IT was a cool, pleasant February afternoon back in 2016. Winter was drifting away from Karachi and its historic Annu Bhai Park, in the heart of middle- and upper-middle-class neighbourhood of Nazimabad, was hosting then prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
The arrangements, made under a huge tent, were above par. Many security personnel were patrolling the area, forcing residents to remain indoors. Forty-eight hours before the high-profile visit, they had been ‘asked’ to ‘cooperate’ with the security agencies.
All this preparation and inconvenience was for the Green Line bus project, a multi-billion federal government-funded public transport project for the country’s business capital.
Pakistanis are used to the inconveniences relating to VIP security but for Nazimabad residents on that particular February afternoon it was a small price to pay for the much-anticipated relief.
But a cloud of frustration hovers over the project four years on.
Karachi’s public transport project estimated to be completed by the end of 2017 keeps getting new deadlines. Meanwhile, the past four years in Pakistan have witnessed a change of guard during which new political and security administrations have replaced the old ones, sporting events involving foreigners have been revived and economic indicators have undergone changes.
Since the launch of the scheme, the battered roads on either side of the route have turned into a great source of nuisance for the commuters and for the shopkeepers doing their businesses.
On a February afternoon this year, I take a ride on the route beginning from the KESC Power House Chowrangi in Surjani Town. The bus service was originally designed to end at the Municipal Park, M.A. Jinnah Road, passing through Nagan Chowrangi, North Nazimabad, Nazimabad, Guru Mandir and 22 other stops on its route, catering to 300,000 passengers daily.
But this route is now causing the slow ruin of the daily lives of the people. At a sanitary ware market near Nazimabad Chowrangi, several traders tell me they were forced to shift their shops during the construction of the project which left behind mounds of rubble.
Abdul Hadi said he preferred to leave his shop in 2018 and move to a rented space nearby, thinking he will move back shortly. It took him a couple of years to do so.
“I incurred huge losses,” he said. “Initially, I was angry. I suffered for almost two years but I thought later that this would benefit people in the coming years. But now, I am disappointed.”
“Hundreds of trees were cut down for the construction of the project,” Naila Sadiq, a resident of Block H in North Nazimabad off Shershah Suri Road, tells me. “The people of the block initially protested and vented their anger on social media. But several of them thought it would benefit people in the long run. But where is that relief now? What we have achieved in all these four years except suffering and distress?”
Last week, though, her pleadings received a new answer. A three-judge Supreme Court bench, headed by Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed, was told by an official of a firm undertaking the project, that the project would be completed by end of 2020.
So, it will perhaps be yet another ten months of waiting.
The people of Karachi very well know the misery of a lack of a comprehensive public transport system in their city.
Those who are somehow not aware can read all about it in a 2015 report by renowned city planner Arif Hasan with Mansoor Raza and the Urban Resource Centre. Titled Karachi: The Transport Crisis, it highlights the sorry state of the public transport sector of the country’s largest city which is on the verge of collapse due to a history of failure, negligence, inefficiency and lack of follow-through in both government and public-private partnership projects.
Similar facts were mirrored in the DIG traffic’s 2015 report which revealed that more than 50 per cent buses, minibuses and coaches in the city had disappeared from roads with some 200 routes being shrunk to only 80 over the past decade mainly due to an “increase in fuel prices and government apathy”.
“Karachi has witnessed the disappearance of over 12,000 public service buses, minibuses and coaches in the last decade,” it further states, while calling for urgent measures to save it from total collapse.
“There were 20,000 buses, minibuses and coaches in the city till 2000, but now only 8,000 are operational. Similarly, there were 200 routes of public transport buses and minibuses in the last decade but now 80 are operational.”
For now, the people of Karachi continue to put up with inconveniences and the misery that brings along with it.
Published in Dawn, February 16th, 2020