Naureen Aqueel

“Point” of concern

Posted on: May 7, 2009

An edited version of this article was published in Newsline, May 2009.

The roads of Karachi offer many an interesting sight. From the overly-decorated mini-buses and sputtering rickshaws to the swaying bodies on top of a mi

ni-bus, you’ll find many fascinating sights—funny in their irony yet grave in their implications. Among many such sights, is the green and white bus tilted dangerously to one side as young students hang onto the doors with half their bodies in midair.

Yes, these are the student buses, most usually of Karachi University (KU), one of Pakistan’s largest and most prestigious institutions of learning. While other universities have similar buses, popularly known as “points”, few face the kind of shortage and subsequent overloading as those of KU.

In April, an NED student was crushed to death by a KU point bus after falling off another point bus as she was reportedly standing on the footboard. Faiza Nadeem Zaidi’s death sparked protests and demonstrations by various student groups, some of which resulted in violent clashes between rival student political groups within the university. An FIR was registered against the driver, and student bodies have announced the launch of a campaign to buy new point buses for the university calling on help from prominent social and political personalities, members of parliament and ministers.

In February, university bus services remained suspended for around three days as drivers observed a strike to protest against the manhandling of one of their fellow drivers by angry students. The driver was beaten up by a staff member who had a personal feud with the driver, with the help of angry students who had their own grievances against the drivers for not having stopped the bus at a particular stop. The driver’s excuse, and a very valid one indeed: there was no space on the already overloaded bus to take in more students.

In January, the incident of a KU student being killed in a road accident in front of the university gate drew much attention, with university authorities demanding that a pedestrian bridge be built in front of the Silver Jubilee gate to provide students with a safe crossing on the road that draws heavy and speedy traffic. Yet the same authorities ignore that thousands of students risk their lives daily when they travel to the campus in overloaded buses. As conductors try to squeeze in more and more students into the limited and already overloaded buses, many students stand on the footboard with their bodies dangling dangerously outside.

It is a pity that the Karachi University has failed to provide its students with an efficient and adequate transport service. This deplorable state of affairs is nothing new. Former students of the university have similar stories to tell about overcrowded buses. Yet, the fact that previously the university used 100 buses provided by the Karachi Transport Corporation (KTC) and now it has only 27 functional buses for a greater number of students than in the past, itself speaks volumes for the inconvenience and dangers students experience each day.

In the past, KU reportedly had 100 buses provided to it by the Karachi Transport Corportation (KTC) and 40 of its own buses. This situation existed till 1990. The Sindh Government used to provide funds to the KTC for the provision of these services, but when KTC was closed down, the Sindh Government signed an agreement with the Baloch Supra Group for providing buses to KU. The service, however, was discontinued after student groups set fire to many buses while protesting against the death of a student. Since then, KU as been running its own service which is severely inadequate in meeting the needs of its student body.

According to Dr Shadab Zulqarnain, head of the Transport Committee at the university, the university currently has 33 point buses, with 31 in working condition but only 27 of them in operation. Two buses are reported to be in repair. With a staff of only 28 to 29 drivers, the university is able to run only 27 buses at the maximum, he informs.

As the situation stands, there are thus only 27 buses for approximately 25, 000 students enrolled in various programmes in the university. That comes down to one bus for around 900 students. An average point bus contains 62 seats according to Dr Zulqarnain. In normal circumstances around 70 to 80 students can be comfortably accommodated in these buses if some are made to stand. However, these buses carry an average of above 100 students. Students readily agree that the number of students packed into a single bus are easily well above 100 as there is scarcely any place to move. Getting off the bus is another challenge and students have reported their clothes, bags and belongings all getting messed up in the process of getting off. One student of the Umaer Basha Institute of Computer Science remarked, “You don’t even have to hold onto the handles as the support of so many bodies around you is enough to hold onto you. There is no space to fall!”

