For a brief moment in the 1990s, the Nepalese capital was at the vanguard of the zero-emission public transportation revolution. What happened?
If you take public transport in Kathmandu, you have three options. There are buses and microbuses, different only in size. During rush hour in Nepal’s capital, both are often crammed to almost twice their stated capacity and on the prowl for more passengers .... The third option, Safa Tempos (literally, “clean three-wheelers”), stand apart from the fray. They lack conductors, for one, and many are driven by women, an otherwise uncommon sight. They look like large, white tin boxes, with benches to seat 12 people and an open entrance at the back. And they’re battery-powered.
But the Safa Tempos proved to have some intractable flaws. Each vehicle required two sets of 12 batteries, which were imported from California for $1,720, and had to be replaced almost every two years. This meant Safas cost at least 25 percent more to operate than Vikrams. The batteries failed even quicker if the vehicles ran at high speeds, and several began giving out after just a year, making some entrepreneurs wary of investing, according to a 1999 report by the Post.
But if these technological weaknesses limited the business’s growth, it was government policy that ultimately doomed it. When the government banned Vikrams, it decided to compensate its owners by allowing them to import petrol-powered microbuses at a lowered tariff. Because these vehicles still met European emissions standards, they were certified as “clean.” Activists protested that one polluting vehicle was being swapped for another, Parajuli recalled, and argued that Safas represented “the technology of the future.” But the extent of the tariff concession—from 160 percent to 1 percent—drove entrepreneurs who might have replaced their Vikrams with Safas into conventionally powered 15-seater Toyota microbuses.1
- 1. Once the microbuses were on the streets, the Safas’ expansion was halted. Across Nepal, transport routes are controlled by protective cartels that collectively form the Federation of Nepali National Transport Entrepreneurs, popularly known as the “diesel mafia.” Obtaining a permit to ply a certain route requires their approval, and microbus owners—cartel members from their Vikram days—refused them to Safa owners. “It was like a blockade,” said Umesh Raj Shrestha, the current president of the Electric Vehicles Association of Nepal.