26 Aug - 1 Sep 2016 #823

Cartelling of carnage

The bloodbath on Nepal’s highways is a direct result of Kathmandu’s syndicated politics

Pratap Thapa/Kantipur
MASS MURDER: Bodies of the Kavre bus crash victims being cremated at Pashupati Aryaghat last week.

Floods and earthquakes cannot strictly be called ‘natural calamities’, because what actually ruins lives are ill-planned attempts to channel rivers, and poorly constructed houses.

Similarly, tragedies like the bus plunge on 15 August in Kavre that killed 27 people cannot be termed an ‘accident’ — like other crashes, it was a direct result of political patronage of bus companies by the four-party syndicate that has been running this country.

This cartelling of carnage is not restricted to highways. Hospitals and the medical education sector are in the iron grip of politicians profiteering from the trade in human health. One of the reasons Govinda KC is still on the streets and threatening to go on his ninth hunger strike is that even his voice — and that of thousands who have protested in support of the cause he champions —  has not been heard by the politicians backing the medical mafia.

Six bus passengers die every day on Nepal’s highways, many of these have become so routine they are not even reported anymore. More people have died in highway disasters in the past ten years than were killed in the decade-long war — 9,000 have lost their lives since 2011 alone.

After every vehicle crash like this, police come up with possible causes: in this case it was because there were 90 people crammed into the Kavre bus which was also carrying sacks of rice, and it stalled on a steep and slippery dirt road. But such technical reasons mask the underlying political source of the tragedies that maim and kill Nepalis every day. Contractors bribe officials to build substandard roads, obsolete and badly-maintained buses are allowed to carry double their capacity, drivers are often inexperienced or have fake licences — and all this is made possible because bus syndicates enjoy generous political protection.

It has been 20 years since the last local elections, leading to a lack of accountability at the VDC, DDC and municipality levels. Unelected bureaucrats work with politically connected contractors to build pointless roads that go from nowhere to nowhere. Local politicians own excavators that gouge out the mountains, scarring farm terraces with landslides. Only 17 per cent of Nepal’s highways are black-topped, and even if tarmacked they lack basic road furniture that would ensure safety.

Highway fatalities rank fourth in the cause of death among Nepalis, whereas internationally it is considered only the tenth most common cause of death. Tracing the ownership patterns, emergence of private operators, lack of regulation, and inadequate implementation of safety directives, one sees a critical and shocking failure of the government to fulfil its primary role: to protect its citizens’ lives.

Over the past decades of political change private companies have taken over the public transportation network, pretending that they operate in a competitive, free-market economy. On the pretext of regulating them, bus management committees nationwide wield so much power that even national-level politicians are loathe to rein them in. 

The syndicates protect their routes with goons, and new operators who want to improve the quality of service often have their brand-new buses vandalised with complete impunity. Far-western Nepal had no buses plying for a week last month because of a dispute between syndicates. Transport monopolies are so influential they can hold the country, and the travelling public, hostage. And they are literally getting away with murder.

After the Kavre disaster, newly installed Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal said this is now the last chance to crack down on transportation cartels. This will also be his final opportunity to show that he cares about at least this aspect of the public good, and not about protecting the turf of syndicates owned and nurtured by politicians in his coalition.

At an interaction this week on highway safety, former Chief Secretary and social reformer Leela Mani Poudyal could not have been more direct in blaming an “unspoken agreement" between senior ministers in government and bus companies.

Poudyal said the root of the corruption was the Welfare Fund that transportation cartels used to fund political parties, pay for goons, and bribe bureaucrats. “From what I know, some CDOs get Rs 100,000 a month, the district police chief gets up to Rs 80,000, and the money goes right down to the individual traffic policeman,” Poudyal said.

It is obvious the rot runs deep, and we must start looking at deaths on our highways not as accidents, but as crimes in which politicians are culpable. But we do not have the luxury of waiting to fix the politics in order to to improve road safety. Meanwhile, the bloodbath on Nepal’s highways continues. 

Read also:

Man-made disasters

Compensation by accident, Dewan Rai

Road kills, Surendra Phuyal

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