The lockdown has brought public transport to a grinding halt, leaving drivers and helpers by the roadsideMany believe public transport will be the last to be restored, but that could be too late for those who live by driving.
The lockdown is hurting Umesh Rijal both emotionally and financially. A microbus driver for over 12 years, Rijal worked 10 hours a day to feed his family of six. Every day, he would pick up passengers at 6 am and make at least eight trips from Kapan to Bus Park.
But when the lockdown was announced on March 24, Rijal had no livelihood anymore, as all public transportation was now prohibited. He had no option but to return to his home in Dhading.
“I worked very hard to get where I am today, but this pandemic is destroying what took me over a decade to build,” Rijal said. “I have a bank loan to pay and if I’m not back on the road, I won’t be able to pay my instalments.”
Rijal started driving microbuses in 2008 after returning from Qatar. After driving someone else’s vehicle for nine years, Rijal, in 2017, bought his own microbus.
“I was earning around Rs 30,000 a month. But after I bought my own van, some months I earned up to Rs 50,000,” said Rijal. “I need to deposit at least eight instalments of Rs25,000 at the bank. How can I pay when I have no source of income?”
Rijal is among thousands of drivers, conductors and vehicle owners who’ve been put out of business by the lockdown. The public transport sector, which is almost exclusively privately owned, now faces a host of challenges, including sustaining livelihoods for daily wage workers like drivers and conductors and paying off loans for owners.
Gopal Baral, one of the owners of Dharan New Koshi Super Yatayat, said that the lockdown has affected both him and his 24 staffers. While he said that he has continued to pay his staff until the past month, he doesn’t know how he will be able to do the same in the months to come.
“We have to pay installments of Rs 70,000 per bus to the banks,” said Baral, whose company has six busses that connect Kathmandu with Dharan. “Had we been in operation, paying those instalments wouldn’t have been a problem, but right now, the only thing we can do is hand over the bus to the banks if they come asking for their instalment.”
Despite the fact that public transport is a critical sector that benefits the public and employs thousands of Nepalis, transport entrepreneurs say there has been little help incoming from the government.
“This is a sector where the government has little investment but it’s a trillion rupee industry that is owned solely by Nepalis,” said Bijaya Bahadur Swar, senior vice-president of the Federation of Truck Transport Entrepreneurs Nepal. “If this sector suffers, the economy will suffer.”
According to Swar, the public transport sector has already suffered losses exceeding Rs40 billion.
“The central bank has asked all banks to not fine us for late payments, but more needs to be done,” he said. “Public transport is not just drivers or bus owners; it’s about the general public. You think people will be able to buy new cars or motorbikes after this pandemic is over?”
This is also the reason why Bhusan Tuladar, chief executive at Sajha Yatayat, feels that it is necessary to make sure that public transport is restarted soon.
“Many people are saying that it’ll be the last sector to resume after the pandemic, but I don’t think that should be the case,” Tuladhar told the Post. “I believe it should be resumed, but with protective measures, even if it means operating buses with 50 percent occupancy.”
Public transport is important for the economy, as it provides blue collar workers with a way to get to work, said Tuladhar. In a country where very few own vehicles, public transport can be a lifesaver.
But apart from that, the pandemic has given the government an opportunity to reform the transport sector, which is plagued by mafia-like cartels. Both Tuladhar and Swar believe that now is the right time to bring changes to the sector, starting with e-ticketing and using more technology.
“Our officials who go on foreign visits think that we can use the same modality used by first world countries to improve the transportation sector. We believe that what we have is good. It just needs to be managed in a better way,” said Swar.
But both entrepreneurs say that a relief package is the first thing that the government should roll out to ensure that the sector doesn’t collapse altogether.
For drivers like Rijal, relief would be a boon, but he is not optimistic.
“I have no hope we’ll get relief. Our country is full of corrupt politicians. Them thinking about us and putting people like us first is just wishful thinking,” he said.