Islamabad – Most cab drivers in the twin cities are often aggressive and they seldom compromise on fare. But these past few days, the drivers, especially those from Rawalpindi, have looked genuinely scared.
The source of their fear is a recent crackdown by the Islamabad Traffic Police (ITP) on any taxi driving in the federal capital that either only has a Rawalpindi permit or was manufactured earlier than 2003.
The fines are validated by long-standing regulations of the Islamabad Transport Authority (ITA). But the necessary strictness in implementation by the ITP coupled with the habitually law-evading taxi drivers have, perhaps as an unintended side-effect, resulted in some problems for passengers.
“Rawalpindi taxi drivers are almost completely unwilling to travel to Islamabad since a couple of weeks,” said Rameez Khan, a call centre worker who commutes between the twin cities every week day.
The reluctance is because most taxi drivers in Rawalpindi and many in Islamabad do not have an Islamabad permit for their vehicles.
Taxis, and other commercial vehicles used for public transport, need a route permit from the city or district administration in which they operate. ITA, which falls under the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) administration, issues the route permits for the federal capital — a 3-year permit costs Rs1,000 — and the Rawalpindi Transport Authority (RTA) does the same for the Rawalpindi district.
Most cab drivers have an RTA permit because, according to the drivers, it is easier to obtain, with fewer restrictions.
Khan, who said he only hails a cab when there is a public transport crisis during the CNG holidays, said he has had to give assurances to cab drivers from Rawalpindi to drive him to the federal capital.
“In one instance, a cab driver only agreed when I told him I had not witnessed a fine being issued to a Rawalpindi driver first hand,” he said.
Khan’s cab driver might have taken his word for it, but enough cab drivers have been fined for word to spread through the cabbie community.
“Police are issuing fines of Rs1,000 for not having an Islamabad stamp, as if the price of petrol was not high enough to wreck our business,” said Raja Ikhlaq, a taxi driver in Chaklala Scheme III.
The drivers might be unhappy but the fines are justified in the best interest of the ICT, according to Asmatullah Junejo, the Acting Senior Superintendent Police of the ITP.
“The route permits are a source of revenue for ICT,” Junejo, who recently joined the force in Islamabad and has spearheaded an active campaign against transporters violating van routes, motorists defying the seat-belt requirement and taxis operating without permits with around 1,000 fines issued in the past one month or so.
Junejo said taxi drivers from Attock, Jehlum, Chakwal and Rawalpindi ply their vehicles in Islamabad without a permit because they think the market is better here but in the process they deprive the ICT of its legitimate revenue.
“The solution is simple: these people should apply for an Islamabad permit,” he said, adding that the increase in fines is not due to a year-end performance review for the police as insinuated by some taxi drivers.
Taxi drivers think it is unfair that given the high daily volume of inter-city traffic between the twin cities, taxis should be made to get an Islamabad stamp on their Rawalpindi permits. That demand, however, is disallowed as per a clause in the Motor Vehicle Ordinance, said Gul Sher, a spokesperson of the ITA.
“Every commercial vehicle is issued a route permit for a specific jurisdiction,” Sher said. “Just like a Rawalpindi permit will not work in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, it cannot work in Islamabad since the capital is a separate district.”
But perhaps there is another reason for the reluctance of taxi drivers to spend a thousand bucks on the permit instead of getting fined: the ITA only renews permits for vehicles that are not older than 10 years.
Junejo said he advocates an even stricter restriction for route renewal — five years or less —because older cars affect pollution control and the impression of a federal capital on foreign tourists.
Taxi drivers, however, suggested only old cars are used as taxis — no one will buy a new Mehran for upwards of Rs0.6 million and make it a taxi, they said — and they think a car’s fitness certificate should be valued over its model.
But the corruption in the system makes the fitness certificate an ineffective criterion, Sher said.
“Anyone with a few connections can get a fitness certificate but there is no way to double-check it,” Sher said. “It is better to have a year-based rule or to base the assessment on a car’s visible condition.”
Meanwhile, as law enforcement and law-evaders play cat and mouse, it seems passengers such as Khan would have to be ready with their assurances a little longer.