26 Aug - 1 Sep 2016 #823

Highways of death

Transport syndicates guarded by greedy politicians and corrupt bureaucrats kill six Nepalis on the road every day
Santa Gaha Magar

Pratap Thapa/Kantipur
UNNATURAL LOSS: Family members of those killed in the Kavre bus accident last week.

A day after 27 people were killed in a bus accident in Kavre district last week, the government decided to cancel route permits of overloaded buses.

The Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport decided — after a meeting with transport operators, Department of Transport Management, Department of Roads, Nepal Police and Traffic Police — to revoke the licences of drivers who take more passengers than allowed.  

Ironically, the government authorities and transport operators who took those decisions are part of the same transport syndicates responsible for most road accidents, including the latest one in Kavre.

On 15 August, an obsolete and poorly-maintained bus was negotiating a steep and slippery section of a dirt road along the Sun Kosi. The bus had only 35 seats, but there were 95 passengers, as well as sacks of grains, crammed into it. The engine stalled twice, but the driver kept going.

The Arniko Transport Committee that owned the bus had not allowed other companies to ply this route so people had no alternative but to cling to its sides and ride on the roof.   This week, former Chief Secretary Leela Mani Poudyal made a sensational revelation about just how deeply entrenched the transport syndicate is, and why state functionaries are not willing to dismantle it.

“From top politicians to police constables, everyone benefits from the syndicate,” he said. “The Chief District Officer and the district police chief get Rs 100,000 and Rs 80,000 each every month, and politicians and bureaucrats do not want to stop them because they also receive money.”

Transport companies like Arniko Committee are organised under the National Federation of Transport Entrepreneurs Nepal, which has set up a welfare fund to support drivers who get into trouble. But it is used to bribe politicians, bureaucrats, police and other law enforcers to protect the cartels.  

Wreckage of the bus accident in Dhankuta that killed 15 people, including ex-Minister of State for Finance Hari Khewa last month.

“Unless the transport syndicate is dismantled, accidents like the one in Kavre will continue to happen,” says Premlal Maharjan, of the National Consumers Forum Nepal. “But it is impossible to get rid of them without ending the political patronage that it receives.”

In the last 10 years, over 16,000 people have been killed in accidents — almost as many lives lost as in the Maoist war from 1996 and 2006. Nepal has one of the highest highway fatality rates in the world, with 17 out of every 100,000 people dying on its roads.

The Ministry of Health and Population says accidents are the fourth-biggest cause of death among Nepalis, as only infectious diseases, heart ailments and cancer kill more people. Across the world, highway fatalities rank only tenth as a cause of death.  

Highway accidents maim 11 people and injure 33 in Nepal every day. A National Health Research Council report shows accidents as the third-biggest cause of physical disabilities in Nepal. What is more worrying is that the accident rate has been increasing sharply over the last decade, and there are no signs it will decrease unless the politics is cleaned up.

“Highway fatality is one of the biggest threats to Nepal's public health,” says Baburam Marasini, former Chief of the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division. “Most accidents can be avoided, and the failure to do so is akin to not curing curable diseases.”

Most crash victims are from the 15-40 age group, which is the most productive section of the population. In 2013, the government issued a report on road safety that identified a cost to all this: Rs 220 million. That year the government also unveiled a strategy to reduce accidents by half. But more people are dying on Nepal’s highways than ever before: from 1,787 in 2013, to 2,004 in 2014 and 2,006 in 2015.

Strict law enforcement could be one of the means to curb accidents, but police are looking the other way. For example, the bus that met with an accident in Kavre last week had been fined by traffic police in Dhulikhel for carrying more passengers than its permitted capacity. But the bus was allowed to go on, picked up more passengers on the way and eventually fell down the mountain.  

On 6 November 2014, traffic police had fined a truck in Sarlahi for carrying an excessive load. The truck could continue its trip after paying a fine, but later overturned in Makwanpur, killing six pedestrians.

According to a report prepared by a parliamentary committee, inexperienced or overworked drivers, poorly maintained buses, and syndicates that prevent modernisation and competition, are to blame.

A bus driver who belongs to a syndicate does not have to go to jail even if his reckless driving kills people. The syndicate provides compensation to the families of the victims, and the driver therefore feels there is no punishment for over-speeding for careless driving.   

Activist Premlal Maharjan says:  “The syndicate holds a licence to kill people on the road.”

The Government is a big syndicate

Saroj Sitaula

General Secretary

National Federation of Transport Entrepreneurs Nepal

  After every big road accident, transport entrepreneurs are blamed for running a syndicate and killing passengers. That is not fair.  

The Rs 3 billion transport industry contributes 19 per cent of the total revenue to the exchequer. Nearly four million people are directly and indirectly employed in the sector, but our contribution to the economy is never appreciated.

Most of us have bank loans to pay, no one wants a bus to go off the road. Syndicates represent the government's failure to regulate the transport sector. The government did not have a mechanism to manage transportation, that is why we had to form the syndicates to coordinate ourselves better.

The government is a syndicate too. For example, it issued permits for 1,500 new taxis for earthquake survivors. Isn’t that also a syndicate? Politicians are ready to split ministries to make room for coalition partners, but they are never concerned about setting up a strong authority to regulate and manage the transport sector.

What happened to public vehicle driving licences?

Ramu Sapkota

Two years ago, worried by the rising number of fatal bus crashes, the government decided to enforce special licences for drivers of public transport vehicles. 

A bus had fallen off a road in Jajarkot, killing 55 people in November 2014, and there was public pressure on the government to do something. Last week, 27 people were killed when an overcrowded bus tumbled off a road in Kavre, and there is similar outrage.

However, like all government rules, the one requiring public vehicle drivers to have special licences fell by the wayside.

The government did introduce new rules to regulate driving licences for public vehicles, including stringent tests and other requirements for drivers. The Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport prepared the Public Vehicle Driving Licence Regulation 2014 but it has not yet been implemented.  

Madhusudan Silwal of the Metropolitan Traffic Police Division said that this failure to enforce the law shows the government’s lackadaisical attitude towards transportation safety.   

“The number of road accidents would have definitely gone down if we had implemented the stricter rules for drivers who want to obtain licences for public vehicles,” said Silwal. “The government should have also moved forward to regulate public transport by ending the monopoly of bus syndicates.”

Under the new policy, bus drivers must have at least passed the School Leaving Certificate exams in order to acquire a driving licence to operate public vehicles, and the age threshold has been raised from 21 to 25. Drivers would also be required to have two years of experience driving lighter vehicles, before driving larger buses.

Daya Kanta Jha of the Department of Roads says the number of highway fatalities is rising because of technical reasons, rather than legal ones.

“The Department of Transport Management should strictly monitor those operating with route permits, but such inspections are rare,” he said. “In the recent Kavre accident, the driver was solely responsible for overloading the passengers. There must be stringent criteria for public vehicle licences.”

But Basanta Adhikari at the Department of Transport Management said his office could not implement the new rule for public vehicles, as parliament has not yet passed the law.  

He added: “We are the implementing agency but we can’t interfere with the government’s procedure on passing any regulations.”

Shreejana Shrestha

Read also:

Cartelling of carnage, Editorial

Compensation by accident, Dewan Rai

Road kills, Surendra Phuyal

Man-made disasters

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