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Karachiites, put the brakes on your traffic troubles

Updated Aug 13, 2015 03:33pm
An officer listening to a complaint on the helpline 1915.— Photo by Umer bin Ajmal
An officer listening to a complaint on the helpline 1915.— Photo by Umer bin Ajmal

It was 9pm at night when Bahadur Ali’s car axle broke on a flyover near Goli Maar. Drivers honked furiously as the car came to an abrupt halt amidst the pelting rain. Within minutes, a row of vehicles had lined up behind the broken down car, making the road a traffic gridlock.

No help came as Ali single-handedly tried to push his car to a side, but the lone man found it impossible to move it amidst the jam and the continuous rain. Finding no way out, he did what most people in Karachi don’t normally go for: he called 1915 — the traffic helpline — as a last resort, a blind shot in the dark.

What transpired next surprised both Ali and the aggravated drivers behind him.

“I called 1915 and explained the situation to them. The operator on the other end assured me that a lifter would be sent soon to tow the car. I didn’t believe them at first and repeatedly asked if they were really going to do this or if it was an empty reassurance,” Ali recalls the rainy night.

There is a reason why rainfall in Karachi is not entirely pleasurable for its residents. With the city’s dilapidated roads, crumbling infrastructure, choked drains and brittle power lines, monsoon rain comes with a range of inconveniences, forcing residents to stay in rather than venturing out on the heavily inundated roads.

The roads remain clogged, cars break down and traffic congestion extends into hours.

The situation was all too familiar for Ali as well; he had already begun to anticipate a long, exhausting night ahead.

“I wasn’t convinced by the operator’s claim so I sent my family home in a rickshaw and started making calls to private lifters and mechanics that could come to my rescue. But within an hour, I saw an approaching traffic police lifter; I cannot describe my surprise in words.”

Ali’s car was towed to a side and the road was cleared for the coming traffic.

Using registers to jot down complaints. — Photo by Umer bin Ajmal
Using registers to jot down complaints. — Photo by Umer bin Ajmal

Not a new service

The unexpected emergency response seems like an entirely new phenomenon in the city, but Karachi’s traffic police claims otherwise, asserting that they have been providing these services for over a decade.

“The traffic helpline has been functional since 2003; I admit that we may not have done enough to spread the word but we have plans to get our number painted on buses and rickshaws,” says Muhammad Idrees, Sub-Inspector (SI) in the city’s traffic police, seated in his office at Traffic Police Headquarters in Karachi's Garden Town.

Idrees briefs on the measures taken by his team and provides a long list of initiatives that are in the pipeline.

The first one that he checks out from the agenda is the setting up of a rain emergency control room.

With the city canvassed by dark clouds and the possibility of light rain visible, the emergency control room is functional 24 hours a day.

Idrees further elaborates on its functions: “We have designated officers who would provide information regarding road blockages and traffic updates to anyone who calls on our helpline. In case a vehicle breaks down, we will ensure that it’s towed to its original destination, free of charge if the area is nearby,” boasts the SI.

In a small office at the traffic headquarters, four officers record details in what may now be regarded as an outdated mode — writing down complaints in bulging registers. The officers then forward the information to the relevant regions of the city so that appropriate action can be taken in every instance. The complainant is then called back to inquire if their matter was eventually resolved.

“If their complaint has not been catered to adequately, they can approach us again,” claims the SI.

Reckless drivers, corrupt policemen

The rain emergency centre is likely to have little work on its hands with rainfall in Karachi being a rarity. But the services offered by the traffic police will continue even after the monsoon season.

“If there is a real emergency involving a vehicle break down that is disrupting the flow of traffic we will make sure that our lifter or a private lifter is sent along with a mechanic for help,” says Idrees.

It holds true that the dismal state of traffic in Karachi, delayed response to grievances and corruption on several levels has permanently tarnished the police’s reputation. But the city’s police has urged the public to voice their complaints and test out Rehnuma 1915 for themselves.

There is a host of problems that the helpline is designed to address, some of which include complaining against a bus driver who has misbehaved, dropped passengers off-route or driven recklessly.

“When we receive a complaint about a conductor over-charging passengers, it is forwarded to the relevant regions. The constable nearest to the location is told to stop the bus and issue a ticket. For instance, if the bus in question is in Saddar, it will be stopped when it reaches Burns Road,” explains SI Muhammad Ilyas.

The situation sounds ideal and hard to believe for Karachi’s residents who are all too familiar with the culture of corruption, bribery and lethargy when it comes to their experiences with constables, but the sub-inspector claims such incidents can be reported.

“If an officer asks for a bribe instead of a fine, the aggrieved party can notify us along with the officer’s name. Both will be called in the following day to the police station to relay their accounts and if the officer is found guilty he will be penalised,” the SI assures, saying that looking at such cases fall under the traffic police's ambit.

From Sept 2014 to July 2015, 405 members of the force have been given various minor and major punishments. Although the policemen have been reinstated, having found loopholes to avert the sanctions but it’s a small step in the right direction.

Police stations for traffic violators?

Inside Rehnuma 1915 call centre.— Photo by Umer bin Ajmal
Inside Rehnuma 1915 call centre.— Photo by Umer bin Ajmal

The insufficient number of police force in the city has been highlighted time and again, with only 14,433 policemen available to maintain law and order for a population of nearly 20 million. The numbers suggest a clear paucity in manpower — there are not enough people to look at the rising crime rate in Karachi. Traffic violations are then neglected, with offenders getting little to no punishment.

“Our sergeants take the offenders, be it people who may be under the influence of alcohol or those driving recklessly in general, to the relevant police station but the inspector there takes the longest time to register an FIR. Even after the driver is locked up, he is usually released on a meager Rs 2,000 bribe,” says Idrees.

With these problems in mind, the traffic police department conceptualised the idea of having its own police stations to solely handle traffic-related crime.

Idrees adds that “police stations do not have the time to deal with road accidents and those responsible; they don’t give adequate attention to it”.

“The Inspector General (IG) has given the approval for the establishment of our own stations and work is now underway.”

How effective would a designated police station be in curbing traffic-related crime and providing road safety remains to be seen.

Call, text or log into Twitter for updates

Social media representatives at the Rehnuma 1915 headquarters. — Photo by Umer bin Ajmal
Social media representatives at the Rehnuma 1915 headquarters. — Photo by Umer bin Ajmal

The traffic police is making small efforts to have greater reach on social media platforms. Two people are assigned in each of the three shifts at the headquarters in Garden Town who regularly update commuters on Twitter with the situation on various roads in Karachi.

For quicker traffic updates, one can type in ‘T’ and send an SMS to 8655.

The service charges 60 paisas per message. People who have longer routes to travel regularly can subscribe to Twitter updates by sending a blank text on 4040; they can also tune in to Sindh Police’s FM 88.6 for traffic updates.