KATHMANDU, Jan 25: Taxi fares in Kathmandu are just Rs 32 per kilometer between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m., as set by the Department of Transportation. Which means, the fare need not cross Rs 874 for taking one round of the ring road in a taxi.
However, the reality is very different. “Rs 874 for one round of the ring road is out of the question, Rs 500 is a normal rate no matter how short the distance travelled,” complains Manisha Panday, a resident of Naya Baneshwor.
The government last revised the taxi fare rate in October 2011, limiting it to Rs 48 per kilometer between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., or Rs 16 more than in the daytime.
According to the transportation department, there are 8,000 taxis in the Valley. The department is responsible for far more than keeping count of the number of taxis, but in the absence of proper monitoring, taxi drivers charge passengers whatever they can get away with.
In response to numerous public complaints against extortionary taxi fares in the Valley, the three bodies responsible - transportation department, the metropolitan traffic police and the national standards and metrology bureau - have of late launched a joint campaign to address the problem.
According to available information, action is being taken against 15 to 25 taxis every day for cheating passengers.
However, the public has hardly heaved a sigh of relief. According to Rajiv Maharjan of Kupandole, taxis seem to only look for any chance to cheat the helpless passengers.
“They demand a very high fare and leave it up to you whether or not you want to ride. When we are in an urgent hurry, we have no choice but to just throw away our cash,” said Maharjan, who just a few days ago had the same bitter experience again.
How passengers are cheated
The first method of cheating passengers is demanding a fare without any reference to the meter reader, and in most cases passengers do not object. If a passenger insists on going by the meter, he hardly proves any smarter - the meter reader is already tampered to run much faster than it should. For instance, most taxis plying in the Valley have broken or tampered with the seals placed by the National Bureau of Standards and Metrology.
“The meter reader seal can be tampered with to make it run faster,” said Bikash Dhownju, chief of the taxi, tempo unit at the bureau. “The meter runs faster when they sound the horn or play music, turn on the FM radio or trigger the earthing.”
In addition, the taxi drivers very cleverly use the breaks, horn, accelerator, sidelights and so on to create earthing and speed up the meter. At times, they even tamper with the rate reader, he added.
Sources disclose that car workshops do all the technical fixing. The meter timing is often tampered by the bureau staff as well.
“As the cheating over fares is such a hot topic, we discussed the issue with all stakeholders,” said a bureau official.
Lack of human resources
The meter readers have to be adjusted again in all the taxis whenever the price of fuel goes up. This is the responsibility of the standards and metrology bureau.
However, even nine months after the transportation department last hiked the rates, the meter readers in all the taxis have not been corrected.
While there are 8,000 taxis in the Valley, the bureau can deal with only 50 a day at maximum. According to bureau data, the meter readers in 2,705 taxis were adjusted between July 16, 2012 and January 3, 2013.
Dwonju informs that meter reader corrections as per an earlier fuel price hike are is still ongoing. “We have only one machine and a single technician for the job. So it takes months to work on the hundreds of taxis,” he said.
And this very inability to adjust the meters promptly is a major challenge, notes General Secretary of Nepal Transportation Entrepreneur´s National Association Dolnath Khanal. “How to blame the taxis when the responsible bodies are unable to do even the minimum.”
Who to monitor?
The bodies responsible for enforcing taxi regulations are the transportation department, the metropolitan traffic police and the standards and metrology bureau. But none of these are ready to take on the burden.
Dwoju of the standards and metrology bureau reports that there are not enough human resources. Engineer Mohan Bhattarai at the transportation department cites a similar problem.
Meanwhile, DIG at the Metropolitan Traffic Police Division Upendra Kanta Aryal notes that curbing irregularities by taxis is not up to the division alone. “Until and unless all the stakeholders come together, the traffic police alone can do nothing.”
Systematic monitoring necessary Bikash Downju, engineer at Nepal Bureau of Standards and Metrology and chief of its tempo, taxi unit.
How much has the ongoing monitoring campaign helped to control the problem of unfair taxi fares in the Valley?
It has been very effective I think. We started taking action against the taxis since January 13. While around 15 to 25 taxis are being caught every day, above 100 others have been coming to the bureau themselves to get their taxis checked and corrected. The taxi drivers have indeed been alarmed.
But people say they have not felt any change.
It will obviously take time to improve things at that level. But it does not mean nothing has happened.
What action is being taken against the drivers held for cheating passengers?
We are not keeping them under custody as such. But they simply do not feel good getting caught. The fine is low - just Rs 2,000 - while the extra money they make in a day through cheating must be far more. But they are definitely affected. In fact, we cannot make them pay much as it depends on the Standards, Weights and Measures Act. If they are caught today, action is taken against them the next day as we have to first test what has been tampered with.
How many have been caught so far? Any particular areas where such taxis are rampant?
At least 200 taxis have already paid the fine so far. The problem was found to be rampant at most critical locations such as hospitals, nursing homes and and the airport. And no wonder, because at such places they can easily make the passengers pay through their noses.
What after the campaign comes to the end? Will not the same situation prevail again? What about the long term?
Yes, you are right. The regulation has to be systematically monitored, and all three responsible bodies - transportation department, standards and metrology bureau and traffic police - have to be really serious about checking the cheating. Similarly, the problem of human resources and technology has to be tackled in earnest.