Why Nepal’s Traffic (And Pretty Much Everything Else) Is A Mess

With so many challenges in Nepal, it may seem petty to complain about Kathmandu’s snarled traffic, but the causes of the traffic mess neatly mirror the country’s overall state.

When traffic backs up on a Kathmandu street, motorists simply pull into the oncoming lane. That slows the oncoming traffic, which then backs up. Drivers headed in the other direction pull into their oncoming lane, and the jam worsens. Those who do follow the rules are stuck as they watch the scofflaws get ahead.

“Me first” is human nature of course. But so is the internal voice that says, “it’s unfair for me to try to jump ahead,” or “if I do that, it will be a problem for others.” On Kathmandu’s chaotic streets, however, civic responsibility loses out to individual interest. Why bother to follow the rules when no one else is?

The same psychology governs the political parties, all riven with internal scrambling for position and power to the point that they can’t function. The various parties in the Constituent Assembly have done about a week of real work since the election because their only agenda is “us first.” And every social grievance turns into a strike, lockout, boycott, list of demands or road closure because individual interest trumps the rights of everyone else to travel, work or open their shops.

But let’s be fair: If traffic in Los Angeles or London were governed only by people’s sense of responsibility to each other, things would be chaos there too. Traffic rules have to be enforced. That doesn’t happen in Kathmandu. The police run license checks and harass taxi and bus drivers, but it appears impossible to get a ticket for a moving violation.

With no penalty for breaking the traffic laws, why follow them? If the student unions or teachers can get away with closing schools to get their way in a dispute, why wouldn’t they? If a politically-affiliated trade union can extort jobs and money from a business with impunity, why not? If the party bosses can send youth gangs or unions out into the street or into businesses and homes without concern about the consequences, they almost have to: Their opponents will.

The motorist in the wrong lane knows that there’s no penalty for the infraction. If he or she is stopped, a small bribe will fix the problem. The same is true up the scale: have a friend call a friend to get you out of custody, get your party boss to have the case dropped or make sure it never gets to trial. Where elected officials, the bureaucracy, law enforcement and the judiciary all value self-interest over civic responsibility, another force has to intervene.

In the rest of the world that force has been the press, and Nepal’s press is motivated. A series of business invasions this week by politically-motivated gangs who smashed equipment and beat journalists over unfavorable stories have the media in a furor. A muckraking press in America a hundred years ago exposed political corruption and social evils, and led directly to greater civic responsibility. Public attention cleans up greed, corruption and inefficiency.

When there’s a danger of being caught and penalized, drivers behave better. So do politicians and criminals. Nepal’s press has an opportunity to become a public conscience as tellers of unwelcome truths in pursuit of the rule of law. It would be the fifth estate’s greatest contribution to the country, even if the final straw that prompted it was direct attacks on their own self-interest.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.

John Child