On August 7, 2016, the e-rickshaw drivers of Biratnagar were protesting against the local authorities for stopping them to ply on the highway. The director of Bikalpa, Basanta Adhikari incidentally was returning via Biratnagar Airport when the e-rickshaw he was travelling in was stopped by a bunch of fellow e-rickshaw drivers who then ordered their counterpart not to drive the rickshaw and to join them in their struggle against the local authorities. Unable to reach his home Basanta was left in the middle of the road with his luggage and decided to look into the matter. A huge mass of over five hundred e-rickshaw drivers along with their rickshaws had gathered in-front of the Department of Transportation Management (DoTM). Upon inquiry, Basanta was told that the drivers were staging a sit in protest against the atrocities of the traffic police and Municipality who had barred them from using the main highway. City rickshaw Unions affiliated to various political parties were also present. A makeshift podium raising slogans had been set up right outside the building surrounded by security personnel as a meeting between the stakeholders and the DoTM officials was taking place inside. Outside the building the drivers were passionately raising livelihood related slogans and threatening to block the roads if their demands were not met. They claimed that the harassments by traffic police were not allowing them to earn their livelihood and if the situation continued they would be left with no options but to protest by bringing their wives and children onto the streets.
Since Bikalpa had conducted a case study on this issue and is currently working on the policy framework for the e-rickshaw management, Basanta tried to enter the meeting. After making numerous pleas and convincing the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP), Basanta was allowed to join the on-going meeting inside. In the meeting, the driver’s unions were asking the authorities to consider their plight and be accountable, while the DoTM authorities were adamant with their decision of not allowing e-rickshaws to use the highway because of the orders issued by the higher authorities. DSP Sanjay Singh who was also present there, urged all the stakeholders to sit together and discuss the issue. Even after having a long discussion there wasn’t any sign of positive outcome. Basanta Adhikari then raised a question on the floor, “How can the problem be solved?” Some of the e-rickshaw drivers said that it was Biratnagar Municipality who could address the issue if they wanted to. Basanta immediately called the Executive officer of Biratnagar Municipality and arranged a meeting for the next day at 10:30 am at the premises of Municipality office. He asked e-rickshaw drivers to come to Bikalpa’s office at 5:00 pm in the evening to discuss the agenda of the meeting. Therefore that evening the drivers affiliated to various E-rickshaw unions gathered for the meeting at Bikalpa’s premise where they identified key issues that needed to be addressed. They involved permission to use highway until the construction of other roads (all the inner roads are under construction that makes difficult for the e-rickshaws to ply on), Designation of proper e-rickshaw parking stands, proper licensing mechanism and cancellation of route permit for time being.
Basanta Adhikari was able to arrange a meeting between the e-rickshaw drivers and the Chief Executive officer of Municipality Mr. Gopal Prasad Regmi. At the beginning he was not positive to have a meeting with the e-rickshaw drivers, but after convincing him to listen to the pleas of protesters, he agreed to meet them. The e-rickshaw drivers who were threatening to agitate against the municipality were now at a Dialogue with the municipal officials. Mr. Regmi told that even earlier he had allowed registration of all e-rickshaws that were plying on the street of Biratnagar through dialogues with the stakeholders and civil societies. He further said that he was concerned about the livelihood issue of low income drivers, but he also made clear that he can’t overtake the decision made by the Traffic and DoTM. He suggested a dialogue with the traffic and other concerned stakeholders, and if they said that there was any kind of hurdles created by the municipality, the municipality was ready to do everything from their side to solve the problem.
Hence a delegation headed by Basanta to have sustained dialogues with the concerned authorities like Chief District Officer and the Traffic Inspector was formed. Thus the delegation went to meet the Chief District Officer (CDO) who at first denied having a meeting on grounds of the strikes done by the e-rickshaw drivers a day before. He was against holding any form of talks with people who took law in their hands and organized strikes to block the road. But after sustained efforts and persuasion by one of the e-rickshaw drivers (also a union member), dialogue finally took place where the CDO agreed to consider the plight of the drivers and asked them to show patience and not indulge in strikes which affects the livelihood of other people. At the same time he also agreed to help them by asking the Traffic Police to take necessary steps to facilitate the drivers so that they could at least earn their livelihood.
Finally Basanta mediated a dialogue with the Traffic Inspector Mr Dhan Prasad Siwakoti at District Traffic Office. During the dialogue the Traffic Inspector took note of the gravity of the situation and also rendered unofficial and personal support and asked the e-rickshaw drivers to respect law. He also maintained that due to special circumstances they will consider the plight and allow the e-rickshaw to use the highway to run but urged the e-rickshaw drivers to abide by the rules. In this way, from next day onwards, the e-rickshaws were temporarily allowed to use the highway.
In less than 36 hours due to sustained efforts from all quarters Bikalpa was able to diffuse the on-going 3 days demonstration that could have turnout to a serious and violent protest. The level of maturity shown by all the stakeholders and related authorities is commendable. But this incident shows the precarious condition of e-rickshaw. Due to lack of vision and proper policy, a minor scuffle has a potential to convert into a full blown agitation which ultimately hampers livelihood of common man. The electric rickshaw drivers have a very uncertain future in the city of Biratnagar as every now and then citing traffic congestion and route violation. It is certain that without a concrete policy on for the e-rickshaws, such kinds of problems will persist. If there is a proper policy in place then around 15000 individuals will be have a certain future as the e-rickshaw drivers will be able to earn livelihood for their families. And at the same time it is also imperative to protect the interests of other citizens. Hence a policy that ensures ease of operation of e-rickshaw along with its comprehensive management systems that addresses the ever growing connectivity issues need to be drafted. Bikalpa an Alternative is working to provide a policy recommendation for the same.