Though life has returned to normal in Kathmandu, rickshaw drivers continue to sufferRickshaw drivers who are dependent on foreign tourists for their income, find themselves in trouble even five months after the lifting of the lockdown. Authorities not concerned about their plight, they say.
It had just been three months since Kanak Bahadur Budhathoki bought a new rickshaw for Rs80,000 when the country went into a lockdown on March 24 to contain the spread of coronavirus.
“I had thought that life would be easier as the rickshaw would help me earn decent money to feed my family in Kathmandu,” said Budhathoki, a father of three children aged 18, 12 and 9.
But the rickshaw made it more difficult for him to eke out a living. Budhathoki had spent all his savings on the rickshaw, which he could not ride during the lockdown. “I had invested all my savings in the rickshaw, and the little saving I had was gone in a month,” said Budathoki. To support his family, he had to borrow Rs60,000 from the previous owner of the rickshaw.
After the lockdown was lifted in July, Budhathoki was hopeful that life would return to normal and he would pay back his loan while providing for his family. But even as all transportation services have resumed and nightlife in Thamel has restarted, little has changed for over 400 rickshaw operators such as Budhathoki.
“It’s mostly tourists who love to ride the rickshaws and tour the inner city from Thamel to Basantapur,” said Krisha Mishra, chairman of the local rickshaw association. “Yes, Thamel is now open, but without the tourists. Nepalis don’t prefer to ride rickshaws,” he added.
These days Budhathoki feels lucky when he earns Rs 700 in a day. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, he used to make up to Rs 5,000 in a single day.
“Those days now seem like a dream. We are providing for our family with great difficulty as my wife sells green vegetables in the morning,” said Budathoki.
“Rickshaw drivers earn money from tourists, but they are nowhere to be seen,” said Mishra, who has been driving rickshaws for the past three decades.
He said some drivers have quit the profession altogether and taken up construction work. A few others have not returned from their village since the nationwide lockdown was imposed in March last year.
“Many rickshaw drivers were forced to leave their rented rooms during the lockdown period as they could not pay the rent. Many are still forced to spend the night in their rickshaw,” said Krishna Bishokarma, coordinator of the association.
Bishokarma informed the Post that during the past seven months a rickshaw driver and a rickshaw driver’s wife died due to unknown ailments for want of proper treatment. “They could have been saved if they had received proper treatment. If the situation continues, many others will also die due to the cold and starvation,” said Bishokarma.
When the Post contacted Bhabishwor Sharma, vice-president of Thamel Tourism Council, he said his office distributed some food items to rickshaw drivers by coordinating with the metropolitan city.
On Thursday the council, in association with Ward No.26 office of Kathmandu Metropolitan City, organised an interaction programme with Thamel’s hoteliers and big business owners on the impacts of Covid-19 on their businesses. But the issue of rickshaw drivers and small businesses did not get any priority.
Bishokarma, who also participated in the programme raised the issue. But the organiser didn’t give him enough time to speak.
“Even though I raised the issue regarding the hardship of rickshaw drivers, it seems they took it lightly,” said Bishokarma.
When the Post contacted Khem Raj Tiwari, chairman of Ward No.26 to ask him about his office’s support for rickshaw drivers, he was reluctant to talk about it as he was “busy solving bigger issues.”
Ishwor Man Dangol, spokesperson for Kathmandu Metropolitan City, said that the city is going to provide them two days worth of work a week and give them money to buy food. However, the city does not have any concrete plans to help the rickshaw drivers.
Ram Hari Nepal, GEFONT president of Bagmati Province, said it's the responsibility of the local government to collect data on the drivers and resolve their problems. “We had already raised this issue with President Bidya Devi Bhandari, because those bigger businessmen can sustain their lives amid these crises, but these people who are dependent on tourism for their daily bread are in a life and death situation,” said Nepal.
“Our task is to present such issues before the government. The government should be serious about the issue, because they are living a harsh life even though things look different now,” he added.
Meanwhile, Budhathoki is toying with the idea of returning home to his native Okhaldhunga. But he can neither go back to the village he left two decades ago, nor can he repay his loan.
“I am not educated, I do not have any other skill. My only property is this rickshaw,” said Budhhathoki.
“I am not afraid of Covid-19 anymore. But every morning I wake up with a fear that I may not be able to earn today and I won’t be able to repay my loan,” he said.