KATHMANDU • Nepal's government is trying to tackle rising pollution levels in the smog-choked Kathmandu Valley, but standing in the way is a powerful bus mafia that controls the capital's roads.
The rulers of Kathmandu's streets are a web of transport syndicates made up of private bus owners who have repeatedly blocked official attempts to modernise the highly inefficient bus network.
Critics say these associations have managed to win control over the roads and ensure laws stay favourable to them by making payments masked as political donations to key political figures.
"There is no regulatory mechanism that is strong enough to control them," said Mr Kanak Dixit, chairman of Sajha Yatayat, a cooperative bus company trying to break the hold of the transport mafia.
"This sector has so much cash liquidity that they are able to influence the politicians, and therefore they get their way."
A US$30 million (S$42 million) six-year programme, mostly funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) - aimed at cleaning up the system by introducing larger buses in busy areas and redrawing overlapping routes - is gathering dust.
Meanwhile, more than 10,000 buses and minibuses ply the streets of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur - three cities that bleed into each other, making up the largest urban area in the country.
"We prepared a very excellent report with the help of donors but, when it came to the implementation phase, we failed to materialise it," Mr Bimal Prasad Subedi, deputy director of the Kathmandu Sustainable Urban Transport Project (KSUTP), told Agence France-Presse.
"They (the bus syndicates) protested against our plans. They are private entities and don't want to lose their profit."
Experts say the ADB plan would significantly reduce congestion and emissions in gridlocked Kathmandu where levels of PM2.5 - microscopic particles harmful to human health - regularly surpass 150.
That is far above the maximum threshold of 25 recommended by the World Health Organisation for a 24-hour exposure.
But Mr Dharman Rijal of the National Federation of Nepal Transport Entrepreneurs - an umbrella group for the bus operators - said the modernisation plans amounted to "bullying small investors". "We have urged the government and KSUTP to enter open competition with us, but replacing our buses with their new buses is injustice," he said.
Bus routes are allocated by the Department of Transport Management, but only on the recommendation of an association, and competition between operators over fiercely guarded routes has, on occasion, turned violent.
Under pressure to be seen to be acting on pollution, the government introduced a ban on public vehicles older than 20 years in February.
Most bus owners have refused to retire their old vehicles without compensation, accusing the government of bringing in the ban at the behest of the new vehicle lobby.