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DAWN - Editorial; February 21, 2003

February 21, 2003


Mass transit conundrum

PROBLEMS and snags throttling the Karachi Mass Transit Project are massive. To start with, the city has no mass transit system and a programme to build one lies folded in the files and cupboards of the city managers’ record rooms for over 15 years now. It seems that international transport experts and financiers from Malaysia, China, Germany, Japan and the World Bank have been more intent on giving Karachi a mass transit system than this city’s managers. The nazim of Karachi has recently joined the chorus of lip service that the Sindh government has routinely paid to reviving the all but dead Karachi Mass Transit Project and the Karachi Circular Railway. So far the on-again, and off-again game that has been played out in the name of a mass transit system for the city has meant nothing more than any number of expensive foreign trips for provincial government high-ups over the years. There has been the usual flurry of committee meetings poring over small prints of drafting, re-drafting, revisions and alterations of plans and proposals; lining of finances; award and cancellation of contracts; disputes over the control and management of the so-called mass transit system — all amounting to nothing tangible in the end, nothing materially beneficial for the hapless Karachi commuters. There have been several feasibility reports, some of them prepared by foreign experts, over the past decade or so. Yet no workable solution has been found to address the city’s staggering transport problems.

Last year an international consortium proposed to build light rail-based mass transit systems for Karachi and Lahore. The Lahore city district government finalized the deal with the said consortium on a ‘build, operate and transfer’ basis, as a result of which Lahore is likely to have a 34km electromagnetic rail system benefiting some 300,000 commuters on a daily basis by the end of 2004. The Karachi district city government, however, slept over the proposal presented to it by the same consortium, which had proposed six electromagnetic rail corridors for Karachi. The foot dragging on the part of the city authorities is all the more incomprehensible because the consortium was willing to provide 85 per cent of the funds needed to start the project. Under a similar deal with the Punjab government, the consortium is going to recover its cost and expenses on the Lahore project over a period of ten years after which the system will be transferred to the local authorities. One fails to understand why the Karachi nazim and the Sindh government did not agree to such an agreement.

Reports now suggest that the Karachi city district government is pursuing the Karachi Circular Railway project, aiming to revive it with the help of Chinese assistance. The project, if it ever takes off at all, is expected to be completed in four years. This is all very well in the absence of anything better, but by the time the KCR is revived and operational, the city’s pressing transport problems will have become many times more complicated. Karachi’s urban growth patterns are unique, in that the metropolis attracts nearly a hundred thousand new migrants from the rest of the country on an annual basis, thus registering an overall high population growth. This enormously strains the existing resources and facilities in the city, including public transport, which do not expand at a matching pace. The revival of the KCR, even if it is integrated with the road transport system through feeder services as planned, will fall hugely short of the city’s growing needs for a dependable, swift and efficient urban transport system. What Karachi needs is a well thought-out mass transit system that takes care of the existing as well as the projected future needs of the city. The question, however, remains: do the city managers and the Sindh government have the will to adopt and implement such a programme?

Tragedy in the air

THE death of Air Chief Marshal Mushaf Ali Mir in a plane crash on Thursday is a tragic incident that will be widely mourned. The head of the country’s air force was killed when a PAF Fokker F-27 carrying him, his wife, and 15 others came down some 70 kilometres from Kohat. There are reports that at least two other air marshals, as well as a number of senior officers, were also on board the plane when it crashed on its way to the PAF base in Kohat from Chaklala. According to a military spokesman, there were no survivors aboard the ill-fated flight. The aircraft came down because of ‘technical reasons’ according to a military spokesman, while bad weather is also cited as a factor. However, a high-level board of inquiry has been constituted to determine the actual cause of the crash.

Although sabotage was initially ruled out, given the sensitive area in which the crash occurred, it is essential to investigate this angle too. There is also the question of why the country’s most senior air force officer was flying aboard an antiquated Fokker aircraft, which has been all but put out of service across the world. This is perhaps the most significant air crash since 1988, when a C-130 carrying General Ziaul Haq and a number of senior officials, including the US ambassador to Pakistan and ISI chief, were killed. Even 15 years later, the cause of that incident remains shrouded in mystery. It is important to make absolutely certain that the current crash was indeed an accident and nothing more sinister, so that all kinds of damaging and unnecessary speculation are prevented from adding to the prevailing atmosphere of confusion and anxiety.

Irrigation water shortage

ALTHOUGH Monday’s countrywide rains have come as a relief to anxious farmers, the threat of a water shortage hitting the wheat and sugarcane crops is still looming. The wheat crop at this crucial stage needs irrigation till mid-March. The Punjab irrigation secretary recently stated that the reservoirs still had enough water for irrigation. He denied that they had touched their dead level and said that there was sufficient water for at least a week for irrigation, and the rains would help increase water in reservoirs. The secretary also said that in case the dams reach their dead level, Punjab would get its share directly from the rivers, which would be sufficient for irrigation of the wheat and sugarcane crops till mid-March. Now the Indus River System Authority (Irsa) chief engineer has weighed in with the warning that only five to six feet of water was available in Tarbela that would last for only two days and that Mangla has already touched the dead level.

Although the ongoing rains would have a positive impact on crops, especially wheat in the barani areas, these were not enough for crops in irrigated areas. According to Irsa estimates, there would be around 38 per cent shortage of water during the rabi season, whereas total shortage by the end of the season would be around 38 per cent from the present 34 per cent. This confirms fears of the emerging scarcity and the limited options before the country’s water planners. Similar shortages have occurred in the past, but the situation this year is even worse than the previous year when the provinces kept getting their share, although reduced, till March 15. This time, both the dams are touching the dead level even before the last week of February, almost 28 days ahead of schedule.

The sharp decrease in water level has caught Irsa on the wrong foot again and left the wheat crop at the mercy of inadequate river supplies. Naturally, when the water distribution body cannot follow its own projections and allocations for the rabi season, the provinces are bound to ask tough questions about the management and sharing of water.