Commuting in a lawless countryA typical scene on a bus plying the Koteshwor-Maitighar route, which I use almost every day, is something like this: The khalasi is precariously hanging on the door of the vehicle, hailing passengers, no matter whether the bus is empty or packed to the rafters. Those who can grab seats are lucky but not spared from the nauseating crowdedness of the bus.
A typical scene on a bus plying the Koteshwor-Maitighar route, which I use almost every day, is something like this: The khalasi is precariously hanging on the door of the vehicle, hailing passengers, no matter whether the bus is empty or packed to the rafters. Those who can grab seats are lucky but not spared from the nauseating crowdedness of the bus. The khalasi tells students to put their bags aside so that he can squeeze more people in. He orders those standing in relative comfort to turn left or right to save space taken up by their hands clutching on the support bars. He always shouts from the side windows at those he deems are taking up more space than they need. And the greatest hassle waits at the end of the ride when you have to squeeze through the sea of passengers crammed into the aisle.
Bus rides, though generally unpleasant, are unavoidable for most people in the city. As a rule, the experience is forgettable, especially in a country where roads are dangerous and bus operators are driven not by the motive to serve but by the desire to extract an extra penny by cramming people wherever possible. One Dashain, a friend and I had booked two seats in advance for a daylong ride to the East from Kathmandu. When we reached Kalanki in the morning to catch the bus, we did not get our reserved seats. We had to take the bus and we did so while standing up the whole day despite having paid in full for the ticket. Another time, our day-bus on a long route broke down on the byroad to Hetauda. Since we could not wait for it to be repaired, we caught another packed bus run by the same company headed in the same direction and continued with the next round of what eventually became a torturous bus ride.
Often long rides are a compulsion for patients from remote villages who are referred to hospitals in Kathmandu, for college students who go home from the city a couple of times a year, or for an office worker who visits family during holidays. Their ordeal is compounded by drivers stopping by eateries that offer passengers stale, unhygienic and overpriced meals.
If you look like an inexperienced villager coming into town, say in Dharan, staff from two different buses will try to split you into two by each pulling a hand to get you into their vehicle. Another might jump into the scene to snatch your bag to take it to his bus—basically coercing you to accept their service and expecting you to pay. If you have some luggage, someone from another vehicle might load it onto his vehicle without your permission. Literally, travelers are torn between bus operators shamelessly competing for passengers.
The war waged by the government against transport syndicates that perennially put passengers in difficultly and discomfort by preventing competition in the sector should have been guided by the desire to end this state of blatant violation of the principles of fair treatment of commuters. While the government, and Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa, won praise for bringing monopolist bus operators to their knees by arresting their representatives and freezing the transport committees’ bank accounts, it remains to be seen if the government will continue its crackdown on the promoters of the bus cartels. An opportunity for the government to make its presence felt among citizens is through such kinds of intervention in the unfair practices of traders that makes commuting such a problem. It is a must to make public transport safer, efficient and humane.
But this is not just about uncomfortable and dehumanising bus rides. Vehicular accidents are one of the significant causes of deaths in the country. Tens of thousands of people died during the decade-long Maoist insurgency. Hundreds die from monsoon floods and landslides every year. Outbreaks of cholera kill scores of people every other year. Bus accidents, while killing probably the most number of people, also cripple dozens of travelers every year.
Travelling during the insurgency once meant subjecting oneself to tiring security checks every dozen or so kilometres which is why it took as long as 30 hours to cover a 10-hour journey since buses would get caught in long queues and hours-long waits. Passengers had to tolerate the stifling Tarai heat on a forest road without even getting to eat properly. This was especially shameful because the punishment commuters were subjected to could have been easily remedied.
I remember my early college days two decades ago. The vibration of the old engine, smelly exhaust and sloped roads with hairpin bends would have a deadly effect on the stomach. Vehicles and their engines are far better these days. Passenger vans, like the ones that ply the BP highway between Kathmandu and the Tarai, climb slopes up and down swiftly and smoothly. But what has not changed is the operator’s attitudes—a passenger’s worth is the few hundred rupees they pay for the ride. They don’t care if those who pay the asked price for a given journey get the treatment and service they deserve.
Bus owners, who had monopolies on the routes, recently staged a failed series of protests against the government’s reform measures. When the communist administration decided to ban transport syndicates by not recognising their unions, people had hoped that the authorities would clean up the sector forever.
After Transport Minister Raghubir Mahaseth recalled director general Rupnarayan Bhattarai, who took a tough stance against the powerful lobbies of influential bus owners, back to the ministry, the government’s motive has been questioned. The all-powerful government has vowed to end unfair trading practices, in all sectors, that rob common people of their hard-earned money. But if it fails to deliver on its promises and rolls back the recently introduced road reforms, it will simply be another ineffective regime.
Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. It will not be long before we know if this ‘government of the proletariat’ will bring about changes to a public transport sector mired with greed and misconduct or if it will wallow in the miasma of poor governance and indifference to the plight of its own people.
The writer tweets @GuragainMohan