Arjuna Shrestha of Kalanki was pleasantly surprised when she got on the newly commenced women-only public bus in Kathmandu . ‘It was strange at first to see no men inside. But the environment was really comfortable,” she said.
With moral backing from the government, the Bagmati Federation Transport Union inaugurated the women-only bus service last Sunday, on the Kalanki-Balkot route, in response to complaints of sexual harassment of women in public buses.
According to the Gender and Public Transport study of Kathmandu commissioned by the World Bank in 2013, 26 percent women respondents aged 19-35 years admitted to having had “direct experience of inappropriate touching on public transport.”
As a result, dozens of other women, like Shreshta, are taking delight in this novelty ride. Four 17-seater buses are making the route twice daily in the preliminary stage. Two buses set off simultaneously from Kalanki and Balkot at 9.15 and 9.30 in the morning and again at 4 and 4.15 in the afternoon.
Operators of the service say they have made a slow but steady start. “Women who have taken the ride have given a favourable response. Ours is a long term aim and this is just a small beginning,” said Bharat Nepal, president of the Bagmati Federation Transport Union.
Drivers and conductors in these buses are still mostly males, however. There is only one female conductor in one of the buses.
Questions have been raised regarding the longevity of this service. That segregation of men and women may not be the solution was the general sentiment in social media. “We are aware of rising condemnation of our initiative from some quarters. We are simply trying to address the problem from our side to benefit middle-class working women,” Nepal said.
Buses are selected on a turn-by-turn basis. Arjun Rana Magar, a regular driver in the route, has twice driven the women-only bus. “Business is low,” he says. “Since we cannot accommodate male passengers, the bus is not packed enough.” His bus collected Rs 370 and Rs 500 in the two journeys per day. Magar said the women-only buses which operate every day, except Saturday, are no solution for the long run given the low turnout of women passengers on the routes. On the other hand, Keshab Chaulagain, a passenger who is planning to operate a bus of his own, is optimistic.
“This is just a trial and few things are meant to be improved to make this venture a success,” he said. “With this, I can be assured my sisters and daughters need not be concerned about sexual harassment in public buses.”
Both Shrestha and Chaulagain agree that this service should be made more frequent. “We will gradually expand our service and have requested other operators to follow our lead,” Nepal said.