Pandemic puts brake on Kathmandu's rickshaws

After 11 years of pedalling his rickshaw through the narrow alleyways of old Kathmandu, Potey Tamang’s legs had to get used to being still. For close to a year now, his rickshaw business is down and out due to the coronavirus pandemic.

These days, the 48-year-old spends most days waiting in front of the Gaddi Baithak hoping for a fare. Just to kill the time, he dusts the ornate painting on the sides of his rickshaw, wipes the plastic flower bouquet on the handlebar, and checks the pedals and chain. All must be in order, just in case someone wants a ride.

Tamang’s day begins in his rented room in Dhalko at 5AM. For months now, most days go by without a single passenger, while he sits under the Kathmandu sun in the company of fellow rickshaw drivers.

Before the Covid-19 induced lockdown, Tamang and his colleagues used to get plenty of hires, delivering goods or passengers through the gullies of inner Kathmandu. Tourist passengers were much sought after because they paid more, but there have been no foreigners now for nearly a year. Even with the end of the lockdown, passengers are hard to come by.

Potey Tamang, 48, taking out his rickshaw from a garage. All photos: DRISHNA STHAPIT

“If I get lucky with a ride or two in a day, I have money to pay for food. Otherwise, I wait here all day,” says Tamang.

Kathmandu’s rickshaws used to be the vehicle of choice for people commuting short distances through the narrow, crowded alleys of the old city. While there are some locals who still use the three-wheelers to move goods or quickly get to another nearby location, the business has always depended heavily on tourism. With the cancellation of international flights, like all businesses catering to tourists, rickshaws have also hit a low.

Tamang is from Kavre, and used to earn up to Rs2,000 on his best days. He and his colleagues now struggle to take care of their families.

Another driver, Sonam, says he has not had a single passenger for three days, and is struggling to pay his rent and feed his family. The situation was not so bad before the lockdown, as Basantapur still received tourists at the start of the year and some tourists were generous enough to part with a huge tip.

“Most of our customers used to be tourists, that is why we are having a hard time. If there were even a few local passengers at times like this, it would have been a little easier for us,” says Maila Lama, 58, who has been driving rickshaws for the past 25 years.

According to Lama, use of rickshaws by locals has gone down because more and more people in Kathmandu now own two-wheelers. Both Lama and Tamang concur that the popularity of ride-sharing apps like Tootle and Pathao has also affected their business.

“We don’t get as many local passengers like we used to because of Pathao. We normally charge around Rs100 for a ride from Durbar Square to Thamel. Pathao charges only Rs70,” says Tamang. “While their service is cheaper, we charge more because we have to put in physical effort.”

The sight of the brightly coloured three-wheelers staggering along Kathmandu’s bumpy roads started to become rare as the business took a back seat in recent years. Many rickshaw operators moved on to other businesses that promised better return for their labour.

“Some of my friends are working as tempo drivers, some drive taxis, while some are working as labourers,” says Lama. “Sometimes I also feel like quitting this job and starting something else. But everything requires money and I don’t have it.”

The bright paint and colourful frills decorating the rickshaws are starting to pale out, as the tourist eye-candy of the past has been relegated to the parking stands. Tamang says he worries about the future of the business. He says if people stop using rickshaws, the mode of transportation will die out and people like him will have to find alternative ways to make a living.

“I am getting old and I don’t have any other skill. If the situation does not improve in a few months, I’ll have no other option but to go back to my village,” he says.

While Tamang is already considering an alternative, Lama and Sonam are still pinning their hopes on the resurgence of tourism in Nepal. “I am hopeful that our business will improve in 2021. Once the tourists start coming to Kathmandu, we will be able to earn again,” says 37-year-old Sonam.

For now, their eyes search passersby, pinning on to hope that the convenience of a quick ride will bring them a passenger or two.