Nepali Times
Killers on the run


CRIME SCENE: A bicycle mural marks the exact spot on the Ring Road near Balkhu where noted conservationist Prahlad Yonzon (below) was run over by a truck last October.

It was just after 4 PM on 31 October last year when a speeding truck hit a bicycle on the Ring Road near Kalanki, it was the kind of incident that happens almost every day in Kathmandu's chaotic streets.

The truck, which belonged to Narayani Transport, was seized and the driver detained. The reason the accident got more than a small mention in the newspapers was that the victim was internationally renowned conservationist and wildlife academic, Pralad Yonzon, who always bicycled to and from work from his office in Dhobighat.

"I was driving from Kalanki towards Balkhu and at a distance, I saw a truck overtaking a cycle on the right side from behind and hit it," recalls Bibek Sharma, who rushed Yonzon to Teku Hospital in his vehicle. "The truck paused for few seconds, then sped away. Pralad's left leg had been smashed."

Sharma called up Jujubhai Tandukar of Kalanki police station, whom he had met 10 minutes previously and told him what had happened. The police came to the hospital and recorded his statement. Later in the evening, another senior police officer also interviewed him. Yet, five months later, Sharma say he is surprised he still has not been summoned to testify in court.

Yonzon's family, lawyer and friends are also surprised and suspect there is a deliberate attempt by the police to not get the key witness to testify in court.

"We don't have anything against the driver or transport company, all we are asking for is a fair trial,"Yonzon's niece, Sanjeevani who works with Wildlife Conservation Nepal, told Nepali Times," now I understand why people take to the streets and smash things up. Nobody listens to you otherwise."

Pralad Yonzon was not just a conservationist, he was among the few responsible individuals in Kathmandu's streets. "Imagine how much carbon we are not emitting if just one person decides to go green," he used to say, and he decided to do something about it by using a bicycle. It was a mode of transport that he hoped would help restore the planet's health, but he died trying to make that statement.

"Maila Ba was aware of the risks of cycling in Kathmandu but he continued," Sanjeevani says, "he lobbied with the city to demand bicycle lanes and safer roads for pedestrians. The least this country can do is to show some respect and conduct a fair trial. We are not demanding any compensation, we just want truth and justice."

Sources in Metropolitan Traffic admit legal loopholes provide culprits of rash driving easy escape. However, half-hearted and motivated investigations not only deny justice to victims, they embolden rash drivers and encourage impunity.

Kathmandu is now a city of 2.5 million people, but its road network has expanded little in the last 20 years when the number of vehicles has also grown 20-fold. Traffic is chaotic, traffic discipline is nil and although the crackdown on drunk driving has reduced the number of accidents, rash drivers and vehicles with iron rods protruding from the back face no punishment.

There are more than 10,000 road accidents every year in Kathmandu and nearly 400 fatalities, and many of them are not really "accidents" but are preventable man-made mishaps caused by rash and negligent drivers, as was the case in Pralad Yonzon's tragic death at age 60.

Yonzon's family and lawyer are putting their faith in the upcoming hearing of the case this week, where they are hopeful the court will allow Bibek Sharma to testify. But they fear nexus between a powerful transport cartel and police will use money and muscle to prevent that from happening. The family has appealed to the public to come forward to show support.

Bicycle blues

In 2005 the government decided to construct a 44 km long bicycle track around the city after signing the Velo Mondial Charter and Action Plan for Bicycle Friendly Communities. The charter provided a blueprint and set directives to promote bicycles as efficient, environmentally friendly alternatives to motorised transport. But the plan has been shelved just like the proposed bicycle lane from Maitighar to Tinkune which got suspended in early 2000. On January 11, the state announced another ambitious plan to build cycle lanes on all roads in the valley which are over 22 metres wide. Although the Chinese have completed their survey and are studying the designs, it's hard to determine when construction will actually begin. Sources in the road department are also skeptical and say that the plan is unlikely to materialise.

"There is simply no space to construct bicycle lanes in Kathmandu," says Shyam Kharel who is heading the Kathmandu Road Expansion Project under which road networks in Tinkune, Maitighar, Dillibajar, New Plaza, Kamal Pokhari, and Ratopul are being widened. "We may still be able to construct 5 metre wide lanes in the Maitighar-Tinkune section, but there is no space for bicycle lanes in other parts of the city. We barely have space for vehicles," he said.

Despite increasing pressure from cyclist groups and environmentalists, the Kathmandu- Bhaktapur road was built last year without bicycle lanes, where speeding vehicles have killed 24 people so far. The much hyped bicycle tracks areound the Ring Road are also in limbo.

Alongside Kathmandu Metropolitan City office which is responsible for inner city road networks and Divisional Road Office which looks after major roads in Kathmandu, the Kathmandu Road Expansion Project was recently formed to expand roads which experience heavy traffic flow. It remains to be seen how successful this new organisation is in upgrading Kathmandu's choked roads.

Read also:
Young yogis on bicycles, ALOK LAMSAL
Two Nepali youngsters pedal across South Asia to spread the message of peace and environmental protection

See also:
Cyclists and the city, #579
Pralad Yonzon, 60, #577

Watch Yonzon talk about Himalayan environment conservation

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)