KTC: one for the road

Here is the cautionary tale of the rise and fall of once-great Karachi Transport Corporation.
Published February 15, 2015

For those looking to the future of public transport in Karachi, it is first necessary to take a look back...Here is the cautionary tale of the rise and fall of once-great Karachi Transport Corporation

By Fawad Hasan

Its wheels literally drove the country’s economy: the Karachi Transport Corporation (KTC), established on February 1, 1977, was the behemoth of Karachi’s public transport, with 200 of its buses plying the city’s main arteries at the time of the corporation’s inception.

In its establishment, the KTC was not unique; the Punjab Urban Transport Corporation (PUTC) was also set up at the same time, with operations launched in Lahore and Rawalpindi-Islamabad. Both decisions were in pursuance of the Provincial Coordination Committee (PCC), which had resolved in October 1976 that transport would no longer be a provincial subject.

Put another way, this was the first time that the federal government had assumed responsibility of providing a permanent and sustainable fix for the transportation issues of Pakistan’s urban centres. In its editorial ‘Karachi transport’ dated February 13, 1977, English daily Business Recorder claimed that “based on conservative estimates, the commuters in Karachi exceed two million, for which the total number of public vehicles is far from adequate.”

This was a gargantuan problem, and it needed an equally mammoth and complex solution.

Newspaper archives: Dawn library
Newspaper archives: Dawn library

Driven by Mumtaz Bhutto’s Communications Ministry, the federal government did away with the Sindh Road Transport Corporation (SRTC) in Karachi, and instituted the KTC instead. General Headquarters (GHQ) Deputy Chief of General Staff Brigadier Syed Abdul Qasim was installed as the KTC’s first managing director.

The KTC was a government-run corporation but one that worked like a private entity; newspaper reportage at the time describes it as a “joint stock company”. After the fall of the Bhutto government, operations were handed to the Ministry of Transport and Labour and its minister, Mir Nawaz Khan Marwat, but thousands of people were also employed by the corporation.

The KTC had to begin operations by taking over the SRTC’s “fleet of rickety buses.”According to a Dawn editorial dated February 7, 1977, the KTC was to “immediately ‘put into service all usable available buses... and will simultaneously take steps to gradually augment the fleet through induction of new buses’.”

“In all, the KTC received 344 buses. Of these, 200 were in running condition, 44 needed minor and 100 major repairs. It means that another 44 buses can be pressed into services without delay but the 100 buses not in good shape will take a long time to be road-worthy,” reads the Business Recorder editorial dated February 13, 1977, Communications minister Mumtaz Bhutto, in a news item printed on February 15, claimed that 300 new buses were being added to the Karachi, Islamabad, and Lahore transport corporations — thereby further augmenting the fleet that the KTC had its disposal.

In total, eight depots functioned as bus stands and repair workshops, where mechanics of the KTC would be responsible for maintaining the fleet of buses. These depots still remain today, largely unoccupied.

Bus passengers were always notified through proper paperwork about the frequency with which a KTC vehicle would run. Between buses, intervals varied between five minutes and 30 minutes — higher for the less-commuted routes and lesser for the more popular ones. Employees of the KTC came under strict accountability too: any passenger could lodge a complaint against any untoward incident or misbehaviour by the staffers of the corporation.

The routes on which KTC buses plied were approved by the government after going through many aspects and were subject to changes if need be. Fares were subsidised, so as to make the service affordable and to encourage citizens to become repeat users.

Karachi’s bus system sprawled much like the city: very quickly, KTC buses became the transport of choice for many working class and salaried families. Not only did the service’s utility extend to office goers, but it also became the lifeline of college and university students.

Except that the KTC’s operations quickly came to be recognised as a loss-making enterprise.

In a news report published in Morning News and dated October 6, 1985, reporter Azizullah Sharif quoted Aslam Mujahid, a member of the Sindh Assembly, as claiming that the KTC was incurring a loss of Rs6.5 million per month. “Each bus of KTC gave its management about Rs600 daily, while each private bus earned about Rs2000 per day. This wide gap of daily income between the private buses and the KTC showed that there was a pilferage of funds in the KTC,” alleged Sharif at the time.

Another news item published in January 1987 broke the news that the KTC suffered losses to the tune of Rs2.77million in November 1986, and Rs2.72million in December 1986.

In sum, the operational realities were that total outlay, expenditure and salaries of the KTC far outweighed the earnings that the corporation was able to generate. In turn, the government would have to intervene and pump money into the corporation to keep it afloat.

