Water shortage offers dhobis window for comeback

People prefer to have their clothes washed by laundries due to scarcity of water at home


Kashif Hussain January 22, 2018
The traditional laundry home service offered by launderers or 'dhobis' became obsolete due to the use of advanced washing machines in houses. PHOTO: FILE

KARACHI: The water and power shortage in Karachi has made life difficult for its residents to say the least. However, there are some services that have benefitted from everyone else's misery. The energy crisis in the 'city of lights', coupled with the water scarcity has become a source of income for some.

The traditional laundry home service offered by launderers or 'dhobis' has became obsolete due to the use of advanced washing machines in houses. People were opting to wash their clothes at home rather than employing the services of dhobis, resulting in a decrease in dhobis' income.

However, due to the abysmal planning and mismanagement of the federal, provincial and municipal authorities which led to the water and energy crisis in the city, many Karachi residents are reverting back to the good old laundry service.

This time, although, many dhobis are not washing clothes at traditional laundry places known as dhobi ghaats. There was a time when one would find several dhobi ghaats alongside the Lyari River. Dhobis used to wash clothes in bulk at those dhobi ghaats. However, since the start of the Lyari Expressway project, those laundry places gradually started diminishing.

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Now, after collecting dirty clothes from houses, many dhobis bring them to laundry factories which use sophisticated washing machines. Most of these laundry services and factories are located in Jacob Lines, Lines Area and the adjoining areas of Garden.

Not only do launderers bring clothes from homes and laundry shops to these factories, but many hospitals and hotels also use their services. Moreover, individuals, especially those who live in Saddar, also have their clothes washed at these factories.

Muhammad Rasheed, an owner of a laundry establishment adjacent to Parking Plaza in Saddar, admitted that his business only thrived due to the water shortage and energy crisis in the city. Due to scarcity of water, people do not want to use it for laundry, he said, adding that load-shedding and fear of hefty electricity bills also compel people to use laundry services offered by factories instead of washing their clothes at home. Most of his customers belong to Defence, Clifton, Gulistan-e-Jauhar and Gulshan-e-Iqbal. According to Rasheed, laundry vendors from different parts of the country also come to Saddar to avail services at these factories.

Washing factories also face issues of water shortages, Rasheed said, adding that the factories have to buy water from tankers to fulfill their water needs. According to Rasheed, water tankers charge exorbitant prices due to high demand, which has forced the factory owners to dig up their own wells.

As laundry factories wash clothes in bulk, it decreases the cost of cleaning per item of clothing. Due to competition, the laundry service providers cannot offer their services at high rates as it would force their customers to switch to their competitors.

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According to dhobis, they cannot afford to reduce their expenses by curtailing the use of chemicals and detergents in the washing process, as doing that could leave stains on clothes which would result in a decrease in their customer base in the long run. Due to the surge in prices of detergents, owners face pressure to increase their charges. One such key chemical is soda, which is extensively used in the washing of clothes. In the last few years, the price of one sack of soda has increased from Rs500 to Rs2,300. Likewise, other basic items such as bleach, soap, hydrogen and other chemicals have also seen a surge in their prices.

Washing process

Once the clothes are collected and brought to the factories, the consignments are then opened up, weighed and distributed. To identify which clothes belong to which customer, the items are then marked accordingly. The clothes are also distributed and arranged according to colour and size. Then they are put inside a laundry machine for an hour. White clothes are washed separately as bleach is also used while cleaning them to enhances the whiteness.

The laundry machines have a limit of 70 to 150 articles of clothing. However, the dhobis often keep 20 to 30 articles of clothing less than the actual capacity in order to maintain the quality of washing.

For the identification of clothes, dhobis use codes, which are usually the first and last initials of customers' names. The codes are inscribed on the clothes. Other ways to mark the clothes include lines and colours.

After the clothes are washed, they are pressed at houses designated for that purpose.

Many families have dedicated their houses for pressing clothes. Some time ago, coal-powered irons were used for pressing but due to the hike in coal prices in recent years, such irons have become obsolete. Usually, the work of pressing is done by women as it is convenient for them to earn income while working at home.

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Donkey cart - an inferiority symbol

The picture of a dhobi seldom comes to mind without a donkey cart as donkey carts have been a traditional carriage of dhobis on which they used to collect dirty clothes from houses and bring them back after cleaning.

However, the younger generation of dhobis are reluctant to travel on donkey carts as they deem it a sign of backwardness and inferiority. Many children of dhobi families are even embarrassed of their ancestral profession. After acquiring modern education, they want to do adopt professions other than being a dhobi.

Some older dhobis are of the view that they did not reap the benefits of having their children educated. In fact, it has turned out to be a loss, said an elder dhobi, adding that the educated youth does not want to continue with their ancestral profession, nor do they get suitable jobs.

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