The arrival of Dashain, the most significant Hindu festival that witnesses a mass departure from the country’s capital city Kathmandu, has become a bargaining chip for transport entrepreneurs who seem hell-bent on getting the government to lift the freeze on their bank accounts.
Holiday travel plans of over 2.5 million people are at stake as the private-sector players remain adamant about not starting advance bookings for the festival until their demands are fulfilled. The government authorities, on the other hand, appear to be clueless about what measures to take to open advance bookings ahead of Dashain.
Officials at the Department of Transport Management (DoTM) say this is not the first time that entrepreneurs have resisted advance bookings to get their undue demands fulfilled. The tendency to put one’s foot down at the last hour has mostly yielded positive results for the private entrepreneurs who maintain a near monopoly over the transportation sector.
After the first meeting between government officials and transport entrepreneurs last week could not make a headway, a follow-up meeting called on Friday did not convene at all, bringing to the fore indifference on both sides.
At last week’s meeting, according to the DoTM, the transport entrepreneurs put forward two demands: unblocking of their bank accounts and revision of transport fares.
Those demands from the Federation of Nepalese National Transport Entrepreneurs Association (FNNTEA), the umbrella organisation of the nationwide transport committees and associations, has mounted pressure on the government that has been struggling to provide tickets to the public without hassles.
As the employees of private institutions and government offices have limited holidays during the festival—they are compelled to leave for their hometown around the same time, managing outbound flow has never been easy for government authorities. Delay in timely opening of advance bookings is also likely to fuel the black market as it will be easy to take advantage of the situation, government officials say.
“The first condition for opening advanced bookings this year is relaxing the ban on our bank accounts,” said Yogendra Karmacharya, president of the FNNTEA. The transport entrepreneurs have also claimed that revival of frozen bank accounts was necessary for managing millions of rupees collected from advance bookings for the festival. “We can’t make deposits in an individual bank account as we maintain a common bank account,” said Karmacharya.
They are not ready to even consider the option of opening a new bank account to serve their immediate need—a move that exposes their ill-intention to bargain with the government during the festival season.
“Why do we need to open a bank account when our existent bank accounts are blocked?” Karmacharya said, blaming the government for suspending transactions through bank accounts without any valid reason.
Earlier this year, the government had frozen the transport entrepreneurs’ bank accounts and launched a probe into their movable and immovable properties after the transport committees obstructed the public transport service by enforcing a strike.
“They blocked our accounts saying we had amassed massive money. Bank accounts with no money at all have been also seized. Now, we are struggling to pay our staff and manage other logistic expenses,” Karmacharya told the Post.
His claims, however, do not hold firm ground as the government had released their bank accounts partially, allowing them to fulfil emergency needs.
A task force formed to deal with the aftermath of the crackdown on the syndicate and provide other necessary recommendations to improve transport sector had urged the government to allow withdrawal of money from the frozen bank accounts for medical treatment and compensation of passengers, as well as others injured or killed in road accidents. The entrepreneurs are also allowed to use the money for their operational expenses.
In line with the recommendation, the Transport Ministry allowed the transport committees in July to withdraw the money under the surveillance of the Chief District Officer once they filed an original invoice and other relevant documents.
Government officials say they are considering fulfilling the demands over increasing travel fares. “We are positive about their second demand because the vehicle fares were last revised in 2013,” department’s Spokesperson Gokarna Upadhyay said, before adding that the department cannot override the Cabinet decision to freeze the bank accounts.
In May, the Nepal Rastra Bank had directed the banks and financial institutions to freeze the bank accounts of the transport entrepreneurs who protested in favour of the transport syndicates. In the wake of protests launched by supporters of transport cartels, the Home Ministry and Transport Ministry had decided to freeze bank accounts of the committees running syndicates. The decision was endorsed by a Cabinet meeting.
As the decision was made jointly by two ministries, government authorities now appear confused over who should lead the negotiations to resolve the deadlock.
“We are only allowed to take technical decisions. Policy decisions should be done by the line ministry,” Upadhyay added.
But officials at the Home Ministry said they are not aware of any tensions and that it is not in their jurisdiction to take a lead on resolving the crisis.
“We can initiate a process if the issue is raised formally by concerned stakeholders,” said Ram Krishna Subedi, spokesperson for the Home Ministry, hinting that the Transport Management Department or the line ministry should first make a formal request for officials at the Home Ministry to even consider looking into the issue.