With squeezed revenue a concern, the KTC began arguing was that it was terribly short of vehicles. “As per standard requirements, there should be one vehicle for every 1,500 persons. There exists one vehicle for every 2,500 to 3,000 persons in Karachi,” argued KTC chief Marwat in a statement issued in July, 1984.

Around the same time began the move of the then minister of transport to turn the KTC into a self-sufficient enterprise (while also passing funds to the corporation). As part of the drive, the corporation was also to provide training services to its employees, at the Central Transport Training Institute (CTTI).

Per newspaper archives, the principal of the CTTI told the media that in 1984, the institute had trained 840 workers for the KTC: 383 drivers, 217 public service vehicle (PSV) drivers, 21 light transport vehicle (LTV) drivers, 77 conductors, seven driver instructors, 50 auto mechanics, 11 auto electricians, nine auto fitters, eight welders, and 57 other employees.

In subsequent months, as newspaper archives show, new routes of KTC buses were initiated in order to meet the demand of passengers. For this purpose, promises were also made to add new buses to the KTC fleet.

But the losses did not stop.

Profits of doom

Past glory: a bus ready to be inducted into the KTC fleet
Past glory: a bus ready to be inducted into the KTC fleet

While the KTC would get governmental funds to keep facilitating the general public in Karachi and ensuring the corporation remained functional, there also seems to be a desire by the transport ministry to see KTC turn into a profit-making entity as soon as possible.

In other words, the government wanted to see quick returns on the investment made on the KTC.

But while the KTC earned a record income of Rs8.788 million in October, 1986, this was only an anomaly. Profits did not pour in, and newspaper reports routinely quoted statements of government functionaries dismissing the efficacy of the KTC altogether. On September 2, 1986, a news piece suggested that the KTC might be handed over to private parties on contract.

Such logic and impatience was fundamentally flawed; to begin with, the purpose of the corporation was not to drive profits but to provide a public service at subsidised rates. Whenever a government starts such a service, it typically plans on incurring long-term losses (as subsidy, for example) while the corporation finds its feet.

“If a government provides subsidies to an enterprise like the KTC, it is directly providing the masses — who use its services — with aid. In different circumstances, where funds are directly allocated to the public, they usually end up being embezzled,” argues Zahid Farooq, joint director of the Urban Resource Centre (URC), a city-planning research institute.

“The state has to be strong in providing support to a public-sector entity,” explains political economist Akbar Zaidi. “If an organisational system works optimally, no competition can make it collapse. Why can’t any new company or corporation give tough competition to WAPDA or K-Electric? It can’t. This is because these corporations are stronger.”

Economist Khurram Hussain echoes this viewpoint. He explains that urban transport facilities typically need to be taken care of by the government: “If private initiatives are encouraged in public-transport systems, then we have what we are seeing these days in Karachi: chaos and sheer disorganisation. I do not know of any country where urban transport is either not state-owned or subsidised by the government.”

But the KTC seemed to be doomed from the start. As newspapers archives show, the argument built within seven or eight years of its existence was that since the KTC could not sustain itself, it had little utility.

“In Pakistan, both the public sector and the private sector have shown a history of flaws,” says Zaidi. “The ownership of any corporation does not determine its efficiency — both can work lucratively and effectively if the people running the organization are serious about running it.”

Zaidi argues that the problem was not of generating profits, but of corruption within.

“A mini-bus charges at least Rs15 from a passenger for one-way travel. By accepting the fare set by the government, mini-buses generate heaps of profits. Why is it that the KTC couldn’t generate profits then? Of course it could generate profits as well as work efficiently. It was corruption within — for example theft of fuel provided for KTC buses — and the influence of mafias that numbered the days of KTC.”

Curse of the ‘Yellow Devil’

At its best, the KTC manufactured and redesigned the country's first-ever "Mobile School Bus" for handicapped and mentally-challenged children.
At its best, the KTC manufactured and redesigned the country's first-ever "Mobile School Bus" for handicapped and mentally-challenged children.

Karachi’s transport has an amazing — yet alarming — bond with ethnicity, and by extension, with some concomitant riots. Whenever ethnically-fuelled tensions have taken the fore of politics in the city, transportation has suffered. But transportation has also been a marker of little and large changes to the city’s politics and its demographic changes.

