Reviving Circular Railway

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THERE are three elements that are essential for any development project to be executed smoothly and with the minimum of public dislocation and discontent. They are planning, transparency in the planning and execution process and public consultation at every stage on issues that have a direct bearing on the lives of the people.

When the government, because it has the power to do so, fails to keep these minimum requirements in view, it can lead to a sense of uncertainty and unrest in the public — and much speculation, especially in the media.

A perfect example of how development projects essential for public welfare may lead to a negative reaction from the people is the plan to revive the circular railway in Karachi.

For decades, Karachiites have suffered because of the absence of an efficient and feasible mass transit system in this megapolis which has expanded horizontally over the years.

People have to commute miles and miles from their homes to their place of work and study every day. With an inefficient bus service to carry the human mass from one point to another, transport has become a living nightmare for the average citizen of the city.

Mercifully, the government has once again decided to revive the defunct Karachi Circular Railway (KCR) which had initially been launched in the sixties only to be wound up a few decades later in 1999 because it failed to meet the needs of the people and was as such under-utilized and running at a loss. This time one can only hope that the authorities will plan the project better so that it does not run into a dead end once again leaving the Karachiites in despair.

But there are few positive signs at the moment. After many hiccups, the first phase of the KCR was launched earlier this year with trains running between Landhi and Wazir Mansion. This was done after a lot of publicity had been given to the project. The prime minister himself came to inaugurate the service. Now that the train has been running for several months, it is time for the railway authorities to assess the results and evaluate the feasibility of the project.

The divisional superintendent of Pakistan Railways in Karachi told me that these trains are designed to transport 10,000 people every day but they are grossly under-utilized and only 2,000 people actually travel by them. But Mr Junaid Qureshi, the DS, could not explain the reason behind this under-utilization. He said the railways had started the service, given it publicity, and had staggered the timings of the trains in such a way that they should serve the needs of the office goers, the traders and other casual travellers.

“The people are still not using it fully,” he said. But he could not explain why the railways have not carried out any survey to try and analyse the factors which have kept people away from the Landhi-Wazir Mansion service. This is a glaring example of the failure of the authorities to introduce a process of consultation with the people for whose benefit the project is meant.

There are similar lapses in other matters too. For instance, it has been announced that an Urban Transport Authority will be set up to operate the circular railway. It is to have representation from the railways, the city government and the provincial government, the three agencies to be involved in this project. The notification is still lying with the Sindh government and has not yet been released. Critics are saying that this body may not be powerful and independent enough to enforce its decision. Moreover, the UTA should include independent professionals in order to restore the public’s confidence which has been badly shaken.

The railways, which will make the KCR functional and then hand it to the UTA, prefers to hold its cards close to the chest. The KCR had been running for 35 years before it was shut down. Has a scientific study been undertaken to study the cause of its failure and rectify its weaknesses?

With 14 stations and 29 level crossings (23 still without an overhead bridge or underpass) the KCR was said to be slow, with infrequent services and poor bus links to residential societies or to industrial/commercial centres. Has something been done to look into these problems?

Mr Junaid Qureshi said that plans have been drawn up to take care of all these problems and to float bonds to raise the Rs 3.5 billion needed to launch the KCR. In the first phase, the tracks will be renovated and integrated with a mass transit corridor.

The second phase envisages the dualization of the tracks, extension and electrification of the railways. The DS claims that the plans have all been drawn up but at the moment are not available for public scrutiny.

This lack of transparency has caused serious concern and anxiety in the dwellers of the city’s slums located on the railways land along the tracks. According to them — they have organized themselves into an Alliance for Katchi Abadis — the railway officials say that they plan to clear the encroachments on 100 feet on either side of the main line and 50 feet of the KCR track to make the circular railway operational. But such a large area is not being cleared in the locality where industries, shopping plazas and other concrete structures have been erected.

This has given rise to the fear among the slum dwellers that since they are vulnerable they have been made the target of this policy. They also believe that this land is being vacated to commercialize it. Besides many of these abadis were regularized by the Sindh Katchi Abadis Authority when Tasneem Siddiqi headed it and had obtained an NOC from the Railways.

One can understand the anxiety of the people who are to be evicted — 20,000 houses accommodating 140,000 people could be affected. The Railways has begun conducting a joint survey, which is 80 per cent complete, according to the DS. In the absence of transparency many questions remain unanswered.

For instance, it is not known exactly how much land the Railways wishes to clear. For its right of way and different figures have been bandied about. The DS blames the media for inaccurate reporting. He himself said they need 30 feet on either side of the track — the distance internationally recognized as the right of way — which would be 10 or so feet more on the side where the second track has to be laid.

Mr Qureshi also admitted that the Railways would want to commercialize some of its land, especially near the stations to generate resources to run the KCR.

The Urban Resource Centre, which carried out its own survey in April 2005, says that the katchi abadis constitute only 28 per cent of the encroachments, the rest being “rich settlements” (apartments, plazas, shopping centres, godowns and multinational factories).

As for right of way, the URC survey shows that some permanent structures are just a few feet away from the tracks, for instance, Toyota Indus Motor (five feet), Honda Motors (five feet), godown (20 feet) and Coca Cola factory (20 feet). They are not being touched and the DS says they have not encroached on railways land and the right of way problem would be managed.

Before taking any move to evict people, the railways would do well to make their plans public. It is essential that the people be assured that a minimum of dislocation will take place and only after plans have been announced for the evictees’ resettlement and compensation. The Railways say this is the city government’s responsibility. The DS also assures — verbally only — that the clearing of encroachment is to be carried out uniformly in the rich and the poor areas.

There are some basic factors which must be understood about encroachments and evictions, which the DS did not dispute. First, encroachments take place with the connivance of the police, the agency owning the land and the landgrabbers. The people who live there pay a heavy price to the landgrabber to obtain a little plot which is otherwise not available to them. And of course, shelter is a fundamental right of man.

Secondly, when the people living in these settlements are evicted it is not simply a case of their being shifted to another locality to have a roof over their heads. They are socially and economically dislocated too. Many lose their jobs because they are moved to an area at quite a distance from their place of work. Children are uprooted from their schools.

Women find themselves deprived of the neighbourhood support system they create round themselves when they have lived in a locality long enough. It is psychologically devastating for them for it takes a generation to build the support network.

Hence the Railways, the city government and the Sindh government would do well to make public the details of their plans — the exact scheme of operating the KCR as a feasible project — the removal of encroachments and resettlement of the evictees. Thus they can ensure that no injustice is done. They will also be able to win the cooperation of the public.