KARACHI: The newly-appointed transport minister, Owais Qadir Shah, has granted a week's time to ride-hailing services, Uber and Careem, to regularise their operations, failing which the services would be banned in the province.
The move comes days after a woman jumped out of a speeding cab registered with one of the ride-hailing services, later accusing the driver of harassment. The driver, who was arrested and subsequently released on bail, denied the charges.
In his maiden meeting with officials of the transport department on Monday, Shah warned that the ride-hailing services would no longer be permitted to operate in the province if they failed to register with the government and obtain route permits for their vehicles.
"We will take action and shut these services if permission is not obtained from the provincial government under the Motor Vehicle Ordinance, 1965," said the minister.
Shah directed the transport officials to convey his directives to the companies, adding that they were also considering shutting down the online motorcycle taxi services being offered by Bykea and Careem. "No one has requested us for permission. In case of any untoward incident, the Sindh government will be held responsible, so we must take concrete measures to close this motorcycle service," he said, adding that the cab services rake in huge profits and avoid paying taxes to the government.
Amid ride-hailing boom, Careem's estimated valuation rises over $2b
This is not the first time the Sindh government has woken up to the need for these ride-hailing companies to register their services. In February 2017, the then transport minister, Syed Nasir Hussain Shah, had even ordered to ban the services, before revoking the orders in the wake of strong backlash from citizens. "The government has no intention to ban Careem and Uber, but we want to regulate them," Nasir had remarked.
At the same time, the Sindh government had also announced to approach the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to block the apps of the online cab services.
Later, a petition was also filed in the Sindh High Court (SHC), seeking direction to curb the "illegal operation" of Careem and Uber. The petitioner, Ahsan Puri, alleged that the foreign-originated companies were conducting operations in Pakistan through the internet and mobile phone applications without proper registration.
The companies, Puri claimed, were violating provisions of the Sindh Motor Vehicle Tax Act, 1958, the Motor Vehicle Rules, 1959, and the Motor Vehicle Ordinance, 1965, which specifically provide that no non-commercial vehicle could be used for commercial purposes.
In April 2017, SHC asked the provincial authorities and the ride-hailing services to come up with a mechanism to regulate the vehicles. The court was later informed that the provincial transport department, Careem and Uber had reached an agreement, under which their vehicles would be registered for commercial use and permits issued under the Motor Vehicles Ordinance, 1965.
Uber introduces new safety features for users
In the absence of a sound public transport system, the ride-hailing services were hailed as a welcome relief by the urban middle classes of the city when they were launched in 2016. The online services were a cheaper and more efficient alternative to the rickshaws and taxis that charged exorbitant fares and often did not meet safety standards.
On Monday, Uber responded to the minister's warning with a sweetly-worded statement released to the media. "Sindh Government has been supportive of disruptive technologies in recent years and we appreciate the role they have played in providing masses a more convenient and affordable mode of transport along with creating numerous economic opportunities," the statement read. "We are looking forward to working with the Sindh government to address their concerns," it added.
Ban on CNG kits
During the meeting on Monday, Owais also took strong exception to the CNG kits installed in passenger and school buses and vans and asked the transport department officials to compile a report on their status and submit the same to him within a a week. "Since 2015, there has been ban on CNG kits in school vans and passenger buses. Why you have failed to take action against them?" he questioned the officials.
The minister was also informed about encroachments on land belonging to the transport department, including depots and bus stands. "I will speak to the police and other officials and will evacuate the public property from the encroachers," he said, besides directing the transport secretary to start a crackdown against buses running without route permits. The issues of Green Lines and Orange Line Bus Rapid Transit projects also came under discussion.