No breathing space in Karachi


The hellish transport system in Pakistan’s largest city heaps physical and environmental miseries on women and stifles their freedom and growth.

View from second hotel in Karachi

Aiming to be a professional footballer, Samia Gul, 12, kicked, dribbled, and manoeuvred the football like an ace player until a few months ago. Hailing from Pakistan’s “football district” Lyari, in the southern part of Karachi, the country’s largest city and commercial capital, Gul wanted to join Pakistan’s national women’s football team.

However, her dream was shattered late last year when she was diagnosed with asthma, and doctors stopped her from intense running.

The young girl is one of the tens of thousands of Pakistanis, who develop multiple diseases, including asthma, hearing disorders, and different types of infections annually due to ever-increasing air and noise pollution, and carbon emissions from millions of honking vehicles.

According to health experts, increasing noise pollution, especially in the major cities, is the key factor behind a surge in asthma, noise-induced hearing loss, whereas infectious air is the reason for growing ear, throat and eye infections among the people.

Besides, Karachi, home to nearly 20 million people, Pakistan’s second largest city Lahore, northwestern Peshawar, garrison city of Rawalpindi, and textile hub Faisalabad are too highly polluted.  In fact, together with New Delhi and Dhaka, Lahore has topped the daily rankings of the world's most polluted cities this winter, primarily because of increasing industrialisation and unplanned urbanisation in recent decades. Recently, a report of IQAir stated that Karachi has become the world’s fourth most polluted city, with the air quality index (AQI) touching 193.

Gul is completely heartbroken that the pollution in her city has taken a toll on her dream of becoming a professional footballer. “I was taking part in a routine practice match (a few months back) when I felt difficulty in breathing. I knelt to the ground in an attempt to settle down but soon realised I could not breathe properly. I fell to the ground, and was rushed to the hospital, where the doctors told me ‘a bad news’,” a visibly dejected Gul said. “It seemed as if the world was over for me when my doctor told me that I could not play football (because of asthma) at least in the near future.”

Her ordeal is not over here.

Although, the lack of a proper and well-regulated  transport system,  is affecting a brute majority of the citizens in the big cities like Karachi, it particularly takes a toll on women, who have to face a myriad of physical and psychological problems, ranging from shortage of public transport to sexual harassment, and to mental distress. 

Gul would use public transport to reach the football ground, which took not more than half an hour. However, this short span was enough to give her pain as she was often harassed by the boys at the bus stop or on her way to the ground and back home.

A courageous Gul, nonetheless, is not ready to give in. “I am taking medicine, and have started jogging. The doctors and my coach are hopeful that I can regain my strength and energy gradually through medication and practice. However, it will take some time,” she maintained.

Narrating a similar ordeal, Talat Iqbal, a 34-year-old resident of Korangi, an eastern middle-income bracket locality in Karachi, said she had to leave her job due to “consistent” harassment.

 Until a few months back, she worked as a supervisor in a local garment factory, but was forced to quit as she was subjected to physical harassment by pedestrians and passengers in the bus.

"I initially kept quiet. But when it became a routine affair, I informed my mother, who deputed my younger brother to go with me to the bus stop. However, it did not last long and one day my family ordered me to quit the job and stay home, “Iqbal said.

This, she said, added to her family’s economic woes, which already struggled to make ends meet.  

The two stories are just the tip of the iceberg as the problems faced by the working women and female students in terms of physical and psychological harassment are overwhelming. A common denominator between the two is Karachi's increasing air and noise pollution, tearing the dreams out of the eyes of girls like Gul, while congested transport makes harassment frequent and easy shutting doors of employment on breadwinners like Iqbal. It is a sad truth accepted and endured by most women in big cities like Karachi.

Karachi’s glorious past

Today’s smokey and noisy Karachi presenting a picture of glossy skyscrapers, concrete buildings and massive traffic jams hides a very different and glorious past. Older Karachiites paint a fairytale-like transport system existing only 50 years ago. According to Aleemuddin, 70, a resident of Garden East, a densely populated area of Karachi, streets of the city were washed daily with tall trees swaying on both sides of the roads.

Tree-lined streets witnessed buses, double-decker buses, trams, bicycles, bicycle rickshaws, and some decorated carriages and tim-tim (horse carriage). Cars on the streets could be counted on finger tips, no crowds, no smoke or pollution, no loud horns; and cooling sea breeze in the evenings made Karachi the place to be in.

