

The Birds Market situated in Empress Market, Saddar, in Karachi which has been running since the British Raj, has now turned into a heap of rubble. The Birds Market was thriving at the back of the Victorian-styled building of Empress Market until recently. According to the shopkeepers, the pet shops were operating from before partition while the number of shops and species of animals brought to the market kept increasing with time. The business of pet shops has been severely affected after its demolition while shopkeepers are forced to supplicate for an alternative. Around 150 shops have been razed down raising concerns for the shopkeepers as well as for the cottage industry that ensured the supply of these pet animals.

In addition to various species of birds, the market also offered desi [organic] chickens, cats, rabbits, ducks and other animals. Moreover, the market also consisted of an entire block that sold animal cages, feed and water utensils for pets.

Expensive species of Siamese cats from Iran, dogs, parrots of various colours and breeds and other animals are now being traded amid roadside rubbles.

The shopkeepers lamented that more than 150 shops were demolished in the anti-encroachment drive. Many of these shopkeepers were the ones who were running the pet shops set up by their ancestors. These shops, that were rented by their forefathers about 50 to 70 years ago, or even earlier, are now broken bricks.

On the one hand the demolition of the Birds Market affected the traders, hundreds of victims are those who were associated with the market without owning shops. They were those who used to breed birds, cats and dogs in their homes and supply them at the market as a means of living. These young men, through their small-scale businesses, were closely linked with the shopkeepers.

Survivors of the catastrophe

More than 150 shops were demolished. According to shopkeepers, they had initially thought that the issue will cool down but whatever happened later was a horror story. Most of the shopkeepers were running the businesses in their third generation.

According to an elderly shopkeeper Muhammad Hafeez, who resides in the Memon Street of Saddar, he now had his grandchildren enter the business. “I joined my father’s pet business in 1974,” he said, adding that he was informed by another shopkeeper at 9:30pm that shops were being demolished. He reached the market in a rush and witnessed that there was a heated exchange of words between the shopkeepers and the police. “We demanded them to give us some time, but the police maintained that they cannot allow any time. They said you have earned a lot of money from here throughout your lifetime,” recalled Hafeez. Many shopkeepers fell ill after being thrown out of the shops. “I have myself survived a heart attack. I have paid two months advance rent to the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC),” he said. “In addition to ruining our shops, they have also devastated the cottage industry that used to supply us birds, cats and other animals after breeding them at their homes. After the tragedy, they are no longer able to even keep lights on in their homes,” he added

Another shopkeeper, Muhammad Umar, who worked in the Birds Market, said that instead of focusing on peasants and those belonging to the middle-class, the government should conduct a crackdown and hold the affluent accountable as they have caused immense losses to the national exchequer. “I have overheard that shops are being given at Parking Plaza, but a better compensation for this loss is through construction of buildings within the vicinities of Saddar,” said Umar.

Another shopkeeper who goes by the name Munno Bhai said that a notice of the demolition was given only three hours prior to the operation. Consequently, they were able to retrieve only half of their fixtures and supplies. He said that he resided in a house built on a plot of 120 yards, which is already small for his big family. “Where could we have accommodated the animals in such a situation?” he asked, adding that the animals had to be given refuge on roofs of their homes. “Most of the animals fell ill due to the intense cold and many died, causing us a loss of around Rs 400,000.” According to Munno Bhai, he is now selling bird feed at the same place with the only difference that now he sits on the footpath to do his business where once he had a shop.

Jumma Khan, another shopkeeper at the market, said that the bulldozers did not run on their shops but on their hearts. The impression that shopkeepers were land-grabbers was totally wrong. “We have proof that we gave monthly rents to KMC,” said Khan, adding that the security institutions also accused them of being involved in drug and weapons trade. “Now this new accusation is only adding salt to our wounds.” 

However, after the allocation of a plot opposite the former market, a new market is being set up. The pet animals and birds displaced from Empress Market have finally found a new home on an open plot in front of the former pet market. Arrangements have been finalised to shift the pets and birds market to the new location.

According to Muhammad Hafeez, a shop owner at the former market, shop rent for the new market has been finalised. The new place, which will be named Empress View Birds Market, will host around 126 temporary shops, said Hafeez, adding that those who had more than one shop previously would be allotted only one shop due to the shortage of space. He further said that shopkeepers would collectively pay the monthly rent for the place.

Shopkeepers had to struggle a lot to get a space as it was almost impossible to arrange a large piece of land in a congested area like Saddar. While shifting to an entirely new place means that the shopkeepers will have to start from scratch, if the market had been shifted to a far-off location, there would be no guarantee for business to begin with. Fate took a turn in favor of the shopkeepers as they managed to acquire the desired space.

According to the shopkeepers, after the reestablishment of the market, those who had been raising animals and birds in their homes have also found new hope. After the market is set up, the business of breeding Australian parrots, Persian and Siamese cats as well as desi chickens at homes has started to revitalise.

Market dealers said that a large number of people used to visit the marketplace with animals and birds, reared at home, on Sundays and other holidays. These people had stopped coming to the markets following the anti-encroachment operation, but after the re-launch of the pet market, they are expected to return. The market dealers are trying to divert the suppliers of pets to the newly set up temporary market so that traffic flows on the roads remain smooth.

According to the shopkeepers, efforts for establishing the new market were made on a self-help basis, without any government support. They lamented that after the clearance of debris from the old marketplace, teams from the anti-encroachment cell have attempted to demolish the temporary shops as well.

However, the shopkeepers stood as a wall against the new operation and threatened the teams carrying the heavy demolition machinery to bulldoze them before demolishing their temporary shops for which they had worked so hard. They said that the anti-encroachment teams stopped their operation due to threats and strong protests.

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