Najeebullah Khan gets nostalgic as he talks about his commuting experiences. “Travelling by train was easy,” he says of his journeys on the Karachi Circular Railway (KCR) between his home and work. The commute was “convenient, relaxing and safe”.
Najeebullah, who appears to be in his late fifties, would take a KCR train to travel from his home in a colony next to Karachi’s City Railway Station to a textile mill 25 kilometres to the east, in Landhi, for years. During the 45-minute journey, he and his fellow commuters would play cards and board games such as ludo.
Buses cannot afford this luxury, he says. They do not even have enough space to seat everyone. Many of their passengers have to stand in the aisles; others are forced to sit on top of the buses because there is not enough space inside. So even though Najeebullah witnessed a considerable deterioration in the quality of KCR’s train service over time, it was still “much better than the buses”.
Samina, a middle-aged woman, also has similar pleasant memories of her KCR rides. She would take a train from Malir to attend school in Kharadar in the early 1980s. “Women did not have to face any problems in the trains. There was no eve-teasing.”
KCR was commissioned in 1964, originally to help employees of Pakistan Railways to travel between their jobs – at and around the city and cantt stations – and their residences in Karachi’s eastern neighbourhoods. “It became a full circle of 44 kilometres in 1970 and connected Karachi’s four main work areas: the port, the Sindh Industrial Trading Estate, the city’s central commercial areas (such as Saddar) and the Landhi Industrial Area,” reads an article published in the Herald in March 2016.
KCR remained the public transport of choice for the people of Karachi till 1984 when the number of its trains was cut down. Reasons for the move included lack of maintenance and repair, a yawning gap between rising expenditure (due to higher fuel and operational costs) and decreasing revenue (due to subsidised tickets) and the government’s inability to pour in money to improve tracks and stations.
The number of level crossings – points where a railway line crosses a road or any other thoroughfare – also increased in the city, causing KCR trains to take longer to complete their journey. At one stage, “there were 34 level crossings on the KCR route,” according to Athar Khan, director general of the Karachi Mass Transit Cell, a government department.
KCR finally shut down in 1999, forcing thousands of its daily users, like Najeebullah, to travel by buses. “It cost me 80 rupees for a round trip to work on a bus as opposed to the 20 rupees it would take on the KCR,” he says. And he had to change buses midway on each side of the journey. In just three years, he left his job in Landhi and found another one near his home.
Najeebullah’s liking for KCR still remains as strong as ever. People could board those trains carrying big loads of goods and luggage with them and there would still be ample space for everyone, he reminisces. “There were separate seating arrangements for women, providing them with a comfortable and safe environment as compared to buses.” And, he says, there were no incidents of mugging on the trains, something quite common on the buses.
Karachi’s road transport, indeed, is a nightmare for commuters. The city has 3.9 million registered vehicles (one for every five or so individuals living in the city if its total population is taken to be 20 million). Private vehicles and motorcycles make up 36.5 per cent and 47.3 per cent, respectively, of this total but they are used by only 18 per cent of commuters. In comparison, public transport, which constitutes just 4.5 per cent of the total number of vehicles, is used by 42 per cent of commuters.
These statistics explain why Karachi’s roads are clogged with vehicles but at the same time there is never enough public transport in the city. Revival of KCR is seen as a means to plug this demand-supply gap in public transport: it is expected to cater to 700,000 commuters a day.
About seven years ago, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the Sindh government started looking into the possibility of collaborating to revive KCR. One of the first steps they decided to take was to conduct a survey of informal settlements that had encroached upon most parts of the KCR route. Three years later, JICA issued a survey report, listing 4,030 residential and 629 commercial structures built on KCR land.
Another three years passed without any development as the provincial government and JICA could not agree on anything: the latter wanted the removal of the encroachments but was also worried, among other things, about the human displacement it would cause; the former sought firm financial commitments before moving against the encroachers. In 2016, JICA decided that it would not finance KCR’s revival.
