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SOCIETY: RULING THE ROADS

Updated June 10, 2018

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Managing traffic near Clifton Bridge, Karachi | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Managing traffic near Clifton Bridge, Karachi | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

At the PIDC signal in Civil Lines, Karachi, three traffic constables signal for the traffic to stop. Impatient bikers keep creeping ahead until they occupy substantial space at the intersection. It is only when the constables shout at them that the bikers stop swarming forward. As soon as the signal turns green, the bikers speed away, hurling insults at the traffic officers, leaving them coughing in a cloud of black smoke and dust.

This is a common occurrence at any given traffic signal in Karachi, especially during the peak hours. The drivers have become extremely impatient due to prolonged traffic jams, and it is not unusual for the public to misbehave — or on occasion even get into a tussle — with traffic wardens.

“People blame us for traffic jams; they come and fight with us when we give them a ticket,” says Sub Inspector Wahid Bakhsh. He is a seasoned sergeant from Karachi who has been managing traffic for more than 22 years. “But drivers brazenly break traffic laws. They don’t understand that we can’t keep the traffic moving if they aren’t willing to listen to us. The public needs to cooperate with us as we have been trained to facilitate the flow of traffic and clear congestions [or any other traffic problem] as quickly as possible.”

Bakhsh, who has a bachelor’s degree, is in charge of the Karsaz section. He spends most of his day patrolling at Karsaz, National Stadium and Shahrea Faisal.

Most readers might chuckle at the mention of traffic police being ‘trained’ as there is a widespread misconception about the efficiency of traffic police. Bakhsh is not astonished at this public misconception. He simply calls it a case of obliviousness. “The truth is that every sergeant needs to enrol in mandatory courses as he/she progresses in his/her career,” he says.

The traffic police in Sindh and Balochistan is not at par with the other two provinces in terms of incentives and merit-based promotions

After recruitment, young trainees enrol in a three-month training programme at the Traffic Police Training Institute in Saeedabad, Karachi. They are then deployed as constables in the field for a probationary period of three years, after which they are eligible to take the A1 examination. Depending on the number of vacancies, A1 test scores and field performance, the most eligible constables are promoted as Head Constables (HC).

Only after serving for three years do HCs become eligible to take B1 and lower courses in order to be promoted as Assistant Sub Inspectors (ASIs); another three years and the officers can take an Intermediate course to apply for the post of Sub Inspector. Lastly, they take what is called the upper course to apply for the position of Inspector. After this, an officer’s promotion to Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP), Superintendent of Police (SP), Deputy Inspector General (DIG), Additional Inspector General (Add. IG) is based on performance.

“An official is only promoted after he/she clears the respective course and shows excellent performance in the field. Our promotions, bonuses and cash rewards are dependent on our performances, so why wouldn’t we do our jobs sincerely?” asks Bakhsh.

While Bakhsh and I were talking, nearby Head Constable Sanaullah* had issued a ticket to a Corolla driver. The driver’s offence: “He was over-speeding and talking on his mobile when he suddenly turned left without using indicators. He could’ve collided with the car in the extreme left lane,” explains Sanaullah.

Sanaullah holds a bachelor’s degree from Islamia Science College. When asked about the notorious chai-pani exchange (a small bribe that wardens demand in order to let offenders off the hook), he initially evades the question. But later he launches into a lengthy explanation: “When we issue tickets, violators try to bail out by offering us bribe. When we protest, they accuse us for giving them a ticket wrongfully. However, I won’t lie — there are corrupt officers who ask for bribes. Some people want to make extra cash.”

An intersection at Tibet Centre on M.A. Jinnah Road, Karachi | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
An intersection at Tibet Centre on M.A. Jinnah Road, Karachi | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

The traffic police in Sindh faces grave problems. The volume of traffic in the cosmopolitan has exponentially increased in the last decade. Statistics on the Karachi Traffic Police website show that only 2,188 officers regulate the traffic in two shifts and cover approximately 10,000km of road network. About a 1,000 new recruits have recently been deputed across the city under the supervision of senior officers. There are 3.3 million registered vehicles in the city. Only 1,094 officers are on duty in a single shift, with each officer regulating approximately 3,016 vehicles per day. This number increases by the day, as on an average, 903 new vehicles get registered daily.

Furthermore, the dearth of skill enhancement and motivational workshops, appreciation letters and shields (or awards) kills the morale of these handful officers. Despite a defined career path and time frame, promotions are based on preferences and bias. Even the average highest bonus will go up to only 10,000 rupees per annum. Sanaullah awaits a promotion since the past three years, but despite nominations he has not received any official intimation about it. “There’s always another senior officer who is given preference over me. Someday, my turn will come,” he says with a smile.

