Shaukat Ali Chaudhry
By an order on 21st July 2010, the Pakistan railway management suspended six trains – Mehran Express, Sialkot Express, Sakhi Abbas Express, Tezo Express, Chittor Express and Shalimar Express, citing the major financial losses being incurred by these trains. The railway management said that they are suffering a heavy financial loss, and shortage of locomotives, and that if they discontinue these trains they would be able to get 15 locomotives and 75 coaches extra, which can be used as cargo trains generating much more profit for the ailing organisation.
The suspended trains had been generating only five percent of the revenue against the 95 percent in loss. The abrupt and sudden suspension of six trains had a profound impact on thousands of passengers travelling to and from Karachi, Lahore, Quetta, Mardan, Thar and other areas of the country. A large numbers of citizens, whose only affordable means of travel is through the railways, have been deprived of reasonable and affordable means of transport which has directly curtailed their fundamental right including the right to move freely within the country to earn their livelihood, to transport their goods, their freedom to travel and their right to perform lawful business and profession.
Two of these suspended trains namely the Quetta Express and the Chilton Express carry passengers from Balochistan to locations in Sindh and Punjab and act as a lifeline for people living in the less developed areas of these provinces who travel frequently in search of better opportunities and jobs. The people of Balochistan, who are already financially and economically deprived, are also feeling the effects of the discontinuation of these services. The people of Baluchistan do not feature anywhere on the list of priorities of the planners. Suspending train services to these areas would further reinforce the feeling of discrimination and deprivation for the people living in the area leading to discontent and disillusionment with the Federation.
Balochistan is connected with other provinces because of the railways, there are already demands from the people of Balochistan to increase trains to and from the province in order to bring the people into the mainstream of the socio-economic political life of the country. The Mehran express was the only link between Karachi and Thar. This train was carrying clean water, food and vegetables for the people of Thar, which are not accessible by other means of transportation. The discontinuation of the Mehran express would deprive the people of Thar of their main source of food and fresh water, besides being an affordable means of travel to earn their livelihoods, thereby causing severe hardship to the people.
A similar situation is there with the other suspended trains; we have only two ways to fight against it. We would protest against this illegal order in association with Railways Workers Union, the Open Line and other Railway Unions. We have been supported by the print media as well as the electronic media after we challenged that decision in the Lahore high court through our lawyer, Mr Ishtiaq Ahmad Chaudhry. After hearing the arguments of our lawyer, Mr Justice Sharif asked the Railway authorities to submit a compliance report within two weeks. The railways through its counsel pleaded that the earning of the closed trains was Rs. 1066.828 million against a cost of Rs. 2470 million. The increasing price of engine oil was another problem which had compelled the railways to stop the trains. The closure of those trains would cause no hardship to passengers because substitute trains were still running on these routes.
