Un(wheeling) the transport mafia in Karachi

Published: November 8, 2015

An overcrowded bus plies a thoroughfare in Karachi. PHOTO: RASHID AJMERI/EXPRESS

Public transport is crucial to any city’s development and is one of the basic civil rights a government owes to its citizens. However, sadly, in a huge city like Karachi, people don’t have proper public transport systems and the one that’s already in place is run by the transport mafia – which stops at nothing to exploit the citizens of this city.

This mafia-handled system consists of sub-standard coaches and minibuses, operated and under the complete ownership of private businessmen.

The population of Karachi is around 16.62 million currently and is said to increase to 27.5 million by 2020, according to KMC estimates. Karachiites make around 24.2 million trips via public transport on an average weekday. As per data collected in 2012, there are 12,399 permit-holding buses currently operational in Karachi (the term ‘buses’ here includes all large transportation vehicles, such as normal buses, mini buses and coaches – each of which have 26 seats on average). If you include the number of vehicles that operate without legal permit, then the amount increases.

Keeping the permit figure in mind, we can estimate that there is one bus for every 1,171 people and 45 passengers per bus seat in Karachi. These tightening figures must give you an idea of what a struggle it is for the common Karachiite to commute from one place to another on a daily basis. It would also explain the overflowing buses you might have seen on the roads with people either hanging by the doors or sitting on the rooftop, putting their lives in danger.

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The sad part is that an absence of any other alternate affordable mode of transportation forces us to travel under these circumstances. You will find more room for chickens in a poultry truck if compared with the space restrictions faced by humans on these buses.

On top of that, there is no consistency in the schedule of these buses. Your bus might arrive before its scheduled time or an hour later; there are just no checks in place. Transporters decide how many buses will operate on any given day and citizens have no choice but to adjust accordingly. If CNG is closed on a particular day, the number of buses are reduced to save money, which ultimately results in a huge number of people not being able to travel.

‘Fare’ weather friend

Private bus owners rarely abide by notifications or orders that ask them to decrease fares. In fact, they hardly ever follow government directives and there is no standard formula defined to decide bus fares. Karachiites are supposed to pay whatever fare the owners have decided – otherwise they can get off the bus and sit at home. Fares always increase when fuel prices increase; however, the same doesn’t happen when fuel prices drop.

Because of this, fare-related disputes between passengers and conductors are pretty common. If you travel 10 times on a public bus, chances are you’ll come across fare-related fights at least nine times – I guarantee that. Since neither a static formula nor a predefined platform to decide fares exists, passengers often complain that they are being charged unjustly. But conductors and drivers never accept this.

On an average, one-way fare per passenger for a bus is Rs20/- (regardless of whether you are sitting, standing or hanging) with room for 26 passengers to sit; however, there are often more than double the number of passengers on-board, who are either standing inside or hanging from the door or sitting on the rooftop. For argument’s sake, we can conclude that at least 40 passengers are on board in a bus at any given time.

This means that a single bus collects Rs800 for a single one-way trip in a day; which means that 12,400 buses collect around Rs9.9 million for a single trip! If we estimate that a bus makes at least 10 trips, the figure becomes Rs99.2 million. This is what private bus owners earn in a single day, which is quite a hefty amount! So it’s clear that public transports rarely go into losses; why then are owners adamant when it comes to decreasing or changing fares?

Photo: Sajjad Hashmi

As no official data is present regarding this, and the basic data used for calculations is collected from various sources, a variation in the figures can be expected – but the overall picture will remain the same.

Misbehaving with the passengers

Most bus drivers and conductors are uneducated. They become a part of this mafia from an early age and are unable to get any education. Hence, they don’t have any manners about how to deal with the public. They often misbehave with passengers over petty issues, such as taking fares or asking them to snug in (if they are standing) so room can be made for more passengers. They often push and shove passengers inside, without any regard whatsoever.

Above all, their behaviour with female passengers should be condemned. In Karachi, buses are supposed to have a separate section in front, only for women, but conductors often allow men to ride in that section as well. They misbehave with women regularly; cussing and catcalling is a usual phenomenon; fights often erupt between passengers and conductors (or drivers) over some snide remark made by them.

