The policeman leaned in, detected a faint whiff of alcohol on motorcyclist Ram Thapa’s breath and declared he had failed the “smell test” under a strict new drunk-driving crackdown in Nepal.
The 27-year-old is among thousands of road users falling foul of a “zero-tolerance” policy introduced in the capital Kathmandu, with police relying on their noses to decide if an offence has been committed.
Thapa had his licence seized and was issued with a 1,000 rupee (US$12) fine, but was then allowed to continue on his journey.
“I would have left my bike and taken a taxi if I was too drunk, but what they did is catch me just blocks away from my home,” said Thapa, who said he had drunk just three small glasses of rice wine.
“I think a limited amount of alcohol, as in other countries, must be permitted for the drivers,” he said.
With breathalyzers scarce and blood tests unavailable, the method for catching lawbreakers in Kathmandu is primitive as police officers simply stop drivers and engage them in conversation.
If they believe they smell alcohol, they then question the suspect and decide whether to seize their licence and issue the fine.
While most countries tolerate traces of alcohol in motorists’ blood, Kathmandu is among about 20 capital cities worldwide where alcohol is legally available, but citizens must only drive if they have drunk none at all.
The crackdown has raised hackles among the city’s indigenous Newar community, who describe it as an attack on their culture, which for hundreds of years has placed alcohol at the center of its religious and social life.
“Zero-tolerance to alcohol could hamper our social intricacies,” Arjun Bhandari, a leading wine importer, wrote in a recent commentary in the Republica newspaper.
“For Newars, every festival is celebrated by offering some alcohol to family and friends. Century-old traditions can’t be wiped out overnight without any education or alternative solutions,” he said.
The hospitality industry also has complained it has suffered since police got tough six months ago, but taxi companies have prospered and the city has raised 30 million rupees in fines.
Ganesh Rai, deputy inspector general of Kathmandu Traffic Police, who is overseeing the zero-tolerance policy, says that those who oppose it are misguided.
“The culture factor is just an excuse. We haven’t banned drinking. All we have done is ban the drunk-driving,” he said.
“Earlier, accidents used to occur regularly, especially during the night,” Rai said.
Twenty years ago there were less than 5,000 vehicles in Nepal and now more than 800,000 ply the roads of Kathmandu alone.
Two months ago, breathalyzers were introduced after complaints about the “smell test,” but half of the devices malfunctioned, forcing police to again rely on their noses.