The phoenix of Peshawar

Published January 10, 2022
Mechanics work on the chassis of a Ford van at a workshop in Peshawar. — Dawn
Mechanics work on the chassis of a Ford van at a workshop in Peshawar. — Dawn

PESHAWAR: Driver Akram Hussain’s wagon has undergone several transformations even if one wouldn’t know by looking at its shell. The exterior is still of a Ford van, even if nothing within remotely original. From a patrol driven vehicle, it became one with a diesel engine along the way. Now, it is run by CNG.

“Other than the shell, the wagons you see on the roads are fitted with used parts from brands,” said Hussain, whose public transport wagon shuttles between Haji Camp in the city’s east end to Karkhano Market in the west.

Refitting vans with auto parts from other brands is a choice dictated both by necessity and convenience. Of the hundreds of vans plying between the city and Karkhano, almost all are the Ford Transit, 1980 model. The body parts for that model are no more available, but more importantly used parts of other brands are.

Scraping and refitting old models with old body parts is a big business in Peshawar — an undocumented economy that employs scores of auto-hands moving vehicles and body parts within the city, the rest of the country and between Pakistan and Afghanistan. While that make eminent economic sense, the business is also an environmental disaster by way of keeping on roads obsolete vehicles with old body parts, decades past their sell-by date.

Obsolete vehicles are reborn as fixtures of equally dead brands

According to officials of transport department, there is not a single scrapping and crushing unit in Pakistan to retire old vehicles, only workshops engaged in reusing them as spares. In the city, vehicular emissions are a leading cause of air pollution, spiking air quality index (AQI) well past the WHO safety standards and endangering health and wellbeing of the people.

Although no official data is available on such emissions, carbon-spewing obsolete vehicles have become a major cause of concern for environmentalists and citizens alike.

When it comes to public transport on roads of Peshawar, as ubiquitous as the Ford Transit van is the Bedford Bus. But while the brand that was based in Bedfordshire in England retired in 1991, its buses have yet to here in Peshawar.

Driver Mohammad Iqbal’s bus is one of the many Bedford vehicles that run on two routes -- between the city to Bara and Landi Kotal in the neighbouring Khyber district. Like the Ford van, his Bedford, which he likens to a bus-brother to the sister-van, has undergone many a transformation. And yet, he feels, the old Bedford still has years in it to stay on these roads.

“It could take you all the way to Russia without so much as a squeak or a sputter,” he said. No wonder, the old bus brand has come to earn the moniker “rocket” for speeding, among the commuters in Peshawar.

Officials in Directorate of Transport and Mass Transit Peshawar said that fixing age limit for use of vehicles or scrapping was not possible in a country like Pakistan. There is no mechanism or policy to scrape old vehicles like developed countries where proper technology is used to scrap worn-out vehicles after specific time. Even the government regularly auctions condemned vehicles instead of scrapping.

After launching Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), a multi-billion rupees public transportation system in Peshawar in August 2020, TransPeshawar launched scheme to keep old busses off the road by purchasing worn-out buses, mini-buses and wagons from the owners to address the issue of traffic mess along the BRT corridor.

Under the scheme, officials said, around 380 vehicles had been purchased from the owners and scrapped since 2020. The scheme is still in progress and contractors have hired workers to dismantle these vehicles. The company pays Rs1.4 million against one wagon and Rs1.5 million for one passenger bus.

“For the first time such scheme has been launched in Pakistan to scrap old vehicles,” said an official.

As opposed to timely retirement of old vehicles, the provincial transport department through a notification has relaxed rules by allowing such vehicles on the roads for indefinite period. Initially, officials said, maximum age for commercial vehicles was 25 years.

“Under the new notification, the maximum age limit of 25 years has been replaced with subject to fitness certificate in C-categories of routes,” said an official while requesting anonymity. He said that the Punjab model had been replicated in KP by amending Rule-57-B (3) of the Motor Vehicles Rules, 1969.

After amending the relevant rules, officials said, the transporters would get fitness certificate from the Vehicle Emission Testing Station, an auxiliary of the transport department that was earlier functioned under the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA).

Officials working at VETS, Peshawar said that the body lacked capacity, resources and manpower to check millions of vehicles for road fitness. “This is impossible to check every vehicle on the roads in Peshawar and issue fitness certificate, keeping in view our limited resources,” said an official.

He said that VETS could not enforce standards to check the vehicles on its own and was completely dependent on the traffic police.

The provincial government has also changed the policy for the use of official vehicles. Officials said that initially age of staff cars/vehicles was three years or completion of 160,000 kilometres mileage. Under the new policy, maximum age for the official vehicles is up to seven years or 320,000 kilometres mileage.

Meanwhile, the relevance of Ford vans and Bedford rocket busses for commuters remain the same in a city where despite BRT public transport needs of an ever-growing population are far from resolved. According to provincial transport department, 526 Bedford busses and 646 Ford vans remain on the roads of Peshawar.

“These vehicles have, over time, become an amalgamation of many brands, with body parts borrowed from other vehicles,” said a worker at a workshop in Peshawar. “The market is so huge that you will never run out of spares.”

With all this altering of the auto vehicles, perhaps it is appropriate to call a Bedford bus a “rocket” -- a local brand name instead of the original. Especially, now that brand Bedford is no more.

Published in Dawn, January 10th, 2022

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