Karachi – “I am quite old,” he says, contemplating in reply to a question, as his nimble fingers continue working on a huge Pakistani flag of synthetic material. “May be I am 12?” says the podgy child, sitting on a heap of about a hundred flags. “He is ten years old,” yells out his brother from the other side of the huge room where at every turn of the head, all one can see is flags of Pakistan. Mukhtiyar smiles, clicks his tongue non-chalantly, and goes back to work. There is lots of work to be done as Pakistan’s 68th Independence Day is a few days away. Mukhtiyar and his colleagues work in a kaarkhana (factory) in an industrial area of Karachi. He works on almost a 1000 flags a day in peak season.
Just some eight kilometres away, alongside a main road in an affluent part of Karachi, 15 years old Shazia and her younger brother have set-up a stall on a small table. The national flag in cloth and paper of all shapes and sizes, and many other items that help fuel patriotism are on display. “We buy all of this from lighthouse and sell it. We earn about 200 to 300 rupees a day, that’s all. Is dafa dhanda naheen hai (there is not much business this year),” says their mother Shehnaz who works as part-time domestic help in nearby bungalows. She swings by the stall every few hours to see how her children are doing.
Hoisting flags around the world
Every year, Pakistan is a splash of green and the minimal white. An entire industry springs into action weeks before the 14 August, and goes back into dormancy after the day is over. But for the workers at Pakistan’s only flag-based company, VIP Flags, flags are made all year round and provide livelihood to around 100 workers and their families. The factory is situated in Korangi Industrial Area, Karachi, and the products they churn out have been record-breaking, literally. “We set the world record of the time for the World’s Largest Flag on the occasion of Pakistan’s 57th Independence day in 2004. The flag measured 340ft x 510ft which is 173,400 sq.ft,breaking the previous American Super flag record, which was 255ft x 505ft,” says Asim Nisar Parchamwala, Director, VIP Flags. The record may have been broken but the pride with which he talks is permanent. From ceremonial and table flags to taking export orders of flags in the thousands that they take from all over the world, this is where most flags are made in the country, including the flags for all political parties. While smaller factories and industries make more economical versions of the banner sporting the symbolic star and crescent, most flags used for official purposes are made here. “Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has commissioned us to make a flag for this year’s Independence Day which will be hoisted on the world’s tallest flag pole in Lahore,” says Parchamwala.
The workers here are mostly young, the oldest ones in their 30s. The volume of work is challenging. The factory is clean and the workers are well looked after. “They get a ten per cent raise in salary every year,” says Parchamwala, talking to The Express Tribune. When asked why he hires such young workers, he replies by saying, “what do you think these children would be doing if they are not hired? They would be running about in the streets or become members of gangs and mafias.”
In another room, two young “cutters” are cutting out flags that will later undergo finishing. The weather is hot and humid, but they are not putting on the fan. “Maal urta hai phir (the flags flutter with the wind the fan produces,” says Ghani.
Shahid, a 21 years old worker at VIP flags, agrees. “I have been working here for the last three years. My two brothers also work here. Initially I did not know this work, but overtime I have learnt the skill,” he says. Shahid’s salary is a reasonable sum, between 12 to 18 thousand rupees a month. “We make enough to support our family comfortably.”
A condensed version of this photo feature was published in The Express Tribune here: