A void left by Qingqis

Published: August 25, 2015
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The writer is a graduate of LUMS, where he researched on local governments as part of his thesis. He currently works at a research organisation in Karachi and tweets @dkab91

The writer is a graduate of LUMS, where he researched on local governments as part of his thesis. He currently works at a research organisation in Karachi and tweets @dkab91

With at least 16 million people, Karachi is the largest city in Pakistan, and one of the largest in the world. Yet, it does not have a mass transit system to serve the transport needs of its residents. The most recent form of mass transit that existed was the Karachi Circular Railway, which was shut down in 1999. Since then, several new schemes to increase the number of buses that ply the roads have failed, with the result that their numbers have stayed roughly constant over the last 15 years. But with a growing population, the demand for public transport has only increased.

Since buses, which are old and unreliable (the newest model of the bus is from 1980), have not been able to fulfill the demand, in 2008, an informal mode of transport, the Qingqi, came up in the city. A Qingqi is a motorcycle-rickshaw; it has the front of a motorcycle and the back of a rickshaw. Depending on the variant, it can seat four to 12 people. The first such vehicle was a low-cost Chinese innovation, which was called the Qingqi. The adapted name is now used to refer to similar vehicles being manufactured locally.

Qingqi owners soon organised and started operating on defined routes. The vehicle’s popularity rose largely because it was cheaper, connected passengers to areas where buses did not go, protected women from harassment and protected people in general from muggings. The latter aspect in particular, is important in Karachi because muggings in other vehicles, particularly buses, are much more common. Consequently, the number of Qingqis grew rapidly over the last five years, to approximately 65,000 as of March 2015. However, Qingqis are illegal as they are not registered vehicles and as a result their owners, represented by the All Karachi Qingqi Welfare Association (AKQWA) have been embroiled in court cases since 2010. Earlier this month, Qingqis were finally banned in Karachi (and the rest of Sindh).

As part of some fieldwork conducted in February and March this year, I interviewed several stakeholders in Karachi’s transport sector, including the president of AKQWA, Safdar Shah. Approximately 65,000 Qingqis operated in Karachi on 400 routes. Simple back-of-the-envelope calculations tell us that there were roughly 97,000 people (and consequently, their families) whose source of income relied directly on this vehicle. All of these people have become unemployed with the stroke of a pen. In addition, according to a report, 66 per cent of public transport users travel for less than 10 kilometres. This large chunk of users was primarily being served by Qingqis, who will now have to seek a substitute mode of transport. Stories of people, particularly women, not being able to reach their offices on time as a result of the ban have already been reported in this newspaper. Thus, there are a significant number of people in Karachi who have been affected adversely by the ban on Qingqis as no adequate alternative mode of transport is currently being provided.

Qingqis came to be increasingly used because there was a gap between the demand and supply of public transport, which the buses and minibuses were not able to meet. This gap has been created again, and is likely to grow wider because the number of routes on which buses operate have decreased by 33 per cent since 2008. Karachi desperately needs a system of mass transit. Although the Sindh government has announced that work on a Metro bus will begin by the end of this month, at a minimum, this will take a year to be up and running.

Sindh could have followed Punjab’s example. In Lahore, instead of banning them outright, a plan was developed to phase out Qingqis after the Metro bus became operational. This plan also permitted Qingqis in those areas where public transport was otherwise not readily available, such as in the walled city. Moreover, alternative employment was to be provided to Qingqi owners and drivers.

There is a reason for the popularity of Qingqis. Without any other alternative form of mass transit being introduced in the short term, it is likely that another informal form of transport will come up in its place. Indeed, a friend who lives in Orangi Town tells me that rickshaws have already started operating on the exact same routes as Qingqis. However, these are significantly more expensive for the consumer, and unlikely to be feasible in the long term. Nevertheless, it is only a matter of time before these rickshaws spread to the rest of the city as well, highlighting the failure in planning and governance on the part of the government.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 25th,  2015.

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Reader Comments (3)

  • S.R.H. Hashmi
    Aug 25, 2015 - 7:41AM

    Here is a very thoughtful article by someone who knows what he is talking about and feels that Pakistan was not created not just to cater to the lust and greed of the elite class and that the masses also have rights. And that if the government does not have the decency to provide adequate transport facilities to the masses, it has no right even to withdraw without notice, and without providing affordable alternative means of transport, whatever has been made available through private initiative. Apart from creating great inconvenience to a lot of people: men, women and children, such a course has also the effect of putting a large number of people out of job, forcing their families to starve.

    The efficiency of the government can be judged by the fact that this city once had a circular railway system which ran over hundred trains a day. However, due to corruption and inefficiency of the government, this system was closed down ostensibly for making a small loss while other state owned entities making losses hundred times of that were allowed to continue. And during the last decade, the Japanese government twice offered a long term loan on nominal interest rate for the rehabilitation of the Karachi Circular Railway but on both occasions, the loan lapsed because the dynamic Sindh Government led by an over-eighty Chief Minister failed to complete the formalities in time.

    The city also had Karachi Road Transport Corporation buses as well as the large Green buses, which also went off the road due to government inefficiency.

    In these circumstances, the government has no right to withdraw without notice whatever transport facilities are available to the people with limited means. If there are problems about registration and design of the Qingqis, surely these can be attended to over a period of time in an orderly manner. Surely, just taking these off the road without providing an affordable alternative is nothing but callousness, not that the people can hope to get better treatment from this government, but this really is the limit.

    KarachiRecommend

  • Burjor Rustomji
    Aug 25, 2015 - 12:34PM

    The Qingqis run on a motorcycle engine usually 90 c.c, a regular Sazgar type rickshaw runs on a 200 c.c. engine. If a 90c.c. engine can transport 4 to 12 people, it will be difficult for any transport system to compete. However the Qingqis engine is connected to just one rear wheel, which makes this a very dangerous vehicle for the passengers and driver, especially when turning or braking, also there is no reverse gear, as motorcycles do not reverse. This is basically a very basic mechanical system which does not have differential gears connecting the rear wheels. Governments have to provide, if they cannot provide an alternate better system, then, these vehicles should be brought back. Alternatively the engineering of the Qingqis should be upgraded so the drive chain is connected to a differential gears to drive the rear axle, this will enable better turning and control, but still will not be able to reverse, because motorcylcle engines do not have a reverse gear. Recommend

  • Ali S
    Aug 25, 2015 - 6:12PM

    Well written. If Qingqis are really being banned for the reason that they’re illegal and unsafe, then they should be replaced with 9- and 12-seater rickshaws which have better suspension and are registered. Because right now it’s common Karachiites who can’t afford personal transport who suffer because of this ban, while those who make up these laws at their whims travel in air-conditioned cars.Recommend

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