Online services such as Tootle, Sarathi and others are changing the landscape of transportation in Nepal.
--BY MUNA SUNUWAR
Ride-hailing services in Kathmandu valley have become popular among the young working population. The rides are easy to find, quick to arrive and comfortable; a convenient way to commute through the traffic-packed roads of Kathmandu, say clients. Riders and drivers simply pick up their clients and then drop them off. However, issues regarding the security and safety of both the riders and the clients came to the forefront in the second week of January after several Pathao and Tootle riders were detained by the Metropolitan Traffic Police in Kathmandu. According to the Motor Vehicles and Transport Management Act, 2049 (1993), Section 8, no private motor vehicle can be used as a transport service. The usage of privately owned two-wheelers for commercial purposes launched debates regarding the legality of the activity carried out through Tootle and Pathao, who are registered as technology companies. The popularity of this type of service is not limited to the portion of the population using the service but it is also a popular way to earn money. Balaram Giri, 32 of Balaju is a returnee who came back to Nepal to rebuild his house that was destroyed by the 2015 earthquake. “I used my savings to rebuild and later tried my hand in the aluminium and steel business,” he shares. The business did not go well, so he started searching for alternatives. It was then he got to know about Tootle, a ride-sharing app from a friend and he has been working as a Tootle partner for the past nine months.
Many say ride-hailing services contribute towards a sustainable global economy. The existence of such services results in maximum utilisation of vehicles while reducing pollution. “It helps in minimising the usage of assets that are harmful to the environment while intensifying its utilisation,” says Sixit Bhatta, co-founder and CEO at Tootle, a brand owned by Hyperloop Nepal Pvt Ltd. He adds, “The future of mobility will be a sharing model as fewer people will buy vehicles in the future.”
According to the co-founder of a tech-based ride-booking company, Sarathi Pvt Ltd, Ravi Singhal, the entire concept is expanding the reach of such services. With the rise of a new era of technological revolution, its integration with the service sector is taking place in the global arena. It has become imperative for Nepalis to venture into the issue of access to technology. “While everything including communication and other technologies has been integrated to smartphones, why not transportation?” he questions. Santosh Shakya, a Sarathi partner, has been associated with Sarathi for six months and in that period he has witnessed improvements regarding its coverage, technical support and also publicity. Most of Sarathi’s clients feel the service is very professional as there is no bargaining included.
Ride-hailing services by both Tootle and Sarathi are available in the Kathmandu valley. One can become a Sarathi and Tootle partner by downloading the Sarathi partner app and the Tootle partner app respectively. Tootle has 12,000 registered tootle partners while the app has been downloaded 200,000 times. There are over a hundred drivers associated with Sarathi Cab. The company is tracking its growth on a weekly basis and is seeing a weekly growth rate of 50 percent concerning customers, drivers and services. The companies have enabled digital payment and also accept cash from their clients. Tootle gets a minimum of four percent and a maximum of 20 percent from the amount paid to its partner riders.
Ride-hailing services have created an opportunity for people who want to earn and desire flexibility in their work timings. Giri, a Tootle partner, makes an average of Rs 55,000 if he engages himself fulltime and Rs 25,000 in the case of a part-time engagement. He has given as many as 29 rides in a day. “If the distances are long I manage to take ten rides a day, and for short distances, it is 20 rides a day,” He adds.
Customers have also welcomed the concept and incorporated the service into their lifestyle. Sabu Rai, a make-up artist at The Himalayan Times, an English language newspaper, is a regular user of Tootle. She first heard about the service from a colleague and has been using the service for eight months. “I need to be in different locations for photo shoots for which I take Tootle rides to my destinations at least four times a week,” Rai shares. Co-founders of companies like Tootle and Sarathi say the prospect in the business is enormous. The transportation industry is the biggest channel in the urbanisation process of a developing nation. According to Singhal, the market size of taxi service in Nepal is Rs 17 billion. Shakya informs the number of clients on Fridays is higher in comparison to weekdays. He serves an average of three to five clients on a regular day. He likes professionalism in his working line, and Sarathi is the perfect fit for it.
The concept of ride-hailing services in Nepal is new, therefore, not many people understand it and support it. Singhal expresses this antiquated mindset is the main challenge to overcome when it comes to operating such a business. “It takes time to get used to something new. The old concept needs to be changed and revolutionised which is the biggest challenge,” he adds. Other challenges Sarathi has encountered include issues of Sarathi partners’ security, social security, enhancing their skills and increasing the revenue. However, Santosh Shakya believes with the technological revolution, there is no alternative to online services. He says, sooner or later people will have to opt for this kind of service.
Although ride-hailing services have made their way into the heart of commuters, some think that the dangers associated can have a detrimental impact in the future. With lack of security systems in place such as surveillance cameras, criminal activities go unnoticed, and lack of proper roads leave two-wheelers prone to road accidents. The accident rate of two-wheelers in the Kathmandu valley is high, and former traffic inspector Sitaram Hachhethu opines that the operation of such services might prove harmful in the long run. “Before letting riders become partners of such services, their background should be thoroughly checked along with their vehicles,” he says, adding, “Having a license and a bike or scooter is not enough as the vehicle’s condition is a factor the companies should consider to ensure people’s safety.”
While the government stood its ground with the Motor Vehicles and Transport Management Act in hand, Bhatta opines, “When the principle of a shared economy has been applied by a tech company like UBER, laws that were made a long time ago and their questionable relevance today need to be addressed.”
Room for Improvement
Despite the popularity of such services, some shortcomings need to be worked on. The maps in the applications have landmarks, but they lack detail. Tootle partners say their jobs would be easier if the maps were updated with more information. There have also been mistakes from Tootle. Amid the row over the legality and safety complains regarding their service, Tootle was found levying VAT from its customers without being registered at the VAT office. Shakya stresses that the initiative is great and the government should collaborate with such companies to motivate drivers to come into a system that is well managed and professional. Feedback and ratings from clients can help discipline the drivers registered in the system. He says, “There should be a motivating factor for drivers as well, so they don’t tamper with the fare determined as per the Department of Transport Management, Government of Nepal.”
“We have put forward our concerns regarding the safety issues of both clients and Tootle partners. The responses we are getting from the company are positive, and we are hoping for the best,” Giri mentions. Such companies provide orientation classes regarding speed limits and the appropriate behaviour to show to clients. Cab drivers who apply to become Sarathi drivers go through a preliminary screening. The company installs a system in the cabs designed to track clients’ and drivers’ details and location. According to Hachhethu, a record of riders who want to work in association with such companies should be kept so that they can be held accountable for the actions they take while serving clients.