PESHAWAR - While the air-conditioned buses ply the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor in the provincial capital, the vehicular traffic has overcrowded other roads several feet under the corridor, particularly in the city areas. 

The BRT service has come for Peshawarites after lots of ups and downs, such as court cases for probe into the project over alleged fund embezzlement, botched inquiries of NAB and FIA and much criticism over its delay. And now that the government succeeded in launching the service, it is trying to cope with the problems that the BRT has been facing, such as the rainwater accumulating in BRT stations due to construction flaws in BRT corridor, the technical faults facing the buses on and off and other related issues. A fire erupted in one of the project buses on the night of August 26. However, another, rather more complicated issue, is the compensation of the public transport owners and workers who are going to lose their jobs after the beginning of the BRT service.  

Soon after its inauguration on August 13, the residents protested and beat up staff at BRT stations when exit machines went out of order. After a few days, a bus developed a fault, prompting authorities to tow-chain it to a crane. Later, another bus also was tow-chained to a crane after it broke down during travel on the BRT corridor. However, many Peshawar-ites seem to be interested in the service since the city’s traditional public transport system was already in a shambles, and BRT looked like a “blessing” for them. However, the recent problems seen in the service have also discouraged many of its users. Despite being a facility for many, the BRT construction has narrowed the roads and resultantly traffic jams now can be seen in the city areas. The major issue facing the management of TransPeshawar and provincial government is compensation of the drivers and owners of public transport such as buses, wagons, taxicabs and rickshaws who are the biggest sufferers and will lose their jobs of the new bus service.

Habibullah, a rickshaw driver, told The Nation that since the BRT was launched, there has been a significant drop in the number of passengers availing their rickshaws. “We are no longer receiving passengers who normally travel on the BRT route. Also, those who wish to travel between the city and far-off areas also prefer coaches, wagons and buses. However, people wishing to travel inside the city still use rickshaws,” he added. Javed Khan, a taxicab driver, said that cabdrivers are the worst sufferers of the BRT as they now receive fewer passengers. 

“I no longer entertain passengers who wish to go to city areas which are much congested as the BRT construction has narrowed the roads. Nowadays I try to ply Ring Road, which is wider and has fewer traffic jams,” he added.

Muttahida Transport Union President Noor Muhammad told The Nation that initially the government had assured to buy their buses from them and pay them compensation for that, while they had been also assured to give them jobs in the BRT service. 

“Now they have started BRT service, but neither our buses were purchased, nor were our drivers were given jobs. When we ask them to take our buses and give us compensation, the TransPeshawar authorities tell us to wait because they have no space for those buses at the moment,” he added. “We plan to start protest from 1st of September. And later, if our rights are not given to us, we may turn violent.”The workers’ union president said there were around 1200 people, including drivers, conductors/helpers and others, who would turn jobless due to BRT service and authorities have even made lists of the names, but said they were still confused about their future. 

“Initially, they had offered us Rs1.5 million for Mazda bus and Rs1.3 million for wagon. But now they are demanding documents and raising other objections to cut this compensation amounts, which is an injustice,” he said.

When contacted, Alamgir Bangash, the business development specialist and spokesman of the BRT management company TransPeshawar, said that they have asked the Peshawar Development Authority to repair the corridor. “PDA has started working to remove this deficiency which has recently troubled people in a rain shower,” he added.

As regards the public transport, he said they had advertised a tender recently, asking owners of mazda buses, wagons and other public transport to sell their buses in exchange for money. “A total of 416 owners of public transport vehicles have filed applications with us for compensation; we will pay them and in return, their buses will be scrapped. At the moment, 25 of them have been approved for payment,” he added.

About delay in the process, he said that the government authorities were carrying out compensation through proper approval procedure, which took the time.

He also said that, “BRT buses are designed in a way that it has little space for seats and more space for standing, so it’s not an issue if people travel in BRT while standing; it is something normal.”

It may be mentioned here that the provincial transport minister Shah Muhammad himself belongs to the transport community, according to Transport Union president Noor Muhammad. “Shah Muhammad is the owner of addas and several transport vehicles plying on various routes. But unfortunately, he is not paying attention to this issue,” Noor Muhammad added. When contacted on his cell-phone several times, Shah Muhammad’s assistant said that the minister was busy in meetings and could not talk. 

The bus project was started in October 2017 when Pervez Khattak was the chief minister. He had set a six-month deadline to complete the BRT at an estimated cost of Rs49 billion. However, the deadline could not be achieved and cost also increased to approximately Rs70 billion because of frequent changes in its design.

Later, the authorities continued to change the launching of the bus service from May 20 to June 30 to Dec 31, 2018 and March 23, 2019, and June 2020. However, the service could not see the light of the day. A Supreme Court bench under the then Chief Justice Saqib Nisar had halted an investigation by NAB that had been directed by the Peshawar High Court (PHC) into the alleged embezzlement of funds in the project.

Later, in December 2019, the PHC directed the FIA to probe the project. However, when an FIA team started its probe in January this year, the apex court stopped the agency from investigations into the BRT in February.