QUETTA: As the still-cold spring breeze drops morning temperatures to freezing in southwestern Pakistan’s Mastung district, 70-year-old Muhammad Essa begins his daily trek, armed with a shawl and a walking stick, to the city’s newspaper market from his village of Qari Saur in Balochistan.
It’s the same 2.5-mile-long route Essa has walked for 35 years, distributing hundreds of papers in the city during the rising popularity of the press. Now, in the age of social media, Essa sells barely a dozen papers a day.
In all these years, Essa — born with a visual impairment and now blind — has never read a single news story himself.
“Who will buy the paper from me when everybody is on social media and on their phones?” Essa told Arab News.
“There was a time when I used to earn more than Rs1,500 a day ($9.51) but now, even if I succeed in selling all my 22 newspapers, I’d earn Rs240 ($1.52),” he said.
In 1985, Essa was begging on the streets, and it was on the suggestion of a friend that he turned toward news hawking to make a living.
“I started my job as a newspaper hawker back in 1985 when then President Zia ul Haq announced beggars would be imprisoned in Pakistan,” Essa said, pausing his walk around downtown Mastung for a cup of tea. “A friend suggested I start delivering newspapers in Mastung city rather than sitting around waiting for others to help me, so I started selling daily tabloids.”
It is a job he has always taken very seriously.
Abdul Haskeem, a local stationery shop owner at Mastung’s newspaper market, told Arab News that every morning at 630 am, he finds Essa standing outside his shop before he lifts the shutters.
“Essa has a contract for 15 newspapers, but he takes five newspapers for himself to sell in the bazar,” Haskeem said. “He walks from dawn to 3pm around the city... which is not an easy job for a blind man in his 70s.”
As he walks, Essa calls out the name of the newspapers he’s holding.
“People in Mastung are woken by the voice of Muhammad Essa,” Haskeem said, laughing.
But the rise of online news, ever increasing cell phone users and the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic last year, means the hawker’s business has taken a huge hit.
“I am the eldest of four siblings and I have educated my younger brothers and sisters, even my son, but today I can’t even feed myself because the number of newspaper buyers has decreased at an alarming level,” Essa said.
Pakistan, a country of over 220 million people has 178 million cellphone subscribers and 95 million broadband Internet users, almost all of whom access the web through their cell phones, according to official data from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA).
But despite the popularity of cell phone technology in the daily lives of many Pakistanis, 24.3 percent of the population continues to live below the poverty line, a fact compounded by the economic fallout of the pandemic.
A recent UNDP study of 70 countries, including Pakistan, estimated that COVID-19 could set poverty levels in these countries back by nine years, with tens of millions more falling into multidimensional poverty.
“I was completely empty-handed during the peak of COVID-19 in the country back in the summer of 2020 when I had nothing to do,” Essa said. “Then, the local elders of district Mastung helped me survive the crisis.”
Sipping his tea, Essa reminisced once more about the glory days of news, when he would walk around streets selling hundreds of national and local dailies.
“Still,” he added, in between sips, “as long as there’s a single newspaper reader left in Mastung city, I will make my daily walk to deliver the paper.”