The entire world has been plagued by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Nepal is no exception. The public transport system has undoubtedly bore the brunt of the pandemic. Like all other sectors, this sector in Nepal has also been in lockdown since March 24th. In the Nepali context, the roads and the aerial networks are the only reliable modes of public transport.
The government has decided that the essential services would continue to operate despite the lockdown. Consequently, the vehicles and the transport workers are delivering food items and fuel while risking their own lives to serve the nation and its citizens. Figures indicate that there are around 400,000 public vehicles in Nepal. The number of booking staff, drivers, conductors and the helpers employed in the public transportation sector is estimated to be around a million.
More than 99 percent of the public vehicles in Nepal are operated by the private sector. There are neither multinationals nor big companies at the national level that employ thousands of workers. 60 percent of the public vehicles have created self-employment for the owners. Only in Kathmandu Valley there are 12,000 city taxis, 200 green-plated authorized taxis at the international airport, and approximately 70,000 e-rickshaws and auto tempos plying all over the nation. Most of them are self-employed among which the majority have taken loans from banks to buy their vehicles. When these vehicles have been taken off the road due to the lockdown, on the one hand, the lack of employment has made living conditions worse day by day while on the other hand there is an impending crisis on how to repay the principal and the interest on their loans. There is uncertainty on how this sector will resume operation after the lockdown and what the future of the workers employed in this sector will be. Preliminary studies indicate that around 200,000 transport workers are at a certain risk of losing their employment. This number is only expected to rise with the passage of time.
In the global context, the public transport system in London is estimated to face a loss of around 500 million pounds. The British government has therefore introduced relief for the workers. The government has announced that the state would provide 80 percent of their previous income for those workers who were earning up to twenty-five hundred pounds a month. Similarly in San Francisco of the US, the loss from the sale of tickets and parking fees would amount to US$ 44 million in a month. The American government has given a grant of US$ 500 million for 'Bay Area Rapid Transit'.
In Singapore, the government has decided to provide from 300 to 1,000 Singapore dollars for the city taxi drivers as per their respective conditions, while waiving road taxes and parking fees.
Among the international airline companies, Malaysia's Malindo Air and Air Asia are seen to be at a higher risk. Garuda Airlines from Indonesia has already declared that it will not renew the agreements of contract workers. Thai Airways has also ceased its operations from April 4 and 10-40 percent cut in remuneration has already been announced. Similarly, Singapore Airlines has slashed the pay of its first officers and captains by 55 percent.
But the Singapore government has set aside 11 percent of the GDP (55 billion Singapore dollars) for relief package to the workers and their businesses. Even India has declared a relief package of 11 percent of the GDP amounting to US$ 260 billion under the self-sufficient movement for small and medium businesses, farmers, and workers. Many other countries have pledged big amounts as relief to get the businesses, workers, and farmers through this pandemic.
In the Nepali civil aviation context, there are nine helicopter and passenger airline companies in operation. 3,500 workers are directly employed by these companies. The umbrella organization of these companies has declared that there will be no cut in pay for those who had been earning less than Rs 20,000 per month while for those earning more than that amount, the pay would be cut on a proportional basis.
The pandemic has affected Nepal in roughly the same proportion to the global community. But the government has not been able to announce any significant relief package. The transport sector is even more ignored and disregarded by the state.
Even if the lockdown is removed and public vehicles permitted to resume their services within a few days, there will be confusion and uncertainty on how to operate the vehicles for the first few months. It is difficult to tell what the future of the transport workers will look like. These businesses and the workers have been facing certain types of problems during the lockdown, and will face different kinds of problems after the lockdown ends.
The government had declared that it would distribute food items for the daily wage workers and those working in the informal sector, but the relief does not seem to have reached the targeted groups. The media has reported instances when rotten or unusable food items were distributed and even internal migrant workers have been unable to receive the intended relief in lack of a proper mechanism. As per the Essential Goods and Services Act, workers including the health professionals and the security personnel have received benefits and insurance. But the transport workers delivering food and essential products have not been provided even a basic insurance, let alone any benefits.
We had hoped that the budget announced on May 28 would address the transport sector positively so that efforts can be made to restore the sector in its old form. But the budget did not contain any concrete contents. The businessmen and the workers working there will survive only if the industries and businesses survive.
The following matters should have been included based on our studies. The principal and the interest repayments in the hire purchase loans should have been pushed for six months at the minimum. Steps should have been taken to end the discriminatory provisions of the Essential Goods and Services Act and transport workers should have been put on an equal footing with other essential workers and be recipients of insurance and other benefits as well. There should have been provisions to subsidize the income tax and other taxes and also subsidies in the interest payment of loans for low income workers and self-employed workers working in the transport sector. A powerful body for promotion of the transport sector and employment should be established with representation of the professional bodies and trade union in the transport sector under the Ministry of Transport. Although the forming of transport authority has been said in the budget, it is unclear about its procedure, area it covers and if workers will be properly represented or not? Transport workers should be identified at the local level and given identification cards (ration cards) to facilitate the distribution of relief and food items at a minimized cost to make their living conditions smoother. The budget also failed to include the informal and daily wages workers in the social security program.
The main responsibility of the government should be to provide unemployment benefits amounting to at least the minimum wage to the transport workers who have lost their employment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The government should have facilitated health insurance for the workers that allows them to be paid Rs 200,000 on recommendation of the trade unions in case the workers are infected with the virus. The import of new public vehicles should have been halted for a couple of years. After the lockdown when the public vehicles are allowed to operate, the losses that occur while observing social distancing should also have been addressed by the government. A special relief package and subsidies to revive transportation industry on the same footing as other sectors also failed to materialize. The workers that are affected by COVID-19 should be able to take leave and other economic facilities. Similarly, the remuneration of different transport workers should have been secured by bringing separate policies of the government.
Even if the government tries to resume other sectors of the economy, that would not be effective unless operation of public transport resumes. Transportation facility is vital to bring back the city life to normal condition as well as to manage and secure the life of its denizens. In the present context, public transportation should only be allowed to resume operation through discussion with different stakeholders after the pandemic is brought under control to some extent. The following factors should be taken in consideration while operating vehicles.
- Initially, the public vehicles in the cities should be brought into operation and that also in some fixed designated routes only.
- The duration for the operation of vehicles in those routes should be increased.
- The use of masks, gloves, and hand sanitizers should be made mandatory for the passengers and social distancing be observed in seating.
- The driver seat should be enclosed with transparent materials.
- The conductors and the helpers should have protective gear including the PPEs.
- Passengers should be allowed to enter the public buses from the rear entrance only.
- Daily cleaning and disinfecting of the vehicles should be ensured.
- If the workers face difficulties in their health or lives while working, they should be provided with paid leave.
- Atmosphere should be created to minimize the possible skin contact of workers.
- Periodic COVID-19 test of those workers should be facilitated.
- Discrepancies between the number of vehicles and that of workers should be solved by implementing a rotation basis.
- There should be facilitation for periodic social dialogue between the Ministry of Transport, employers, and the trade unions.
In the end, the government is planning to bring Nepali migrant workers back to Nepal. The public transport workers will have key roles in transporting the migrant workers back to their destinations. The safety of those drivers should also be taken into account. It is imperative upon the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport to coordinate with all stakeholders and form a mechanism to discuss on the operation of public vehicles during and after the end of this lockdown.
(The author is executive member of the International Transport Workers Federation, United Kingdom)