Bus operators want officials to announce plans to resume public transportThey say the government should come up with a modality to reopen public transport as over millions depend on transport-related business for their livelihoods.
Som Bahadur Tamang, 35, a microbus driver is a father of two children. He had never thought that someone in his profession in which people spend months on end on the road would have to stay home for a long time.
Tamang says he’s now checking the news constantly to see if the government has decided to allow him to hit the road nearly three months after the Covid-19 lockdown.
However, the government does not seem to open the operation of public vehicles, and there has not been any homework from the government's side to open public vehicles to operate on the road.
“I haven’t received my salary for three months,” said Tamang. “I have been sustaining my family using relief materials provided by the owner of the bus,” said Tamang, who came from Ramachap a decade ago. “My company owner has bank loans to repay, but business is nil,” said Tamang, who works under Saptakoshi Yatayat Pvt Ltd. The company operates 100 microbuses and 26 buses, all of which have not left the garage since the government announced the lockdown on March 24.
Tamang is one of the thousands of bus drivers and labourers who have been forced to stay off the road since the lockdown. According to the Federation of Nepalese National Transport Entrepreneurs, over 400,000 public vehicles are in the garage for the past three months. Millions more depend on the transportation sector as a number of other businesses rely on it. Officials say that coronavirus infection rates could spike if public transport resumes.
But the government doesn’t have any plans to reopen the crucial sector amid fears of a surge in coronavirus infections. “We are not sure when we can resume public vehicles as the number of Covid-19 cases has increased rapidly,” said Gogan Bahadur Hamal, director general at the Department of Transport Management. “Doctors suggest that social distancing is crucial during this Covid-19 pendamic. That’s not possible to do inside a public vehicle.”
The government’s reluctance to resume public transport, meanwhile, costs operators dearly.
“We have been unable to pay the salary of our 300 stafferss, but we have been providing them relief food, so that their family will not die of starvation,” said Narayan Bhandari, manager of Saptakoshi Yatayat.
“We are under pressure from the banks to service loans because all these vehicles are bought with bank loans, but we don’t have any earning now.”
It’s not just big transport companies that are facing challenges. Smaller ones are also in trouble.
Leknath Paudel, 46, from Chitwan who bought a deluxe bus with a bank loan three years ago is worried about repaying the bank loan on the one hand and sustaining his family on the other. “I had taken a Rs 6.2 million loan. But for three months now, my bus stands still on the roadside,” said Paudel.
Paudel fears that his bus could sustain damages as it is parked in the open—his driver has gone home, and there's no one to look after the bus.
Entrepreneurs say that they are pressing the government to come up with a plan to reopen public transport, but the government hasn’t got any.
“The government is not concerned about opening public transportation because only the lower middle class and poor people depend on public transport. The government is least bothered,” said Saroj Sitaula, general secretary at the Federation.
“I can’t imagine the country's economy rebounding without public transportation,” said Sitaula. Although the government has announced plans to ease the lockdown, people aren’t moving around, and due to this, shops don’t have buyers. The banning of public transportation has not only impacted drivers and owners, hundreds of hotels and restaurants, vehicle maintenance workshops and other businesses have also been affected.
“Nearly 80 percent of public transport vehicle owners have loans to pay for banks and finances, but they are not earning, the situation is very difficult for them but the government is too indifferent to their problem” said Sitaula.
Director-general Hamal, however, is not sure when the government will allow public vehicles to resume services. “The Department can’t do anything in this regard, because the Corona Crisis Management Centre should decide on the resumption,” said Hamal.
Until then Tamang has no option but to stay home and reminisce about his days behind the wheel on the BP highway. “But now my microbus is in the garage and I am in my rented room in Banasthali.”