While travelling from Northern Lahore to Shahdara, one finds a mud track on the left side just before the point where you hit the Ravi bridge. This track leads you to the bank of the Ravi river, right opposite to Kamran Ki Baradari, where hundreds of gypsies are living mostly in worn-out tents or shelters made by tying coarse cloth to bamboos.
These gypsies come from different parts of the province and many of them settled here around 15 to 20 years ago. There is a huge population (of the gypsies) belonging to the Seraiki belt, especially the peripheries of Multan, who have set up their tents here and go to different places to earn their livelihood. These settlers include daily labourers, monkey jugglers, domestic workers, beggars, and individuals who sell meat meant for kites on the roadside, small-time vendors etc.
At the moment, the gypsy tents can be seen placed right next to where the river flows. This is a place highly vulnerable to floods or even overflow of river water in case of normal rains. The question arises as to why they have moved so close to the danger zone and where are the concerned departments who should have stopped them from doing this.
Ansar Abbas, a member of the gypsy community, explains they were settled on a higher ground and at a safer distance for ages, till the time they were asked by the government authorities to vacate the area.
“As there was no option, we packed up our belongings and moved closer to the river,” he says. “There were others also who left for unknown destinations, unclear about where they would find empty space to place their tents. The location where they had lived for long was called Basti Gaoshala.”
The vast area got vacated from these gypsies is occupied with construction workers who have built major part of the boundary wall and are now focusing on compaction work. The ground level has risen considerably due to this.
Abbas is not fully clear about what is going on there but says he has heard of some playgrounds being built and that includes one for cricket. “They have been informed by the contractors that they shall have to vacate the place within three months as they want to convert it into green area as well.
Muhammad Arshad, a vendor who sells food to the visitors to the baradari, says they will ultimately have to move because if they don’t they will be drowned during the monsoon season. The place where they are settled now is immersed in water during this season.
Arshad urges the government to allow them to settle at some other vacant place along the river, “None of us can afford to rent a house or room. All that we earn is consumed on food and other basic needs.”
The construction workers at the site say the project is part of the Punjab government’s plan to construct indoor sports complexes and outdoor playgrounds for sports like cricket, hockey and football in different parts of the province. They say their organization — Muhammad Boota & Company — has won the tender placed for this purpose by the Communications & Works Department, Government of Punjab, and they are not involved in the eviction of these gypsies. The instructions, if any, to vacate had been given by the concerned government officials.
According to the documents available with TNS, the Annual Development Programme (ADP) 2016-2017 for Punjab has an allocation of Rs5 billion for infrastructural development related to sports. The strategic interventions under this plan include provision of playgrounds/playfields in whole Punjab, provision of mini sports complexes at all the divisional headquarters of the province, provision of missing facilities in already constructed gymnasiums and establishment of a state-of-the-art International level sports city in Lahore. The need for a sports complex and playground was felt in the area since the once existing playing facilities near Minar-e-Pakistan, and the famous Ateeq Stadium were abandoned due to the construction of the Greater Iqbal Park.
The development is a good one for the city and youth but it has come at a big cost to the community of gypsies who need nothing more than an alternative place. Azeem, who does not know whether he has a second name or not, complains that life is getting tougher by the day, “Every other day our children are arrested over begging charges. The police comes here for security checks, our women are refused jobs as housemaids for not having a permanent abode and so on.
“The hassle of relocating from here and finding new place will add to our miseries.”
Tariq Zaman, an official in the district, tells TNS that generally the gypsies living in such areas are not disturbed; they have been accommodated on compassionate grounds. However, he says, it is during the monsoon season or floods that they are asked to move to a place reasonably higher than the river bed.
“Once the situation changes, they are allowed to come back to the place where they were settled initially.”
Ansar Abbas has more concerns. He says, “This time it won’t be easy for us to relocate. The one major reason for this is that everybody is concerned about the security situation in the country and every new person entering the area is seen with suspicion.
“Some people have moved to the other side of the Ravi bridge but they are being hounded by some local influentials and asked either to pay up money to them or move on.
“We are not asking for homes. We simply need some unoccupied government-owned land where we can take our families and live,” he requests.