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Karachi’s ill-fated Circular Railway

The Karachi-walas of the 1960s and ’70s recall with joy their travel to works and for leisure by the Circular Railway. This mode of travel with dignity and comfort was availed by the working class and middle class. It was such a difference from the miserable and shameful mode of travel they have to endure now by being pushed around, hanging on the doors and even sitting on the rooftops of the many depleted mini-buses polluting the already polluted city. The KCR, like the depleted city littered with garbage, is a sad reminder of the level to which this once great city has been brought to by successive incompetent governments.

Najeebullah Khan gets nostalgic as he talks about his commuting experience of the past. “Travelling by train was easy,” he says of his journeys on the Karachi Circular Railway from his home to work. The commute was “convenient, relaxing and safe,” he remembers. Najeebullah, who appears to be in his late fifties, would take a KCR train to travel from his home in a colony next to Karachi’s City Railway Station to a textile mill 25 kilometres away in Landhi. During the 45-minute journey, he and fellow commuters would play cards and board games such as ludo.

The generation of that time recalls the dignity and comfort they used to enjoy travelling by the KCR. Samina, a middle-aged woman, also has pleasant memories of her KCR rides. She would take a train from Malir to attend school in Kharadar in the early 1980s. “Women did not have to face any problems in the trains. There was no eve-teasing.”

The KCR was commissioned in 1964, originally to help employees of Pakistan Railways and workers employed in the growing SITE industrial area. Many such workers and staff would travel between their jobs near the City and Cantt stations and their homes in Karachi’s eastern neighbourhoods. It became a full circle of 44 kilometres in 1970 and connected Karachi’s four main work areas: the port, the Sindh Industrial Trading Estate, the central commercial areas (such as Saddar) and the Landhi Industrial Area.

The KCR remained the public transport of choice for the people of Karachi till 1984. Then the deterioration started at the behest of the “transport mafia,” as many people believe. The number of its trains was cut down. Reasons cited for the move included lack of maintenance and repair, a yawning gap between rising expenditure (due to higher fuel and operational costs) and decreasing revenue (due to subsidised tickets) and the government’s inability to pour in money to improve the tracks and the stations.

The KCR finally shut down in 1999, forcing thousands of its daily users at the mercy of private transporters to travel by buses. It would cost 80 rupees for a round trip to work on a bus, as opposed to the 20 rupees it would take on the KCR for the same sector and with many changed buses midway on each side of the journey. A great number of them lost their jobs.

It is estimated that Karachi has 3.9 million registered vehicles (one for every five or so individuals living in the city if its total population is taken to be 20 million). Private vehicles and motorcycles make up 36.5 percent and 47.3 percent, respectively, of this total but they are used by only 18 percent of commuters. In comparison, public transport, which constitutes just 4.5 percent of the total number of vehicles, is used by 42 percent of commuters. This configuration is understandably leading to clogging of roads and the need for public transport to narrow this demand-supply gap in public transport.

Many attempts were made to revive the KCR. Seven years ago, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the Sindh government started looking into the possibility of collaborating to revive the KCR. One of the first steps they decided to take was to conduct a survey of “informal settlements” that had encroached upon most parts of the KCR route. Three years later, JICA issued a survey report, listing 4,030 residential and 629 commercial structures built on KCR land. Another three years passed without any progress as the provincial government and JICA could not agree on anything. JICA wanted the removal of the encroachments but was also worried, among other things, about the human displacement this would cause. The Sindh government sought firm financial commitments before moving against the encroachers. In 2016, JICA decided that it would not finance the KCR’s revival.

The government of Japan had offered to finance the KCR against yen credit as soft loan payable in 30 years, plus 10 grace years. For years, JICA had prepared the technical and financial feasibility of the project, inclusive of the financing of the rehabilitation of the displaced persons. The lethargic and non-committal approach of the Sindh government frustrated the Japanese to the extent that they opted to move out of the KCR project, and in the process lost much money.

It is reported that the Sindh government has recently received a commitment from China to finance the project. Last month, the Central Development Working Party, a high-level committee within the Federal Ministry of Planning, Development and Reform that weighs costs and benefits of foreign-funded development schemes, accorded its approval to bringing the KCR back to life through Chinese financing worth two billion dollars.

As per the official plans, the revived KCR will have an elevated track for 28.18 kilometres of its route to help its trains avoid level crossings; 24 of its 34 stations will also be on that elevated track. But in the meantime, obstacles on its route, have increased and over 1,000 settlements have reportedly appeared on the KCR land over the last four years, in addition to those already recorded by JICA.

Earlier this year, the provincial government decided to remove all those encroachments, providing compensation or allotting alternative land and housing to those living in structures identified in JICA’s 2013 survey.

In March and April this year, a drive against encroachments began. Officials and heavy machinery, accompanied by personnel from law-enforcement agencies, moved into encroached areas in the four districts but could not demolish a single structure in three of them. The only area where the drive could make progress was district Central where the district administration is reported to have removed 1,165 encroachments along the KCR track, while the 720 structures mentioned in JICA’s survey have not been removed because the government is yet to decide on the mode of compensation for them.

In district East, residents of the settlements on the KCR route beat up officials who had come to demolish their houses. In district West, an angry mob set fire to government machinery including an excavator. These developments forced the government to postpone the drive. While Sindh was struggling with how to move forward with the KCR, Punjab installed a state-of-the-art mass-transit bus system in Lahore, Rawalpindi and Multan and offered to install one in Karachi. It’s a mirror to Sindh, which it does not want to look into.


Farhat Ali, "Karachi’s ill-fated Circular Railway," Business Recorder. 2017-07-08.
Keywords: Science and technology , Mass-transit bus system , Sindh government , Public transport , Pakistan railways , Transportation , Pakistan , KCR , JICA

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