August Issue 2014

By | Society | Published 5 years ago

According to the Asian Development Bank (ADP), the sheer dearth of a developed transport framework, coupled with an ever-persistent law and order problem has rendered Karachi one of the world’s most ‘unlivable’ cities. The reality is that apart from the dearth of a healthy transport system and an abysmal law and order situation, Karachiites have to deal with the criminal rules of the existing transport game controlled by the city’s transport mafia.

The term, ‘transport mafia’ originated in the early ’70s when the newly elected PPP government introduced the now ubiquitous minibuses that ply Karachi streets. These buses were owned by individuals from the country’s northern areas and were mostly purchased through loans from money-lenders. According to this system, still thriving today, a bus continues to belong to the money-lender until the operator pays off his loan along with the interest. There is no contractual agreement, so a bus can be confiscated by the owner at any time if the operator is unable to pay his debt.  And while he doesn’t own the minibus till he’s paid his dues, it is the operator’s responsibility to see to the repairs and maintenance, and to obtain a driver’s license once a bus is issued to him. Though many may regard this situation as an extended form of bonded labour — in most cases, operators strive to free themselves from their debts throughout their lives — the status quo has remained.  The bus mafia continues to be a force to reckon with, stymying all transport development plans and attempted remedial measures.

Formerly, the Karachi Transport Corporation (KTC) ran a full-fledged, independent system of transportation.  However, over the years, it suffered major financial losses and went into bankruptcy. In 1996, it was finally shut down and 100 or more buses were dumped in KTC’s seven depots. Thus began the rise of the transporters mafia — a term the transporters have an anathema to. Syed Irshad Hussain Shah Bukhari, President Karachi Transport Ittehad, told Newsline: “For us the trouble started with the MQM, especially after the Bushra Zaidi incident. We are wrongly cast as a mafia. The actual problems in the transport sector owe to the inefficiency of the government, some non-government entities and political forces, which I cannot name. They lay their incompetence on our shoulders.”

According to the figures shared by the Karachi Transport Ittehad, there are a total of 12,000 buses (including big buses, minibuses and coaches) operational at present. A single minibus has 28 seats in total.  Given these statistics, around 1,700 people compete for a ride in a single bus.

To compound matters, the number of these buses plying specific routes to cater to public demand have been drastically reduced over the years due to the frequent incidences of torching and the insurgent policy of the transporters to maintain a stranglehold over the transport system in Karachi. Says Bukhari, “No, we are not going to bring any more buses to Karachi. It is the job of the federal and provincial governments to improve the infrastructure. We have had enough!”

But all is not lost. In the last couple of years, Karachiites have witnessed a massive surge in the arrival of qingqis. These motorcycle-cum-rickshaws have so far been able to fill the vacuum left by the disappearance of the traditional Mazda, Bradford buses. Qingqi rickshaws, with their number having crossed 40,000, are thronging the Karachi streets in a way that buses have never done. Apart from the posh, busy highways of Clifton and Shahra-e-Faisal, these three-wheelers have greatly uplifted the downward spiral of the Karachi transport system with their fares ranging from Rs 10 to Rs 50, depending on the distance.

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The comfort offered by the qingqi is appreciated by all those who have no better option but to use public transport. For women in particular, it is a boon as it is accessible, safe and guarantees female passengers a seat every time, as opposed to minibuses, that are able to seat no more than 11 women at one time.

So far, the protest raised by the Karachi Bus Owners Association and the Karachi Rickshaw, Taxi and Yellow Cab Owners Association against qingqis, with claims of them being illegal and posing a danger to the public’s safety, has fallen on dead ears.  But the fact is that qingqis are not a new phenomenon in Karachi. Initiated in Lahore under the banner of “President Rozgar Scheme” in 2001, these three-wheelers soon made their way to Karachi and Peshawar, albeit not in very large numbers. And despite their unarguable contribution to the public transport-starved city’s residents, the qingqis have yet not been contracted route permits, registration and fitness certificates. Syed Safdar Shah, President of the All Karachi Qingqi Rickshaw Welfare Association, says, “We are hopeful that if not the 9-seater design, the 6-seater qingqis will attain legal status along with fitness certificates in a month’s time. We have been trying to get registration ever since our vehicles hit the road.”

