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The end of the road?

Updated November 03, 2013

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An affordable mode of travel.
An affordable mode of travel.
Waiting for the ban to be lifted.
Waiting for the ban to be lifted.

It has been three years since Qingqi-driver Ghulam Sarwar arrived in Karachi from Jacobabad. Sarwar wasn’t always a Qingqi-driver: he had cattle at home, “just enough” to make ends meet for his wife and nine children. He lost everything once in the great floods of 2010. He stands to lose everything again in 2013.

“I came to Karachi with Rs500 in my pocket, and that too was borrowed money. We had lost all our cattle in the floods. When we fled from Jacobabad, we got onto a coach that was leaving for Karachi. The owner of the coach felt sorry for the state that we were in — 11 people, nine children and two adults. He gave us seats without tickets, and when we got to Karachi, handed me a Rs500 note as we stepped out of the bus. That is how I started my life here,” said Sarwar.

Sarwar eventually settled with his family in a quarter in Mehran Town, working odd jobs in addition to a permanent one as a labourer. With no help forthcoming for him or flood victims from his village, he decided to collect enough money to pay a deposit on a Qingqi — a path many were adopting, and seemingly successfully enough, to rebuild their lives. In April this year, Sarwar managed to pay Rs50,000 to a shop in Gulistan-i-Jauhar as deposit on a Qingqi.

But even as he waited for his turn to make the journey from Kalla Pul to Baloch Colony — via the narrow, winding lanes of Mehmoodabad, all Sarwar could think about was the exchange he had had with the owner of the Qingqi shop two days ago. “I am supposed to pay Rs7,000 every month to the shop, I’ve already paid Rs35,000 and now owe him Rs42,000 more. Because I couldn’t make my installment this month because of the two days we lost when we were banned. The shop is asking me to return the Qingqi. How can I do that? I can’t lose the Rs85,000 I have already paid, I don’t have anything else,” he said.

This is a plight shared by at least 40,000 other men: losing everything they’ve put on the line to build respectable lives for themselves and their families. Sarwar, for instance, remains the sole bread-winner for a family of 11. Parked next to Sarwar at the Qingqi adda was 17-year-old Shoaib Baloch, a resident of Baloch colony, who was forced to leave school and start earning so that his five younger siblings could study. He too was paying monthly instalments to a shop for his Qingqi. Parked next to Baloch was Mohammed Rasheed, who’d made the journey from Sadiqabad in Punjab to Karachi in search of employment. Three men from different parts of Pakistan, united in a common crisis.

The same was the situation in Gulshan-i-Iqbal. Sadiq Hussain, a Seraiki-speaking man who had been displaced from his village when the Lyari Expressway was being constructed, had rebuilt his life through a Qingqi. And while he had already paid off the cost of the Qingqi, he still had other “overheads” to take care of, before taking home whatever is left. “Police, extortionists and local influentials,” Hussain said, in reply to what the overheads actually were.

Their anxiety is well-founded. It’s not as if Qingqis have just taken Karachi by surprise. Nor is it — as most Qingqi owners point out — that the government is providing alternative employment. There is a history and process that these men are proud to tell — partly because it mirrors how they have struggled, and how this rickshaw has come to help their upward social mobility, slow as it may be. The beginning of the Qingqi enterprise in Karachi can be traced to 2001/2002 — a time when Qingqis were slowly being introduced as a concept and a product to the metropolis of dreams. They were already in vogue in Punjab back then, with the motorcycle-rickshaw proving to be the transport of choice for the rural middle-class and urban working class in cities and towns that lie along Multan Road (the highway between Lahore and Multan).

No more than 200 Qingqis were plying the streets of Karachi back then, as Qingqi owners soon discovered the multiple barriers to entry in the city. At the top of the list was their competition — owners of rickshaws, wagons and minibuses, all posing a stern challenge to their entry into the market due to entrenched political interests tied with them. In effect, Qingqis had little political patronage in Karachi.

And yet, Qingqis became popular elsewhere in Sindh — also as the choice for the rural middle-class and urban working class in cities and towns along the Super Highway. Slowly but surely, greater number of Qingqi owners managed to drive their motorcycle-rickshaws to Karachi, to operate in areas that were deemed safe for them.

The route between Kaala Pul to Baloch Colony — via the narrow, winding lanes of Mehmoodabad — is one such route. Among the first ones to be established, around 2008, Qingqis became a fixture on this route once local political influentials assumed the mantle of their patrons. A number of Punjabi and Seraiki-speaking operators began providing the service on the route, and soon found young Baloch men joining them.

Other routes gradually opened up for business in other parts of the city — under the same rules, but with different political patrons. Slowly but surely, the list of localities where Qingqis began plying included Gulshan-i-Iqbal, Gulistan-i-Jauhar, Nazimabad, Sohrab Goth, Landhi, Liaquatabad and New Town (Jamshed Town). On most routes, Qingqis were providing affordable transportation to labourers, women and children. With fares practically frozen at Rs5 for children and Rs10 for adults, Qingqis began increasing in popularity.