I remember this one time when the conductor went into the women’s section, even though it was full, under the pretence of collecting fares. The women started complaining that the conductor was trying to grope and touch them, and was purposely brushing himself against them. The issue escalated and people from the men’s section also joined the protest; the verbal dispute soon turned into a physical one and the bus couldn’t continue its journey further.

While the protest saved many women from getting harassed by that conductor, the thought that he had such audacity made me very uncomfortable about travelling in a public bus.


Since these buses are not owned by any government authority, they pose a danger to citizens at various levels. Most drivers are not trained to drive large vehicles; in fact, often underage boys are seen driving. These drivers have no knowledge of traffic rules or conduct. They often over-speed and overtake other vehicles in a very reckless manner. This puts in danger not only the lives of its passengers but also of those people who are on the road.

These irresponsible and inexperienced drivers are to blame for most of the road accidents that take place in Karachi, making Karachi’s roads one of the most dangerous to commute on.

More than a 1,000 people lose their lives in Karachi every year due to road accidents and more than 35,000 accidents occur annually, leaving many injured or disabled.

Beside these dire consequences, this system has also been giving rise to many major conflicts in the city. The Bushra Zaidi case is monumental in this regard, where a road incident led to the start of ethnic riots resulting in 50 casualties with 300 people injured within a week! Since then, there exists a strong divide in this city over particular ethnic lines and all this hatred has roots in this transportation system.

Photo: Sajjad Hashmi

Another rising concern is the illegal usage of low quality cylinders for CNG. These cylinders are usually meant for general usage and not made for high pressure CNG usage. They are fitted in the passenger area of the buses, putting the lives of commuters in great danger.

These overly-filled buses are hardly stopped by law enforcement agencies (LEAs) during snap-checking, as it is not practically possible to stop each of them and check everyone in and out. Also, since they are not regulated by any government agency, their monitoring practically becomes impossible, which makes them a security risk; the perfect camouflage for terrorists to travel form one point to other within a city or even smuggle weapons and other illegal material, like drugs, throughout Karachi.

Time to commute

These buses stop regularly at random stops, resulting in road jams, and they often wait longer than usual on stops where there aren’t many passengers on-board. This increases the overall travel time for passengers and also make it uncertain for them to calculate their estimated time of arrival.

This has also affected the traffic patterns in Karachi. Due to the deteriorating condition of this system, many people try to get their own means of transport as soon as they are able to afford it. As a result, we find more vehicles on the roads and the roads becomes congested. This leads to a collapse of the traffic flow, especially during peak hours, where the commute time almost doubles.


Keeping the government aside, even the transport mafia doesn’t do any good for the citizens. Neither do they make their own services better nor do they let alternative transport systems grow in this city. They just have their own monopoly, which they wish to maintain no matter what.

One example of this is the green bus. When the standardised, comfortable CNG green buses were introduced by Mustafa Kamal (former mayor) in Karachi, the buses and their stations were attacked and were also criticised on an official level by representatives of the transporter mafia sitting in the Sindh Assembly.

In 2009, the transport minister of the time – who was also part of the transport mafia – said, with regards to the green buses initiative, that:

“CDGK’s job is to clean drains, not to run transport for citizens.”

However, Mustafa Kamal kept his efforts going to keep these buses on the roads as long as he was in charge, but as soon as he left, so did the buses. The remaining buses were recently ‘re-launched’ by the Sindh government after changing their name to SMBB Bus Service. They are the same as far as the appearance is concerned but they are now being operated just like all other public bus.

The Karachi Mass Transit Plan (1987-1991), Karachi transport improvement project (KITP-2009), circular railway service in Karachi and Karachi mass transit project too have faced the same fate.

The same transport mafia has also been blamed for influencing the bans over pillion riding and Qingqi rickshaws in the city. One might argue the Qingqi rickshaws are also not a suitable mode of transportation, but for the citizen of Karachi, these rickshaws in which they can travel by sitting comfortable, are a blissful alternative compared to travelling like animals in these public buses.

Seeing their popularity, the transporter mafia has been trying to pressurise the government to ban these rickshaws from day one. A recent example is when the transporters announced that they will only reduce the fares by one rupee, and that too once the government bans these rickshaws. These were the exact words used:

“The KTI has made it conditional for the minister to ban the Qingqi if he wants the transporters to decrease the bus fares.”

