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After the ban

After the ban

The crackdown on the ‘illegal’ operators of two ride-hailing apps, Tootle and Pathao, started only when local cabbies complained that they were seemingly being put out of business. Tootle has been in operation for two years. Pathao has been around for just four months. Between them, the two have around 30,000 registered ‘riders’, the owners of private two-wheelers who get paid for taking people around town. Strictly speaking, the two services are illegal. An old law bars private vehicles from doubling as taxies. It is disingenuous of Tootle and Pathao to try to escape oversight by claiming they are only app-developers.

But if there was ever a case of a baby being thrown out with the bathwater this had to be it. If these ride-hailing apps were operating in a grey zone, the focus should have been to better regulate them, and bring them under the proper tax net. They could have been given some time. But suddenly making thousands of vehicles that people relied on for daily transport out of their reach was, in effect, restricting their freedom to travel.

Following the ban, one line of argument was being repeated over and over on social media. The cabs are expensive partly because they seldom go by the meter. And many commuters don’t feel comfortable in the overcrowded public transport. The bike-hailing apps catered to this middle-range customers composed largely of women, mid-ranking professionals, students, and people with disabilities. And most were satisfied customers.

For their own good, Tootle and Pathao should stop pretending they are not into transport business and agree to be regulated. For instance, it is not clear how much tax they pay. Is each of their transaction taxed or do they only pay a nominal lump sum? But the cabbies are in no place to accuse Tootle and Pathao of taking away their bread and butter when they themselves are openly fleecing the people—and supposedly with the connivance of some in the government. Thankfully, Prime Minister KP Oli seemed to have enough sense to overturn the ban following immense public criti­cism. One good thing the row did was highlight the sorry state of public transport in Kathmandu. Banning innovation that enhances public mobility is no solu­tion. Following the overturn of the ban, the next line of action should be to make our public transport provid­ers more accountable, be they freewheeling ride-hail­ing companies or overcharging taxies.