On 23rd September 2010, a division bench of Lahore High Court comprising of Justice Sharif and Justice Ejaz-ul-Ahsan, gave their verdict. They said that train and road services communication constitute the backbone of any economy and play a fundamental role in national integration by making all areas of the country open to its citizens. This is especially true for citizens living in economically less developed far flung areas of our country including the area of Punjab, interior Sindh, Khyber Pakhtonkhow and Balochistan where the road networks is neither available nor reliable. We have inherited our rail network from our colonial rulers which connects far flung areas of the country to the relatively more developed areas. This acts as a bridge for citizens. It is important to keep the means of communication open and affordable in order to create harmony amongst people living in different areas of the country, the decision of discontinuation of trains would create misunderstanding, discontent and differences between people. These factors are not only important but need to be seriously considered. The decisions relating to such matters cannot be based on consideration of commercial viability in view of fact that trains link serve purposes which are much beyond financial considerations. It is common knowledge that Pakistan is going through a state of uncertainty. The ‘Rule of Prudence’ is to adopt such measures which may avert clash, conflict and discontentment, the rule of precautionary policy is to first consider the welfare and convenience of the citizens and formulate policies and execute plans which are suited to create openness and harmony and build bridges amongst people living in various parts of the country. It is neither prudent nor can we afford to base our decisions on such vital service solely on financial feasibility criteria, considering the far-reaching effects and consequences of such decision on the citizen and the state from a perusal of records...we have come to the conclusion that the decision to discontinue of said trains have been taken in haste, it has neither been thought through nor has any research or discussion been done. In all civilised countries while devising strategy and plans to open and close public services, a process of public hearing is adopted in order to ensure openness transparency and fairness in arriving at decision which directly affect the lives of the citizens. No thought appears to have been given to the fact that millions of citizens will be deprived of a fundamental right guaranteed to them under the constitution. If at all decisions of this nature was unavoidable serious thought effort and planning must be demonstrated to have gone into it, citizens should have been associated with it, given an opportunity of being heard and the decision taken in a transparent, open, fair and just manner, this has clearly not been done. Citizens are rightly suspicious, wary and doubtful about the real basis and motives behind decisions like these. We declare that the notification or order dated 21.7.2010 providing for closure of six trains specified therein has been illegal, without lawful authority and is of no legal effect, the same is, therefore, struck down, the train services discontinued by virtue of the aforesaid order shall be resumed within two weeks from the date of this order. Constitute a commission consisting of senior officials of Pakistan Railways, prominent industrialists, professional experts and representatives of civil society to consider and recommend ways and means to identify areas of mismanagement. If necessary for the time being advise on restructuring of routes in a manner that all existing routes and train services are streamlined and services in the most economical and efficient manner considering the specific requirements of each area. In this regard the commission shall conduct public hearings after wide publicity of such hearings inviting citizens to provide their point of view in order to ensure that the citizens who are likely to be affected by such decisions have a right to participate in the decision making process and to express their will and opinion. This is the essence of democracy and good governance which should be introduced at every level of decision making process which involves fundamental rights of citizens. The basic norms of transparency, fairness, non-discrimination, equality of citizens and justice must under all circumstances be adhered to’.
After the Lahore High Court order Federal Minister for Railways said that the Pakistan Railways will obey the Lahore High Court’s Order and restore the six trains. He also said that the Railways had decided not to increase fares despite an increase in fuel prices and a delegation would meet the PM of Pakistan to discuss a shortage of funds, so that we would be able to repair 30 locomotives, besides all this the railways management has to challenge the Lahore High Court order to the Supreme Court of Pakistan after having a meeting. The matter is now in the Supreme Court, and let us wait for the court’s verdict.
Six trains are still suspended which has multiplied the miseries of passengers and rendered hundreds jobless. In this the only solace is that 102 trains are still running, which were ordered to be suspended earlier along with six suspended trains. The Pakistan Railways network consists of 212 trains, if 108 trains are to be suspended, then 104 trains are not at all sufficient to cater to the seventeen crore people of the country. The deprived poor have no road network to travel on. Further road fares are not affordable and reasonable. Trains are the only affordable and economical means to connect people.
This is an irony that the railway ministry, railways management as well as the government of Pakistan are trying to make the people understand that the Pakistan Railway is suffering heavy financial loss, but it is written in the railways record that the railways institution is for the interest of the people. Corruption is at its peak within the railways management which has decided to stop the trains instead of controlling its losses. The railways spend one billion rupees on its VIP saloon services every year which is causing a huge loss to the organisation. According to the railway management they have 540 rail engines, out of which 140 have become out of order, railway workshops are well equipped to fulfil any need of the institution, but worthless rail engines have been brought from other countries which are standing useless. A huge income generating institution has turned into a pauper. The commission mafia is progressing by leaps and bounds. It seems that the government has no composite policy to reform the railways besides demolishing it.
Shaukat Ali Chaudhry is Secretary General, Pakistan Mazdoor Mahaz
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