While the debate over efficient and clean mass transportation continues, daily commuters in the Valley are enthusiastically exploring their different options. The new microbuses are posing stiff competition to a motley collection of Safa electric vehicles, creaking buses remaindered from highway duty, and minibuses left over from 70s overland journeys to Nepal.
Diesel tempos, the old Vikrams, made their government-approved appearance on the roads in the early 90s when Kathmandu was trying to cope with a sharp increase in daily commuters. The blue smoke they left billowing in their wake was a clear sign that this was a mistake, and the government banned Vikrams in 1999 when their emissions became intolerable. Smooth-talking environmentalists aided in the clean-up by discussing science like politicians extolling the virtues of democracy, but the owners of Vikrams were not turning green without some sort of payback. So the government allowed them modern replacements, the microbuses.
There's no doubt that microbuses present a different face of public transport. The lay Nepali gets to ride the fancy Toyota, Mitsubishi, and Nissan vans, something only INGO employees did earlier. And the dark smoke emitted by the three-wheelers dissipated in the wind. But has transportation in the valley become any easier and is the air any clearer? Not all would agree.
Getting rid of the 3000-odd diesel Vikram tempos was tough because they had influential owners. The 641 operators given permits to import replacement microbuses were also given subsidies - 75 percent off the import duty on diesel engine microbuses and 99 percent off for those running on petrol. Each of the larger diesel microbuses cost around Rs 1.4 million after the reduced duties, and most have been funded by bank loans. The repayment plans demand an average payment of Rs 30,000 a month for five years. The microbuses do earn enough to meet the banks' demands. A microbus doing the Lagankhel-Ratnapark stretch ferries around 600 people a day spending an average of 28-30 litres of diesel. This nets the operator between Rs 1,700-2,000 after fuel costs and wages. That's close to Rs 60,000 a month. But for the city, the 250 Vikram-replacements cruising the streets are creating new problems, congestion and more pollution.
"Microbuses are not only convenient and comfortable but also cost-effective," says Dinesh Sharma, a daily commuter whose Tokha-Tundikhel ride costs Rs 6. "I prefer the bigger ones among the micros because they are safer and more comfortable," he adds. Microbuses are allowed to carry a maximum of 14 passengers, four more than the electric and gas-run tempos. Some people do prefer the three-wheelers for the relative ease with which they can clamber in and out, but most have no problems with the micros.
Moreover, microbuses don't have designated stops and the drivers stop anywhere they're asked along the route approved by the Bagmati Zone Transport Office. Reacting to the suggestion that this causes traffic snarls, Raman Shrestha, a transport department official said, "In an open economy we cannot dictate to owners the route they should operate on. They are free to decide." However, operators do need route approvals and have to be on the move most of the time unlike other vehicles that have regulation stops, Shrestha adds.
Vehicle operators tell a different, more difficult story. "They've not planned anything properly," says Rajendra KC, a microbus owner. "We don't have parking space and we're not allowed to stop anywhere. The only reason we're surviving is because the ride is cheaper then metered taxis and more comfortable than three wheelers and minibuses."
The traffic police says the situation is out of its hands. "Almost half the nation's vehicles run in the valley. How are we supposed to provide parking space to every new idea that the government comes up with? There's no parking space at all," says Superintendent of Police Sharada Bhakta Ranjit of the Valley Traffic Police. "Private entrepreneurs should come up with private parking lots like in other metropolitan cities," he suggests.
There's another black mark against microbuses. They are gradually pushing clean electric vehicles to the periphery. Microbus emissions are not as immediately noxious as those of their predecessors, but they do add to pollution levels in the valley. "They will kill the local electric vehicle industry," says an environmental economist. "And over time we will be back to breathing more polluted air."
The government is planning a blanket ban on new commuter vehicles within the Ring Road. Ironically, this plan will specifically target electric three-wheelers. However, there are more effective measures to address both pollution and overcrowding. The old, large diesel-run buses could ply the major arterial roads, while microbuses could be restricted to less-served routes on smaller roads. New subsidies could be provided to convert smaller microbuses to run on gas, and import subsidies could be altered to encourage operators to bring in the more expensive battery-operated microbuses.
Whatever the government plans to do about the valley's traffic and the resultant air pollution, one thing is certain, a well-planned mass rapid transport system is the only real solution. Whether or not the government has anything specific in mind, for now commuters in Kathmandu seem content with riding the microbus.