It is an all-too-familiar scenario. There is a build-up to a crisis that threatens to bring the country to a standstill. The public has no idea how to react. And the government stumbles along at its characteristic way pretending nothing is happening-until the last possible moment.
This time it is the Federation of Nepalese Transport Entrepreneurs (FNTE) that is on the warpath demanding that the government revoke its ban on vehicles 20 years or older. A well-planned calendar of protests has already been announced and we've already experienced some of the 'chakka-jams' in the past week. More are likely to come. At the same time, the student wing of the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist) chose to pipe in with their demands for a 50 percent discount on all bus fares for students, with an underlying 'or else' threat. The FNTE got another reason to react and immediately took all public transport off the streets from Saturday.
By Wednesday the buses were back on the streets after a government guarantee that it would ensure security against possible student violence. But the larger issue of the '20-year' ban remains unresolved, and the FNTE has hit back at the government decision with its own list of 13 demands (see NT#27). On Tuesday, the new environment minister pleaded for a month to resolve the matter. The transport operators magnanimously granted him that and an extra five days and called off their planned protests.
This whole mess began with a Ministry of Population and Environment (MOPE) announcement in November that effective 16 November this year, all vehicles manufactured before 1980 would be removed from Kathmandu roads. A part of the same decision also stated that all petrol- or gas-run three-wheelers with two-stroke engines would not be allowed to ply in municipal areas nation-wide.
Following the ensuing uproar, MOPE moved into damage control, and said only old vehicles used in public transport would be thrown out arguing that those used for private travel were better maintained. However, this part of the pronouncement has yet to be published in the Gazette, so it isn\'t taken too seriously.
MOPE's ad hocism becomes even more apparent when you consider that the Department of Transport Management (DOTM) was caught completely unawares. Immediately after the MOPE announcement we asked the DOTM how many vehicles would be displaced by the ban. They hadn't the faintest idea. We were told they would have to thumb through their files to find out, and that it would take a week.
MOPE may have overstepped its boundaries by declaring the blanket ban. According to its own State of the Environment report, "vehicular pollution control" is the responsibility of the Ministry of Labour and Transport. That is moot now, since the cabinet itself has endorsed the MOPE decision. However, it is clear that MOPE had gone ahead without even discussions within the ministry, let alone studies on how much pollution would be reduced and what it would cost. It did not take into its purview the industries in the Valley that are responsible for most of the pollution in the air. Neither did it take into account the slow traffic, road conditions, or fuel adulteration.
"Even now we don't know how much pollution is caused by vehicles and what types of vehicles are most to blame," an environmental economist told us. "It is all right to try to stop old cars, but then we should be able to tell how much pollution we're aiming to reduce, what the health benefits are and how they benefit the people." With green NGOs siding with government, there was no one to question the government on the long-term impacts of its decision-including on the environment. The FTNE did raise some pertinent questions, but as they came from the aggrieved party, few gave them serious thought.
The Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI), well known for quick comments on any government decision affecting its constituents, preferred to remain silent for almost a month. Only last week did it issue a statement saying the dispute and the chakka-jams should be resolved through talks. As transport entrepreneurs began organising protests, the government waited in silence, despite some convincing arguments about why the vehicle operators were contesting the decision, until the latter actually shut down services affecting hundreds of thousands of commuters.
As things stand today, the ban could be a repeat of the September 1999 decision to rid the Valley of Vikram tempos. After protests, the government negotiated a way out by allowing the 600 or so operators of the diesel three-wheelers to import brand new microbuses with the 99 percent duty and Value Added Tax (VAT) waived. The government was happy because the tempo ban was something it could trumpet as an achievement, and business houses more so because they could raise their sales portfolio. But for all that Kathmandu's air quality shows no sign of improvement, the 50 percent pollution reduction claim by the then environment minister notwithstanding.