The KTC’s buses and private buses had distinguished ways of carrying out operations. Public buses had a specified and defined timetable and a strict set of rules and regulations that were adhered to. Its buses left and arrived at stops at a fixed time, discrepancy in which could lead to actions against the bus’s conductor and the driver. There was a system and it was working.

But there was a challenger to the KTC, already roaming the streets of the city much before 1977: the private mini-buses, also called the ‘Yellow Devils’.

These buses were known as “runaway buses” since they were driven with a disdainful disregard for traffic law. This not only caused irritation amongst passengers but also resulted in traffic accidents that fuelled further violence.

The Yellow Devils were operated by enterprising Pakhtun migrants to the city. In pursuit of better financial opportunities, many entered the transport business in the early 1970s. These men used mini buses to further their ambitious ventures and brought out a maverick rival against the monopoly of KTC. Soon after, Urdu-speaking men followed suit and entered the mini-bus sector too.

The rapid rise of the Yellow Devils also translated into a number of low-profile businessmen investing in private-sector transportation; mini-buses were an easy way to whitewash any record of black money. Some commentators even allege that influential bureaucrats provided patronage to mini-bus owners, expediting any paperwork that they needed and paving a path for their entrenchment.

Thus fuelled and facilitated, the mini-bus became a worthy challenger to the monopoly of the KTC.

Mini-buses began operating in the nooks and corners of a given area, say Orangi, where KTC’s large-sized buses could never be directed to go out of legitimate security fears. KTC buses continued to ply their set routes on main roads, while mini-buses went an extra mile to pick up the odd passenger.

This is where mini-bus managements found their niche: going into areas and lanes where KTC had not been plying its buses opened up major business opportunities for private mini-bus owners.

The KTC seemed unable to grasp the market reality that demand of the service it was dealing in was merely increasing, with more comfort/less walking time becoming more desirous. With the city’s boundaries perpetually expanding with its settlements growing, the KTC’s specified old routes were in no position to meet the expectations of the public.

Wheels of violence

Korangi Bus Depot: graveyard of KTC buses
Korangi Bus Depot: graveyard of KTC buses

While October, 1986 saw the KTC earning a record Rs8.788 million, half its profits were lost in November (Rs2.37 million) and December (Rs2.72 million). The KTC attributed these losses to riots and imposition of curfew in Karachi.

“Whenever an issue or violent situation cropped up in the city, the first public assets that came under attack by rioters tended to be the buses of the KTC,” explains veteran activist Hasan Ailya, a student at the time.

“Take student protests, for example. Students would always be in favour of the low fares of the KTC, and every time there was talk of increasing fares, they would resort to protests,” he says. “First they would enter buses, chant slogans, distribute pamphlets, and then ask passengers to climb off the bus. Then students would torch the bus.”

In the Bushra Zaidi case of April 15, 1985, for example, when ethnically-fuelled riots broke out in the city after the 20-year-old young woman’s death in a road accident, KTC buses were among the first to be torched. In an irony of sorts, the killer was not driving a KTC bus.

The KTC also sustained heavy losses at the hand of strikes called by different private transporters’ unions, which would not let the KTC buses ply on the roads during the strikes. In a sense, the private bus ‘mafia’ fought against its competitor — the KTC — through strike tactics, giving the KTC a tough time, and urging the government to end the ‘monopoly of KTC’ at the same time.

And then there was collateral damage: skirmishes were routinely reported between mini bus drivers and the people their reckless driving would impact, but again, torching KTC buses was the most visible form of protest. Although the KTC was not a stakeholder in any conflict, the city shutting down meant that the KTC could not run its buses and thus not earn any revenue for the duration of unrest.

In a story published in March, 1986, the KTC issued damning statistics through a handout: “During the last four years, 916 KTC buses were badly damaged as a result of civil commotion, and 17 of them were burned... KTC said that some buses were repaired, and others went off the road permanently. The Corporation gave no figures.”

End of the road

Reinventing the wheel: “Green Buses” that run on CNG are the newest incarnation of the KTC. They were first introduced by the CDGK but died with the demise of the local government system. The same buses were reintroduced by the Sindh Government.
Reinventing the wheel: “Green Buses” that run on CNG are the newest incarnation of the KTC. They were first introduced by the CDGK but died with the demise of the local government system. The same buses were reintroduced by the Sindh Government.