The floods of 2010 proved to be a defining moment for the Qingqi enterprise in Karachi. As millions from other parts of Sindh travelled to the provincial capital to rebuild their lives, many Qingqi owners who had travelled on their motorcycle-rickshaws to Karachi decided to stay back. This caused a 300 per cent spike in the number of Qingqis operating in Karachi. By 2011, the number of Qingqis in Karachi had risen to 20,000 — prompting the provincial transport department to restrict Qingqis plying in 2012 to link routes only. Despite the restrictions, the number of Qingqis operating in Karachi doubled in the next two years; today, an estimated 40,000 Qingqis are now plying the streets of Karachi.

For men like Ghulam Sarwar, Sadiq Hussain and Shoaib Baloch, Qingqis have been a godsend because of the pace at which they have been able to rebuild their lives. “When I got a Qingqi rickshaw, in 2008, I had four sisters who weren’t married. I won’t say things are easy, but by the grace of God, three are now happily married. What else can I say?” explained Hussain.

For Shoaib Baloch, who was forced to pick up the responsibility of driving a Qingqi as the eldest son after some domestic issues, the story of how Qingqis benefitted his family starts from his neighbourhood. “There were two families in our neighbourhood who had leased a Qingqi — us and someone else,” narrated Baloch.

“Our neighbours were our first clients: we’d drive children to school in Mehmoodabad, early morning and drop them home after school, we’d drive young women to work — also in Mehmoodabad. The encouragement from neighbours always means a lot. We got our first clients so easily, they were permanent clients, and would at least pay for the daily fee charged at the Qingqi adda,” he said.

On October 9, the Karachi traffic police banned plying Qingqi anywhere in the city, on the pretext that the motorcycle-rickshaws had no legal status, were not registered with the Motor Vehicle Registration Office; were mostly made from stolen motorcycles, and were causing traffic gridlocks.

The ban was subsequently challenged by the Qingqi Rickshaws Association, and a stay was also issued by the Sindh High Court (SHC). This wasn’t the first time the SHC was ruling on a case pertaining to Qingqis: it had been called into action in 2010, when the Karachi Transport Ittehad had moved the court to ban Qingqis, citing that they cause environmental degradation. Qingqi owners responded with the plea that the Sindh government had allowed the operations of four-stroke rickshaws in the province, through an official notification issued in April 2007.

The resolution of this case resulted in an amendment to the Sindh Motor Vehicles Ordinance 1965 in February 21, 2011 permitting Qingqis as a legal entity but restricting the number of passengers (excluding the driver) to four. Qingqis were also restricted to ply certain routes, most of them link roads. Then followed a period of institutional wrangling, as the Sindh government began registering Qingqis and issuing route permits. In Februrary 2012, the city witnessed the first rally of Qingqi owners demanding route permits from the provincial transport department. In March, the provincial transport minister told the Sindh Assembly that 100,000 Qingqis were still operating without permits.

Issues of registration still persist, but Qingqi owners believe the current crackdown is because of the vans and wagons mafia who feel their business has been affected, and who have the support of the traffic police. “On an everyday level, Qingqi rates are cheaper, you always have a seat, and we’re more likely to stop at the exact location that you want rather than a few metres away from where you wanted to step off. People like that, it makes the poor people feel privileged,” said Rasheed.

“Our most direct competitors are the Mazdas (vans) that ply the same routes as us. People are charged Rs14, but often have to stand, or even get robbed in these vans. Then there are the CNG rickshaws, but of late, they have adopted new routes. The vans and wagons are the problem,” he said.

Mohammad Sohail, another young man and a resident of Mehran Town, chimed in by claiming that the traffic police’s claim of Qingqis being responsible for gridlocks was not true. “We don’t ply main roads, we ply local routes in particular areas, and often on kuccha streets.”

While those plying the Kaala Pul to Baloch Colony route said they are able to earn about Rs1,200 a day — working from 6am to past midnight, a large proportion of their earnings seem to get looted in Mehmoodabad, specially near Chanesar Goth. “Imagine the number of rounds we have to make to earn this money, often in sweltering heat. But sometimes at night, either those ‘boys’ hitch a ride with us from Kaala Pul and rob us near their homes, or we are ambushed by armed robbers near Chanesar Goth. This happens despite there being a police check-post in the area, and us paying political people for protection. Where’s the police when it comes to our security?”

When asked about the theory that stolen motorcycles are being used to manufacture Qingqis, many of them angrily retorted that it was the job of the government to check and curb the practice, not force them all to shut down. “There are many different brands of Qingqi motorcycle-rickshaws, and it is very obvious to see. We all have our ownership documents issued by licensed dealers which the police can check. We aren’t doing anything wrong,” Sarwar insisted.

Everyone stands to lose much if the Sindh government acquiesces to the traffic police’s recommendations to ban Qingqis. The financial insecurity is palpably reflected in all Qingqi owners’ facial expressions and irate tones. Such is the desperation that Rasheed and a few others decided to ply their Qingqis despite the ban, and were arrested for it.

“Three of us were locked up and fined Rs1,000 each. Why? What did we do? Tried to earn a living?” Rasheed boomed. “The government is pushing us out of our jobs. It doesn’t understand that poor people in these situations only have two choices: to sleep hungry, or to adopt crime as a means of living. Is the government intent on creating more criminals?”