The Karachi Circular Railway Imperatives

The likelihood of the revival of the Karachi Circular Railway (KCR) is the best infrastructure related news that Karachi has had since the preparation of the 1975-85 Karachi Master Plan. All efforts should be made to see that this revival takes place and soon. This is in spite of the fact that the KCR will serve only 0.75 percent of the trips generated in Karachi; will not be affordable to the poor without a major subsidy; and will not overcome traffic congestion as cars and motorbikes will keep on increasing.

But then, it has to be understood that the KCR revival is the foundation stone of the JICA-supported Karachi Transport Improvement Project (KTIP) which consists of several corridors of which the KCR is one. If the others follow then in 15 years the majority of Karachiites will be able to travel with dignity and comfort and if subsidies are generated (and they can easily be) the fare will be affordable to most commuters.

Transport systems reshape a city since they bring about land-use changes. If these changes are managed, the city improves both in physical and social terms. If they are not managed, then chaos, congestion and environmental degradation follows. The KCR will bring about major changes along its route and especially at its intersection with important road corridors. It is necessary to plan the development at these intersections. They are ideal for high-density commercial and for high density low income housing, both of which the city desperately needs and which are multiplying in an ad-hoc manner all over the city. Such development will also make the KTIP economically more feasible and the real estate development process can also subsidise the subsequent operation and maintenance of the Project.

There are other requirements also. The stations should have sizeable space for the parking of cars, motorbikes and bicycles so that people can travel from their home to the station to take a train to their destination. Space should also be provided for rickshaws and Qingqis in a manner that they do not cause congestion. It has to be understood that they will continue to be used for the foreseeable future. Space for hawkers also needs to be provided since hawkers, low income groups and commuters are inseparable, something planners and bureaucrats do not seem to understand and it is because of this that hawkers’ eviction and rehabilitation projects invariably fail. Unless these requirements are fulfilled you might have an efficient rail system but you will have chaos and environmental degradation around it.

The rehabilitation of the railway also means removing 5,000 families who currently live on its right of way or adjacent to it. The Project plans to relocate them to distant Murad Goth and to provide them with an 80 square yard plot and Rs 50,000. This move will impoverish them. They will be removed far from their places of work. This will mean extra travel time and cost. It will also mean that their women will be without a job; their children without a school; and the family far from health and recreation facilities. Currently, these, along with legally acquired utility connections, are available to a sizeable majority of the households within their neighbourhoods. Studies of the relocated Lyari Expressway affectees show that 89 percent of them have become poorer because of the relocation, many have become destitutes and many more have migrated back into the city as renters near their places of work where they once owned homes. There is also conclusive evidence that insensitive relocations increase social alienation, depression and anger and make socio-economic upward mobility difficult if not impossible. These repercussions are the last thing that this already fragmented and increasingly violent city requires.

The KCR Affectees Action Committee has presented two alternatives to the government’s relocation plan. One, it has identified railway land near where most of the affectees live. It wants this land to be allotted to the affectees along with a HBFC house building loan for those who opt for it. Two, that the government simply offers a lump sum of an average of Rs 15 to Rs 20 lacks per household to the affectees and they will move out and find their own accommodation. This will increase the rehabilitation cost from 1.6 percent of the total project cost to between 2 to 2.5 percent. The Action Committee argues that the rehabilitation cost will go up in any case to well over 2.5 percent just as the Lyari Expressway rehabilitation cost increased from Rs 2 to 7 billion. This second alternative also saves the government problems associated with implementing a flawed rehabilitation process and its corruption related issues. The alternatives presented by the Action Committee need sympathetic consideration.

Many of Karachi’s infrastructure projects, designed and built decades ago, remain incomplete. This should not happen with the KCR and its related developments. Also, whenever land has been opened up as a result of planning initiatives, it has been plundered by those in power and their underlings, impoverishing the city and its citizens. It is hoped that this time this will not happen. Maybe it is time to think of establishing a citizen’s committee to oversee the planning and implementation of land related issues that will surface as a result of the KCR revitalisation. But then for the effective implementation of the KTIP, Karachi needs a peace and an efficient local government, both of which it does not have.

Published in Daily Dawn

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