According to urban planner and Chairman Urban Resource Centre, Arif Hasan, “Despite the matter of their legalisation currently pending in court and the bus owners and traffic police vehemently opposed to their presence on city roads, the fact is, the public wants them. And that’s what will make them stay. Also, Karachi transport can benefit immensely from these if proper parking space is allotted to them in the Karachi Circular Railway design to bring passengers to and from railway stations.”

The Karachi Circular Railway (KCR) is another potentially viable plan, which, if implemented, could cover up to 15-20 percent of Karachi’s transportation needs.  Coming to a grinding halt in 1999 due to a lack of finances and endemic corruption, the KCR project was reinitiated in 2005. If this project is complemented with corridors and proper linkages are assured throughout three full stages, the KCR could engender a huge revolution in Karachi’s transport sector.  The KCR would connect work areas such as SITE, the Central Business District, the Landhi Industrial Area, Lyari and the port to low income residential areas of Karachi such as Landhi, Korangi, Baldia and New Karachi, which accommodate around 45 per cent of Karachi’s work force. At present, the KCR project remains at a standstill (said to be due to the issue of encroachments), despite this year’s budget allocation of 1 billion and last year’s agreement between JICA and the Karachi Urban Transport Corporation (KUTC), according to which JICA is set to loan USD 2.4 billion for this project. “We are in dire need of a smart transportation system,” says Farhan Anwar, urban planner and Executive Director, Sustainable Initiatives. “A project like the KCR will help reduce traffic congestion and will promote the easy mobility of people.”

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Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif recently announced Rs 15 billion for the development of the Green Line bus service. The Green Line will span 25.5 km, while its capacity for daily conveyance will be about 400,000. While this sounds good, whether it is a viable option in Karachi, is debatable. In Lahore the current cost of a simple ticket on these buses is Rs 20 — and that too for a one-way journey.  Expensive, and yet the government has to chip in with a 50 percent subsidy to keep the service going. In Karachi, too, no new technologically sophisticated system can prove successful unless it is substantially supported by the government in the form of subsidies, especially if the aim is to facilitate the working middle and lower class. In this, context Anwar maintains, “This is better than having nothing. But a lot of planning will have to go into the project even before the groundwork is laid for it, because for now we have no defined route maps of underlying drainage. Also, it can only work if dedicated lanes are assigned to the buses — or else they will see the same fate as we saw with CNG buses that were introduced a few years ago.”

A lack of exclusive lanes, routes and integration of these mediums—along with the ever-persistent shenanigans of the transport mafia— are some of the reasons for the failure of any new system in Karachi.  Public transport users in Karachi have always resorted to the old ways, of which the finest example are the auto rickshaws that still swarm the city in figures close to one hundred thousand. This, despite the fact that auto rickshaws gave up their meter systems and adopted the simple charge-as-we-please policy, thereby looting commuters on a daily basis.

The bottom line is that unless some drastic action is taken, nothing is likely to change. According to Hasan, “We all talk about the transport mafia, but iss mafia main dum kia hai (where does it get its life breath from?”) We tend to underestimate the power of the state. If the government prioritises it, there is no way we cannot have an improved transport system. It’s just a lack of political will and nothing else.”

Certainly, as witnessed during the tenure of former Karachi mayor, Syed Mustafa Kamal, political will caused effective change. Karachiites witnessed a rapid construction of flyovers, underpasses and parks. For this, both financial and technological resources were pooled and the task was taken to completion. Transport, unfortunately, has never been on the list of priorities of the Sindh government, irrespective of which political party has been in the majority at the centre.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s August 2014 issue.