KARACHI, April 8: To handle the growing load on what is widely regarded as an inefficient transport system, Karachi needs to replace the three- to four-decade-old minibuses, coaches and buses with 10,000 large-sized buses particularly when the city’s road network is already packed with all sorts of vehicles.

Transporters say that if 15,000 old vehicles, including 7,000 coaches and 8,000 minibuses, were removed from the roads, the city would need 10,000 big buses to meet the growing demand of public transport. At present, 1,800 large-sized buses are being operated on intra-city routes, while 1,500 others are being plied from and to factories as well as various public and private offices on a contract basis.

The transport department, however, considers these vehicles fit for the roads. Transport operators are of the view that even if 10,000 new buses are not inducted there will still be a need for 10,000 to 15,000 more minibuses and coaches, stating that the ill-maintained road network cannot bear any further load.

Despite paying heavy fares, a large number of passengers have to undergo unbearable discomfort while travelling in public transport. Many have to risk their lives either by travelling on rooftops or clinging perilously to fast-moving vehicles. Small-sized seats fitted mostly with tight cushions, narrow aisles and horrible interior add to woes of passengers. Besides, traffic rules are often defied by drivers of public transport as they pick or drop passengers from anywhere on roads with no consideration for bus stops at all. In addition, travellers and other motorists have to put up with rude conductors and drivers who often join in a verbal skirmish.

According to transport operators, conductors and drivers earn Rs300 to Rs400 a day. They do try to accommodate passengers who want them to stop the bus on any spot of their convenience.

Alternative system

The transport department has never paid heed to commuters’ hue and cry. Successive governments have failed to improve the transport system. It is believed that an effective circular railway system could solve the problem. However, analysts consider the transport mafia responsible for creating hurdles in the revival of the circular railway system. They observe that transport cartels have not invested either in renovating the old buses or bringing new buses on the roads on various pretexts.

However, Karachi Transport Ittehad president Syed Irshad Hussain Bukhari feels that rising costs have rendered the transport business unfeasible in the city. Describing the recent increase in fares as some relief, he says still the profit margin in the transport business has shrunk considerably.

“People baulk at investing in transport because of fragile law and order situation in Karachi. For instance, we receive Rs200,000 as the compensation amount in case a bus worth Rs4 million to R5 million is set ablaze in any act of violence,” adds Mr Bukhari.

To solve transport problems, he says the government can facilitate public and transport operators by purchasing the old public transport vehicles from them. Besides, the government can ease the terms and conditions on the purchase of CNG buses as a bus consumes 100-litre diesel worth Rs4,400 a day roughly.

Unprofessional investors

However, the director sales and marketing in Hinopak Motor Limited, Mohammad Irfan Shaikh, see unprofessional investors behind the failure of the transport system. He says the transport system failed because unprofessional investors, having no background of transport business, entered the field by purchasing buses under the Urban Transport Scheme (UTS) and later defaulted on payments. In contrast, he says the UTS became a success story in Punjab where 1,200 to 1,400 buses are being plied as compared to 250 to 300 in Karachi.

According to him, transport is available to 60 per cent of the city’s population only. The solution to Karachi transport problem lies in running new CNG buses only, he says, adding that the government should offer help by providing subsidy both on locally-assembled or imported CNG buses because locally-produced CNG buses are costlier by 30 per cent than diesel buses. He says the Punjab government had offered 33 per cent subsidy which was later reduced to 22 per cent.

For the last three to four years, investors have not purchased large-sized buses generally plied on intra-city routes, says the deputy general manager of HML, Adil Shah. They purchased the vehicles when UTS was launched, but got defaulted on account of failure to make monthly instalments, followed by the rising cost of running transport business in view of frequent increase in diesel prices.Currently, he says, only government and a few private institutions are purchasing buses from the local industry. The local industry has the capacity to meet the rising transport demand but investors are cautious about putting in money because of a very low return on the operation cost.

The New Delhi model

Co-ordinator Central Secretariat Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Taj Haider, while sharing his views on how to bring about improvement in the transport system, says that induction of new CNG buses is the need of the hour. In addition, conversion of existing buses into CNG can also play a major role in cutting diesel import bill as well as transport fares, besides improving the environment, generating jobs and opening business avenues like setting up of CNG stations and gas kit manufacturing units. In this regard, the government may keep in view New Delhi as the role model where majority of buses have been converted into CNG, he adds.

Besides, a well-organised circular railway system can prove beneficial. There is a need to run a local train with one to two coaches, which can accommodate 200 passengers. These coaches can be built locally at the Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works (KSEW), he says.

He does not agree that some kind of transport mafia has taken over the transport sector in Karachi. “In the presence of a powerful government no mafia could function openly,” he says, adding that a solution that is beneficial to everyone will be acceptable to all.

Targets unmet

Muhammad Adil Siddiqui, ex-minister for transport and a sitting

MPA who is also a member of Muttahida Quami Movement Rabita Committee, points out that an effective circular railway network, implementation of Karachi Mass Transit Programme and CNG buses can resolve consumers’ plight.

To renovate and upgrade the existing network of the circular railway, about Rs5 billion to Rs7 billion is required, he says, adding that he tried hard by talking to leading stock brokers for issuing bonds and making a private company to look after the railway affairs but the plan could not be materialised. Even the federal government was asked to give guarantees to the Chinese government for running the railway system but that too failed to become a reality, he adds.

Mr Adil held five portfolios of labour, transport, industries, commerce and cooperation. His ministry released a booklet titled ‘Spectacular five years (from 2003-2007)’ but the transport sector covered only three pages as compared to other sectors. The transport sector was given last pages in the booklet because nothing significant had been done, he claims.

According to him, he tried to introduce 2,000 CNG buses but the first shipment of 26 buses was held back at the port owing to reports that the buses contained Indian parts and accessories. He says the former prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, and caretaker prime minister Mohammadmian Soomro had been repeatedly asked to release the buses as investors were in distress, but over the last one year these buses have been rusting at the port with surging demurrages of million of rupees.