This could turn out to be the mother of all strikes. Peeved by a government decision to throw out all ageing vehicles now used in public transport, the Federation of Nepalese Transport Entrepreneurs (FNTE) says it is determined to do anything to stop the government from having its way. Transport operators already have a three-pronged strategy to oppose the government-stop paying taxes, submit memorandums, and most importantly, bring all public transport to a halt. The deadline for the government to capitulate or have another crisis on their hands-15 January.
The transport operators mean business. "The government decision will take away the livelihood of one million people. There is no way we are going to get our vehicles off the roads. If they don't revoke the decision we will raise hell for them and ultimately either the government will go down or we'll go down," warns Bharat KC, who runs a goods carrier.
In a decision aimed mainly at cleaning up the air in the Kathmandu Valley, the government announced last November that it would ban all vehicles manufactured before 1980 from the streets starting mid November 2001. The same decision also aims to ban all petrol and gas powered three-wheelers with two-stroke engines from all municipalities across the country by July 2001. Later the Ministry of Population and Environment (MoPE) said that the ban would not apply to privately-owned and operated vehicles that have crossed the age limit.
The pollution and congestion caused by Kathmandu's ageing vehicles is no secret. Research by an environment forum concluded that Kathmandu has at least three times more suspended particulate matter in the air than the level specified by the WHO. Most of it is due to two stroke engines like the ones used by Bajaj three-wheelers. But those competing for road space and fighting for their right to exhale also include buses left here by hippies in the 60s and 70s after overland journeys, and those retired from long-distance "night bus" duties. Smaller polluters include over 50,000 two wheelers, Japanese cars from the 1970s, and hundreds of three wheelers that run on petrol. The most notorious polluters however are government vehicles and old buses. Combine all of these and you start to understand Kathmandu's air.
About 5000 vehicles in the public transport sector in Kathmandu alone, and another 55,000 across the entire nation including buses, minibuses, and tempos, will be displaced by MoPE's decision if it is implemented. "The decision was taken because this is the only way we can improve the air quality," says Govinda Raj Bhatta, Secretary of MoPE. Earlier when the government banned diesel-powered three-wheelers from the streets, it offered the owners of those vehicles duty concessions of upto 99 percent on the import of new microbuses. This time, though, the government says it has no plans to do the same, because the owners have been given a year's notice to make alternate arrangements. The government's resolve to not provide import tax subsidy also has to do with the fact that this ban calls for a change in the entire transport sector of the country and providing duty concessions on replacements will mean a heavy revenue loss.
Transport entrepreneurs say the ban would put thousands out of work and create new problems for the government. They are convinced that pollution is not caused just because their vehicles are old and poorly maintained but more because of adulterated fuel and bad roads. "It's a one sided decision," Bishnu Siwakoti, General Secretary of the FNTE remarked. "We suspect they are trying to help manufacturers of new vehicles sell more cars." Even environmentalists agree that a complete ban is not the best solution. "If the government's present policy of labelling offensive polluters with red and others with green stickers can be strictly applied, and adulteration of fuel controlled, a lot of this pollution can be checked," says Ramesh Parajuli of Martin Chautari, the group that conducted research on pollution in the Valley a few months ago.
It isn't difficult to understand why transport workers are ready to fight tooth and nail to keep what they have, in many cases their only means of income. "Instead of just trying to throw us out the government should concentrate on supplying unadulterated fuel, and providing us with a maintenance subsidy," says Tulsi Ram Maharjan, whose only source of income is the creaking Mercedes Benz minibus he bought in 1975. Said one bus driver: "You should watch government vehicles coughing when they climb the Pulchowk hillock. Our vehicles are better maintained because they're our only means to earn bread."
The one group unaffected by the MoPE decision is electric vehicle operators. They say the government should press on with its decision and think about subsidising the import of batteries. They also want MoPE to consider replacing at least 25 percent of the old vehicles with battery-run three wheelers.
The FNTE had planned a nation-wide shutdown for 2 January, but postponed it due to the recent riots. Their sympathy for the ailing government won't last long if their means of living are taken away and they are not offered better alternatives. If the decision is not revoked before15 January, or some sort of compromise is not reached, we could be looking at another long month of strikes and shutdowns.
The government and the FNTE are now having discussions on how to find a mutually acceptable solution. But it's hard to see how any solution can avoid one of two unpleasant things-polluting vehicles stay under a watered-down version of the government's decision, or the nation's public transport system grinds to a complete halt. Any which way, Nepal stands to suffer.