A year on, pink buses continue to empower women on Karachi’s roads

Karachi's pink buses have defied scepticism by remaining operational post-elections, dispelling notions of the service being merely a political gimmick.
Published March 28, 2024

Brightly coloured pink buses, seldom seen on the roads of Karachi, are like a fragile thread suturing the wounds borne by women after years of transport woes and facing harassment on the city’s streets.

Emblazoned with logos of various brands, and loaded with women belonging to different classes and ethnicities, the dedicated bus service, comprising 18 vehicles only runs on three main routes — Model Colony to Merewether Tower, North Karachi to Korangi and Numaish Chowrangi to Sea View Beach.

The pink bus fleet is part of a public initiative called the Sindh Peoples Intra District Project launched in 2021. The two parties involved in this project are the Government of Sindh (GsS) and the National Radio and Telecommunication Corporation (NRTC).

The latter is the contractor responsible for the maintenance and operations of the buses and their depots. Meanwhile, the GOS provides the subsidies and logistical support to run the project.

A bus for their own

Sitting on a bench at a footpath, parallel to Shahrea Faisal — the major thoroughfare connecting almost all of Karachi — was Wajahat Fatima who has commuted via the pink bus every day since its launch last year.

Putting aside the book she had been reading for the past hour while waiting for the bus, she stood up with great difficulty and stepped closer to the edge of the footpath once the bus was in sight.

The bus driver parked close to the edge of the footpath as the conductor came out to assist Fatima climb the bus. She sat on one of the two seats allocated for disabled persons. “Ever since I got into an accident last year there has been constant joint pain in my leg,” said Fatima, who works at a shipping company.

She took out a small portable stool from inside her bag and set it on the floor to rest her leg on. Although it occupied space, none of the women standing inside the crowded bus seemed to complain; rather they made space for her.

“The bus has been a blessing for women like me who need to sit down, men in the other bus service [red bus] hog up the seats for the disabled and refuse to stand up, even though they are able-bodied,” she lamented.

While Wajahat chooses to wait for the bus, most women board any available.

“All the buses, whether pink, green, red, or white, provide the same comfort. It doesn’t matter which bus you get on, as long as you don’t have to wait on the bus stand for too long — that gets very uncomfortable,” Zareen Khan noted, as she awaited a bus that would take her from II Chundrigarh Road to Model Town.

As per the NRTC operator, Abdul Shakoor, the pink bus is running with a headway time of 30 minutes, which means that one should be able to get a pink bus every 30 minutes on its three routes.

However, it seems to be far from the truth. The author herself was unable to get a bus even after waiting for two hours, from 3:30pm to 5:30pm on the Merewether Clock Tower and II Chundrigar bus stop for four days in a row.

When Dawn.com asked Shakoor about the shortage of buses, there was no response.

Unfulfilled promises

When the bus was launched last year, women and urban planners talking to the author had pointed out how safety at bus stops would be essential in making transport safe for women. At the time, then managing director (MD) of the Sindh Mass Transit Authority (SMTA) Zubair Channa had said that the authority was working on establishing more bus stops and that they “have asked the authorities and are waiting for approvals”.

However, the situation seems to remain the same today.

People waiting for the people bus on the footpath near Karachi Press Club roundabout
People waiting for the people bus on the footpath near Karachi Press Club roundabout

The incumbent MD of SMTA, Kamal Dayo, told Dawn.com that the authority and contractors did build some stops but the cameras, benches, and lights installed were stolen by “drug addicts”.

“We asked the Karachi Electric (KE) for light connections at the bus stops, however, the response had been lukewarm. Hence, to solve that issue, we took connections from nearby installations,” Dayo said. This is, however, illegal and when the KE found out, they sent detection bills to the operator worth Rs0.2 million.

“We are trying to address the objections raised by KE. However, it takes months; until then the contractors, who invested money in building the bus stop, can’t stop running the operations; it would cause them huge losses,” Bashir Hussain, the SMTA Director Admin & Finance, pointed out.

Dayo said that another problem is that there are 17 land-owning agencies in Karachi, and to make depots on even one route, they have to take permission from several different authorities. “There are bureaucratic hurdles in getting the facilities to the public because each department has its own laws, rules, and regulations. There should be exemptions when you’re running public projects,” said the SMTA MD.

