People & Society

Green line blues: Delays mar a major public transport project in Karachi

Published 22 Jan, 2018 04:44am
Bus passengers commuting near Surjani Town | Tahir Jamal, White Star
Bus passengers commuting near Surjani Town | Tahir Jamal, White Star

The Green Line Bus Rapid Transit System in Karachi is stuck at a red light.

Part of the Karachi Transportation Improvement Project, it was inaugurated by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in February 2016 and was originally set to be completed by the end of 2017. The federal government-run Karachi Infrastructure Development Company Limited (KIDCL), however, had to redesign certain portions as the Sindh government wanted various extensions made to its route so it could be linked to other Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines being planned in the city. This has resulted in the completion deadline now being revised to mid-2018. The project’s estimated cost has also increased from 16 billion rupees to 24.6 billion rupees.

The Green Line BRT system consists of a 22-kilometre road corridor that at times moves through underpasses and occasionally runs at ground level, but mostly remains elevated. It starts from the Power House area of Surjani Town in northwestern Karachi and ends at Municipal Park in Jama Cloth Market, located in the centre of the city. It was originally planned to end at Guru Mandir on MA Jinnah Road, but the route was extended at the request of the Sindh government, which now wants it extended even further to the Merewether Clock Tower.

A report prepared by the KIDCL in December 2017 shows that considerable progress has been made on many parts of the project. A 3.45-kilometre elevated section between Guru Mandir and Nazimabad, costing 1.8 billion rupees, is 95 per cent complete; an eight-kilometre mostly ground level section between Nazimabad and Nagan Chowrangi, costing 1.08 billion rupees and including one flyover each at the Sakhi Hassan, Five-Star and KDA intersections, is also 95 per cent complete; an elevated section between Nagan Chowrangi and Two-Minute Chowrangi, costing 1.98 billion rupees, is 75 per cent complete; and another elevated section between Two-Minute Chowrangi and Surjani Town, costing 1.95 billion rupees, is 60 per cent complete. The construction of an intersection at Board Office, along with its landscaping, is 99 per cent complete. Its total cost is estimated to be 785 million rupees.

Other components of the project – 22 bus stations, escalators and elevators, a bus depot at Surjani Town – that together cost 4.5 billion rupees, are all at various stages of completion. An additional amount of 1.01 billion rupees is being spent on shifting electricity, gas, phone, water and sewerage lines from the Green Line track.

Zubair Channa, the KIDCL’s general manager of finance, says that “90 per cent of work” on the original project is complete, but the extension to Municipal Park is causing delays. According to him the extended corridor, too, “will be completed by June 2018”.

That may or may not happen.

Work on the extended portion has already been delayed considerably due to objections raised by the Quaid-e-Azam Mazar Management Board that saw its elevated track as obscuring the view of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s mausoleum. The board’s by-laws prohibit any construction higher than the mausoleum’s podium – upon which its domed building stands – in its 1.2-kilometre radius.

“If we go ahead with building the proposed elevated section of the BRT and stations that cover the entire width of MA Jinnah Road, then the [mausoleum] will not be visible from Seventh Day Adventist Hospital to the Municipal Park … and well beyond. The vision of the founding fathers and that of the architect will be compromised and it will be a loss to Karachi and to its present and future citizens,” is how architect and urban planner Arif Hasan summed up the objections in a column in the daily Dawn in May 2017. He is a member of the Quaid-e-Azam Mazar Management Board.

It took three months to address the problem through a redesigning of the project. An underpass is now being built between Guru Mandir and Al Haaj Bundoo Khan restaurant on MA Jinnah Road. From there onwards, an elevated road is planned to lead to the last stop. Work on the underpass is in its early phase while the construction of the elevated part has yet to begin.

There have been some other design-related problems.

For instance, the Sindh government sought changes in the original design passing through the Numaish Chowrangi area because, as it argued, it wanted to build other BRT tracks in the same place. It, therefore, demanded that a two-lane underpass there be widened to three lanes.

The redesign has jacked up the project’s cost exponentially, says Channa. “The original cost of the underpass was estimated at 800 million rupees but the redesigned plan – which also envisages an integrated bus terminal for Green, Red, Yellow and Blue lines, a turnaround facility and parking for 25 buses – has increased its cost to 2.5 billion rupees,” he says.

The Sindh government has also raised objections to the elevated portion from Bundu Khan restaurant onwards to the end. It says an elevated track will be difficult to expand for future BRT lines and argues that the track be constructed at ground level.

A final decision is yet to be made on this – as well on the project’s extension to the Merewether Clock Tower – which may cause further delay in its completion.

“Whether the Green Line project will benefit Karachi or not, its delayed construction has ruined our business,” says M Jawed Qureshi who heads the Gulbahar Traders Association that represents shopkeepers at a ceramics and sanitary-ware market located almost halfway between Guru Mandir and Nazimabad. Demolition work and digging for the project damaged and narrowed main roads because of which customers avoided visiting the market, he says. “This affected 15 per cent wholesale and over 50 per cent retail business.” Also affected was the livelihood of over 2,500 labourers and 550 goods carriers working at the market, he adds.

Major traffic jams could be witnessed at many places along the under-construction track, causing massive inconvenience to everyone concerned — commuters, transport operators, traders and street vendors, among others. “No diversions or alternative routes were provided to [redirect] traffic during the entire period of construction, wreaking havoc on commuting time and businesses,” says Rehan Hashmi, former member of the National Assembly from Karachi and chairman of the city’s District Municipal Corporation (Central).

That was certainly the case till October 2017.

The traffic situation has eased a little now that construction is near completion in most areas covered. The problem is now expected to shift to the areas between Bundoo Khan restaurant and the Municipal Park as construction there will gather pace in the coming weeks and months.

Traffic blues, however, are not the only worrisome aspect of the project.

Once the track and its related infrastructure have been built, running the Green Line will become the responsibility of the Sindh government, which will be responsible for procuring buses and ensuring their smooth operation. Hashmi does not expect the provincial administration to handle this well. For one, he says, it will not be able to procure buses on time. “Instead of buses, motorcyclists will use the corridor which could lead to fatal accidents.”

The provincial authorities, however, are confident that they can get buses even before construction is completed. A contractor has already been identified to procure 80 buses by June 2018, says Sindh’s transport and mass transit secretary Saeed Ahmed Awan. A new company will also be set up in the next three months to look after the operations of the BRT lines, he adds.

Commuters, meanwhile, wait — sometimes stranded in traffic along the not-yet-complete Green Line track.

This article was published in the Herald's January 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.