Fareed Ahmed Lucknowi, CEO of Lucknow Transport Company, recollects that bicycle rickshaws probably stopped operating in the 1960s. Instead Taxiana and Lamerita rickshaws became part of the roads. With the introduction of the circular railway in the late 1960s, a large portion of the rapidly growing population got access to cheap and ideal transportation. But, the circular railway was closed in 1999 due to lack of maintenance and insufficient funds.

Dilapidated public transport

Iqbal said that she commuted in run down public buses for two years for her job. Those buses are always very late and overcrowded with male passengers compelled to sit on the roof of the buses. Men also sit in the seats reserved for women. "Traveling in public transport is nothing short of a nightmare," she added

A report published by Asian Development Bank (ADB) also supports Iqbal’s narrative, stating that almost 40 per cent of women avoid travelling after dark in Pakistan, which severely limits their opportunities for further education or social life.[i] 

Noman Ahmed, a renowned civil engineer and head of the Department of Architecture and Planning at NED University Karachi, corroborates Iqbal saying that the metropolis is facing an acute shortage of public buses, more than insufficient to cope with the requirement of 20 million residents. 

As per the government census, the vehicles on the city roads can only accommodate a maximum of 42 per cent of the passengers. The number of rickshaws and taxis in Karachi provides transport facilities to 8 per cent, while 21 per cent of the commuters use private vehicles. Most citizens prefer two-wheelers for their low cost and less fuel consumption as they are equally useful in manoeuvring in busy traffic.

Ahmed said that the government was working on a bus rapid transit (BRT) system. It has seven corridors out of which one corridor, Green Line, is partially operational with 80 buses. The government claims that 200,000 people are benefiting from the Green Line funded by the ADB.

Definitely, people are benefiting but these numbers cannot be confirmed without any independent research or survey.

Rashida Hameed, a student of Sir Syed Girls College, said that she started going in a shared rickshaw with two of her friends to avoid getting frustrated in depreciated and delayed buses. "But despite spending extra money, there was no relief. If the gas stations were closed due to shortage of CNG, the rickshaw drivers asked for double the money or refused to make the trip. Frequent arguments with rickshaw drivers were common. How can I focus on studies in such a scenario?" Hameed said.

Vehicular emissions, main cause of air pollution

Mirza Mujtaba Baig, who is affiliated with the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), said that according to a 2020 survey, the amount of PM (particulate matter) 2.5, an important air quality pollutant, was 68 micrograms per cubic meter in Lyari alone. This amount, found to be almost three times higher than the WHO standard (25 micrograms per cubic meter), is enough to inflict respiratory diseases on girls like Gul.

 “Although Karachi's transport system is considered to be the second leading cause of air pollution after industrial pollution, some experts consider it to be the first cause even though there is no supporting data in this regard,” Mujtaba said.

According to Mujtaba, the AQI is reviewed on a daily basis, based mostly on PM 2.5 readings, while other major pollutants such as PM 10, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and ozone are no less damaging.

SEPA has recently begun monitoring vehicle emissions in Karachi. SEPA's subsidiary Vehicular Emission Control Programme monitors small and large vehicles in different areas with mobile units equipped with state-of-the-art gas monitoring devices. SEPA says 25 per cent to 35 per cent of vehicles in Karachi (public and private) are environmentally unfit because of the staggering amount of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and other emissions.

Dr. Sami Khan, an ENT specialist in Karachi said that fine particulate matter (PM2.5) can penetrate through the lungs and further enter the body through the bloodstream, affecting all major organs. Exposure to PM2.5 can cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, e.g. strokes, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Prestigious health journal The Lancet recently reported that “approximately 135,000 people die each year in Pakistan due to air pollution”. In this regard, Dr. Sami said that the government should take air pollution seriously and run an aggressive public awareness campaign similar to dengue and other diseases.

Lack of opportunities for women

“Inadequate, hazardous and inefficient transport systems directly affect women's health, education and economic activity,” said Farhan Anwar, a social activist affiliated with Shehri, an NGO and the author of a research study, “Mobility from the Lens of Gender, Case Study Karachi”.

