No public transport for Nepalis living with disabilitiesFor disabled-friendly transport to become a reality, state help is a must, commuters say.
Twenty-six-year-old Abhishek Shahi is blind. He relied on public transport to navigate Kathmandu, but bitter experiences with the service have deterred him from using it.
Shahi commutes from Lainchaur to the TU Department of Social Work in Kirtipur every day. Among the jarring experiences he has had in his daily commute, he recalls one particular incident in 2014.
The experience left him in shivers and he vowed never to get on a public bus again.
It was late at night—roughly around eight—and Shahi had boarded a local bus from Purano Buspark, he recalled. The bus was crowded and he wasn’t sure where it had reached. “So I had to ask the conductor frequently,” he said. Then, at one point, the conductor hurriedly stopped the bus and let him out. “After a while, I realised I was in the wrong place, but I couldn’t tell my exact location.”
Shahi called his father who located him by following the route of the bus Shahi had boarded. “Since then, I haven’t used public transport,” he said.
It has been almost a decade since that night and many people with disabilities like Shahi continue to face hurdles and unpleasant experiences while travelling in the city using public transport.
“We have to compromise and settle for the few reserved seats on public vehicles,” said Ujjwal Sagar, a 23-year-old aspiring musician who is blind. “Here in Kathmandu, I might get a seat. But if you travel in public vehicles outside the Valley, the allocation of seats for the disabled goes out the window.”
According to him, the bus conductors often refuse to offer discounts on the disability card he carries with him. “I was once travelling from Dharan to Birtamode by bus. The journey is around three-hour long. I was supposed to get a 50 percent discount but I was made to pay the full fare of Rs250.”
Public transport is the vein of any thriving city. It should be able to accommodate all passengers, especially those with special needs—disabled, the elderly, pregnant women, and young children. But most public vehicles plying the Valley do not cater to the target group.
A high-quality, dependable and safe transport system is the driving force behind disability-inclusive growth. However, the lack of disabled-friendly infrastructure and the general attitude toward passengers with disabilities underscore yet another problem that besets Nepal’s public transport system.
“I would use public transport only as last resort,” Shahi said. “Its aim is not just to move and drop people like objects. If I pay for a service, I expect it to be safe. I would prefer to travel separately, safely, and comfortably.”
Section 107 of the Vehicles and Transport Act, 1993 mandates reserved seats for those with disabilities, women, and the elderly. However, public vehicles are frequently found to be flouting that rule. For instance, in the fiscal year 2021-22, as many as 922 public vehicles were detained for violating the allocated seat rule, according to Rajendra Prasad Bhatta, spokesperson for the Kathmandu Valley Traffic Police Office.
“We monitor public vehicles daily in at least 30-35 junctions throughout the Valley and get numerous complaints about violations of the allocated-seat rule,” Bhatta said. “We take appropriate action but what concerns me is a crisis of ethics that plagues our city.”
In Nepal, people with disabilities face many daily obstacles, leaving them to endure personal, social, and economic setbacks. But with the right set of infrastructures, they wouldn’t have to. Transport service, for one, can alleviate their predicament by easing access to education, healthcare, and jobs, among other areas.
Zealation Shah is 46 years old. He lives with physical disability due to paralysis in his right leg caused by polio. Shah currently lives in Adelaide in Australia and says that the apathy of the general public towards the disabled is also what renders the rules and policies catered to the target group ineffective.
“A lot of young people in Nepal are helpful and readily offer seats to the disabled or those in need,” Shah told the Post over the phone. “But I have also travelled with people who are reluctant to help out a fellow passenger in need. This apathy to those living in the periphery leads to the ‘normalisation’ of indifference to particular communities.”
Shah compares Kathmandu and Adelaide in terms of public transport system and inclusivity, or lack thereof. “Adelaide is a liveable city for someone with a disability like myself. Colleges, schools, sidewalks, transport, and even graveyards are accessible,” he said. “Australia has addressed mobility constraints in many aspects of urban development, making travel and commuting for people with disabilities more convenient. Meanwhile, using public transport in Nepal is a nightmare for people with disabilities.”
Sajha Yatayat, a cooperative bus company, debuted its disabled-friendly bus in 2018 to much fanfare. But even these much-hyped buses have failed to cater to the disabled as promised.
There are three low-floor electric buses currently in service, according to Bhushan Tuladhar, a member of the Sajha Yatayat’s Board of Directors. “These buses are intended to be more accessible to wheelchair users compared to high-floor buses, which have three steps [1m above the ground],” he said. “However, these vehicles haven’t been put to optimal use as the city’s infrastructure is not disabled-friendly.”
Only having disabled-friendly vehicles and quota seats for the disabled does not translate to an easier commute experience for the disabled, urban planner Kishore Thapa says. “In order to create a disability-friendly transport system, we need disability-friendly bus stands, terminals, and even vehicles,” he said. “More than that, we need empathy to actually understand the needs of the disabled.”
Mobility constraints for people with disabilities are ubiquitous because most vehicles plying the city streets are not designed to be inclusive.
“Retrofitting current vehicles to meet the needs of people with disabilities is a huge financial burden. Accessibility should be built into the design of public transport projects from the beginning,” said Tuladhar.
According to the National Census 2011, there are 5,13,321 persons with disability in Nepal. There is a dearth of updated, reliable and disaggregated government statistics on disability and disability-inclusive transport. This can be attributed to the hesitance of family members of people living with disabilities to register them as such fearing social stigmatisation, according to the National Federation of the Disabled, Nepal.
“You cannot change public transport narratives if you keep only a few people in mind. The change should not be exclusive to those with disabilities,” Shahi said. “People should be considerate of vulnerable passengers, such as mothers with babies, the elderly, or people with temporary impairments. They must stop labelling all of this as if it were a liability or a charity. It is our collective responsibility to make transport accessible to all.”
The goal of a disability-friendly transport system does not end with the allocation of a few seats, Shahi adds. Moreover, the traffic police report provides statistical evidence of people breaching the rule. The aforementioned numbers are largely indicative of large public vehicles. Information on smaller transport mediums such as three-wheelers or microbuses is not yet available.
“Seat allocation is vital, but it has been reduced to a mere rule that no one follows,” said Shah. “The government’s efforts to create accessible transport have been largely restricted to a few seats in a few large buses. It’s whitewashing the true difficulties that torment us every day.”
Shahi said that he has been asked to prove his disability while travelling on public buses in Nepal, with the conductor refusing to accept his discount card. “I was dropped off at the wrong location. At the heart of all these unpleasant experiences were regular people from the bus driver to the conductor to the passengers,” he said.
State intervention is a must to facilitate a disability-friendly transport chain, says urban planner Suman Meher Shrestha. “The state needs to invest in proper physical infrastructure and institutional regulation,” he said. “However, from policy making to financial schemes, the state has systematically failed in all these aspects.”
Shahi calls for awareness at all levels if the disabled are to enjoy the right to move with ease in city buses. “There will be no meaningful change if you intend to modify the system only for a few people,” he said. “Public transport needs to be changed for the good of everyone.”