What do you expect in a city where ministers take such strict “directions” from the ones they are supposed to regulate? This is a prime example of how audaciously this mafia operates in this city.

Photo: Sajjad Hashmi

The road ahead

We, as citizens, and the government need to own Karachi as our city – only then will we ever be ready to understand this issue and work on finding a solution. Karachiites need to unite, albeit if they travel via buses or not, and stand up against this mafia which is devouring our roads and our civic rights.

Karachi’s problem can only be understood and resolved if its administration and government is done by those who live here and have been affected by the aforementioned issues. When elected representatives from this very city will handle its transport, they will have to make sure that they keep it as per the public demands or the public will reply back in the form of their voting power.

For a start, the government should foremost re-launch the circular railway and metro projects in Karachi and the City District Government should be made responsible for these. It should also start its own bus system comprising of standard buses operating over seat-by-seat basis with pre-decided fares, timings and routes.

Furthermore, LEAs in the city should be directed to keep an eye out for criminal elements who would surely try to dismantle these projects through various conspiracies and nobody should be allowed to blackmail the government or create hurdles in the path of these development projects. The transport minister should not be someone who has his own stakes in it or else he’ll always keep the mafia first and the city second.

A strong political will and hard-core action is needed to take down this 50-year strong mafia in Karachi and set citizens of Karachi free from these shackles, giving them a lifestyle which may not be luxurious but at least humane enough for them to live peacefully in.

The time to act is now. Don’t let the mafia rule over you and treat you like animals anymore.

Sajjad Hashmi

Sajjad Hashmi

An IT professional with interests in political and social issues; with strong belief in left wing politics and loves satire. He tweets @SajjadHashmi (twitter.com/SajjadHashmi)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Sohaib

    even multan is going to have BRTS in punjab after lahore and pindi isb ..lahore is having metro train.. what is PPP and PTI doing in karachi and KPK ??Recommend

  • MHZ

    Love the way how brilliantly Sajjad put forward the case of Karachiites in this blog.
    The problem with these bus drivers is their reckless driving as well. Can’t wait for the government to come up with something effective in this regard for Karachi, the largest of the metropolises.Recommend

  • Hunza Arooj

    A very nice piece of writing. Address almost all the issues faced by the bus passengers. Hope someone who can actually do some thing aboout the issue read this and then actually act instead of giving comments and commitmentsRecommend

  • Ali S

    Very relevant article for Karachiites. What a shame, a city of nearly 20 million and the country’s main financial hub has virtually no formal transportation system. In the meantime, the Qingqis should be brought back until a proper system is in place- at least they were a cheap, comfortable ride for people who didn’t have their own transport (and it’s still somewhat safer than hanging off a speeding bus).

    There also needs to be better traffic management – get rid of the vendors blocking an entire lane, fix the traffic signals and promote carpooling to discourage people from travelling individually in huge cars. I hope for the day when Karachi gets its own empowered local govt and is freed from the shackles of the PPP.Recommend

  • Mr.President

    Not a fan of PML N at all, but this article should reflect why Metro buses were needed in Lahore, and now in other parts of Punjab. Metro buses have made travelling in Lahore much easier and there is less traffic on the road. It is a pity that Karachite is ruled by thugs, and the people there vote for these thugs, like they did in the local electionsRecommend

  • Bibloo

    Karachi’s population is NOT 16.62 million. It is 24 million and counting.
    By 2027 It will be much much more than 27 million. And transportation?
    What transportation? The thugs, like Qaim Shah, Chief Minister of Sindh
    and his patron Zardari [currently staying in Dubai to avoid arrest] want
    all allocations for transportation going to THEIR overseas accounts.
    Keep dreaming.Recommend

  • PS

    Just a correction, the green buses were started by Niamatullah and not Mustafa KamalRecommend

  • sohaib

    My dear friend and colleague, an MS in Finance, an absolutely remarkable young man and only bread earner for his family was killed on road due to “street race” between coaches. Nothing changed. Nothing was done by police. No media house, no government official not even a law enforcement agency personnel visited his father even atleast to condole because he was a commoner just like you and me.Recommend

  • FS

    Difference being, Naimat Ullah Khan, who did good work as well compared to the past, many of his projects never got past the planning and “Takhti”, including the Green Bus.Recommend