Despite being the only government-run corporation to provide transport facilities to the public, the KTC did not fall under any administrative department which could innovate or bring about any improvements to the KTC’s functioning. Over the years, various governments proposed to bring the KTC under the Karachi Municipal Corporation (KMC) or carve a new organisation that would look after public (KTC’s large-sized buses) and private transport systems (mini-buses).

At the same time, the government seemed cognizant of mini-buses chewing up the KTC’s business and denting its monopoly, quite apart from the general traffic chaos these caused. Thus began frequent statements issued by government officials to phase out Yellow Devils from the city altogether.

With operational issues piling up, the KTC sought foreign help. In the mid 1980s, a French delegation arrived in Karachi to carry out the feasibility of replacing mini-buses with jumbo buses.

On December 18, 1985, an 18-point plan to solve transportation issues in the city was also proposed to the government by the Pakistan National Federation of Transport Workers (PNFTW). In its seven-page document, the Federation proposed creating a single agency to control the entire transport system, and argued that parallel public and private transport should cease to exist.

The Federation further recommended that only large-sized vehicles be allowed to ply on roads, while buses older than five years should not be allowed to operate.

But perhaps the most important idea presented was the introduction of a subway system in Karachi and the expansion of the Karachi Circular Railways (KCR) — transportation had no quick fixes, but needed a long-term solution that could bring together road and rail public transport in the city.

“The absence of a circular railway is a great underlying problem of Karachi’s transportation,” argues Akbar Zaidi. “We have people who want to travel from long distances, from Saddar to Orangi or Korangi, for example. In Karachi’s case, nothing can work better than an established system of circular railway.”

Zaidi adds that the KCR fell prey to many mafias and vested interests which didn’t want it to function. “The National Logistics Cell, for instance, had its particular vested interests, which went against the KCR,” he says.

Although the PNFTW’s researched document was welcomed by government and research departments back then, there was no headway in planning or implementation.

Gradually, the operations of the KTC shrunk and dwindled: by 1991, the KTC had 1,045 buses plying 41 different routes. By this time, the fleet of unusable buses — piling in the KTC garages since day one — had become unmanageable for the Corporation.

“[KTC buses] are lying abandoned at depots such as Korangi, Malir, and North Karachi for considerable periods. They have further deteriorated and thus become reduced to scrap values only,” claimed a report prepared by the World Bank’s Technical Assistance Team in 1991.

The same report pinpointed that funds flow and management at the KTC were not up to the mark, and while the KTC had car mechanics, it did not have the spare parts that were needed to fix these buses nor did the Corporation have money to buy these spare parts.

Slowly but surely, the end was nigh. The KTC eventually succumbed to the government’s pressure to generate profits, ever-increasing violence resulting in buses being torched, massive corruption within the Corporation, as well as uneven competition with mini-buses.

The KTC was finally dissolved on March 20, 1997.

“In my view, it was mismanagement within and the pilferage of funds that made the Corporation collapse,” says Zahid Farooq of the URC. “We have had many institutions and such systems of transportation but we seldom maintain or succeed in sustaining them. The expected result is what happened to the KTC.”

“The inability to sustain and work in the long-term is not peculiar to the case of the KTC,” contends Akbar Zaidi. “We have a number of defunct public-sector organisations, which have collapsed due to corruption, and mismanagement. We should also keep in mind how the phenomenon of privatisation works in our part of the world. Many utilities-providing sectors get privatised in countries such as Pakistan and India. It should not come as a surprise if the KTC was dissolved before the privatisation of other entities such as K- Electric or the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited.”

Over time, the government’s intervention in public transportation has almost disappeared from Karachi. The vacuum left by the KTC was filled by mini-buses, coaches, and in later years, by the motorcycle-cart, Qingqis. “Whatever systems that have been proposed thus far, be it the elevated expressway or any other, are visible on paper only,” says Farooq candidly. “What happened to the programme started by Mayor Naimutullah Khan? What became of those hundred of CNG buses, bought by the erstwhile CDGK, which now stand idle in Surjani Town?

The story of transport in Karachi, it seems, is only repeating itself: from the smaller, white Metro coasters of the early 2000s to the CNG buses under the CDGK and now the Sindh government, all new transportation initiatives for the city are merely about reinventing the wheel.

“No step is taken to initiate these transportation programmes,” says Farooq. “I believe that given the usable condition of KTC depots and the fleet of buses also available, the Corporation can be restarted anew for the public in the face of immense demand.”

The writer tweets at @FawadHazan

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, February 15th, 2015

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