July issue 2009
Interview: Syed Irshad Hussain Shah Bukhari, President, Karachi Transport Ittehad
Q: You have been in the transport business for many years and are currently heading various associations. Where and how did you make your initial start?
A: My older brother came to Karachi from Abbottabad in 1948. He started to work as a driver, and then made his first investment in a taxi in 1964. We ran a taxi service for some years and in 1971, bought our first bus for Rs 38,000. This was a joint venture I had with my brothers from our personal savings. By 1976, we had acquired more buses and were running a proper transport business. I became a member of the Karachi Bus Owner’s Association in 1974, vice president in 1978 and then, general secretary in 1981, a position I still hold. In 1990, all major transport unions and associations got together to devise a system to deal with various issues. At that time, we felt that the city had grown and so had the issues. That was the birth of the Karachi Transport Ittehad (KTI) and I was elected its first president, a post that I hold to this date.
Q: How does the association function?
A: It has 25 members on its board, 17 are office-bearers and eight are general members. Powers are equally divided between all members, and elections are held every three years. The association has been looking after the interest of transport owners on a self-help basis. This is the only way we have, to an extent, been able to deal with the losses suffered by the transporters in Karachi.
Q: How many buses do you own and is that in partnership with your family. Do you consider the transport business to be a profitable one?
A: My association owns about 3,300 buses; I have been running it on my own, but now I own few buses, as I have sold most of them. Unlike in the past, there are no fleet owners anymore, and by that I mean people who personally own 30 to 40 buses. Most have sold their buses.
It is not a profitable business anymore, and I have encouraged my children to take up other professions. On a daily basis, we make about Rs 5,000-6,000 on all the major routes in Karachi. We pay Rs 500 as daily wages to the drivers and the conductors — the cost of diesel and wear-and-tear is separate. Seven to eight hundred rupees is our daily profit. I have just heard that the government has increased the motor vehicle tax by Rs 100 in the recent budget. It was Rs 78 as per seat capacity (psc) earlier, which now means it is Rs 178 psc.
Q: Where are the buses and minicoaches manufactured? What is the cost of a new bus?
A: They are imported from Japan and assembled here. Gandhara and Hino are making locally assembled buses with imported spare parts. Other local companies have started manufacturing some parts over here. A new bus costs between Rs 30-40 lakhs. We can only recondition buses, as nobody is in a position to import a new bus. Those with small ownership get loans on 100% mark-up. For instance, if somebody has paid one lakh for a minibus, then he would end up paying back two lakhs.
Q: Why have buses become easy targets for angry mobs, and who is to be blamed for all the bus-burning?
A: The main reason is that it is done as a policy. We know who is behind this deliberate attempt to alienate the people from the North. We have no professional conflicts with anyone, we are almost singular in this field, as I feel no one is capable of running this business except us. Since the Bushra Zaidi case, although it was an accident rather than being politically motivated, the MQM has been making it difficult for our business to continue. I would say even religious parties like the Sunni Tehrik, the JUI — not Jamaat-e-Islami proper, but one of their smaller groups, Pasban — have been behind bus attacks, and it has, to a certain extent, become a free-for-all. But I would say that there is some policy behind this strategy.
Q: What about the accidents caused by rash driving?
A: I admit, there have been cases of negligence; we have illiterate drivers, and at the same time, there is total lawlessness. The same drivers would follow traffic rules in the Middle East, but not in Pakistan. The goal to make maximum profit is another reason that drivers are used way beyond their capacity
.Q: How do you deal with cases of accidents? Are the bus drivers held accountable? Are the families compensated in any way?
A: We do not take direct action against the drivers. There is usually an FIR and the case is presented in the courts. We hire lawyers for the defence of the driver, as he is our employee. Sometimes there is on-the-spot compensation, without any FIR between the two parties. Since 1990, ever since the Qisas and Diyat laws were introduced by General Zia-ul-Haq, it has been easier through the courts and otherwise to arrange compensation for the victim’s family. In case of compensation, the association contributes up to Rs 50,000 to the bus owner to be paid to the aggrieved party. The bus owner has the choice to pay more from his pocket, if he thinks it is appropriate.
Q: Where have most incidents of bus-burning taken place, and which do you consider the worst day in transport history?
A: I would say Gulshan, Society and Defence are peaceful areas. Troublesome areas include Garden, Liaqatabad, New Karachi, Landhi, Nazimabad; generally the more congested areas. If you consider monetary damage, then December 27 was one of the worst. It was across the board: buses, minivans, trucks, trailers. But, for other reasons, I also consider April 29 a tragic day. There was deliberate targeting, without taking human life into consideration. For the first time, drivers were deliberately shot at and killed; one was even burnt down with his bus. We lost 11 drivers. This was not a case of angry mob hysteria, it was killing in cold blood.
Q: Why is May 12 considered a black day or black Saturday?
A: That day, there was no such thing as a government in this city. In fact, I would say the same was repeated on April 29. The Karsaz area was without lights and our buses were taken to block routes and then burnt down; these were no supernatural beings coming down from the skies, this was pre-planned and deliberate. Pakhtuns were the target through a covert policy.
Q: What is the overall percentage of Pakhtuns and others in transport business? Are there any buses owned by the police?
A: Over all, I would say 80% of the owners are Pakhtuns. The rest are dominated by the people from Hazara, Punjabis and perhaps 2-3% by Mohajirs. Bus owners pay the police about Rs 200-300 daily per bus, so why would the police need to own buses and sustain losses?
Q: Why did the other transport ventures, like UTS and the Green Bus service, fail? The transport mafia is accused of jeopardising these services.
A: The city government failed to run these services successfully. The buses were hired through bank leasing. Twice, they were taken off the road, then rescheduled and restarted, but they could not make enough profit to meet the lease requirements. Each time the city government tried to run them, they failed. They were supposed to make profits through certain facilities and subsidies that the city government simply could not provide. We made the painful decision to keep fares between Rs 20-40; they were running at Rs 10-15. There has always been a conflict between the city government and the provincial government. It’s that tug of war for control which is also partly responsible for these failures.
Q: What is the solution? What do you see ahead for the transport business in Karachi?
A: If we want to survive, all communities have to think and find a solution. I feel that we cannot talk to those who are responsible for disasters. On the surface, they may seem open to finding a solution, but this is just on the surface. Even the provincial and the federal governments do not take us into confidence. Policies are made and taxes are imposed without any consultation. They have to acknowledge us as an important part of policy-making. About two years ago, an effort was made to involve us by the city nazim. We held discussions with the planning commission. A proposal was agreed upon by the three parties to arrange loans without a mark-up. It was suggested that bank loans be given for the purchase of buses: the investor would pay regular installments and the federal government would take responsibility for the mark-up on this issue. We have not heard from them since. Without subsidies on mark-ups and custom duties, there is no hope.