Nepali Times
Running on empty

Just over a year ago it seemed as if Kathmandu had finally figured out how to deal with one of its largest, most obvious problems-air pollution. The city would get a modern public transport system that would decrease pollution, and also be safer and more comfortable. Valley residents happily leapt on to the microbuses and the three-wheel battery-run electric vehicles (EV) and welcomed the banishment of the diesel engine three wheelers, among the worst polluters.

In 1998, when the electric tempos first came to Kathmandu, there were only ten. Today, there are 600. But almost a decade after the Global Research Institute designed an EV suited to Nepal's roads, the industry is still struggling. With this kind of early-mover advantage and the new regulations Kathmandu should have been the EV capital of the world, and other cities in the country should have also adopted the system. The failure of the industry to grow is a classic case of how the inability of the government to implement its own policies, and the internal wranglings of the private sector, can sour the bright prospects of a timely idea.

The EV is internationally recognised as the least polluting of all modes of transportation. Its speed and range-of-travel restrictions don't matter in Kathmandu, given the relatively small size of the city and the slowness of its traffic. EV's run on rechargeable electric batteries, which means that the industry, with its over 600 vehicles, is potentially an excellent customer for the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) during off-peak hours.

When the pollution row was at its height, the government was forced to give customs and tax breaks to importers of EVs. It did that, but very little else. More than 600 electric tempos, each of which has batteries that need to be charged for up to eight hours every 130 km, only have 36 recharging stations. Constantly changing traffic regulations and enforcement left to the whims of individual traffic policemen mean that there is no parking space for the tempos in the city, except outside the RNAC building. As a result, the 16 routes the EVs now ply could be reduced, as the vehicles are forced to keep to just inside the Ring Road, and beyond it.

Bimal Aryal of Martin Chautari, one of the main advocates for the bringing more EVs into the city, says he isn't surprised things have come to this pass. "The government does not show any special concern towards the development of this potentially enormous industry. We have been trying very hard to show the comparative advantages of not just encouraging this sector but also investing in it and yet the government gives a blind eye," he says. Ashok Pandey of the Nepal Electric Vehicle (NEVI) has another complaint, "Why can't the government have one policy. They seem supportive, but then the Finance Ministry imposes new taxes every year."

The private sector hasn't exactly displayed entrepreneurship or vision either. The recent shortage of batteries and deterioration in their quality, discouraged many EV owners from further investment. This in turn was a disincentive for manufacturers to pay attention to research and development. Most industry insiders say that all of this could be taken care of if there were appropriate regulations in place. "But for that," says Hridaya Narayan Manandhar president of Nepal Electric Vehicle Charging Association NEVCA as well as the Electric Vehicle Association of Nepal, the umbrella organisation, "we need to lobby with the government, and you can't do that if you aren't financially strong. We aren't in that position yet."

Both sides want the other party to break the deadlock. While they wait, Valley residents are slowly bidding goodbye to the idea of a modern city centre with cleaner air.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)