Halting travel

Restrictions on public transport due to Covid-19 had affected commuting systems especially during Ramazan


 feel imprisoned and helpless in my own land,” says Rahim Ullah frustrated over his inability to visit his family whom he used to meet thrice during Ramazan every year.

“This is first time in my life that I remained stranded in Lahore and did not travel to my hometown in Sargodha. Both cities are in the same province but Covid-19 and the ban on public transport appears to have produced a gulf between these cities,” says Rahim Ullah, who works at the Civil Secretariat in Lahore.

Since March, the government placed inter- and intra-city public transport restrictions on account of Covid-19. As domestic commute through rail, bus and air was thrown out of gear, millions of people were deprived of their right to free movement. Till last year, the country would witness mammoth crowds at railway stations, airports, bus terminals and cabs stations around Eid. In the face of sizzling heat, daily commute from home to public and private offices would peak, students’ rush would surge during school timings, and roads would bustle with a staggering flow of traffic. Migrant workers would visit their cities for a few days to cherish homemade sehri and iftar with their families during Ramazan. Merchandisers would head out of station to earn good bucks before Eid, and people would also make use of public transport for delivery of consignments. However, Covid-19 blew all the momentum and derailed the transport systems.

Hafiz Jahangir, a spokesperson for the All Pakistan Public Transport Owners’ Federation, says that the virus took a heavy toll on the transport. The loss of billions of rupees sent the transport industry into a tailspin, he says, adding that daily 5,500 passenger buses used to operate in Lahore before curbs on public transportation.

“One bus feeds at least 20 families. A whole range of people associated with oil and tyre industry, auto spare parts markets, vehicle manufacturing, repair workshops besides drivers, conductors and helpers earn their livelihoods from this sector. The government also gets revenue through toll plazas, adda parchi, traffic challan and token tax.”

Particularly in Ramazan, online taxi service and ride sharing was a relief on account of comfort and its bargain-free mechanism. However, this Ramazan discontinuation of the service made life difficult for many. Jamal Khan, a commuter from Dharampura, says rickshaw divers had been overcharging as they knew passengers were left with little to no options due to the ban on online taxi service.

Meanwhile, Ashraf Ahmed, a cab driver, says that during the last two Ramazans he had earned around Rs 60,000 to Rs 70,000 leveraging passengers’ flow. This Ramazan, business had plummeted, making it difficult for him to make ends meet.

But just few days before Eid, the government eased restrictions on travelling providing instant relief to both transporters and public. Public transport, private taxis and domestic flights have been allowed to resume as long as they follow SOPs prescribed for them.

The Punjab government spokesperson, Musarrat Jamshed Cheema, says that while the operation of public transport has been restored it is subject to observance with safety measures. “The SOPs including hand sanitisation, wearing masks, checking temperature, leaving one seat vacant between two, using one door to get in and the other for exit, and keeping windows open have to be complied with,” she says.

Cheema says that the government would not compromise on the 20 percent discount in fares it has announced. She also says that 30 trains would soon resume their operations.

Mian Khan Baloch, president of Workers’ Federation wing of the All Pakistan Bus Owners’ Federation says the 20 percent discount in fares is unreasonable. He says: “Nobody can incur more losses after having already been through such a financial crunch.”

Abdul Sattar Khokhar, a spokesperson for the Civil Aviation Authority, says that the aviation industry incurred weekly losses of around Rs 2.4 billion since the ban came into force. 

“Two years ago, the government imposed a fare formula of 98 paisa per kilometre. The government has now fixed the fare at 73 paisa per km with 20 per cent discount. Technically, we run the bus at Rs 1.85 per km and with 15 per cent discount it decreases to Rs 1.65 per km. We are ready to pass on dividend of decline in diesel prices as per 15 per cent formula. But there should be some rationale and practicality to a decision.”

The resumption of domestic flights has also breathed some life into the local commute system. The aviation operations had been put on a halt due to Covid-19. Between 300 and 350 flights had operated daily but this number dropped to zero. And now with the new SOPs in place, air travel will never be the same.

Sultana Jahan, an air passenger who recently travelled by the national carrier, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), says that during the flight no meals were served in line with the new SOPs. She adds that thermal guns and scanners welcomed passengers at the airports. “The new air travel experience leaves a bad taste in the mouth.”

“Earlier, daily flight bookings would range between 150 and 200. But with the ban on domestic flights, private travel operators lost business and soon became cash-starved,” says Yasir Ali, the CEO of Star Aviation. “During Ramazan, even after restrictions had been eased, the turnover has been low because only 20 per cent of the flights have been allowed to resume.”

Abdul Sattar Khokhar, a spokesperson for the Civil Aviation Authority, says that the aviation industry has lost around Rs 2.4 billion a week since the ban came into force. With bare minimum operations allowed, only PIA and Serene Air have resumed service so far, he adds.

“Covid-19 is a new reality. As a nation we will have to learn to live with it. That includes following the new rules and regulations.” 

The writer is a freelance journalist, working for various national and international media organisations

Halting travel