x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Running on empty (and petrol)

Last word With a natural gas shortage shutting down rickshaws across Pakistan, Ayesha Akram searches for a ride across Lahore.

With a natural gas shortage shutting down rickshaws across Pakistan, Ayesha Akram searches for a ride across Lahore. It was a chilly Lahore morning, and I was running late for work. I rushed up to an auto rickshaw standing silently in a corner of Liberty Market. The exhaust was quiet, and the plastic fringe adorning its flimsy door was barely fluttering. The driver had propped his legs up on the steering wheel and was fast asleep. I knocked on the rick's door. No reply. I tapped the grimy rearview mirrors; still no reply. I moved on to another rick parked close by. This one had a tattered blanket half-heartedly thrown over its front; a patched-up denim jacket was the only occupant of the front seat. I stood by the rickshaw for a couple of minutes, expecting a betel-nut-chewing driver to show up, but no one did.

Growing more desperate by the minute, I walked down the street and into a more crowded alley, hoping to find a rickshaw with a conscious driver. The rickshaw is still probably Pakistan's most popular form of public transport, which says more about the dearth of options than the merits of a three-wheeled vehicle that sways ominously from side-to-side as it pushes forward. By a conservative estimate, around 30,000 people travel by rickshaw in the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad every day.

Finally, I spotted a non-deserted rickshaw nestled between a deep-fried potato vendor and a fruit stall. Its driver was leaning against the front hood, idly chewing on a burnt out cigarette. I could see the vehicle was empty, but knew I couldn't just sit down. Instead, in accordance with the laws of rickshaw etiquette, I asked the driver the magic question: Kya rickshaw khali hai (is the rickshaw empty)? Generally, this question doesn't garner a verbal response: if the driver is interested, he'll move his neck toward the passenger cabin in a long swooshing motion. If he doesn't want to accommodate a rider, he'll shake his head and stare straight ahead.

I got a vehement shake. "Please," I asked, letting a note of desperation seep into my voice. "No," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "Koi gas nahin hai." No gas. In recent years, thousands of "green rickshaws" designed to run on compressed natural gas (CNG) have hit the street, encouraged by government-sponsored interest-free financing schemes. But the recent dearth of CNG in Pakistan has led to long, meandering lines of rickshaws at gas stations. Gas is increasingly unavailable even at double price, petrol is almost as scarce, and rickshaws are lying dormant. A few weeks ago, hordes of frustrated drivers vented their anger by burning tyres on Lahore's Mall road.

"Can we try to get some gas?" I asked the driver, who seemed for the moment more interested in scratching his arm pits than in accommodating me. "OK," he sighed. I wasn't sure I had heard him correctly. "You'll take me," I half-asked, half-asserted. He nodded, then took out his wallet and gestured toward it. In the early Nineties, ricks operated on the meter system. But somewhere along the line, drivers started tearing the meters out and charging what they felt like.

I asked how much the short ride to my office would cost me. I could feel him measuring me up and down, noting my sunglasses, my handbag and my high heels. "500 rupees," he answered. I knew he was gouging me, but I couldn't care less. I pushed aside the thin plastic doors swinging uneasily from their hinges. Before I could plant my feet on the ground and grip the metal rod in front of me, the vehicle roared to life. I confess that I haven't been on a rickshaw in a while (I would have been in my own car, if not for the petrol shortage); my mind suddenly filled with images from public safety posters of rickshaw passengers bleeding from their heads after being thrown to the ground.

As the rickshaw began slowly weaving its way through the crowded Liberty streets, I began to remember what a rickshaw ride feels like. The three-wheeled beast has an easily identifiable gait: it swings from side to side, grunting and groaning its way forward, every tiny bump accentuated through its frame: up, down, right, left, a little around, a small jerk, a big jump, up down ... The driver stopped at the only open CNG pump, but the attendant waved us away. "No gas," he mouthed.

Muttering curses under his breath, the driver sharply swerved the rickshaw back onto the road, pushing me flat against the hard back seat. We were only halfway to my office when the rick sputtered, fluttered and suddenly died. My driver hopped out, walked to the passenger side, and extended his hand to collect the fare. "But we're not there yet," I pointed out. He smiled: "No gas, no gas." I didn't want to argue, and I definitely didn't want to pay full price for half a journey, but I couldn't see what choice I had. I paid, pushed myself off the seat and began walking away.

"Wait, bibi ji," he screamed after me. "What?" The driver said he could switch to petrol and carry me forward - if I was willing to pay him again. Resisting an impulse to beat him into a pulp with my handbag, I took a deep breath and forced myself back into the rickshaw's narrow seat. Ayesha Akram is a senior executive producer at Express News, a TV channel in Pakistan.