A few days ago, I asked a cab to take me to a certain destination by meter, but the driver declined, even before I could complete my sentence. When I asked him why, he turned his head away, and didn’t even bother to acknowledge my presence. Looking for a taxi in Kathmandu is like searching for a perfect match—one has to go through many hurdles. “If a taxi driver denies a passenger’s request without a plausible explanation, and if he is found overcharging or not using the meter reading, action will be taken against him,” says Mukunda Marasini, the Spokesperson of Metropolitan Traffic Police Division in Kathmandu. “A fine of Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000 will be charged.”
The division has urged the public to register their complaint on a toll free number—103, Traffic Control—against such acts. These steps by the police have given passengers a voice. So I did confront the driver, but I was in a hurry and had to look for another taxi. Surprisingly, the second driver agreed after some hesitation.
While I was travelling, I kept asking myself: why do taxis shut their doors when requested to go by the meter? Is the money generated by the meter really inadequate, or are they ripping the passengers off?
I knocked the doors of Nepal Bureau of Standards & Metrology (NBSM), which calibrates taxi meters, to satisfy my curiosity.
“The Department of Transport Management (DOTM) sends us the rates—per km charge etc.—with which we calibrate the meter,” says Bishwa Babu Pudasaini, the bureau’s director general. Initially, Rs 14 is charged as soon as the meter is turned on; it’s a one-time charge. And, after every 2 minutes, or for every 200 meters, whichever comes first, there’s a call, Pudasaini further informed. Every call adds an extra Rs 7.2 to the meter reading. So even if the taxis are stuck in a traffic jam, the drivers would be earning Rs 7.2 every two minutes. But from 9 pm to 6 am, the total fare is 1.5 times the normal rate.
“The only reason the drivers refuse to go by the meter is because they have the habit of cheating the passengers,” Pudasaini says.
But the taxi drivers have a different opinion. “The price of every commodity has increased, including the cost of maintaining our vehicles,” says Ganesh Bahadur Chaulagain, a taxi driver, who is also associated with the Akhil Nepal Krantikari Yatayat Majdoor Sangh, a trade union of sorts. “So we have no choice but to charge a bit extra. We have mouths to feed.”
The Metropolitan Police Station, Ranipokhari and Metropolitan Traffic Police Division have started a special operation that has seen over 60 taxis penalized daily for not complying with the rules.
But there has been a backlash from the taxi drivers. “There have been many instances where we are penalized unfairly. For example, even when we’re returning home after a hard day’s work and refuse to take a passenger who is not going our way, the traffic slaps a fine on us,” says Chaulagain.
“Once, my friend had an ‘undercover traffic cop’ in his taxi who tricked him into not going by the meter and then fined him,” he adds. The taxi drivers’ woes are exacerbated by complainers failing to arrive at the police station on time to file a formal complaint. The drivers are made to wait for hours and when the complainer does show up, they have wasted a day’s time already.
Chaulagain doesn’t complain about the traffic police punishing the drivers for not running their meters. But he doesn’t think the punishment would deter many cab drivers. He thinks that even a fine of Rs 5,000 is a risk worth taking. “The only way to end this is by adjusting the fare by taking into account the price of goods and services,” says Chaulagain.
By contrast, Chun Bahadur Tamang, who has been working as a taxi driver for around 35 years, is happy about the decision of the traffic police department. “The taxi drivers are running riot, many are frauds. I have been driving by the meter for years and never have I had an issue,” says Tamang. “It’s a competitive world. Instead of charging a reasonable fare, taxis here are asking for the maximum,” he says, laughingly. Tamang is a popular figure among customers in the Baluwatar area where he is well known for his honesty and wit.
The DOTM has plans to revise the taxi fares which were last updated in February 2016. A committee led by Prem Kumar Singh, Technical Director at DOTM, has been formed to look into the issue. “We have collected data on market price to assess the fares,” says Singh. “Once we complete our analysis, we will forward it to the government.” But DOTM is not sure when the changes will happen. Hopefully, when the changes do come, all the concerned parties will be satisfied.