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Yellow cabs an enduring landmark in Pakistani capital

By Joe Cochrane, IANS

Islamabad : There’s never a taxi around when you need one. Except, of course, if you are in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad.

A quiet, afternoon stroll through the city’s tree-lined neighbourhoods or a quick walk between office buildings are invariably interrupted by the blaring horn of a dirty, dented yellow Suzuki Mehran and the frantic waving of its driver.

Their purpose is simple: Get you into the taxi, drive you to your destination and try to bargain as much money out of you as possible. It sounds suspect, but it works and has for years, making Islamabad’s “yellow cabs” one of the capital’s enduring modern landmarks.

The taxis came to prominence during the late 1990s, when the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif launched the “yellow cab scheme” in which unemployed men were given loans to buy used cars and become private taxi operators in cities across the country. Prior to that, motorized rickshaws and even horse-drawn carts were more common modes of quick, cheap transport.

Climbing into a yellow cab can be a leap of faith and exercise in determination. There are tens of thousands in Islamabad alone, many of them scarcely look roadworthy, and the drivers as a rule go too fast. The vehicles do not have metres, so it is up to the passenger to negotiate a fair price, which should be no more than $1.65 or 100 Pakistani rupees for a trip across town.

Cab rides can also be amusing. Drivers sometimes stop and have conversations with friend on the roadside while the passenger sits and waits for them to finish. And because the Suzuki Mehran is such a common vehicle, expatriates have been known to climb into private vehicles thinking they are taxis and, to the horror of the driver, demand to be taken home.

Shahnawaz Akhtar has driven a yellow cab in Islamabad and the nearby city of Rawalpindi, his hometown, for the past nine years. He earned a college degree in education but was unable to find a job in that field. So at age 31 he drives a cab up to 12 hours a day, earning nearly $8 or 500 rupees when business is good.

“Our population is not too rich; they can’t afford it,” he said in passable English. “Every time they bargain us.”

It is not cheap driving a cab for a living. Since they own their vehicles, drivers like Akhtar must pay for repairs and petrol, and prowl the streets looking for fares rather than answer radio calls like drivers who work for Islamabad’s upscale taxi companies.

The vehicles are cramped and uncomfortable and clearly have seen better days. Passengers should not expect heating or air conditioning – in fact they should not expect anything beyond a hair-raising drive that somehow always ends safely at their destination.

One benefit of the yellow cab is that they run on compressed natural gas (CNG), an environmentally friendly alternative fuel that is half the price of a litre of petrol. But even the price of CNG has more than doubled since 2000, Akhtar said.

Pakistan’s economy and political situation are staple topics of conversation among the public, and it is no different inside a yellow cab. Driving towards a hotel near the city’s diplomatic quarter, Akhtar laments about the military-backed government that has been in power since 1999, and says he hopes for change during upcoming parliamentary elections next month.

“Politics is my hobby,” he said, laughing. “This government doesn’t work for the poor. An army man cannot feel the suffering of a poor person.”

Neither do the country’s civilian leaders, he adds, almost as an afterthought. Perhaps Akhtar can at least take comfort in the fact that, unlike politicians, his yellow cab is always around when people need one.