Letter  What is the biggest problem faced by the SME and entrepreneur sector? The number one problem the country faces at this level is that ‘entrepreneurs at this level are not ticking’. Why? To understand and feel this, one must get into their shoes. Entrepreneurs at this level are actually struggling to get off the [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Open letter to Minister Basil Rajapaksa from SME entrepreneurs



What is the biggest problem faced by the SME and entrepreneur sector? The number one problem the country faces at this level is that ‘entrepreneurs at this level are not ticking’. Why? To understand and feel this, one must get into their shoes. Entrepreneurs at this level are actually struggling to get off the ground. They need you in the driving seat to look after their interests and create an environment conducive to them.

The country is having a severe debt problem; the majority of its people don’t have enough money for extras, there are so many demands coming from different angles in the form of demonstrations and strikes. Force, lies, and other fire fighting methods are being used to get over the immediate issues. The ripples have become waves which may bring about a tidal wave. So you need to act fast and tackle these priority issues.

So what needs to be done?

Work on the principle that rules and regulations, security and other red tape and administrative aspects need to be gradually moved behind in the overall balance, and economic action on the ground must move ahead.

There is no point saying we are doing everything perfect and right with nothing happening on the ground. With the economic situation improving at the lower levels the revolutionary type of demand for things will also cease.

Here is just one example to highlight the point. Take the Swarnavahini ‘Live at 8’ story on January 8 which everybody is talking about. This was about an entrepreneurs’ vehicle parade that took place in the Kurunegala area requesting that the police do not to harass and disrupt transport activity.

It depicted the harassment faced by transport vehicle owners.

The harassment begins after the turn at Ambepussa on the Kandy Road and continues all along the way to the North Central, North East and east of the country. It is even there along the southern coast up to Galle.

Every 10-15 km a bunch of policemen stops your vehicle. One wonders whether after the war these chaps don’t have any real purpose or work. They want to see the ‘set of papers’ over and over again. If they are in order they find something wrong, or state that you are carrying forged documents and that the vehicle needs to be seized. There is no way one can prove that the genuine documents one is carrying are not forged except my word against the policeman’s word. You are told to prove that they are not forgeries in a court of law. What a waste of time, material and money to go through the legal process in a distant location and prove that the papers you are carrying are not forgeries. We all know what they are really asking indirectly. It is not possible to give what they are asking because it is wrong, and also impossible as there are stoppages every 10-15 km.

Another trick the police play on drivers on these routes is, if they can’t find fault in the ‘same set of papers’ they shuffle your mind and in the confusion they quietly retain one of your original documents and let you go. Then they radio the next checkpoint and when the next group of policemen stops you, without any questions they ask for exactly the missing document (this is how we know they have been fore warned) and you are in a fix. Attempting to go back to the previous police group to get the missing document is useless. What an effort we have to make just to tide over each stoppage. Only those being harassed know this. We have to fight this unnecessary nuisance over and above our real business issues. So won’t entrepreneurs’ stop ticking?

Another famous area where the police harass you if the ‘same set of documents’ are in order is the closure of the load carrying deck of your vehicle. During the war time it made sense to look at closing the load carrying deck as an issue. But now the war is over and the economy needs to pick up at the SME and entrepreneur level. Transport needs to carry the optimum load.

For example take a small vehicle like a TATA Ace (Dimo Batta), or Mahindra Maximo, or any other similar sized vehicle. Most often the small scale entrepreneur has only this vehicle. He does everything in it simply due to affordability issues. Eg: transport goods, transport his crew and equipment, takes his family and children on a pilgrimage, and even take tourists on site-seeing tours, etc. So it makes good sense to register the vehicle as dual purpose because of the light weight and multi-purpose usage.

Most users have built an enclosure over the load deck area as it increases the load carrying volume, stops pilferage and goods falling out. It also provides security and shelter from the sun and rain to the goods, crew and passengers etc, thereby enabling the required multi use. The police pounce on this practical multiuse (Dual Purpose) aspect based on an administration detail. The administrative detail is the registration certificate of your vehicle states it is a single cab. Therefore you are not allowed to cover the load carrying deck (What economic sense does this make?). If you want to cover the load carrying deck pay Rs.25,000 (Now going to be Rs.500 thanks to the President) to the RMV and get the registration certificate of the vehicle changed from single cab to fully enclosed vehicle. This takes over 2 months.

Even if you do that they say they will not allow us to carry tourists, work crew or family in it. If you want to transport tourists, your work crew or take your family on an outing, buy another van or car because the registration certificate says only two persons can travel in the vehicle (God only knows how a business can run with two, operational level crew). This is where there is an utter lack of understanding on the part of the police and the RMV of the SME level entrepreneurs’ difficulties and needs (which are so vital to answer the question why are entrepreneurs’ not ticking).

Of course very justifiable and caring reasons are given for this stance. But what happens on the ground is harassment leading to various malpractices due to the conflicting practical reality of the small scale entrepreneurs’ life’s requirements, and the theoretical administrative reasoning of the desk job personnel.

The bottom line is due to the reality of things, ‘even with the rule in place life goes on with harassment and malpractice happening’. For example take the security forces including the police. Most of their single cab vehicles have the load area covered and seats fixed to move passengers and goods about. It’s is a very natural and practical thing to do. It also makes good economic sense. It is also the meaning of dual purpose. We can’t have international standards strictly enforced in a localized area when the general background is yet third world. It simply does not rhyme.

As you can see Mr. Basil this is a man made and created problem of desk job personnel. This coupled with greed and opportunity led the traffic police to increase this harassment. This has now led to SME level entrepreneurs’ being severely de-motivated and pushed into public demonstrations, Society being affected, politicians getting involved and raising the matter in parliament, and even the President stepping in to bring in some relief. The world now knows, and something needs to be done.

We do not need the traffic police or RMV to care for us (wolves in sheep’s clothes). We can look after ourselves. Simply allow us to get about our lives and business activity freely. We will deliver the goods for the country and ourselves. What is the purpose of you giving us these good roads if we can’t travel on them without harassment? The purpose of building infrastructure is to ultimately improve the economic and social well-being of the people. (And we have done it on loan) This is the government’s own people distorting the government’s vision and not understanding the spirit of things.

One must also understand that small vehicles having the freedom to transport goods and people freely may result in illicit items being transported. But comparatively these are far and a few. Other intelligence mechanisms will trap them at their roots. Some may even escape. But it is time to understand that the vast majority are doing an honest livelihood of building themselves and the economy of the country. The normal vast majority need not pay dearly for the wrongdoings of a connected few whom the police can’t any way catch. This is where your intervention is needed to tip the balancing point from the war time security based approach to the peace time development and growth based approach.

It will cost you and your new department nothing to discuss these harassment issues with the IGP and the relevant DIG’s and the Commissioner of Motor Vehicles and obtain some relief for us on the road.

The best thing one can do is not to provide further theoretical twists and complicate the situation, but to create the communication and conditions so that these war time applicable laws, aspects and approaches die a natural death and be defunct
This is just one case contributing to the number one economic problem of the country — why entrepreneurs not ticking even after providing them with so much.

Thank you Mr. Basil. We know you will do something for us and the economy at large.

An honest entrepreneur struggling to survive

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