In came the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The Sindh government has recently received commitment from China to finance the project. Last month, Central Development Working Party, a high-level committee within the Federal Ministry of Planning, Development & Reform that weighs costs and benefits of foreign-funded development schemes, accorded its approval to bringing KCR back to life through Chinese financing worth two billion US dollars.
Once the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council, the highest political body empowered to approve big-budget projects, also gives its go ahead, Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah will be performing the new KCR’s groundbreaking ceremony. That could take place as early as August or as late as December this year, say different sources in the provincial government.
As per the official plans, the revived KCR will have an elevated track for 28.18 kilometres of its route to help its trains avoid level crossings; 24 of its 34 stations will also be on that elevated track.
The obstacles on its route, however, have increased — quite literally. Going by the data collected by Sindh’s transport department, 1,013 settlements have appeared on KCR land over the last four years in addition to those already recorded by JICA. Sources in the district administration claim the number of the new encroachments could be higher — 1,100 of them have been spotted in just one of the four districts that the KCR passes through.
Earlier this year, the provincial government decided that it will remove all those encroachments, providing compensation or allotting alternative land and housing to those living in structures identified in JICA’s 2013 survey. The new structures are to be taken down without any recompense.
In the months of March and April, a drive against encroachments began in earnest. Officials and heavy machinery, accompanied by personnel from law enforcement agencies, moved into encroached areas in the four districts but could not demolish a single structure in three of them.
The only area where the drive could make progress was district Central where, according to Deputy Commissioner Captain Fariduddin Mustafa, “the district administration removed 1,165 encroachments” along the KCR track between Orangi Town and Gharibabad neighbourhoods. He says the 720 structures mentioned in JICA’s survey have not been removed because the government is yet to decide on the mode to compensate for them.
In district East, residents of the settlements on the KCR route beat up the officials who had come to demolish their houses. In district West, an angry mob set fire to the government machinery, including an excavator.
These developments forced the government to postpone the drive, though officially the postponement has been occasioned by the recently-concluded national census and the inability of the Pakistan Railways to take control of the land retrieved from the encroachers. “The railways is not prepared to arrange for the protection of the retrieved land at present,” says Tauha Ahmed Farooqui, secretary of Sindh’s transport department. He seems to see little point in retrieving more land if Pakistan Railways cannot ensure that it is not encroached upon again.
The federal government set up the Karachi Urban Transport Corporation (KUTC), a public sector limited company owned by Pakistan Railways, in 2008 to oversee the assets of KCR as well as run its operations if and when those were to revive. Sindh government now wants to take over the corporation so as to run KCR as a provincial government project. The railway may not have any objection but the process of KUTC transfer will take time because it needs multiple approvals and agreements involving the federal and provincial administrations.
Sindh also wants Pakistan Railways to transfer land used for 30 kilometres of the KCR route to the province at a nominal rate of one rupee per square yard and provide a no-objection certificate to use the remaining 13-kilometre patch of land.
This initially met some resistance. “The federal government demanded Sindh government pay to acquire the land,” says Nasir Hussain Shah , Sindh’s transport minister. “But we have made it clear that, firstly, the land originally belonged to Sindh and, secondly, it is being obtained to revive [the same entity that owns it].”
The railways has now agreed, in principle, to the land transfer but, in return, it has demanded a share of 60 per cent of the revenues to be made from leasing out spots for commercial use at KCR stations and other installations.
The Sindh government, on the other hand, plans to use those revenues to subsidise KCR ticket rates as well as maintain the quality of its service. The provincial authorities, instead, are offering the railways a share of the net profit to be generated by KCR’s operations. The two sides have yet to agree.
Obviously, the resolution of these issues will determine if KCR will ever have a bright future that can match the much-missed glory of its past. If the resolution does not come about, the project will be caught between nostalgia and hope — perhaps forever.
This was originally published in the Herald's June 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a staffer at the Herald