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Your Right to Information. Or is it?

right to informationWith regards to the ‘Right to Information,’ the Interim Constitution of Nepal 2007 reads, “Every citizen shall have the right to demand or receive information on any matter of his or her interest or of public interest.”

So the law respects the fact that as a citizen of the country, you and I have the right to acquire information on anything that directly or indirectly affects us. But does writing something in the constitution guarantee that the thing actually gets translated into practice? Here is an example of how the reality makes fun of the law.

I am currently doing a research on the banning of new taxi registration in Bagmati Zone (in 2000) and its effects on consumers. This is where it all begins.

After talking to a few people that have major stakes in the transportation industry (people like the taxi entrepreneurs, consumer rights advocate, bureaucrats and taxi drivers), I learned that in the year 2007, the Ministry of Transport and Federation of Transport Entrepreneurs made a deal whereby it was agreed that,

1. No public vehicles would be allowed to ply the roads of Bagmati without prior consent of the federation

2. Transport fares would be revised following every revision in the petroleum product prices

3. At the end of every fiscal year, the transportation fares would be revised

(for the time being, we will not delve into the gravity of this agreement. If it is true, then this is a government backed cartel and it has huge implications in the consumers. But we will leave it at that for now)

Now, until I see the agreement for myself, I cannot rely on something that someone says and use it on my research, right? And so begins my endeavor to get my hands on the agreement. And the joke begins to unfold.

My first instinct then was to call the Ministry of Transport. So I dialed 197, the Nepal-telecom authorized and largest inquiry service provider of Nepal, to get the phone number of the Ministry. I was told, the number was 01 4211920. I go on and dial the number. They tell me it is Ministry of Labour instead. Here is what must have happened. Previously, there used to be a single ministry by the name Ministry of Labour and Transport and now, these are separate ministries. And I asked myself, shouldn’t the inquiry service have updated their database? Or rather, shouldn’t the ministry have notified the telecom itself?

So I went back to my computer and googled it out. I call up the right ministry this time, and talk about the agreement. They tell me, ‘there used to be this labor and transport ministry and now we are a separate ministry and while in the process of resettlement, some papers might have gotten here and there… so we might not have the document you are looking for. I suggest you call the department of transport management. They should have the paper…’ Again, not what I had expected to hear, but I was not very surprised that they said what they said.

Then I ring the Department of Transport Management. They tell me, ‘All gazetted officers are in India to attend some program and will be back in September only. All we are left here are a few non-gazetted officers and we do not have access to the kind of documents you are referring to. You should call back in September (after September 1).’ Now this took me by some surprise and I was beginning to get furious at these bureaucrats. I wanted some information and the constitution guarantees that I be given the information. But none of it was any help to me.

Then I thought of approaching it from the other end. I called one of these people from Federation of Transport Entrepreneurs. Again, I am told that these guys have their plenum and it will keep them busy for some time. Once again, I am told to call back sometime in September.

It is a shame that all these institutions put together cannot guide us to a single agreement that defines how we commute to our work places. Maybe the bureaucrats are not accountable enough to people. Maybe the document holds the key to unraveling a big fraud committed by the government with the federation as an accomplice and thus it is being kept from the public’s reach. Maybe, the bureaucrats are extremely busy to respond to a public’s inquiry. I will leave it at that and let the readers judge it for themselves.

However, this is not the only case where a public cannot find the right information when it asks for one to the bureaucracy or the government. Go to transport management office and ask for the process of acquiring a green number plate. Go to Nepal Oil Corporation and Ministry of Commerce and Supplies and ask for the documentation done when they decide to hike petroleum prices in Nepal. Go to the municipality, the Department of Commerce, Department of Cottage and Small Industry and the Inland Revenue Department and ask for the process of registering a Kirana Pasal (mom-and-pop store.) Nowhere will you get the complete information from a single resource person. The Citizen Charters (nagarik badapatra) will be a decade old and officers won’t value your time and effort one bit. And there goes your right to information!

Akash Shrestha

About Akash Shrestha

Akash Shrestha is Coordinator of the Research Department at Samriddhi, The Prosperity Foundation where his focus areas are petroleum trade and public enterprises. He also writes newspaper articles, blogs and radio capsules, based on the findings of the studies conducted by The Foundation.

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Taxi Troubles

taxi troublesIf there’s something that has been common across the urban streets of the world, it would sure have to be taxi troubles. From the joyous streets of New York to the bustling Melbourne corners to the chaotically maddening streets of Kathmandu—taxis have grabbed headlines many a times.

Like governments elsewhere around the world, the government of Nepal took it upon itself to correct the marketplace imperfection that would have been caused if private players were allowed to take over the taxi industry sans the much needed regulation. And hence, in May 2000 A.D., the government banned registration of new taxis in Kathmandu Valley. Prior to the halt, about 8,000 taxis were registered to run in Bagmati zone and this amounted to about 80% of the total taxis in the country. According to the most recent data from the Taxi Unit, Bureau of Standards and Meterology, 4,834 of these ply on the valley roads and these are over 15 years old. With quite a percentage of them being out of order and the existent ones being run down and battered over the decade, the halt on registration raises some serious issues.

For starters, the idea of restricting entry means that the interests of rent-seeking taxi industry incumbents were valued over taxi customers. Restricted entry meant that the cost of licenses went up (quite unnaturally) and few held those licenses for their own benefits in the shadows of this artificial shortage. Also, over the last decade, the population of the valley has gone up at unprecedented rates—people from all walks of life have been drawn to this epicenter of dreams, opportunities and possibilities. But with this growth, the number of taxis has only fallen down—the ones that remain are a witness to the wear and tear that comes over time of repeated usage. These reasons combined have led the customers to pay higher prices for services that do not meet the quality standards as they are left with no other choice—after all, an over paid ride in a battered taxi is better than having to walk back home after a long day at work.

Instead of letting the market forces be at play, the already regulated industry is further scrutinized by the government’s price control mechanisms. The government has a ready-made rationale behind it—taxis have been charging exorbitant rates from passengers and there have also been reports of tampering with the meters. So, on July 16th 2013, the government raised the fare by 15.6 percent. The meter starts from NRs. 14; the fare has been raised to NRs. 37 per kilometer from NRs. 32. In earlier years too government has been raising the taxi fares according to the rate of inflation, increasing fuel prices and changing wage rates for the drivers.

While the government tries to justify the regulation citing reasons as private players monopolizing the market and public safety, it is easy to understand how competitive taxi markets and unfettered entry and fares for taxi providers would mean lower fares, higher level of services to the customers and possibly service innovations. If nothing else, this would mean entrepreneurial opportunities for many interested. Because of their flexible services like 24 hour-a-day availability and capacity to provide door-to- door service taxis have become an added element of a modern-urban lifestyle and the regulations have not only restricted the much needed competition but have also killed whatever little incentive they might have had to innovate and provide better services at much cheaper rates.

 

Anita Krishnan

About Anita Krishnan

Krishnan holds dual degrees--in law and sociology. Currently, she works as a Research Associate at Samriddhi, The Prosperity Foundation.

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