KARACHI: Even after its recent inclusion in the list of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects, the Karachi Circular Railway revival seems to be an uphill battle due to the heavy encroachment upon its route as no strategy has yet been announced for their removal despite the lapse of a deadline set in this regard by the provincial authorities, it emerged on Sunday.
As there are around 7,650 structures, including 4,653 houses, illegally built on 67 acres out of 360-acre land required for the KCR, the Karachi commissioner had been asked by the chief minister to design a strategy in consultation with deputy commissioners for their removal and submit its report by Jan 17. However, sources said, no such report has been submitted till date, while residents who have been living on the encroached land are in a fix about their fate.
Babu told Dawn that he grew up in a hut built on one side of the KCR tracks in Block 13-D of Gulshan-i-Iqbal. “We, children, took care not to tread on the track as the signal was down,” he said while pointing to a rusty old signal pole up ahead. “There also used to be gates to stop the road traffic while the train passed through,” he shared.
“Now I live here with my wife and seven children. We have also built a small temple in one of the huts for pooja. The local mosque also helped us by installing a hand pump after digging a well for water here,” he gestured to a woman washing clothes near the hand pump.
He said that he knew about Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and now the CPEC being associated with the KCR revival. “It is a good thing. But tell us where are we to go? We have been living here for years,” he said.
Encroachment by people on the railway land is a big issue to tackle. According to a survey carried out a few years ago by the KCR project management, there are thousands of people who have illegally occupied this land. There are plans to move them to another piece of railway land at Jumma Goth near Landhi and Bin Qasim where they would be given flats along with a sum of Rs50,000 per family.
The situation was not as grim before 1999 when the KCR was finally discontinued. The reason for the discontinuation was that the Pakistan Railways was said to be making a loss by running the trains all over the city with few passengers taking advantage of the facility. Another version suggests that private transporters conspired with some corrupt staffers in the railways to fulfill their desire to bag the bulk of passengers for themselves. Whatever, happened then, it led to the end of KCR followed by several failed attempts at reviving it.
Recalling the fond memories of the KCR, Manzoor Ahmed Razi, chairman of the Railway Workers Union, said he was the first one to issue a KCR ticket. “It was back in 1970. One year after joining the Railways as booking clerk at the City Station, I was posted at platforms number 5 and 6 in 1970. It being still a new thing, there were hardly any passengers then to take the train to travel within the city. That’s when our general manager, vice chairman and two divisional officers formed a queue outside the ticketing window for tickets,” he remembered. “The Pakistan Television was there to record the moment. I sold four tickets worth Re1 as each cost 25 paisa,” he said.
Using trains as a means for short travel was the idea of former President Ayub Khan in 1962. At first the trains moving internally had the Landhi to Malir main line. By 1969 the track was extended to Wazir Mansion with a station named Wazir Mansion Station also coming about at the location. Following that came the train stations at Lyari, SITE and Korangi but all local trains wouldn’t go beyond Wazir Mansion. “The people would complain that they can’t get on a local train from the City Station so the Wazir Mansion track was extended to the Karachi Port Trust building near Tower. It was also called the KPT Station,” he said.
Meanwhile, the City Station with its four platforms got two more platforms in 1970, platforms number 5 and 6, near the National Bank of Pakistan head office. “That was when the KCR, as we knew it, was complete,” Mr Razi said, adding that KCR also used to concession tickets of Rs17 for travelling as much as one liked for a month. For students, it used to be Rs11 for one month. “And if you wanted to travel one time only, the ticket cost 25 paisa.”
There were 28 trains for travelling the distance between Landhi and Malir Cantt. Moving upwards and downwards on the track made it 56 trips. Some 13 trains travelled on the rest of the tracks around the city, making it 26 trips up and down the tracks. “Not hundreds, but thousands of people used the KCR as a means of travel.
But things changed in 1999 when the concessions for frequent travelers were no longer on offer. And each ticket cost Rs10. “Then President Pervez Musharraf and his Minister for Communications and Railways Lieutenant General (retired) Javed Ashraf Qazi decided to just discontinue KCR after realising that the Pakistan Railways was losing money in running the trains as there were no longer so many passengers using them. They also thought that the locomotives could be put to better use,” he said.
Later, the JICA was approached to help revive the KCR. But by then the tracks had already been buried under loads of garbage. And where the garbage didn’t accumulate, people encroached by building huts on and around the tracks.
The KCR track running along Sharea Faisal to the Karachi City Station, booking offices, station master’s offices, meanwhile, are still intact. There is a 43-km line around Karachi, which could be dug out and cleaned up for use. Laying new tracks, to Surjani and New Karachi can also be done in less than a year. Former mayor of Karachi Niamatullah Khan also thought that the KCR could be revived by bringing in retired drivers of the Pakistan Railways. Loans have been lent by the World Bank and set aside for the project but it seems to be a non-starter, nevertheless. “Even with funds available from the World Bank, there was a tug of war between the city government, the Sindh government, the federal government and Pakistan Railways all wondering who should be spending the money. Now we have China stepping in, which is like a gift for the people of Karachi,” said a source within the government. “But realistically speaking, even if this project is a part of CPEC, it would take two to three years to complete,” he added.
Published in Dawn January 23rd, 2017