It is said that you cannot understand a city without using its public transport system. The thought stands all the more relevant in places like Kathmandu, where an overwhelming majority of the people are dependent on public transportation to meet their day to day mobility needs. Sadly, the public transport system in Kathmandu portrays a rather unpleasant picture of life in the city: Whether it be buses, “micros”, tempos or taxis, the experience of traveling by public transport in Kathmandu can be harrowing.
At the very outset is the horror of having to push and shove your way into a vehicle that is already overcrowded, with sometimes up to half your body suspended outside the door as the vehicle zooms off without warning. Once inside, you either have to spring to a seat where people already are, or will be, forcibly stuffed beyond the seat’s capacity, or are compelled to join the flock of people clinging to rods hanging from the ceiling, whilst jostling for a foothold. Notably, while almost every kind of public vehicle will have inscribed above a few of its seats letters that indicate reserved seat quotas for the needy, never is this implemented. Such overcrowding in public transportation in the valley could be in part due to mismatched vehicle distribution across different routes.
Also elemental in a ride in the city’s public transport is the riling dissonance of amplified ‘music’ booming from affixed speakers, infants crying inconsolably, and people uttering curses as their toes are being trodden upon. Adding to the discomfort is the almost suffocating humidity and unbearable stench of perspiration, and occasionally, even vomit. What’s more, the journey can take a turn for the worse as the resultant environment is more than favorable for pickpockets and molesters looking to take undue advantage of unavoidable proximity. The scenario gets even worse during rush hours and late evenings.
More often than not, the vehicles will not budge until they are filled to a certain quota, and when they do; the driving is reckless and rash. Drivers are either racing to overtake their fellow drivers, or driving as slowly as possible so as to cram as many people as possible into the vehicle. The fact that these drivers aren’t penalized for speeding explains their slapdash attitude to an extent. Also, as most places in the valley still don’t have proper stops designated for public vehicles, the sight of probable passengers, anywhere along the road, give the drivers a reason to stop dead without warning. This usually ends up obstructing traffic flow as well as causing the people inside to lunge forward, and most likely, hit something or someone. Rather unsurprisingly, a sizeable figure of the road accidents that occur in the valley every year involve public vehicles. Oftentimes, these accidents result in serious injuries and gruesome deaths.
When inside a public vehicle, if you are brave enough to complain about anything, you have to deal with offensive and foul replies from conductors, most of whom are children. Cordial and civilized behavior from them is rare.
Another major problem while travelling in public vehicles is the growing trend, amongst drivers and conductors, of charging arbitrary fares, and their unwillingness to return the change when it’s a rupee or two, like it were of no value. Taxis in the valley are at a whole new level in this respect: Often, the taxi drivers will not start the meter, and insist on charging huge sums, fixed capriciously. When they do agree to go by the meter, the meter has most likely been manipulated to (seemingly) multiply at random. Undeniably, there is an urgent and pressing need for a scientific and well thought out system for determining fares of public vehicles in the country.
The need to legally declare the retirement ages for all kinds of public vehicles is also compelling. While on the one hand, this would minimize the risk of road accidents by eliminating vehicles in deplorable conditions, or those having dysfunctional parts, it would also lessen environmental pollution caused by vehicular emissions. Nepal Vehicle Mass Emission Standard (NVMES),2056 enforced by the government in 1999, aimed at identifying and eliminating vehicles that pollute most heavily, does not seem to be serving its purpose.
Whilst such is the reality of public transport in our country, the existent laws concerning the issue only seem to mock the general public. The Motor Vehicles and Transport Management Act 2049 prohibits the charging of excess fares and taking passengers in excess of seats. Also, it provides for the compulsory requirement of issuing travel tickets to passengers according to their destinations. Similarly, the Act also necessitates the displaying and affixing of route maps indicating all destinations, and proper time tables at all bus stops. It even obligates conductors to obtain ‘conductor licenses’ before working in public vehicles. Needless to say, poor implementation of the Act has rendered it ineffective.
Regardless of what the laws are, the ‘power’ of public transport drivers’ unions means that they are charged lower fines than ordinary users of the common road. If and when their licenses get confiscated, they are allowed to send their union reps, and don’t even have to show up in the stations in person to retrieve their licenses. Licenses of drivers that breach traffic laws repeatedly are rarely, if ever, suspended. Like this isn’t enough, they are seen declaring strikes every now and then with outrageous demands like the traffic police be stripped of their power to issue traffic fines altogether.
With the demise of the Sajha Yatayat, a syndicate system in the public transportation sector has flourished across the country. The monopoly of a handful of persons rooted in the business deters entrepreneurs capable of better service from entering the market. There is little hope of improvement in our public transportation system unless the government does away with the syndicate system. Not only has the system stripped us of our right to choose as consumers, it has also rendered Nepal incapable of providing a fair business environment, contrary to its pledges in the international arena.
The author is a law student