When the president of Tajikistan earlier this year appointed his son to become mayor of the capital, Dushanbe, he urged him to be a listening and compassionate leader.
Going by Rustam Emomali’s first actions in office, the advice does not appear to have made an impact.
Emomali has set his sights on overhauling the city’s transportation system, but the efforts are generating much misery.
On April 12, Dushanbe received a consignment of 40 large-capacity buses manufactured by Turkey’s Andalou Isuzu. Another 25 units are to be delivered in the summer. The cost of buying all those buses has set the government back around 3.4 million euros — 85,000 euros a pop.
The first buses will begin their routes in Dushanbe of April 15.
In conjunction with bringing these buses into commission, Dushanbe authorities have also been stepping up efforts to stamp out the so-called “three somoni” taxis that many people use to get around. For the last five years or so, these informally run shared taxis have operated a little like buses, running along established routes around the center of the city and charging people three somoni ($0.35) per ride.
Since the “three somoni” taxis are not properly licensed, the drivers routinely engage in cat-and-mouse games with the police. The chase is getting a little more serious now and the stakes have been increased, with fines for illegally driving the taxis being hiked to 1,000 somoni.
The “three somonis” are not the only vehicles in the crosshairs.
Back in December, former Dushanbe mayor Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev decreed, in the purported interests of safety and air cleanliness, that any public transportation vehicles produced before 2008 should be taken off the streets. That was intended to abolish another two common sights in Dushanbe — the Hyundai Starex and Mercedes Sprinter minibuses that can carry up to around 10 people, depending on the flexibility of the passengers.
There are around 3,000 such minibuses — most of them getting on for two decades old — plying their route in the city and the surrounding environs. The minibuses are typically privately owned, but drivers must pay the state for a license to operate. The fares go the drivers and owners, in principle. With the new buses, however, all the ticket revenue will go straight to the state, taking the small-time operators out of the equation.
(Incidentally, the arithmetic doesn’t quite stack up. If thousands of minibuses are to be replaced by a few dozen buses, a staggering shortfall of seats and routes awaits. The government has promised more buses will be delivered from Turkey and Belarus, but the timeframe for this to happen is not clear).
In addition to depriving private vehicle owners of a useful source of income, this shake-up will also lead to a surge in unemployment. The implications are grave. To do some highly crude and unscientific arithmetic, considering that an average Tajik family counts around five or so people, laying off the minibus drivers implies plunging 20,000 people into deeper penury.
Grisly rumors have circulated about the lengths to which the overhaul of public transportation has driven desperate unemployed drivers.
On April 12, a “three somoni” taxi driver slashed his own neck in front of the mayor’s office in a desperate gesture of protest, according to people who claimed to have witnessed the act.
Witnesses said the man was quickly rushed away from the scene and police have declined to comment on the episode. It is said that some news outlets have been warned by the authorities to refrain from even alluding the incident, although information about the incident has made it to social media.
“I waited for information about this incident to appear, but everyone is remaining mute, which shows how seriously the [security services] are taking this matter,” one social media user wrote. “They took away his car — you would think that would be small fry over which it would be nonsensical to kill yourself. But I understand him. When you have nothing with which to feed your children and you lose your last means with which make some money, you don’t feel like a man anymore, and to lose your life is no longer so scary.”