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Mafia Domination or Victims of Neo-Liberalization? Woes of Karachi's Urban Transport
Mafia Domination or
Victim of Neo-Liberalism?
Woes of Karachi’s Urban
Asad Sayeed and Kabeer Dawani
Collective for Social Science Research, Karachi
• Transport in Karachi has failed to meet the
demands of its residents, with the growth in
population far outstripping the infrastructure in
• In fact, in the last two decades, the population
has doubled, while the total number of buses has
remained roughly the same.
• The prevailing explanation for this has been the
presence of a ‘transport mafia’.
Origin of Karachi’s ‘transport mafia’
• The origin of this mafia
can be traced back to the
mid to late 1980s
• The ‘Pathan’ transport
mafia first came to the
fore following the
(in)famous Bushra Zaidi
incident in April 1985,
which sparked ethnic
violence in Karachi
• In an essay titled ‘Karachi’s Godfathers’ in The
Herald’s December 1986 issue, Arif Hasan
outlines in detail how this mafia came about.
• Although the Pathans dominated the sector, they
did not have control because of the way the routes
were operated – the route permit owner operated
their own buses by hiring an operator .
• This changed when the transporters started giving
loans to the operators – making the operators
potential owners and in debt to the transporter.
Karachi’s Godfathers (contd)
• “With the switchover from hired operators to
prospective owners operating this transport, the
Karachi minibus mafia was born. The majority of
leaders, financiers, operators and cleaners were
• Then, when drug and arms money from the Afghan war
entered the city in the 1980s, the ability of the
transporter to give loans increased manifold.
• In turn, this resulted in a substantial increase in the
number of minibuses in the city – between 1978 and
1986 “about 5000 minibuses were added, the operators
of which were mostly in debt to the transporters.”
2015: What mafia?
• By definition, a mafia is a group that by virtue of its
control over an activity, appropriates rents and
distributes it amongst its member and has extra-
legal powers of contract enforcement (Bandiera
• Our research shows that while it may have been the
case in the 1980s, there is no ‘transport mafia’ in
• Interviews with key informants in the transport
sector indicate that ownership of buses is widely
dispersed, with minimal collective action amongst
them at any level. (There is some occupational
collective action, but nothing beyond that.)
Explaining Karachi’s transport woes
• In the absence of a mafia controlling Karachi’s
transport sector, what explains the decline in
this sector, which has clearly been unable to
meet the demands of the city?
• Tracking mass transit since independence, we
see that the state has withdrawn from this sector
in recent times, choosing instead to adopt
Mass transit in Karachi over the years
of trips daily)
Minibuses ChingchisPublic Private
1948 37 - 20 35 - -
1957 157 - 344 259 - -
1964 157 Initiateda 317 583 - -
1974 Shut Down 104 891 1000 1800d -
1988 - 93 1050 1450 5500 -
1999 - Shut Down 200 4000 6500 -
2013 - 2b 160c 1000 9000 50000e
Source: Compiled from Hasan and Raza (2015), Ismail (2002), Sohail (2000) and interviews
conducted by the authors.
Reasons for the informalisation of
• Primarily, the state withdrew from this sector
over time because it was running it at a loss
▫ 1974: Tramway shut down
▫ 1996: Karachi Transport Corporation privatized
▫ 1999: Karachi Circular Railway shutdown
▫ Transport was almost entirely private at this stage.
• In the aftermath of their withdrawal, there has
been a decline in private transport because of
ineffective regulation and a non-conducive
Consequences of Informalisation
• Rate of Return on investment in buses has
declined, hence under-investment in the sector.
• Average vintage of vehicles is 30 years Plus for
buses and 15+ years for minibuses
• Workers are remunerated on a residual income
basis, which incentivizes self-exploitation
• Consumers are victims of time lags and over-
• Urban Development is compromised also
New forms of mass transit
• In the absence of buses fulfilling the demand for
public transport in Karachi, two vehicles have
filled this gap:
1. Motorbikes (Hasan and Raza 2011)
• Their number has
exponentially in the
▫ 1990: 450,000
▫ 2004: 500,000
▫ 2010: 1,000,000
▫ 2015: 1,800,000
A large number of
motorbikes parked at
the Civic Centre,
• These 3-wheelers are
women. They are more
accessible than buses,
aren’t prone to theft and
suited for travel over
• In 2015, there were
Chingchis protesting over a potential ban. Source:
Is private mass transit tenable for
• Gradually, there has been a recognition by the state
that there needs to be publicly owned transport.
• There have been multiple attempts to revive the
Karachi Circular Railway. The biggest hurdle has
been creating an acceptable resettlement plan for the
people that will be displaced as a result.
• Donors (JICA, ADB etc.) have also shown interest in
assisting in establishing a mass transit network. Lack
of coordination and initiative by the government has
however not made the most of this assistance.
State Retreat in Transport is
Symptomatic of Broader State Failure
• While Neo Liberalism has afflicted all of
Pakistan, fractures in the State in Sindh
generally and in Karachi particularly has been
• Many of the Governance problems in Karachi
have been compounded by the role of the
national, provincial and local state undermining
their own capacity to bring about inclusive
governance in a multi-ethnic milieu.
Conclusions and Way Forward
• The state needs to get involved in Karachi’s transport
sector, both in terms of mass transit as well as robust
• The Karachi Mass Transit Master Plan 2030 is an
important step in this regard. This envisions 6 BRT
corridors to serve the city.
• It is imperative that there is one central body that
coordinates and regulates these 6 corridors and does
so in an inclusive manner.
• Finally, concerns of civil society and urban planners
regarding land-use and related issues need to be
taken into account for this plan to be effective