"Old vehicles have to be phased out at some point but not in the manner the government plans to," says Toran Sharma of Nepal Environmental and Scientific Services (NESS), which has studied Kathmandu's vehicular emissions extensively. "Does the government have a list of old vehicles that pollute or that of 20-year-olds whose emissions are within permissible standards?"
Definitely not at the DOTM or the Traffic Police Office, where emission-free 'green stickers' can be obtained for any vehicle by paying a bribe. The irony is that almost every vehicle on the streets of Kathmandu has a green sticker. Those affected most are pedestrians and traffic cops. It is ironic that the police out on Kathmandu streets have to suffer because their colleagues in another department are getting richer-through bribes.
There are even doubts if the government believes in emission checks. If it did, it would not have gone in for a complete ban. The MOPE State of the Environment report says 30 percent of the roughly 136,000 vehicles tested between June 1996 and May 2000 flunked the tailpipe emission tests. Taking action against them alone could have led to a reduction of about 40,000 non-compliers. Nobody would have complained, and there would have been no strikes.
MOPE spokesman Ananta Raj Pandey says that the Ministry has conducted studies at various times and the decisions are based on these reports. "We had said we would phase out old vehicles when we decided to tackle the diesel tempos," says Pandey. "We've tried to address both the problem of pollution and carrying capacity of the roads."
Those who have studied air pollution first hand don't agree that all old vehicles are polluters. Even the MOPE environment report agrees that suspended particles and PM10 (particulate matter less than 10 microns) are the chief culprits, and not gaseous pollutants. Old vehicles do emit PM10-PM2.5 to be more specific-but MOPE studies show that household fuels (mainly kerosene) also contribute to PM10 in the atmosphere. Emissions also depend on road and fuel quality, vehicle maintenance and traffic speed. "Generally, more fuel is consumed by vehicles moving at lower speeds. The pollution almost doubles," says Sharma of NESS. "Vehicles may be old but that does not mean they are all poorly maintained and hence the main polluters."
The other concern is the financial cost. By DOTM numbers, 5,678 vehicles used in public transport qualify for displacement under the '20-year' ban. Another 1,616 government vehicles and 382 belonging to public corporations would also have to go, along with 2,334 owner-operated and 303 vehicles that carry tourists. If all these were to be replaced, it would cost the country billions of rupees. Calculated at Rs 600,000 per car (the cheapest compact car available in the market) it works out to a whopping Rs 6.2 billion.
Given all these inconsistencies, it is therefore not surprising that the FNTE even suspects corruption as the motivation for the government ban. It says that because auto dealers stand to benefit most from the new decision, they may have greased both the bureaucracy and the political leadership. The charges can neither be substantiated nor totally discounted.
Ramesh Parajuli of Martin Chautari, one organisation that wants the government to stand firm by its decision, says his group supports doing away with old vehicles as long as the government does not come with another plan to subsidise new imports. "Imports must be allowed only after proper demand studies," he says.
Electric vehicle operators also support the government decision, not surprising because that will provide them more room to operate. But the number of electric vehicles now on the road is not just enough to meet transportation demands and they are unlikely to emerge as an alternative, at least in the near future.
The government has already set a precedent by offering tax concessions for the Vikram replacements. And the owners of 20-year-old buses and taxis may not settle for less, which, of course, the government cannot afford. Even withdrawing the decision will send a wrong message. But that does not mean there's no way out.
"Strict monitoring of compliance to standards is the place to begin," says Sharma of NESS. "Policy maker, regulator and monitor need to be separate bodies and made to work." Still better would be to involve NGO representatives during spot checks and routine monitoring of compliance with emission standards rather than leave it to the cops alone.
Kathmandu Valley does not get strong winds to blow away pollutants in the atmosphere. The haze we see above the city is made up of smoke from motor vehicles, emissions from industries and combustion of household fuels and dust. The finest of the particles get lodged in the lungs, which is why clean-up is much required. But even zero emission vehicles cannot help in the clean-up if all the industries and brick kilns in the Valley are allowed to carry on with business as usual.