what's stopping us from running around the clock?
The time restriction on businesses in Kathmandu also restricts economic growth. Past a certain time at night, buying ordinary items becomes almost impossible. Corner shops, restaurants, fuel stations, department stores — any place you might need or want to go at night are closed. Some people think it is absolutely necessary to extend the operating hours; others reason it is not possible with the current dearth of resources and essential facilities.
The drink is just kicking in, the performer has begun to get into his groove. He is singing all the songs you like. And then the waiter comes up to you and tells you that it is time for them to close. You curse him, ask to see the manager, curse him when he arrives. Things get unpleasant. A hypothetical scene in a bar? At least not for Swapnil Sharma, owner of Purple Haze Rock Bar. “Time limit is the saddest part of running business in Thamel,” he says.
How sad that is debatable: One man’s memorable night is another’s sleepless night. “This issue cannot be looked at solely from the point of view of the businessman,” says Subodh Ghimire, SSP of Nepal Police and former in-charge of Hanuman Dhoka precinct. “Let’s not forget that Thamel is also where people live. I have had people come up to me saying their elderly mother cannot sleep because of the loud music. We cannot ignore their needs and rights just as we cannot overlook the basic requirements of a business house.”
Making a place that holds live musical performances sound-proof ought to solve the issue, but questions about security remain. It is a highly contentious area, where finger-pointing becomes the norm. A restaurant might be allowed to run past midnight and a person might have a great time inside that restaurant, but how safe is he when he comes out on the streets that have no lighting? Whose responsibility is it to ensure safety for the waitresses walking home from her drop-off point? These were questions posed by Ghimire, a police officer. It seems ridiculous, but he explains why police cannot be everywhere. “The manpower we have right now is only enough to work for the current time limits. Any extension would require an increase in our numbers. A Nepal Police officer is currently on duty for over eight hours, which is the international limit. Sometimes they work for 12 hours. If we extend the time limit for businesses, we will need to deploy officers for nearly 18 hours.”
Even businesses that do not disturb the public are not operating round the clock. KK Mart, a Malaysian supermarket franchise, has several stores in Kathmandu, but they only operate for 16 hours. Neither do small businesses, like corner shops selling cigarettes and cold drinks, operate late into the night. While KK Mart cannot open round the clock because they are not permitted to, small stores probably would not open even if they were allowed to. For small businesses the major deterrent is operational costs, which increase significantly at night with load-shedding. Night is also a time when business goes down. It is a circle that cripples businesses: there is no light at night, so there is a risk in venturing out.
Sharma argues that part of the problem of dark streets can be solved by allowing businesses to run for longer. “When restaurants close, lighting in the streets also goes, increasing risks to pedestrians. At least the streets will be bright if businesses are allowed to open.” Restaurants in Thamel can now open until midnight and clubs can run until two in the morning. Although Ghimire agrees with the benefits, beside economic ones, of allowing businesses to operate round the clock, he says the issue cannot be looked at solely through a business perspective. “We would like to see businesses flourish, but we cannot overlook the rights of citizens who are adversely affected by night-long businesses. Behind bars and clubs are homes where children need to sleep and study.”
Sound and light are the two prominent factors in the discussion about extending or limiting opening hours. Sound is more manageable of the two. Light, the lack of it, remains a big obstacle. Even a place like Thamel, which has been a tourist hub for decades, does not have streets lighted throughout the night. The idea of supplying electricity throughout the day in Thamel but at lower voltages was toyed with. Solar-powered lights have been thought of. But none of the plans have been carried out yet.
Sameer Gurung, vice president of the Thamel Tourism Development Council, believes people need to take matters into their own hands. “The owners of business houses in Thamel need to be united if we are to progress,” he says. If every hotel lighted the few feet of the street in front of it, Thamel would be illuminated, he says. Part of the reason for businesses not uniting in Thamel is that not everyone needs a Thamel that is open 24 hours. “That is what needs to change,” says Gurung. “We need to begin to think in terms of ‘we’ not only ‘I’ if we are to progress and see Thamel and other places open round the clock.”