Footprints: The car bazaar

Updated March 27, 2016

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DOZENS and dozens of people converge every Friday on Rawalpindi’s busy Murree Road, beneath the flyover over which the shining red Metro bus glides. They come here to solve their commuting issues by buying and selling cars.

Service roads and junctions from the main Chandni Chowk to Cricket Stadium Road are packed with all types of vehicles: old, new, locally produced, imported and reconditioned; vintage cars, jeeps and vans. Showrooms are crowded and brokers are busy with deals throughout the afternoon, starting after Friday prayers.

This Friday cars’ bazaar has been a regular feature of the local vehicular market for many years. And despite the administration’s efforts to contain it to keep the flow of traffic uninterrupted, it has solidified its position, with sellers and buyers turning up in large numbers. While the vast spread of internet technology and online sale/purchase portals have diverted some people, many like Mohammad Aslam still rely on this bazaar to buy cars.

Aslam, a 50-year-old grocery store owner, has so far used a motorcycle. Now, though, he has decided to buy a car and has come to this market. “I had Rs400,000 as savings and decided to buy a small car,” he says. “But the cars here are too expensive for me. The one I liked is for Rs700,000.” As he talks, he sizes up an Alto in dazzling maroon.

Recently, the federal government unveiled the new auto policy, inviting foreign car manufacturers to set up plants in Pakistan and enjoy waivers on duties and taxes. The government claimed that this would help reduce prices and also improve quality. Under the new policy, the government also reduced duties on the import of parts by the existing assemblers/manufacturers in Pakistan, such as Suzuki, Toyota and Honda.

Khawaja Muhammad Asif, federal defence minister and head of the committee on the auto policy, had remarked while announcing the new incentives that Pakistani cars lacked airbags, anti-lock brake systems and emission control systems.

As the policy will be effective from July 1, and nobody knows whether new car companies will actually be setting up factories in Pakistan, traders are unsure about any benefit in the near future.

“The market has already been flooded with imported Japanese cars but prices have not come down. We don’t know how this new policy will impact the common man and how its benefits will trickle down,” comments car dealer Mehmood Akbar, who is waiting for customers in his office behind two long rows of imported Japanese SUVs. “Even if the government has announced that it will reduce or waive some duties, it will not bring down prices because dozens of taxes are applied in Pakistan. Waivers in one or two areas will not have a major impact.”

“Despite the easy availability of imported cars and their better performance, around 60 per cent of the people buy locally made, smaller cars because they can’t afford the expensive spare parts for new cars,” says Akbar, adding that the recent hike in the transfer and registration car fees has also caused a downslide in the market.

Javed Akhtar, another dealer in the bazaar, also feels that new entrants in the car industry is not something about to happen soon. “And even if it happens, it may enhance investment in the country, but I don’t see it benefitting car dealers and low-end consumers,” he says.

Outside Akhtar’s office, Zeeshan Ahmed is inspecting a Japanese assembled white Toyota Vitz that was imported two years ago. Beyond the automatic gears and efficient air-conditioning system, Ahmed is more interested in the security features.

“The major problem with the locally made cars is that they don’t follow strict security procedures,” he explains. “In comparison to the imported cars, the locally manufactured ones are not much cheaper and they also compromise on safety and quality. If new car manufacturers arrive in Pakistan, it will enhance competition and consumers will be able to buy cheaper, safer and more efficient cars that have been assembled in Pakistan. The government needs to push foreign manufacturers to come to Pakistan as soon as possible,” he believes.

But Masroor Gilani, an automobile enthusiast and journalist, believes that safety and quality standards will not be met until the government notifies vehicle safety standards and sets up a body to enforce and monitor them.

“There is no check on the security standards of vehicles in Pakistan,” he says. “The quality and safety of Pakistani cars will not improve even after new factories have been set up. These indicators will improve only after the government formulates a body to watch over matters and ensure the proper monitoring of prices, quality and safety,” he says.

Aslam, however, despite being willing to compromise on security and efficiency, fails to buy a car with his money and returns home, empty-handed and on his motorbike. “I will arrange a couple of hundred thousand rupees more and then come back to this market to buy a car,” he says. “When? That, I don’t know,” he says dejectedly.

Published in Dawn, March 27th, 2016