For Ganga Rokka, a 32-year-old Safa Tempo operator, the three-wheeled electric public vehicles have come as a blessing in many ways.
Not only does plying on the Ratanapark-Teku-Chaunni-Sitapaila route enable her to rake in supplemental income to a business she owns and operates, the tempos have also connected her to a community of women Safa Tempo operators who have now become akin to a second family.
“There are 57 Tempos that operate on this route, of which 36 have women drivers,” she says, “The income we make, as I see it, is an additional benefit. In the six years that I have driven Safa Tempos, my personality has completely transformed.
I am more confident, outgoing, and in control of my finances and my life. A lot of us feel the same way.”
But now with the government’s ban on public vehicles that are older than 20 years taking effect, Rokka is worried if the personal and professional gains she has made over the years are going to be rolled back.
Four Safa Tempos that plied the route, she confides, have been shelved because of the ban; and with most other vehicles, including hers, 16-19 years old, Safa Tempos operators remain uncertain of what the future holds.
“It is not like new tempos are being introduced,” Rokka says, “This pool of vehicles are all that we have and each year, they will be retired, one after the other. The vehicle I drive thankfully has four years before it turns twenty. Other drivers don’t have that luxury.”
Every day, hundreds and thousands of Kathmandu’s residents commute on public vehicles. Mobility reports state that out of the 3.4 million one-way person trips each day, almost 41 percent are on foot, and 28 percent are by public transport.
Largely owned by private operators, public vehicles mostly consist of motorised vehicles that run on fuel, except the three-wheeled Safa Tempo which alone stands as the sole promoters of electrical public vehicles.
With the Valley’s population and its number of vehicles soaring, traffic management in the city has become a major headache. Furthermore, vehicular emissions have also been major contributors to the alarming degradation of the Valley’s air quality.
In March this year, the Government of Nepal (GoN) began enforcing its ban on public vehicles that are 20 years old or older, including the electric Safa Tempo.
According to the Department of Transport Management, the ban was put into effect for two reasons—firstly, to curb vehicular emission.
Safa Tempos are electric vehicles that have zero carbon emission. Director General of the DoTM, Rup Narayan Bhattarai, however, stated that one of the reasons why they also included the three-wheelers in the ban was because of the concern about whether 20-year-old vehicles are mechanically sound.
The decision has been met with concerns by operators like Rokka but also other stakeholders who champion the promotion of electric vehicles.
Krishna Gyawali, Former Secretary at the Ministry of Environment, states, “Safa Tempo is the only flagship project promoting Zero emission vehicles that is still in operation.
They are environment friendly, and have been instrumental in boosting the number of women drivers. Banning them will push back the gains made by public Electric Vehicles (EVs).” He further added, “If aesthetics and safety is a concern, there should be measures to address the maintenance of vehicles. A blanket ban is not the solution.”
The second reason for the ban, as per the DoTM, is traffic congestion—despite the significant number of public vehicles plying on the streets each day, transportation services are inadequate, and unable to provide services to the growing urban population.
These public vehicles refer to smaller vehicles such as micro buses and tempos that do not have a high carrying capacity.
Their numbers, as per the DoTM, has only added to chaos that now has become a part of the daily commute.
The government, in a bid to tackle traffic congestion by smaller vehicles, announced measures to reduce the import duty of larger 40 seater vehicles to five percent in 2014-15.
This has seen transport operators vying for bigger buses. Bigger vehicles with more passenger capacity does make sense on primary routes, but if the narrower tertiary routes, which are increasing in number as the urban sprawl spreads, are taken into account, smaller vehicles like Safa Tempos are an answer to road connectivity and growing urban mobility.
The government has also recently proposed a plan to reduce the existent 200 routes to 66 in order to cut down on traffic congestion caused by overlapping of routes.
The fewer routes means commuters only have limited options for travelling. However, the DoTM states it has proposed letting Safa Tempos run on tertiary routes.
First introduced in 1993, there are currently about 700 Safa Tempos that ply on 17 different routes in the Valley.
The Valley’s traffic congestion is a big problem. But with countries around the world moving towards promoting Electric Vehicles, stakeholders believe that the ban on Safa Tempos is equivocal of taking one step forward, two steps back.
On paper, the government does have policies to promote vehicles running on clean energy. Last year’s budget had proposed to decrease the number of vehicles that run on fossil fuels, proposing to decrease the custom duty of both private and public EVs to 10 percent and one percent respectively.
This year’s budget, which was unveiled this week, again promises to reduce vehicle emission by promoting new technologies. Furthermore, an Environment-friendly Vehicle and Transport Policy has been drafted by the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport.
Nepal has also signed on to the goal of ensuring that 20 percent of vehicles run on clean energy by year 2020.
But Surya Man Shakya, an environmental engineer and Former Member Secretary at the Environment Protection Council, is concerned that in view of the government’s seemingly progressive commitments, the recent ban on 20-year-old Safa Tempos is starkly regressive.
“One Safa tempo, with carrying capacity of 12, is equal to three taxis discounting the price of fossil fuel. Given their efficiency, they should be maintained,” he says, “Unfortunately, the system in place does not support it. DoTM has a Vehicle Fitness Testing Centre (VFTC) but does not have a standard Research and planning facility that can develop and design transport management plans and EV promotion.”
As a result of the concerns, DG Bhattarai from the DoTM has stated that the department is working towards addressing the issue.
He said, “We have heard the concerns and have sent a recommendation to the Ministry to increase the ban time from 20 to 30 years for Safa Tempos, with the condition that they pass the mechanical fitness test at the Teku-based VFTC.” He did not specify, if and when the extension would come into effect.
For now, however, for Safa Tempo operators like Ganga Rokka, uncertainties continue to loom large.
“While it is true that a lot of these Safa Tempos are old and mechanically weak, what incentives do we have to repair and regulate the vehicles if we don’t know when the government will shelve them again?” she asks.