Owning a private vehicle means having to pay 200 percent customs duty and facing the intermittent fuel crisis in Nepal. For individuals, including some who can afford to purchase their own vehicle, public transport continues to remain the preferred mode of transport- only preferring taxis for emergencies. Students, senior citizens, and differently able people get discounts on public transport. Getting to any point along the ring road, a 27—km Circular belt around the capital with fairly good radial connections to different areas, is the best way to manage travels and time. Naturally, that is what I do mostly. I prefer buses and micros. I come across many drivers and conductors along the routes I normally take. For me, they are important sources of knowledge to understand the reality of our society and the individuals within it. A driver concentrates on safely operating the vehicle whereas a conductor multitasks- raising fare from passengers, signaling the next halt, getting passengers in and out, and sometimes making peace between the driver and passengers when they get into heated arguments.
The bus routes have plenty of green flags or stickers indicating that Nepal is a child labor free zone. But most conductors in the buses that I travel around look well below 16. The reality comes as a stark contradiction to the slogans and stickers I see around.
Two years ago, I took a bus from Ratnapark. It was winter, and at 7 PM, it was already dark. Once the bus began rolling toward the destination, a small group of women passengers began their casual conversations. Topics hopped from one to another, and suddenly the conductor became the issue. One of them asked him if he'd wanted to be a conductor since his childhood.
The conductor was a small kid of short-frame, not more than 4ft 5 inches. He had some marks on his face. Another passenger asked why he wasn't in school. There was no end to it although the boy looked visibly uncomfortable and irritated.
He had his own reason to do what he was doing. “How would I survive if I am not working”, was his first response. He went on. “I am also responsible for looking after my family.” The boy had a difficult childhood. His father was a drunkard and died in penury. “I ran away from home I am working as a conductor for the past six months now. If everything goes well and my luck favors me, I will be working as a driver abroad in future,” he shared with them his past and future plans.
I remember bumping into him two years after that. He had his hair colored. He looked more confident and friendly while talking to other conductors of his age or less. ‘Where do you stay?’, I asked. He told me that he used to sleep in a bus- where he would be vulnerable to numerous disturbances but now he could afford a room where he could sleep in peace. I asked him if he was enjoying his job. He said he was because, he was making Rs 500 per day- five times more than what he had been a couple years earlier.
I asked him how he feels when he sees children of his age working as conductors “I feel proud of myself. They still need their parent lap to sit, but I am the breadwinner of my house.” It was now his turn to ask me questions. ‘How much you earn’? I was a bit confused about how to respond to it, but he continued with his version. “Maybe I am earning more than +2 pass students can. The traffic police laugh at me when I say I am eighteen, and hopefully, within 6 months my voice will change and they may take it as more convincing proof of my age.”
A 22-year-old started his career as a conductor 6 years ago in the small, blue colored vans. Within three months, he shifted to a white Zambo that ran along the narrow streets in the valley, that would raise his earning to Rs 500 per day. He then tried to learn more about vehicles and driving. The government was mulling the idea of prescribing minimum academic qualification---class ten--- to apply for the driving license.
His story was not very different from the boys we have come across on the streets and buses. He ran away from home in a remote village when he was 16. His efforts to locate some of his distant relatives in Kathmandu soon after he arrived did not work. And as survival became the first priority, he started looking for a job. He became a conductor in small vans that pay the lowest. He was not happy with what he was doing, but he knew his dream of becoming a driver in the future would suffer if he gave it up. He was furious when he learned that he needs to have studied at least up to class ten to apply for a driver’s license. “The education system has failed to deliver efficient education job on one hand, and the skill on the other. If I can learn the skill through alternate way and earn my bread, why should the government come in the way?”, he argues. driving is a practice and not class room work.”
I happened to meet another teenager in a bus along the Bhaisepati—Ratnapark route. His fashion and gestures made it clear he was trying to look like a Hindi or a Nepali Cinema hero. He knew well how to see discount cards and handle the passengers. “Are you an adult?” “Yes, I am an adult. My little height may not give a real picture of my age. You must figure it out from my voice.” This boy is fast and acts irritatingly smart at times. Whenever he sees the passengers on the way he rushes them into entering his vehicle and then tries to charge them more than the usual amount. “Have you ever been to a school?”, I asked. “Yes, up to the 3rd grade. The bus driver and I make a good amount of money and I am happy in this profession. We have to give some amount to the owner of the vehicle daily. I still will be earning up to Rs 500+ a day. I really feel happy because I am in demand,” he said.
Their struggle- complaints filed against them by their bosses through tip offs from colleagues is not uncommon. But they are essentially responsible members of their families, with a certain degree of social responsibility as well. Mocking them, asking them intrusive questions and giving them unsolicited advice is not helpful. Their lives, experience, and existence in buses are indicators of many failures of the government, their policies, and social welfare measures meant for Children and the unemployed.