Aurora Magazine

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A Pink Game-Changer

Published in Mar-Apr 2023

A women-only bus service 'Pink Bus' is launched in Karachi and Hyderabad
The Pink Peoples Bus Service is launched. - Photo: Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
The Pink Peoples Bus Service is launched. - Photo: Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

As you are done with your classes on another long and tiring day, you are in two minds as you head out of your department building. Taking out your phone, you look at the app you normally use to call a cab. Changing your mind, you put your phone back in your bag and head towards the main exit gate of the sprawling campus of the Institute of Business Management (IoBM) in Korangi.

Recently, you read somewhere that the Red Peoples Bus Service and the Pink Peoples Bus Service were operating on a new route to Ibrahim Hyderi and back, and the route passed where you lived. Should you put it to the test?

You step out of the gate, you see a few rickshaws waiting there. One or two rickshaw drivers gesture, in the hope you may want a ride. Not this time, buddy. You are looking for… no, waiting for something else. If it doesn’t show up, then you will consider a rickshaw or even the app on your phone. But let’s be a little patient here.

And then you see it. The high pink roof catches your eye as it comes into view. You raise a hand for it to stop. The indicator light flashes as it changes lanes to get to you before stopping.

The doors open and you step inside a cool heaven with ample seating. It’s your first time on the bus. Actually, it’s your first time on any bus. But this is not a bus; it is a cool heaven. You ask the conductor about the fare. She smiles and says: “Take a seat, relax. I’ll come to you.”

When she does come, she hands you the ticket which says Rs 50, for any route, any distance. Wow! The rickshaw would not have settled for anything less than Rs 400 and the cab you were thinking of calling more than double that.

Just like it did for you, wherever a woman gestures for the bus to stop, it does. Some of the passengers are quite used to it by now. A young woman standing outside another university boards, and gets comfy on a seat as she brings out her hands-free earphones and a book. Another young woman plugs her phone into one of the bus’s chargers. When any of the passengers need to get off, they press a button next to every pair of seats and the bus stops. But the conductor is very attentive too. She will ask the driver to stop if you ask her to do so.

Getting off at your stop, you can’t believe you were on a Karachi bus. And what a comfortable, cool and silent Karachi bus. This city is only now beginning to know what it is like to commute by buses, such as the Green Line, Orange Line and the Peoples Bus Service (Red Bus). And now the Pink Peoples Bus Service, where you experience a cool, calm and clean environment. There is no pushing or shoving, no screaming, no panic. Even when there is standing room only, there is something about these buses that makes even standing comfortable.

As with every other good thing that happens in our country, the first thing on your mind is: “What if the service is pulled?’ The Green Line arrived first more than a year ago and the others followed, one by one and are moving on their routes. Just like the Peoples Bus Service, the Pink Bus is also running on our roads while the Green Line and the Orange Line run on dedicated tracks. The only thing different about the Pink Bus is that it is a dedicated service for women.

Shoaib Rafiq, Project Director, National Radio and Telecommunications Corporation (NRTC), says the buses are here to stay. He says that initially they were targeting women who commute alone as well those who cannot afford to take taxis all the time. However, now even women who can afford a taxi take the Pink Bus. “Women who travel with their husbands or sons or any other mehram, can always take any of the other mixed passenger buses. The Pink Bus is for women who commute alone,” says Rafiq. “They feel secure because they are travelling with other women.”

For an example of the kind of security enjoyed by the Pink Bus, one only has to go back to the attack on the police headquarters on Shahrah-e-Faisal in February 2023. As Rafiq points out, “As a result of the incident, the entire flow of traffic on Shahrah-e-Faisal came to a halt. However, the Pink Bus was allowed to pass as the authorities knew it carried female passengers.”

Explaining how the idea of the Pink Bus germinated, Rafiq says, “So many women were reaching out to us because they had issues travelling on the same buses as men. They wanted a dedicated bus for women. We presented a proposal and Transport Minister Sharjeel Memon welcomed the idea and took an almost immediate decision. But we also had to work on its pros and cons.”

The Pink Bus is not the first means of transport catering solely to women. In fact, in the past, several women only taxi services sprung up, but they fizzled out after a short time. Taxis are expensive and the women who can afford them use them occasionally because they usually have their own means of transport. As Rafiq points point, “The community we are serving cannot afford a daily taxi fare. “

The Pink Bus was launched on February 1, 2023, and the number of routes are increasing. Currently, there are 20 Pink Buses running on three routes in Karachi. Two more buses are running in Hyderabad, and as Rafiq says, “We are looking at demand and carrying out assessments for other routes.”

Although the Pink Bus is driven by male drivers, Rafiq says they have already short-listed about 25 female drivers and if hired, they will be given training and that “by the end of March, the Pink Bus will be providing employment to women.”

Regarding the fare, Rafiq anticipates an increase. “The ticket is Rs 50 now, but expect an increase because diesel has become very expensive. To maintain sustainability, we are also looking at options such as branding and marketing. We are also hoping for a subsidiary from the government; but let’s see.”

Abdul Haleem Shaikh, the Secretary Mass Transport (Government of Sindh), says they are working with the NRTC on plans to keep the fare down. “Public service is the government’s job. We are willing to extend at least Rs 50 million every month if there is a bigger increase than five per cent in the price of diesel,” he says.

The Sindh Government’s plan was to take the Pink Bus to other cities in the province. However, this may not happen going by the response in Hyderabad. Shaikh adds: “The women there are not big city women. They move with their families and there are not that many female university students or working women in Hyderabad. This doesn’t mean we will stop the service there, although we may not increase it.”

Cleary, despite the Pink Bus’ success in Karachi, Hyderabad tells us that each city is different.

The writer is senior reporter for Dawn. She tweets @HasanShazia