Ancient buses, dream trains-By Kunwar Idris 1

AS far back in time as a senior citizen can recall, say 40 years ago, the federal and provincial governments and the municipality of Karachi (also a government now) have been talking of a mass transport system for the city.

At various stages projects have been contemplated or sanctioned for rapid transit corridors, for elevated roads and rails and for CNG buses.None of these promises or projects materialised nor will they do so as far as surviving senior citizens can see. What actually has been happening may be quickly recounted here for the sake of nostalgia. The trams which were Karachi’s pride stopped running 35 years ago and their track from Keamari to Soldier Bazaar to Cantt Station lies buried under layers of asphalt; the circular railway (it was not even semi-circular) closed down 20 years ago, its remnants lie in ruin; the bus fleet has been aging and dwindling.

Today, the newest bus on the road is 20 years old and the oldest 60 years with the exception of the few hundred buses that came under the Nawaz Sharif government’s loan and subsidy scheme in the 1990s. Huge sums that have gone into the construction of the city’s flyovers and underpasses are meant to benefit only the motorists. Public buses are not permitted to use them — not even the horrendously expensive and delayed Lyari freeway.

The only conclusion that can be drawn from what was promised and what actually happened is that successive governments were either being irresponsible or were knowingly making fun of the citizens or fooling them. Whatever it was the habit hasn’t died. The three urban transport schemes recently announced, or sanctioned, are likely to meet a fate no different from that of the grand plans of the past.

The first, and most authentic, of the three is the revival of Karachi’s circular railway — with the circle completed and spurs added — costing $872m over three years. This capital cost which is based on the prices of 2006 will surely double given the present rate of inflation and almost certainly delay the completion of the project. Resultantly, the stipulated single trip fair of Rs50 will also double.

Though the Japanese government is said to have agreed to meet the foreign exchange component — $654m — and the federal government will provide the local cost of $218m in rupees, the final approval, crucially, hinges on a commitment by the Sindh and city governments that neither of the two will demand any subsidy from the federal government for operating losses.

Unmindful of this condition, a row has already erupted between the province and the city over who would head the board — the transport minister or the nazim — which is to oversee the operations by a private company. Seemingly, the row is not about who can do a better job but the patronage it involves. It invokes a fear similar to that among country peasants for whom the robbers arrived on the scene before their village came up.

Leaving the capital cost, operational subsidy and management issues aside, the project will benefit only a small segment of the population if buses do not connect each railway station with localities in the vicinity. Even if that can be organised, which is unlikely, the commuters would rather take a bus all the way from home to work than wait in transit and pay the amount twice over. That was the chief reason for the huge loss and ultimate closure of the semi-circular railway.

The circular railway project, both for reasons of huge cost and limited benefit, is wholly unfeasible. So also is the rapid-corridor project for which the city district government claims to have secured aid to the tune of $800m from the Asian Development Bank. It can be straightaway dismissed as no more than boastful deception. So should be the claim of the nazim that he had already received Rs2.5bn for CNG — from where, the city government’s propaganda brochure doesn’t say.

The federal government, indeed, has approved a project envisaging subsidy to private investors who elect to operate CNG buses in major cities with Karachi getting the first priority. But no operator has come forth in a year.

The CNG bus scheme has lost whatever little attraction it had for investors with a recent government announcement proposing to equalise the price of all types of fuel. The private sector now can be persuaded to buy and operate CNG buses only if one or the other government was to pick up the difference between the price of the diesel and CNG which is around 30 per cent.

Fifty years is a period long enough to deceive commuters and keep their hopes alive. The schemes now being bandied about hold no promise of improvement for city transport for another decade. In fact, the situation will aggravate if we do not resort to the only practical and affordable remedy which is to modernise and expand the bus fleet.

This is the solution always put across by those who know the transport business or, like this writer, have unsuccessfully tried to regulate it. Mr Enrique Penalosa, who turned Bogota’s chaotic transport system into the envy of the developing world, was godsend at this moment of critical choice. He too has broadly supported this very pragmatic approach with his experience and demonstrable success as mayor of Bogota.

As advised by Mr Penalosa, wherever the road width permits tram lines should be laid alongside the bus lanes. That would revive a part of Karachi’s folklore besides providing its citizens an economical means of transportation. The planning commission chief Salman Faruqi who is more of a doer than a dreamer should lose no time in putting his money on Mr Penalosa than the international financiers and big-ticket players at home. Both have an axe to grind.

But Mr Faruqi’s first and almost insurmountable task should be to make the government reconcile itself to the principle of subsidising the urban transport operations as it is done the world over — even in the freest of market economies. Punjab under Shahbaz Sharif has started doing it in a modest way with visible improvement in the quality of city bus services. Sindh is there only to dither or dream and squabble.

Source: Daily dawn, 28/9/2008


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