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.