May issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 11 years ago

On April 18, 2009, an NED student, Faiza Nadeem Zaidi, was crushed to death after falling off a University of Karachi (KU) point bus. While eyewitnesses said she fell off the bus, Dr Shadab Zulqarnain, head of the KU transport committee said that Zaidi, who was reportedly standing on the footboard, jumped off the bus. Zaidi’s death sparked protests and demonstrations by various student groups. An FIR was registered against the driver — who was later absolved — and student bodies announced the launch of a campaign to buy new point buses for the university calling on help from prominent social and political personalities, members of parliament and ministers.

This isn’t the first incident of death. In January 2009,  a KU student was killed in a road accident in front of the university gate, drawing much attention, with university authorities demanding that a pedestrian bridge be built in front of the Silver Jubilee gate to provide students with a safe crossing on a road that draws heavy and speedy traffic. While the construction of this bridge is now underway, the authorities choose to ignore the fact that thousands of students risk their lives daily travelling to the campus in the overloaded university buses. As conductors try to squeeze in more and more students into already overloaded buses, many students stand on the footboard with their bodies dangling precariously out of the bus.

Popularly known as “points,” these green and white coach-sized buses are the student buses of one of Pakistan’s largest and most prestigious institutions of learning. While other universities have similar buses, few face the kind of shortages and subsequent overloading as those at KU.

In the past, KU reportedly had 100 buses provided to it by the Karachi Transport Corportation (KTC) and 40 of its own buses. This situation existed till 1990. The Sindh government used to provide funds to the KTC for the provision of these services. After KTC was closed down, the Sindh government signed an agreement with the Baloch Supra Group for providing buses to KU. The service, however, was discontinued after student groups set fire to many buses while protesting against the death of a student. Since then, KU as been running its own bus service which is severely inadequate in meeting the needs of its student body.

Currently, the university has 33 buses. According to Dr Zulqarnain, out of the 33 buses, 31 are in working condition but only 27 of them are operational. With a staff of only 28 to 29 drivers, the university can only run 27 buses at the most. As the situation stands, 27 buses provide for approximately 25,000 students — which boils down to roughly 900 students per bus.

For it to be a safe journey, 285 more buses are needed. With an average number of 62 seats per bus, 70 to 80 students can be comfortably accommodated on a bus, if some are made to stand. However, according to students, these buses easily carry an average of over 100 students, leaving scarcely any room to even move.

But reports in newspapers, records maintained by student wings of political parties at the university and general information obtained from students reveal that there have been a few cases of death and injuries to students. Last year, a girl was reportedly crushed to death after falling off from a point bus. Minor mishaps in the form of students falling off the buses and getting injured, as well as fainting due to suffocation, have also been reported by drivers and students. According to a report in the daily Jang, the number of students who have been killed after falling off point buses in the last 15 years exceeds 10, while the figure for those injured is in dozens.

A driver attributes the cause of overloading to the subsidised student fare of Rs 3 that the points charge (from KU to anywhere in the city), far less than local transport rates (anywhere between Rs 10-20, depending on the distance), due to which students eagerly board buses regardless of their safety. But as to why the drivers themselves don’t intervene and prevent students from doing so, he says: “In instances where the drivers have tried to stop students from voluntarily squeezing into the bus, male students have misbehaved with the conductors, cursing them and physically manhandling them.”

In February 2009, university bus services remained suspended for three days as bus drivers protested against the manhandling of one of their fellow drivers, who was beaten by a mob of angry students after he refused to stop the bus because it was already packed to capacity.

Despite that being a valid reason for not stopping the bus, it has often led to students being left stranded at their stops when buses do not arrive as scheduled. Each bus takes a long route through the city, covering many areas. By the time it reaches the destination furthest on the route map, there is scarcely any place left to accommodate more students. As a result, many a time, buses skip their appointed stops and drive on directly to the university. “It is very risky to wait for the point on Tariq Road, for instance,” says one female student. “The bus usually skips this stop and heads directly to the university from Khalid-bin-Waleed Road because it is too full by then.”

Drivers of point buses have regularly encountered students registering complaints against them with the transport department for not having stopped the bus at some designated stop where students were waiting. “We are expected to stop the bus even when it is overloaded, take on more students and then not let them fall,” says one conductor, complaining that they usually find themselves in a sticky situation. Dismissing the idea that limiting the number of students allowed on a bus can improve the situation, another driver says, “You can’t control the students. Nothing can be remedied until the number of buses is increased.”

The city government, under City Nazim Syed Mustafa Kamal has, in the past, donated buses to KU. Speaking to Newsline, Mustafa Kamal stated that the donation was just to lend support. The CDGK is not responsible for providing the university with buses. However, he says, the CDGK has been working on a plan to provide buses to different towns of Karachi for KU students. According to this plan, the buses will be run under the supervision of the respective town administrations so that the burden of running and maintenance does not fall upon the university. “We will be providing two buses to the Landhi and Korangi areas within a month,” he added.

The administration continues to decry the unavailability of funds to upgrade the system, with the prevailing market conditions and the university grants decreasing. To meet the gap, Dr Zulqarnain says funding of about Rs 250 million is needed. “Right now, the provision of 80 buses will provide minimum relief to the students,” he says. But, buying buses would involve added expenses such as running costs and maintenance, adequate space to house the vehicles, and additional drivers and conductors. “The transport department is providing services to its maximum capacity and we can only expect the administration to work within the funds it has,” he says.

The allocation of university funds for the transport department is made by the director finance, KU, but the university does not have a separate bank account for the transport department, adds Dr Zulqarnain. Transport department recoveries (revenues) are credited to, and costs debited to a general university account. Most purchases and other expenditure of the transport department are made on credit, thus incurring the university higher costs eventually.

According to S.M. Khalid, currently director finance of KU, the monthly expenditure on the buses alone is approximately seven to eight lakhs. Recoveries from bus fares are low and hence there remains a huge funding gap, especially with university grants decreasing in present times. “Students should be realistic when opposing a rise in the fares, keeping in mind that they are at least provided with transport services at such low rates,” says a student at KU. If the buses were to run at more frequent intervals, she says, it could help to spread out the number of students coming and leaving at the same time. Since this would mean increased running and maintenance costs, students should be ready for an increase in the fare.

According to published reports, the HEC was expected to allocate Rs 1,086 million to the university for the financial year 2008-2009. But due to the severe financial crisis, the federal government cut down its envisaged allocations to the HEC by Rs 6.5 billion in the last two quarters of the ongoing financial year 2008-2009.

Sadly, progress on this front looks limited.