In the inaugural ceremony, there was also talk of women driving these buses.

Following that promise, six months on, a bus driver training programme was launched in which 12 women were trained to drive these buses. To date, however, no woman has been seen in the driver’s seat.

“Two of the 12 women we trained had a Light Traffic Vehicle (LTV) license and after the training, they obtained the Heavy Traffic Vehicle (HTV) license,” said Huma Ashar, the gender specialist at SMTA. To be able to drive a pink bus, women need a permanent HTV license. To obtain this, a person needs three years of experience driving an LTV, followed by three months on a learner’s HTV license.

Most women selected for training had no prior experience, hence, they were only given training on LTV licenses. However, as the women trained belonged to less-privileged backgrounds, they lacked access to driving vehicles in the first place. It therefore made it highly unlikely for them to have enough driving experience to apply for an HTV license.

The two women who have received a learner’s HTV licence are unable to drive the pink buses because the contractors are hesitant to put them on board as drivers.

“We are trying to convince the contractors to put them in the bus as co-drivers so they can observe, learn and practice but they [contractors] are reluctant to do so,” said Ashraf. He added that they will start training new batches of women from May.

Another problem for commuters who want to use pink buses is the lack of information.

While there is an app called the People Bus Service, developed by Kentkart, which gives information about the routes, closest bus stops, and tariffs, it lacks important features, as pointed out by users in the review section of the app on Google store, such as live tracking of the buses as well as specific information about pink buses.

Users also said that the option to buy tickets is unavailable online which they found inconvenient.

Cracks in the system

When the provincial minister for transport and mass transit, Sharjeel Memon added two routes to the pink bus in March last year, after the successful run of the bus on a single route, he said that they would add more in the future.

WOMEN wait for their turn to board a Pink Bus to be the first to use the women-only service in Hyderabad.—PPI
WOMEN wait for their turn to board a Pink Bus to be the first to use the women-only service in Hyderabad.—PPI

After that, pink buses were launched in Hyderabad, however, their operation quickly ceased due to a “lack of ridership”.

When Dawn.com asked Dayo about the lack of growth, he said that the ridership of the bus is very low — at only 1,800 per day — which makes it unsustainable for the operator.

“It is us who have forcefully told them to run the operations. Otherwise, it would have closed down,” Dayo noted.

Dayo’s statistics are, however, contradictory to those provided by the project director of NRTC, Sohaib Shafique, who said that the ridership of pink buses stands at 2,700 per day on weekdays and 1,000 per day on weekends. He added that for the whole of last year, they have worked on understanding the pattern on which women use the bus and in the future, they will incorporate the lessons learnt to improve the service.

For now, Shafique said that the cost is spread among and absorbed by the whole operation of Peoples Bus Service. Moreover, they have increased the headway from an initial nine minutes to 15-20 minutes.

“We will keep it running for the next 12 years with concessions from the government and in the meantime, figure out a way to run it sustainably without the GoS,” added Shafique.

One of the ways the contractors plan to make the operation sustainable is by introducing inter-feeder routes which means that the buses would go beyond the main arteries on which they are currently running, onboarding people who are far from the main roads.

“The connection will hopefully increase the ridership, making the service sustainable,” said the project director.

“We are also getting some non-fare revenues such as through advertisements on buses and bus stops, but it isn’t much,” he explained.

While the people running the operations are figuring out a way to keep the pink bus operational, daily commuters fear that the closure of the service will cause great problems.

“It would be hell to commute in the red bus; they shouldn’t even think about closing it down, rather they should put more buses in this fleet,” said Fatima.

For now, the service has run smoothly for a year. The speculation that it was a political gimmick seems to have lost merit as buses are still being seen on the roads even after the elections in which the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) won with a majority.

Regardless of whom it benefits and the popularity it has brought to the PPP, the pink bus has become a safe haven for women in Karachi, giving them the much-needed courage to step into the public after years of harassment and unwanted male gaze on the roads.

Header image: Pink bus — photo taken from Wikimedia Commons