Many people working in the Valley can neither travel home nor remain in the city this DashainConsumer rights body says the government should have introduced a safe and free transportation service for citizens instead of increasing the travel fares.
Raju Karki lost his job in a private firm two months into the lockdown. When the lockdown was lifted after four month and the long haul buses resumed their service in September, he decided to send his wife and their two children to his hometown in Biratnagar.
“I had to borrow money from a friend to buy the bus tickets. I gave my wife Rs 3,000 before she and our two children left for Biratnagar. Now I am completely broke,” Karki told the Post.
The 43-year-old is still in Kathmandu hoping that his former office will pay him the salary that is due to him so that he could travel to Biratnagar for this year’s Dashain.
The office has not paid him a single rupee so far. With the money, Karki says, he also plans to clear his back rent which is due for the past six months.
With the Dashain festival just a couple of weeks away, Karki’s patience is wearing thin. He is not sure whether he will reunite with his family for this year’s festival.
“I even tried looking for other jobs. But these days it is difficult to get even the work of a dishwasher since the hotel and restaurant business is struggling due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” Karki told the Post.
Karki needs at least Rs 2,400 to buy a ticket home. He does not have that amount of money.
“In normal times, the bus fare from Kathmandu to Biratnagar goes up to Rs 1,400. If I don’t get my salary, I won’t be home for Dashain this year,” Karki said.
Meanwhile, Santosh Lamsal has a different concern than that of Karki but equally a worrisome one.
The 31-year-old who hails from Tanahun district has no trouble buying a bus ticket to visit his home for the festival. What he is worried about is the mandatory two-week quarantine rule enforced by the local administration of Tanahun for all the people visiting the district for the festival.
“I don’t have two two weeks to stay in quarantine before celebrating the festival with my family. My office does not give weeks-long leave,” Lamsal told the Post.
Lamsal says he’s been getting regular calls from his parents asking when he will be home. He has no definite answer to his parents’ inquiry. Lamsal is also worried about the bus fare.
Every Dashain, travel fares shoot up and this year, the government itself has allowed public transport operators to charge up to 50 percent extra on their fares as long as they adhere to the one-passenger-per-seat rule.
The government’s decision has drawn widespread condemnation from the public and consumers’ rights protection groups.
“It clearly shows that the government is heading towards the wrong lane. It is just focused on pleasing the transport entrepreneurs,” Jyoti Baniya, the president of Forum for Protection of Consumer Rights, said of the government’s decision to allow transport operators to bump up the travel fares.
Public transport operators, meanwhile, say that they are being unfairly condemned when the Covid-19 pandemic has severely hit their business and the number of people travelling to their hometowns for Dashain this year has also gone down significantly.
Yogendra Karmacharya, chairperson at the Federation of Nepalese National Transport Entrepreneurs, said they did not open pre-Dashain ticket booking service this year because there are not many passengers leaving Kathmandu Valley for the festival.
“Public transport sector is at a loss because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Firstly, we remained out of operation for six months. Now, we are not allowed to operate in our full capacity,” Karmacharya told the Post.
In anything, Karmacharya says, it is the government that has been unfavourable to the public transport sector.
He said many public vehicle operators have loans to pay for which the government has not offered any help even though they were out of the business for months.
Baniya, the president of Forum for Protection of Consumer Rights, says the entire issue ends with the government, which needs to strike a fine balance in order to address the concerns of the general public as well as public transport operators during these tough times.
“The present government seems to have forgotten that it is in power because of the public vote,” Baniya told the Post. “If it was a pro-public government, it would have offered a safe and free service to the public. Amid this pandemic, when hundreds of people have lost their jobs, it is simply unfair to increase the travel fares.”
Gogan Hamal, the director-general at the Department of Transport Management, said the responsibility of his agency was to resume the public transport service.
“We have resumed the public transport service. If the Cabinet comes up with a special scheme to transport passengers to their hometowns for this year’s Dashain, then we would have implemented it,” he told the Post. “At the current situation, the department cannot do anything about the concerns raised by the public. Our job is to execute the instructions issued by the government.”
Dashain is less than two weeks away, and people like Karki, Lamsal and thousands of others are not sure if they will get to celebrate this year’s festival with their loved ones.
Many of them lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 pandemic and many have not got their salaries. And as the travel fares have been raised by transport operators with the government’s permission, many people in Kathmandu Valley who come from other parts of the country may not be able to travel to their hometowns for the festival.
Many people also want to leave the Valley, where the number of Covid-19 cases has been increasing at a breakneck speed.
According to the Ministry of Health and Population, Kathmandu Valley recorded 2,540 new infections, highest daily spike for the second day in a row, on Thursday. Of them, 2,085 cases were reported in Kathmandu, 320 in Lalitpur and 135 in Bhaktapur.
As of Thursday, the number of cases in the Valley has reached 36,289. A total of 33,791 cases have been detected after the three district administration offices in Kathmandu Valley imposed prohibitory orders starting August 19 midnight.
Public health officials have already hinted that the virus has reached the community level in the Valley. They have also alerted the government that a sudden increase in outbound travelling from Kathmandu Valley to other parts of the country could spread the virus to remote parts of the country which are relatively safe.
“During Dashain, people visit their elderly relatives to receive blessings. This time, however, the situation is not normal. We know that elderly people are more vulnerable to the disease, so ideally it would be best not to visit older people this Dashain,” Dr Sher Bahadur Pun, a virologist at Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital at Teku, told the Post.
The government has also called for minimising travel during this year’s Dashain and observing the festival wherever they are.
But people like Karki, whose entire family is in other parts of the country and who have no wherewithal to survive in the city, cannot imagine spending the festival season in Kathmandu Valley, alone and without any money to spend.
“I am broke. I have not paid my rent for months and I don’t have any money to visit my family. Who’s going to think for people like me?” said Karki.