Traffic warden Shoaib Khan on duty in Mardan | Photo by the writer
Traffic warden Shoaib Khan on duty in Mardan | Photo by the writer

Sanaullah’s junior, Constable Aman*, claims that junior officers are paid between 21,000 rupees to 30,000 rupees, while the seniors are at a slightly higher pay scale. “We don’t get a separate medical allowance if we fall ill due to environmental hazards that we face every day. If you dissect our lungs, I’m sure you will find particles of every possible air pollutant that exists in our environment.”

Environmental hazards greatly influence the health of these traffic officers. Most officers have now started wearing face masks, shades, caps and sun protection gloves regularly. Those deployed at and within the jurisdictions of Orangi Town, Saddar, M.A. Jinnah Road and Mehmoodabad sections have all chipped in and bought water coolers, towels as well as medicines to be kept in their sections in case of emergencies. Incidents have been reported where constables have developed lung and skin diseases. “My colleague who hails from interior Sindh suffered from heatstroke during the heat wave in 2016. He was hospitalised for 10 days. Another friend developed spots on his forehead and had to be checked for skin cancer,” says Aman.

Traffic warden Hafeez-ur-Rehman (right) at M.M. Alam Road, Lahore | Photo by the writer
Traffic warden Hafeez-ur-Rehman (right) at M.M. Alam Road, Lahore | Photo by the writer

In comparison to Sindh, the traffic police in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have better working conditions, hence are able to perform better. Trained, educated and equipped with protective clothing, the wardens guide traffic round the clock; some even courteously greet and smile at the passing cars. Cameras are installed at arterial roads in Lahore and Islamabad. This ensures that the moment traffic signals turn red, the traffic stops. Hanging at the signals are signboards stating traffic law violation penalties for various vehicles.

Traffic warden Hafeez-ur-Rehman is deputed at M.M. Alam Road, Lahore. He observes the traffic keenly and signals violators to pull over. “People know there are cameras installed on the roads, therefore no one insults or misbehaves with us; neither does anyone offer us bribe. Instead, the public cooperates with us. We issue tickets to law breakers,” he says.

When asked what bothers them about traffic jams in Lahore, the police officer answers: “VIP movements always create panic for us. The whole city comes to a halt and everyone’s safety becomes our prime concern.” He adds, “My colleagues and I think about the infants and women trapped in the vehicles because of these VIP movements. Unfortunately, we can’t do much about it.”

A mini bus driver is issued a ticket for boarding too many passengers | Faysal Mujeeb /White Star
A mini bus driver is issued a ticket for boarding too many passengers | Faysal Mujeeb /White Star

The Punjab traffic police comprises 3,000 freshly recruited and trained wardens. The minimum qualification required is college graduation; however, those who have completed their master’s degrees or MPhil get paid accordingly. Rehman holds a master’s degree in political science and joined the service back in 2006. “This is a respectable and well-paid job. Based on my performance, I have been nominated for a promotion. I attend seminars and conferences on traffic regulations which in turn enable me to guide commuters better. I take pride in my job,” he grins.

Similarly, traffic warden Shoaib Khan from Mardan confidently says that both the traffic situation and the police workforce have tremendously improved in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “We have prohibited encroachments and wrong parking on roads,” he says. “The public knows we won’t hesitate in issuing tickets if they break the law, hence they maintain discipline. Besides, we receive commission on every challan book.”

Doesn’t this lead to wardens issuing tickets unjustifiably? “No,” Khan replies, “people can SMS and register their complaint if they feel wronged. Our seniors take every such complaint very seriously. Corrupt wardens are fired immediately.”

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has been beefing up the capacity of their traffic wardens through different training sessions. These sessions are conducted by the National Highway and the Motorway Police as well as the army. “Our presentation and demeanour has greatly improved. Now when we speak to the drivers, we remain polite but assertive,” Khan says.

In contrast, Balochistan presents a grim picture for the traffic police workforce. Apart from being short on resources and trainings, the traffic police faces everyday problems such as damaged roads, ubiquitous pushcarts, a dearth of functional traffic signals and parking facilities, road encroachments, etc. “The government needs to recruit new staff and fire the corrupt officials. Only then, can we become an effective police force,” says an inspector on the condition of anonymity .

Whereas the traffic police force is improving their performance in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, it is high time for Sindh and Balochistan to invest in their forces, too. An educated and dedicated traffic police force is needed to facilitate the ever-increasing volume of vehicles on the roads across the country.

  • Some names have been changed to protect the identity

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 10th, 2018

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