Workers & mobility

Published November 21, 2021
The writer is a researcher in the development sector.
The writer is a researcher in the development sector.

ONCE upon a time, Karachi’s Shaheed-i-Millat Road comprised two narrow and uneven metalled roads, with a dirt-and-dust field in between. It looked vast to us children who crossed it every day to reach school, a 15-minute walk from home. Serving a number of peaceful neighbourhoods, the artery connecting Sharea Faisal with Jail Chowrangi was later developed into a double-track shahrah with a green median strip, service lanes and traffic signals at six chowrangis. Plant nurseries sprang up on the sides. For decades Shaheed-i-Millat Road was a delight for the eyes, despite its drastic land-use change from residential to commercial.

Then came the city rulers’ obsession with turning the artery into a ‘signal-free corridor’. After two underpasses and a flyover, since 2020, one of Karachi’s most beautiful roads has become an ugly ‘killer road’, with a high number of accidents, a nightmare for workers in the services sector who commute daily from far-off settlements and disembark on and cross this road to reach their workplace.

Other arteries suffer the same fate. The preference for ‘signal-free corridors’ shows the planners’ mania for catering to car-owners (a mere 9.6 per cent of Pakistan’s population in 2018) and ‘facilitate’ the movement of executives, managers and professionals who constitute only 13pc of our workforce. The existence of 87pc low-tier workers in the services and manufacturing sectors is ignored by urban planners. According to a 2011 estimate, of the total number of vehicles on Karachi roads, 66.5pc were cars and 30.1pc motorbikes in comparison to 0.6pc buses and 2.1pc minibuses! Since then, the number of cars has increased manifold while buses continue to vanish. How inequitable and unliveable do the planners want this city to be?

A basic service has been denied to Karachi workers.

Transport is considered a key marker of economic development as it connects workers with employment. The ILO defines public transport as “a basic service, a facilitator of mobility and an enabler of other rights”. The right to work and earn a decent living is inextricably linked with mobility and transport in the urban context. Imagine a worker in Karachi who lives in Orangi Town and must reach Shaheed-i-Millat Road 18 kilometres away — 32 minutes by vehicle. If there is no public transport, that person won’t be able to access employment. If there is inadequate public transport available, as in Karachi, the worker will change buses at two points, pays Rs60 at each point, which is Rs3,500 per month out of a current minimum monthly wage of Rs17,500. Instead of 32 minutes, the worker spends three hours in her daily commute and 20pc of her earned monthly income on it, in comparison to average commuting costs of 4pc-6pc of monthly incomes in cities with adequate, affordable transport.

Research has established the significance of transport accessibility on labour force participation rates, particularly of marginalised segments — those living below the poverty line, women, migrants and ethnic minorities. In the 1960s, Martin Luther King called the urban transit system a “civil rights issue”, pointing out how the layout of the rapid transit system in US cities excluded black communities from accessing meaningful employment. A 2020 research undertaken by Lums and Duke University on the Lahore Green Line Bus Rapid Transit established a quantitative-evidence base on the impact of urban transport on employment, particularly for women. The Green Line also substantially decreased travel time and costs for daily commuters.

Poor public transport infrastructure is linked to higher job informality. Due to higher commuting costs and longer commuting times, it is often difficult for low-tier workers to take up formal jobs at a distance from their settlements. They often end up in low-paid home-based work, or do odd jobs and petty trade nearby. Access to formal jobs can be expanded by improving transport connectivity and lowering costs.

The National Transport Policy 2018 points out several flaws in the transport system including poor governance and lack of strategic planning. It aims to provide affordable, efficient, sustainable and user-friendly transport with improved connectivity and accessibility for all. The policy doesn’t provide guidelines for provincial and local implementation. Statutory local transport plans that undertake local accessibility assessments and identify problems of socially excluded populations are a must for all regions.

In terms of transport infrastructure, Karachi’s is the worst in Pakistan. Planners have failed to lift citizens out of the misery inflicted on them by an almost non-existent urban transport system. It is time for an emergency response: Karachi needs an urgent and strong mechanism. On the pattern of the NCOC, it requires a ‘Karachi Command and Operation Centre’ to tackle the public transport mayhem which is eating up the city’s workers, body and soul.

The writer is a researcher in the development sector.

Published in Dawn, November 21st, 2021



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