A day in the life of Lalitpur Yatayat, Patan’s iconic public bus serviceWednesday was a listlessly grey winter afternoon in Patan. And up in front of Patan Dhoka, Lalitpur Yatayat, Number Ba 1 Kha 8774, sits idling, ready for its fourth round-trip of the day.
Wednesday was a listlessly grey winter afternoon in Patan. And up in front of Patan Dhoka, Lalitpur Yatayat, Number Ba 1 Kha 8774, sits idling, ready for its fourth round-trip of the day. It’s 13:50 pm and the bus’s conductor, Biraj Thapa Magar, enters the bus, runs his eyes around and gives the driver the go-ahead. Ram Balami, the bus driver, follows cue and the bus moves ahead. The bus is almost full, with only a couple of its 25 seats vacant. Magar is happy that the bus has this many passengers since it often runs vacant at this time of day. The bus gets most passengers during office time, 9-10 in the morning and 4-5 in the evening, Magar reports.
In Kathmandu’s chaotic, mismanaged public transport system, Lalitpur Yatayat is something of an anomaly. It’s mostly quiet—and that, for public transport plying the Kathmandu Valley, is saying quite a lot. Moreover, the Lalitpur Yatayat is mostly on time, except for when there are strange, jumbled traffic jams. Discounting traffic jams, punctuality is also one of Lalitpur Yatayat’s unique selling points.
Established in 1990, Lalitpur Yatayat currently has 29 buses, out of which around 15 are currently running; the rest are defunct, owing to a lack of drivers. The current lot of buses was procured back in 2002 and has been running ever since.
The first Lalitpur Yatayat of the day revs to life exactly at 5:45 in the morning and every other bus leaves after exactly 15 minutes until 7am, owing to the thin number of passengers in the morning. After seven, however, the buses depart every 10 minutes. One Lalitpur Yatayat completes four to seven round-trips in a day, from its starting point in Patan Dhoka, through Thapathali to Lainchaur, ending on the other side of the Valley at Sukedhara. And then, it plies the same road back, quietly.
Behind the quietness of Lalitpur Yatayat, reasons conductor Thapa, is its uniform rate: there are only two rates—Rs 15 for a trip, no matter where you’re going; and for students and the elderly, it’s just Rs 10.
Uma Shrestha, one of the passengers on the bus that Wednesday, has been riding the Lalitpur Yatayat for over two decades. Shrestha, 65, had been to Patan in the morning to attend a religious function at her maternal home. Shrestha was seated in the front row, on one of the seats reserved for women, her elderly ID card ready in hand. Shrestha normally visits Patan once a week, but when something comes up, there’s always the Lalitpur Yatayat to take her back and forth, she says. “It’s easy for me. The people are friendly, so I mostly get a seat,” says Shrestha.
Even though stuck for around two minutes at a traffic jam in Kupondole, the bus rolls smoothly until it reaches Kesharmahal when it suddenly comes to a screeching halt. A middle-aged woman is crossing the road in the middle of traffic. “Almost,” says driver Balami. “But she is not to be blamed. There’s no zebra crossing here.”
At 27, Balami is quiet and soft-spoken. “Even though it’s a mundane job, it’s pretty good,” he says. “Up and down, there’s nothing remarkable. But over the years, I have come to enjoy it for what it is. Life is good and on the move.”
Balami started driving seven years ago, when he was 20. He started off as a conductor in his father’s bus—the bus he is driving today—and after eight months, acquired a driving license. He has been in the driver’s seat ever since, with no thoughts to quitting any time soon.
Thapa Magar, the conductor, is a young man from the mid-hills, in his mid-20s and has been a conductor for three years. “This is the fourth trip and there are two more to go,” he says, his voice almost drowned out by the revving engine. “The footfall is rather slow today.”
The bus reaches Sukedhara at 14:50 and waits for 10 minutes before starting the return trip home. Four passengers embark and away we go.
The economics of Lalitpur Yatayat is not all that remarkable. When the footfall is low—as in the mornings and afternoons—the bus makes just Rs 500-800 per trip, which only suffices to pay for the diesel. Sometimes, the revenue dips down to about only Rs 200. On a normal trip, however, the bus makes Rs 1,000-1,500. Earnings shoot up during peak hours up to Rs 3,000. The driver and conductor are salaried at Rs 6,000 and 3,000 monthly, respectively, and receive a Rs 50 stipend per trip. The driver-conductor duo pays Rs 1,000 to the owner per trip and whatever remains, they share it among themselves.
On the return trip, the bus is fuller than earlier. Since it’s 15:24, the bus is full, with four men standing. But it’s still quiet. The bus reaches Patan Dhoka at 15:42.
“We meet all kinds of people. People who quarrel over fake IDs, those who insist that we stop at unlawful places,” conductor Thapa Magar says. Then a middle-aged man inconspicuously comes forward from the middle row and salutes the driver. He looks drunk and stutters, “Thank you for the service. Have a good day,” in English.
“And then,” Magar smiles, “there are some like this.”