Drowned out in the hubbub of the country’s largest metropolis, an invisible community of migrants resides in small, scattered pockets across the city’s many shantytowns.
They are the hundreds of thousands of Bengalis and Biharis who settled in Karachi after the separation of then-East Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh in 1971. While they can be seen working in the city’s hundreds of factories, shops, and even as domestic workers, as far as the state is concerned, they are ghosts and aliens who do not exist in their ‘system’.
Generations of the city’s Bihari and Bengali-speaking community, alongside other refugee groups such as Afghans and Burmese, have been toiling away at government offices and National Database Registration Authority (NADRA) centres in the simple hope of attaining citizenship and residency documents.
Dozens of people shared their common grievances when Sabaat recently visited a community of Bengalis and Biharis in Orangi Town. Sharing her story, 30-year-old Nargis claimed she has been going back and forth to NADRA’s office for the past five years in a bid to resolve a discrepancy about her thumb impression in her quest to acquire a Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC) but to no avail. Rukhsana Naz, a 60-year-old widow, recently contacted NADRA for getting a CNIC but the staff has sought her father’s documents which she said were misplaced during migration. As a result, her daughter’s marriage had to be delayed since she does not have a CNIC. Similarly, Muhammad Hussain, 50, visited the NADRA zonal head office for getting a CNIC but he was sent to the Intelligence Bureau — the premier civilian intelligence agency — for ‘clearance’. There, he was asked to produce documents from 1980 which he could not find as his parents died at an early age. He then paid an ‘agent’ — touts offering their services outside government offices — Rs5,000 for helping him with the paperwork but the man passed away a week later and also lost his documents. The case has been pending for the last six years. There were dozens of other similar stories of men and women who have submitted all the proofs of identity that they could muster and now await a miracle.
Social worker Shahid Hussain, who works with the local community, said they have sought help from various government officials and politicians but no one is genuinely interested in heeding their pleas, adding that without CNICs and passports, millions of Bihari and Bengali-speaking people are unable to apply for jobs in the formal, skilled sector and their children remain un-schooled. He also blamed NADRA staff for their stringent policies which force community members to seek the help of dubious agents.
Talking to Sabaat, NADRA Sindh Operations Director Sherazul Haq said there are between three to four million people who can be traced back to the migration from East Pakistan. He claimed that NADRA has set a strict standard operating procedure when it comes to their registration and their family and residence details need to be verified as per the set protocols.
Terming the matter a national issue, Haq said it needs to be resolved by enacting appropriate legislation at the national and provincial levels, adding that a summary about this ‘sensitive’ matter has already been sent to the prime minister. Commenting on the widespread use of ‘agents’, he said the authority has zero tolerance for such scammers and they have all but eliminated their presence at the NADRA centres.
Orangi Town’s elected provincial representative, Ali Khurshedi of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, appreciated NADRA’s provision of allowing the unblocking of the community members’ blocked CNICs on verification by the local lawmaker. He said further that the party has made union council-level committees to gather data about the relevant persons for submission to NADRA.
He hoped that the matter is resolved soon as it has been pending for decades now, depriving the most basic form of identification to those who deserve to be treated with the utmost respect as they and their ancestors sacrificed everything to resettle in Pakistan.