Now, of course, when I talk about the mass transport system, I am referring to the large intra-city bus transit system. As unrefined, informal, and crass as it may seem, it is this system which supports the commuting needs of residents from various areas all over the city.
With the rising cost of fuel, vehicles and general transportation costs, it is this system which provides a cheap and reliable form of transport, which is largely managed in private hands.
However, the system is perceived very differently by residents of the city. For example, pedestrians, motorbike riders and car drivers will most definitely complain about the way they are driven on the road, having no regard for cars and bikes alike.
Many will even talk about the transport mafia that exists, making success impossible for new entrants in the industry. Some people may even call the overall system inefficient. However, my view is formed upon by a certain incident that forced a deeper insight into the business model that exists.
A certain bus journey of mine got extended by a snooze call, the embarrassing details of which I would rather forgo to focus on the industry itself. But that journey took me across a major chunk of Karachi, some areas which I might not ever visit otherwise.
I sat on the route W-21, which basically begins its way from Qayyumabad, going through DHA and heading to its final stop near Manghopir, crossing areas such as Sharah-e-Faisal, Liaquatabad, and, most intriguingly for me, Qasba colony and Kati Pahari, a bully pulpit for ethnic and political violence in recent days.
To give a small overview of how the industry itself works, all buses follow a specific route (the W-21 in my case), which cater to certain areas of the city. These routes are largely owned privately, many being established for decades. When people state the transport mafia perception, it all starts off with barriers to entry in creating new transport routes. It involves permissions, approvals, participation of bus and terminal owners, and finally ongoing publicity and route adjustments to make it workable.
I, personally, would disagree with the transport mafia aspect as there have been cases stated where new entrants have established themselves successfully. However, it is the difficulty of the start-up tasks involved which undermine success more than any other factor.
After taking on an established route, two critical factors involved are the participation of bus-owners, whose vehicles will cater to the defined course, and the fleet management aspect of the terminals.
After some digging for the economics of it, I discovered that a used, operable bus can be purchased from starting prices of Rs 600,000 on which bodywork is done to suit the budget and required capacity for the route. Drivers and conductors are hired on daily wages, numbers dependent on their arrangement with the owner. While all vehicles come with the standard diesel engine, most operating on the roads have switched to CNG.
Originated in Lahore, a unique innovation allows the diesel engine to be converted to CNG which would otherwise require an engine replacement. This conversion helps operators save up to 50 per cent on fuel costs. Maintenance costs depend on the condition of the vehicle, and its upkeep. But summing up, one vehicle can provide an average return of up to 50 per cent a year.
One can understand the method to their madness at a closer look, but the general public perception of operators is not very positive, and they understand it is so.
Given the implications of a vehicles size, even the slightest hit incidents often bring out public wrath and fury upon drivers. Many bus drivers have fallen victim to being beaten by the public over the slightest of issues.
In addition, strikes in the city bring a lot of damage to these buses, which are set ablaze very frequently by strikers of different parties.
One of the drivers I met stated an incident where his bus was stopped by youths who tried to threaten him off the bus to set it on fire, but he resisted.
“I own the bus and it is my livelihood. I resisted getting off, even though they had a gun pointed at me. Eventually they just went away.”
That being said, not all his peers are so lucky. But on a more positive note, drivers and terminal operators assist and coordinate on such days when the risk factor is higher.
Also, it must be noted here that operating a bus on an established route has fewer barriers to entry and is a more possible enterprise than pursuing a new route.
The other critical aspect is the bus terminals and their fleet management. Referred to as ‘Adda’s’, bus terminals can be owned privately, or by the cantonment or district authority, such as the case in DHA, and they manage the flow of the vehicles on the road. Given the large size of land required to accommodate the vehicles, the cost of land involved is relatively high and makes the whole project more capital intensive.
As an observer, I saw a group of down-to-earth, pragmatic operators and drivers making the best of what they had. There were arguments, scuffles, jokes and laughter, but in the end they all went back to their respective tasks, all in one stable flow.
Although because of Ramazan, most of them were more aggressive towards each other than normal, but I guess that was largely acceptable to everyone there.
Contrary to what may be perceived, I saw a very efficient, although slightly informal, fleet management system. Every incoming and outgoing vehicle has tokens issued which determine its timing and position on the route, with specific time limits to reach stops. If a vehicle is late at a specific stop, it has to pay a penalty which goes to the terminal owner. This is what prevents buses from stopping at every few meters to pick up passengers, only going to specified stops on the route. Well, at least for the majority of it.
Terminal owners also manage their accounts with local traffic authorities, with traffic tickets and penalties being managed by them. For this service, terminal owners charge Rs 110 per vehicle every time it is parked at the stop.
There is no doubt that this business is overall a very profitable enterprise, and while the system still has major room for improvement, one must understand that for a privately-owned industry lacking educated human resource which is inhibiting its growth and upgradation, they are doing the best with what they have.
For what it’s worth and oft repeated, this sector lacks bureaucratic oversight, or more so government support, which can enable its evolution into a more modern Mass Rapid Transit system, which is the requirement of a strong city like Karachi.
However, in spite of all that may hold back progress, we must appreciate the system which helps the city’s residents not just commute, but also helps facilitate their livelihood on a daily basis.
Muhammad Shayan Lakdawalla is a Multimedia Content Producer at Dawn.com