No truck with cartelsSajha is a shining light but only broader policy decisions can reform public transport
On Sunday, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal inaugurated 30 new buses of Sajha Yatayat, a cooperative that runs a fleet of 46 buses in the Capital. He then rode one of them to commute to his office in Singha Durbar, along with Minister for Physical Planning and Transport Ramesh Lekhak, Minister for Federal Affairs and Local Development Hitraj Pandey and Minister for Cooperatives and Poverty Alleviation Hridayaram Thani.
The prime minister then insisted that the government is trying to create an environment where even the private sector can invest in the Sajha Yatayat, and that his government was promoting a policy of ‘wide roads and big buses’. On bigger reforms, Dahal remarked that a law was being prepared to empower the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority to manage the Valley’s transportation effectively.
Public transportation in the Valley, or throughout Nepal for that matter, is in dire straits. The state has long handed over its role to the private sector which, ironically, has created syndicates—cartels of sorts—where a few players have collaborated to monopolise the transport sector. What they offer is unimaginably bad: crowded buses, unreliable services and high fares. The cartels have also routinely discouraged competition from other operators. Even Sajha’s re-entry had been strongly opposed by these transport syndicates.
What Prime Minister Dahal said during Sunday’s flagging-off ceremony is important, but hardly adequate to improve transport services. His statements seem to offer a half-baked solution. They would only compound the problem, which is not a lack of investment but the absence of a framework on how to organise public transport. The private sector will have a key role to play, but not by operating like a gang. They have to be service providers in a system created by the state.
Attracting private investment in a Sajha-like model and expanding services are certainly welcome steps, but they will only be a drop in the ocean. Allowing multiple models of public transport will only perpetuate the problem. Instead, the government should create a detailed framework that includes routes, pricing, frequency, types of vehicles and quality of services to be provided. Based on this framework, proposals can be called from private players to operate buses in each of the routes. To make paying simpler, the government could even collect the fare through a smart card system, much like Sajha is trying to do.
Sajha has already created a template for quality public transport services. Now the state needs to take it several notches up and create an environment to implement it nationwide. This requires strong political commitment to upend the structure put in place by the transport syndicates.