'More vehicles mean more money for politicians'
Dinesh Bhandari, president of the Federation of Nepal National Transport Entrepreneurs (FNNTE) has been in the transport business for the past 30 years. He has brought three different transport organizations under a single umbrella to provide better services to the public. He claims that federalization of transport entrepreneurs' organizations has improved bus services and prevented operators from being affiliated to any political party.
Bhandari has been pressuring the government to fulfill the demand of the FNNTE to raise fares by up to 35 percent. Bhandari spoke with Puran P Bista and Kamal Raj Sigdel of the Post on the ongoing bus strike that has crippled public transport for the past several days.
Q: How do you justify the demand for the fare hike? Is it necessary to call a strike to press your case?
Dinesh Bhandari: Let me clarify certain things. A hike in fares was long overdue. Like the latest 25 percent increase in the tariff announced by the government, past increases in the bus fare did not match the growth in oil prices. In 2005, the government raised the fare without the consent of the FNNTE.
When Bharat Mohan Adhikari was finance minister, the government, passengers and transport entrepreneurs had reached an agreement. He had told us we could raise the fare as we saw fit. Our present charges are less than what was agreed with the government and the consumers' organization then. The fares should have been hiked by 20 percent, but it has not happened. The government knows that well, and we are raising the bus fare to meet the cost of operation.
The government agreed to raise the fares of buses plying between the airport and the city by 40 percent. It was not applicable to other buses. Now rumors are afoot that the bus syndicate has seized the power to hike bus fares at will. This is not true. We are calling for a fare hike as per the agreement reached with the previous government.
Since 1999, petroleum prices have doubled; but we have not raised the fare by 100 percent. It is our right to raise the fare by 20 percent in addition to the 25 percent agreed upon earlier. So our demand is that the fare should go up by 45 percent. But we are willing to settle for a 35 percent increase.
Q: Do you agree that market should determine the fares instead of the FNNTE?
Bhandari: Let us look at other aspects as well. The price of lubricants has gone up by 75 percent. The price of spare parts has shot up by 100 percent. How would it be possible to operate our buses by letting the market fix the ticket prices? Did the government think over these aspects before raising the fare? There are laborers who are underpaid. Students vandalize private vehicles. If we stop bus services in protest, the federation is blamed.
The buses plying on the roads are owned by private parties. The government has not been able to provide bus services to the public. The passengers must understand that and allow the private companies to operate bus services continuously. The buses are owned by more than one person. We have to respect the right of the owners and allow the buses to ply their routes.
Jyoti Bania and others had agreed to raise the fare, but later they changed their stance. These people are affiliated to different political parties. So they change their track according to what their party says, and that has harmed bus services. The government talks of competition, but it cannot provide bus services to the public. Private parties have invested big money, but the government keeps repeating the same thing competition.
Q: But the syndicate of private bus owners has crippled services.
Bhandari: That is not correct. We have been functioning as per government rules and regulations. Otherwise, why would we have asked the government to raise the bus fare? We could have done it on our own.
What we have been doing is trying to reform the country's transport system. We want to phase out vehicles that are more than 15 years old. Why should obsolete vehicles that pollute and cannot provide good service be allowed on the roads? It takes hours to travel two kilometers in the city due to traffic congestion. Why don't we remove the tempos from the capital city to lighten the traffic? The government does not realize these things because the party leaders do not want to realize the mistakes.
Finally, most vehicles ply profitable routes only. Nobody wants to go to remote places. But the federation has been providing transport services even in the remote hills. Have we been only making money or also providing services?
Q: The permit system could have forced vehicle owners to go to the remote hills because a city permit costs a lost of money.
Bhandari: There are more vehicles than are necessary. The government is allowing in anybody. You just stop importing vehicles for five years, and let us phase out the old ones. The more vehicles there are on the roads, the more money you have to pay for lucrative routes. And the length of the roads has not increased in the past one decade. The government has no vision at all. It has made a mess of every sector. Now it is talking about building a new
More vehicles mean more revenue for the government and more money for politicians. That's why there is such disorder in the transport system.
Q: How do politicians make money?
Bhandari: Motor vehicle dealers approach politicians and propose to import a certain number of them. The dealer makes millions of rupees. Part of the profits goes into the pockets of political leaders. The government did not raise the price of kerosene along with the price of diesel. Why? Because petroleum dealers can sell adulterated diesel and politicians can also get a share of the earnings. There are several examples of how the connection between politicians and petroleum dealers and politicians and vehicle dealers works to make money for all concerned.
Q: Why is it mandatory to obtain the federation's OK before a transport company can be registered?
Bhandari: There are several reasons. One of them is the increasing number of transport companies and vehicles. As I said before, there has to be a system. In Narayani zone alone, there are 4,000 buses. Do you need more vehicles or a better and larger road network?
Q: How are you trying to bring down the rising number of bus accidents?
Bhandari: Poor roads and lack of maintenance, old vehicles and ignorance of traffic rules are the main causes behind the frequent road accidents. Besides, bus drivers do not get their vehicles repaired and drink while driving. We can identify the problems and urge the government to enforce the regulations strictly. But we are not a regulating or law enforcing agency. How much funds does the government allocate for road maintenance? How many roads does the government repair every year? Has the government ever realized that poor road maintenance and old vehicles are responsible for killing innocent people?
Q: What do you say to student demands that they should get a 50 percent discount on bus fare?
Bhandari: We are ready to accept their demand on the condition that the discount is provided to not more than six passengers of a bus. How can buses give them a 50 percent discount when half of the seats are occupied by students? They must shun violence. They cannot dictate the terms as they have been doing.