If an average of 80 students are to be accommodated per bus, the university should be having approximately 312 buses to cater to its entire student body. Yet the fact that the university has only 27 functioning buses leaves a gap of around 90 per cent from what should have been the case. Needless to say, the university needs to take concrete measures to deal with this dire situation. The university needs approximately 285 more buses to cater to all its students.

Besides the visible overloading resulting from the shortage of buses, there is the problem of many students frequently being left stranded at their stops when buses do not arrive as scheduled. Each bus takes a long route throughout the city, covering many areas. By the time the bus reaches the areas on the later side of the route map, there is scarcely any place left to accommodate more students. As a result, many a time, buses skip their appointed stops and drive on directly to the university.

“It is very risky to wait for the point at Tariq Road,” shares one female student. “The bus usually skips this stop and heads directly to the university from Khalid-bin-Waleed Road because it is so overloaded by then.”

Reports in newspapers, records maintained by student wings of political parties in the university and general information obtained from students reveal that there have been a few cases of deaths and injuries to students who have fallen out of points due to the serious overloading. According to a report in the daily Jang, the number of students who have been killed after falling off point buses in the last 15 years exceeds 10, while the figure for those injured is in dozens. Last year, a girl was reportedly crushed to death after falling off from a point bus. Minor mishaps in the form of students falling off the buses and getting injured, and fainting due to suffocation have also been reported by drivers and students.

“The way things are, people do not die and we thank God for that,” says Dr Zulqarnain admitting that the shortage of buses is a serious problem. In a chilling statement he adds, “Yet, there are full chances of such things happening.”

When asked about the reason for such overloading, a driver said that everyone wants to reach their home in Rs. 3, which is the current fare charged, so the bus gets overloaded. The fare is subsidized for students out of university grants from the government. Dr Zulqarnain recounts that the fare had recently been increased to Rs. 5, but the raise had drawn protests from student bodies and thus it was brought back to Rs. 3.

Asked why they allow such overloading and why there is no effort to limit the number of students boarding a particular bus, drivers and conductors are quick to reply that making such a rule is not within their power. At instances where the drivers have tried to stop more students from voluntarily squeezing into the bus, male students have misbehaved with conductors, swearing at them and physically manhandling them.

Drivers of point buses have regularly encountered students registering complaints about them at the Transport Department for not having stopped the bus at some designated stop where students were waiting. “We are expected to stop the bus when it is overloaded, take on more students, and then not let them fall,” says one conductor complaining that they usually find themselves in a sticky situation. Dismissing the idea that limiting the number of students allowed on a bus can improve the situation, another driver says, “You can’t control the students. Nothing can be remedied until the buses are increased.”

The drivers blame official inaction for the current state of the transport service of the university. They say the university has enough funds to increase the fleet of buses, and that there have been occasions of possible government support for obtaining more buses but that the administration never met the requirements for the materialisation of any such offer.

The administration, however, continues to decry the unavailability of funds to upgrade the system. To meet the gap, Dr Zulqarnain says funding of around Rs. 250 million is needed. “Right now, the provision of 80 buses will be minimum relief for the students,” says Dr Zulqarnain. But that will require additional drivers and conductors, more space and consequently greater costs, he says. “The transport department is providing services to the maximum of its capacity.” With the prevailing market conditions and the university grants decreasing, Dr Zulqarnain says we can only expect the administration to work within the funds it has. He emphasizes that it is not just about buying an additional number of buses. It is about the expenses that come with them. You not only have to provide for running and maintenance, but you also have to have adequate space to house the vehicles.

Administration officials repeatedly draw attention to the responsibility of the city government and the Sindh government for providing buses to the university. The city government under City Nazim Syed Mustafa Kamal has previously donated buses to the university. Speaking to Newsline, Mr Kamal said that the donation was just a support and that it is not the responsibility of the CDGK to provide the university with buses to meet its needs. However, he said, the CDGK was working on a plan to provide buses to different towns of Karachi for KU students. Under this programme, the buses will be under the respective town administrations so that the burden of running and maintenance does not fall on the university. “We will be giving two buses to Landi and Korangi areas for this within a month,” he said.

