The Department of Transport Management, under the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport, recently warned of strict action against those who don’t get embossed number plates for their vehicles in Bagmati and Gandaki provinces by mid-July. Though it soon clarified that the rule would be applicable only to three types of vehicles—new ones registered after 17 November 2021; those whose ownership was transferred after 13 February 2022; and in cases where ownership was renewed after 15 May 2022—eventually all vehicles would have to get the new plates. But the government’s decision to upgrade is mired in controversy, confusion, and outrage. Is it necessary? What does the government hope to accomplish anyway?
A country’s economy and prosperity largely hinges on its transport system, says Padma Bahadur Shahi, president, Society of Transport Engineers Nepal. And ours is in disarray. We don’t know how many vehicles we have. Records of vehicle ownership aren’t easily accessible even to the police. It’s next to impossible to tell which vehicle has been where or to determine its current location. Also, without a system to track all the vehicles that ply the road, it’s hard to curtail black marketing (via the open border with India) and other criminal activities. “We need to know how many vehicles we have, and we need to be able to keep track of their whereabouts. The data is necessary to plan and design a strong transport system as well as provide good service,” says Shahi.
The way we commute is shameful, adds Shahi. We still have to get off our vehicles to recite our vehicle numbers to the police stationed at check posts. It’s unheard of elsewhere in the world. Creating a smart or intelligent transport system is overdue. But the government has been lackadaisical in its approach. In 2016, a dubious Bangladeshi company was given the contract to install embossed number plates with a built-in GPS system, at Rs 4.6bn. The agreement was to install 2.5m new plates by September 2021. The contract is on a two-year extension with the government making repeated appeals and attempts to fast-track the process. Shahi says only installing embossed number plates is pointless without also investing in the required infrastructure and technical manpower.
“The government is focusing on one aspect of a huge system. The embossed plates will be useless without control rooms, data centers, satellite connectivity, toll booths etc.,” he says. Additionally, we will also need trained manpower to operate the extensive software system required to manage the collected data. Currently, the Transport Management Office doesn’t even have the manpower to operate the system for the smart license. Shahi stresses on the importance of an intelligent transport system but says he doesn’t see how Nepal can pull it off with such poor preparation. “We need a new generation of technicians and other high-precision equipment and infrastructure. But we haven’t even started planning for them,” he says.
A source at the transport ministry who spoke on the condition of anonymity admits that there was no proper planning before starting the ambitious project. Despite urging the public to get embossed number plates, the Department of Transport Management doesn’t have the capacity to distribute all the plates by the given deadline. Not just that, the government also doesn’t have the equipment and technology required to read these plates. There have also been issues of land procurement at Thankot for the construction of a toll booth. “The reason we are focusing on embossed number plates for now is because we have to start somewhere and the government has already contracted it out. Breaking the contract could be costly,” he says.
The official admitted that there is a long way to go to develop a smart transport system. It’s also a hassle to get the embossed number plates. Heavy vehicle owners have to line up at the Department of Transport Management in Ekantakuna whereas you have to go to the Vehicle Testing Center at Teku for four-wheelers and at the transport office in Gurjudhara for two-wheelers. “And when has getting any work done at the Department of Transport Management been easy? You have to shuttle from one window to the next for an entire day,” he asks.
And, indeed, this seems to be one big reason people aren’t enthused about embossed number plates. The cost of the plates—Rs 2,500 for two-wheelers, Rs 2,900 for three-wheelers, Rs 3,200 for small four-wheelers and Rs 3,600 for bigger vehicles—is another deterrent. Anup Raj Giri, founder of Transport Hub, a freight company, says the government makes hasty and impractical decisions that end up inconveniencing the public. (Speaking in parliament, Gagan Thapa, general secretary of Nepali Congress, said the directive to switch to embossed number plates has caused people much trouble.)
“I have heard about people lining up for hours and still not getting new number plates. The process is tedious and time-consuming,” says Giri. He, along with other motorbike and car owners ApEx spoke to, said they wouldn’t mind changing their vehicle’s plate if the process was simpler, say, something that could be done online. Reasonable cost would also be an incentive, they said. Our source at the ministry said the price of the plates could be reduced by up to 50 percent if the government did away with its ‘cut’. How this profit will be spent is anyone’s guess.
Roshan Devkota, civil engineer, says installing embossed number plates will help Nepal collect vital traffic data. But it can’t and shouldn’t be implemented forcefully. As there are other aspects of a smart transport system apart from embossed number plates, it should be a slow, step-by-step process, he says. New number plates, he explains, could be installed as the required infrastructure is being built. That way, people can get it done at their convenience. Shahi adds that there is currently no mechanism to ensure embossed number plates are readable and thus fully operational. The government must work on that instead of being driven by monetary gains, he says.
Part of the problem is that the public just doesn’t trust the government. Also, administrative works often require middlemen and become expensive affairs. Then there’s the case of the government going back on its decision—what’s mandatory today might not be tomorrow. The public seems to be on wait-and-watch mode. Most people ApEx spoke to felt drained by the thought of having to queue up at the transport office. Many also saw it was just another ploy to line the pockets of corrupt bureaucrats.
Roshan Kathayap, co-founder of Truckport Express Nepal, another freight company, says, sooner or later, all of us will have to install embossed number plates. They are vital for a more secure and better-managed transport system. Nepal is already behind the rest of the world. Ours, he says, is an obsolete system and it will only worsen our traffic and transport situation in the long run. But the government must simplify the process and ensure it is well equipped to handle the upgraded system. Else, it will just be a waste of time, money, and resources.