What cheap transport gave, the petrol bomb took away

Published June 9, 2022
Two Swvl vehicles pass a street. —Fahim Siddiqi / White Star / File
Two Swvl vehicles pass a street. —Fahim Siddiqi / White Star / File

KARACHI: Until a few days ago, Zahra Zulfiqar was juggling home, work, and studies all together; helping her mother run the house, submitting all her assignments on time, and gliding towards the dream of opening her own media agency one day.

But the 21-year-old’s difficult yet steady-paced life came to a screeching halt after the government announced yet another increase in the prices of petroleum products. Zahra wanted to achieve her goals as soon as possible. Unfortunately, that will require fuel, which is way out of her reach now.

Zahra is among millions of Pakistanis who have been affected by the exorbitant hike in petrol prices. She is also one of the tens of thousands of women who are now directly faced with a financial crunch as mobility – or finding ‘conveyance’ – becomes harder and more expensive.

A day after the government increased petrol prices, Swvl – a popular bus sharing service – decided to halt its daily operations in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, and Faisalabad in view of the “global economic downturn”.

Women credit Swvl for inexpensive, safe rides; say exorbitant fuel prices may force them to reconsider employment

The move, which may seem normal for a start-up like Swvl, came as a shock to women in Karachi, many of whom had come to rely heavily on the service for their everyday commute. Zahra is one of the women who used the pink buses to travel between work, home, and college.

“Ever since I have started travelling independently, I start my day at 7am,” she told Dawn.com. “Every night, before going to sleep, I booked a 7.46am Swvl to reach for my 8.30am class in time. The bus arrived on the road adjacent to my house … so it just took me a five-minute walk across the pedestrian bridge to reach the stop.”

The ride cost her between Rs130 and Rs145. “After my classes ended at 3pm, I could easily grab a Swvl from the university’s bus stop or the Silver Jubilee gate and reach my office in time. Often, even before my shift started,” she said.

If we calculate the average amount she spent on her daily commute until last week, it would be somewhere around Rs400. This came with the added perks of travelling in a comfortable, air-conditioned bus, without fear of harassment.

Hurmat Majid, a faculty member at the NED University, said that her daily expenses were cut from Rs1,600 to Rs400 after she started using Swvl. The amount she paid for her commute through the pink buses was a quarter of the cost of using alternative modes of transport, such as ride sharing apps or conventional cabs.

“With the service being shut down, my budget is suddenly all over the place. I can either spend Rs1,600 every time I go to work, or I can drag my husband and two-year-old out of bed at seven in the morning to drop me, spend three hours loitering near the university and then pick me up again,” she said.

“I barely make Rs1,600 a day, so to be spending that much on the commute is unthinkable,” the teacher, who is in her mid-30s, added.

Laxmi, a household employee working at a bungalow in Defence, has a similar story to tell. The 40-year-old resident of Soldier Bazaar took a 26-minute ride from her home to work every day, which cost her somewhere between Rs50 and Rs150.

She has been working for almost a decade now, but says that her life became much easier the day her employer’s daughter told her about the bus service. “She downloaded the application on my mobile phone, and I started using the service. All I had to do was choose a time and insert the destinations and the pink buses were there,” she said.

But with Swvl ending their service, the 40-year-old is now considering leaving her job and looking for one closer to home. The reason? The long route and fuel cost.

“I can’t afford to take an Uber or Careem to DHA every day. The commute alone will eat up more than half of my pay,” she told Dawn.com.

In conversations with several women who have used the service, Dawn.com came across a similar trend; women found the service reliable because of the safety and the savings it offered.

Laxmi, for example, quotes freedom from harassment to be a major boon. “I have been working for over a decade and I have been groped by men on these mini-buses hundreds of times.

“Sometimes they would grab me from behind, while in other instances they would follow me home,” she said.

When women lose the ease to freely move in the city, the loss is not just incurred by them but also the economy. It also negatively affects their productive role and participation in the public sphere.

Salman Sufi, the Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on Strategic Reforms, hopes that the government will come up with a way to prevent this.

He told Dawn that the government will be holding a meeting with ride-sharing platforms this week to hear their challenges and proposals. “The prime minister has told us to check all options,” he said.

But until those options materialise into something more concrete, women like Zahra, Laxmi and Hurmat will have to choose between continuing to work or finding jobs closer to home. For these working women, staying at home is simply not an option.

A detailed version of this report can be accessed on Dawn.com

Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2022

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