The allocation of university funds for the transport department is made by the Director Finance, but the university does not have a separate bank account for the transport department, reveals Dr Zulqarnain. Transport department recoveries (revenues) are credited to, and costs debited to a general university account. Most purchases and other expenditure of the transport department are made on credit, thus incurring the university higher costs eventually. According to SM Khalid, Director Finance at Karachi University, monthly expenditure on the buses alone is approximately seven to eight lakhs. Recoveries from bus fares are very low and hence, there remains a huge funding gap especially with university grants decreasing in present times.

According to published reports, HEC was expected to allocate Rs 1086 million to Karachi University for the financial year 2008-2009. But due to the severe financial crisis, the government cut down its envisaged allocations to the HEC by Rs. 6.5 billion in the last two quarters of the ongoing financial year 2008-2009. As a result HEC grants to the universities have decreased or not been released at all. Public sector universities including KU are facing severe monetary crisis due to this.

However, if the government could just reduce its extravagant expenses on VIP travel comforts, there is no reason why funds cannot be made available to meet such needs. Reports in the press have revealed that the government is lavishly spending billions of taxpayers’ money on the purchase of VIP copters. If expenses on just one of these ‘official vehicles’ could be reduced, thousands of students could find relief.

Till that happens, Dr Zulqarnain has a few suggestions for the solution to this predicament. He agrees that reformation and restructuring is needed. He suggests that Karachi University should seek the involvement of multinational firms, corporate and advertising companies and the affluent members of our society in sponsoring buses for the university. Karachi University students are the future of the nation and such individuals, companies and corporate bodies should take responsibility for the future of the nation. Such a committee for private sponsorship and funding should be set up under the chairmanship of the Vice Chancellor himself as well as transport officials. The Sindh government should also play its part in helping to raise funds. Dr Zulqarnain says such a restructuring would take about two years for a full change in the system and its infrastructure, but that the transport committee would welcome any such initiative.

Students on their own part, as one student from the Arts Faculty suggests, should be realistic when demanding lower fares keeping in mind that they are at least provided with transport services at such a low rate. If they travel in public buses the cost is much higher. She suggests that increasing the running intervals of the buses so they run more than just the three times currently can help to spread over the number of students coming and leaving at the same time. Agreeing that this would increase running and maintenance costs, she says students should be ready for an increase in the fare in such a case.

A solution to this dire situation must come not only from the government, university administration and transport committee, corporate bodies and the community must also come forward to chip in their part.

Private sector investment

The suggestion of Dr Zulqarnain of involving the private sector in the form of multinationals, advertising firms and other corporate bodies is not a very new concept. The concept of public-private partnerships (PPPs) has often been used in other sectors in addition to the transit sector as a method of filling the funding gap that often faces the public sector.

PPPs are an important alternative method of financing transit and other infrastructure projects. A public private partnership involves an agreement between a public sector agency and a private entity to achieve a collective outcome through real partnerships involving shared responsibilities and rewards. There are projects being carried out not only in Pakistan but throughout the world, in which public organisations and private entities collaborate to deliver a service or facility for civic benefit. In fact, PPPs as a way of financing new capacity improvements in transit systems are currently being explored even in developed countries like the United States of America (USA).

There are various methods of going about these partnerships. In some, the government may use tax revenue to provide capital for investment, and operations may be run jointly with or contracted out to the private sector. In other types, capital investment may be made by the private sector, with the government providing subsidies and other grants and services.

PPPs have huge potential of filling the funding gap in the public sector and thus providing efficient and adequate services that are often absent due to a lack of funds in the public sector. This method also helps the corporate sector in contributing to social development and building goodwill among their consumers.

Furthermore, inviting corporate bodies to carry their ads on university buses, as Dr Zulqarnain suggests, is also another viable method of obtaining much needed funding for additional student buses. While the use of each of these methods to obtain funding for the university transit system may be debatable, at a time when the government, the HEC and consequently the university is facing tightening financial situations, there is a dire need to look into such options to meet the funding gap.

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