Cost of living and transport costs are not reducing because three wheelers, the largest public transport provider in the country, are not transferring fuel price reductions to consumers, says the All Island Three Wheeler Drivers Welfare Association.
“The government can bring the petrol price down to zero but consumers in this country will not benefit from lower transport costs, because there is absolutely no regulation on trishaws. There is no way to stop them from exploiting people. But they are the biggest public transport provider in the country,” President of the Three Wheeler Drivers Welfare Association, Lalith Dharmasekara told The Sunday FT.
‘Privately operated’ three wheelers are now the largest ‘public transport’ service provider in the country, in terms of numbers. At this point there are around 400,000 three wheelers in the business of public transport, in the country. A majority, about 225,000 operate in the Western Province and a majority of these, are concentrated in the city of Colombo.
Compared to this, the total number of private buses providing public transport, is about 17,000 while the number of state owned buses is only around 6,000.
But the quality of bus services is declining. In addition, security arrangements in the city of Colombo are reducing access, by bus route, to some roads. As a result increasing numbers of consumers, are forced to use trishaws.
The origin of Sri Lanka’s three wheeler economy is traced to the introduction of the open economy in 1978. By now, three wheelers are one of the largest and fastest growing forms of self employment in the country, for men.
“Everyday about 60 new trishaws come into the road in this country. So this sector is growing exponentially. But it is completely unregulated. This is an easy form of self employment for unemployed youth. Women don’t like this job because it is a very rough and violent business,” said Mr Dharmasekara.
Although public transport comes under the purview of Provincial Councils, trishaws are not required, at this point, to register with them. Because of the large numbers and high mobility of trishaws, this lack of regulation is seen as a major security threat to Colombo city.
“Anyone can buy a trishaw, get a driving license and then use the trishaw for anything they want. They are not registered, so they can’t be traced. This is a major security concern,” said Mr Dharmasekara.
Although the Police did attempt to register trishaws recently, this is seen as inadequate.
“The Police registered whoever they could get hold of. But there are so many trishaws by now and they are all over the place. So large numbers are still not registered with the Police or anyone. This needs a more systematic approach and it needs to be done at national level,” said Mr Dharmasekara.
As it is, trishaws are often associated with illicit activities like transporting drugs, catering to prostitution rings and even terrorism.
Regulations long overdue
The Association says a national policy and regulatory mechanisms are long overdue for trishaw transport. The association says the only way to stop exploitation of consumers by trishaws, is to make ‘trishaw meters’ mandatory by law. The meters will allow a set price, per distance, as opposed to allowing trishaw drivers to charge arbitrary prices.
The Association says trishaws should also be registered with their respective provincial councils. Although the Western Province has already gazetted regulations for this, the laws have not been implemented. A draft national policy on public transport, that extends to trishaw transport services, is also not moving. This is largely due to protests against regulations by trishaw operators themselves. Trishaw operators feel regulations, such as mandatory trishaw meters, could reduce their incomes and crimp their lifestyle.
But the Association says that metering will not reduce incomes of trishaw drivers and says that standards and regulations will actually help make three wheelers a ‘professional service.’
The association says it has tried and tested a ‘metered trishaw’ project and it is highly successful.
“We have 35 ‘metered’ three wheelers. With the meters, I can guarantee a minimum take home income of Rs 1,500 in the Western Province. So three wheeler incomes will not reduce by regulation. In fact, we have found that consumers prefer travelling in metered three wheelers, because they are seen as fair priced and also safer,” said Mr Dharmasekara.
The Association says regulatory mechanisms are now an urgent need for trishaw transport in Sri Lanka for both public security and consumer welfare.