Anwar said that the public transport system in Karachi could be considered unsuitable for passengers, especially for women, as only a few seats are reserved for women; the number of seats was fixed decades ago when very few women came out of home.  Now the number of women in the working class has multiplied and can be found in all organizations. If they do not get a proper and decent ride to and from work then obviously they will quit work and stay at home. He said that during his research, he interviewed many girls who could not take admission to the university just because there was no direct ride from their home to the university.

In addition to physical issues, Karachi's decaying transport system is also creating a raft of social problems for women.

Talat Iqbal, the former factory supervisor, said that she wanted to continue working but her widowed mother was afraid that if a boy was seen harassing her at the bus stop, people would blame her. That would make it difficult to find a decent groom for her. She added that “blaming and degrading” a girl had become a norm, especially if the aggrieved girl ventures out alone. Such prejudiced societal behaviour towards women like Iqbal permanently blocks the doors of education and employment for them.

Mumtaz Mughal, a director of the Aurat Foundation, an NGO working for women empowerment, said that according to a report published by her organization, “Women's Safety Audit in Public Transport in Lahore,” 85 per cent of women and girls who left home for education and employment used public transport and 15 per cent of them were forced to stay at home every year due to various forms of harassment.


A recent World Bank study, "Transforming Karachi into a Livable and Competitive Megacity: A City Diagnostic and Transformation Strategy,"  suggested that for a population of over 20 million in Karachi, there should be buses running on green energy with seating capacity of 100 per 1,500 persons.

According to government sources, the Karachi Circular Railway project was included in the multi-billion dollars China Pakistan Economic Corridor Project (CPEC) a year ago. Though the terms and timeframe of the project are still not clear, the project is hailed as the backbone of Karachi's future transport system. Under the project, each train of the circular railway will accommodate 1,391 passengers leaving for its destination every six minutes. The rail transport system is expected to provide daily travel facilities to more than 600,000 persons.

Noman Ahmed, however, disagrees with the idea, dubbing it as a “limited relief” for the citizens. A contract worth Rs 300 million has been awarded to a foreign company for the rehabilitation of the circular railway, and restoration of the old track, which, according to him, can be done at a much lesser cost. The government, he said, should formulate a comprehensive strategy for the city instead of various projects.

Social activist Anwar said that better transport systems existed only in those countries where the governments had provided women-only coaches in the subway or trains, among other measures. He cited the examples of Brazil, Bangladesh, Egypt, Japan, India, Iran, Indonesia, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Taiwan and the Philippines. “In a number of cities across the globe, women-only bus services have long been operating,” he said.[ii]

Farhan said that keeping these examples in mind, a special transport service for women should be started in Karachi, which could  be used during working hours and for transporting women from and to work areas.Also, he added, the government should provide subsidies on the proposed service. Mobile apps can also be designed to avoid harassment and policewoman patrolling should be increased, especially in the evening and at night so that the police can act as soon as the app is used, he maintained.

On the contrary, Mumtaz Mughal from Aurat Foundation said that a mobile app has been tried in Punjab province, which has not been “very successful”.

“The women’s general economic situation in Pakistan is very bad. They do not know how to speak up for their rights. They don't even know what laws are in place to help them. An overwhelming 94.8 per cent of women and girls are not aware of Section 509 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC),” she said.

Singing vulgar songs, whistling, writing and verbal misconduct are all crimes related to sexual harassment and can be prosecuted under Section 509 of the PPC; the penalty for such crimes is 3 to 5 years in jail and a fine of up to Rs 500,000.

There is no doubt that Karachi's hellish transport system has become a nightmare for the women in terms of education, health and development. Millions of rupees were allocated for women’s welfare in the last 30 years but nothing came out of it. If better transport arrangements are made for Karachi, the city will be free from air pollution and the lives of millions of women will be changed for the better.

Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, CEO of an NGO named LEAD, said: “If women take full participation in the economic process, the country's GDP could increase by 26 per cent. We cannot achieve our Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) unless we fully integrate women into the working, autonomous and economic mainstream.”

He also said that at least 11 goals of SDG can be reached easily by providing a better transportation system for women and these goals are zero hunger, good health and well-being, quality education, gender equality, decent work and economic growth, reduced inequality, sustainable cities and communities.



[i] ADB Policy Paper: A Safe Public Transportation Environment for Women and Girls (2015), modified by authors.)

[ii] Approaches for Gender Responsive Urban Mobility Study 2018.