Regulating tuk-tuks is tougher than you think

TukTuks in Colombo, should they be disciplined and regulated?/Amitha Thennekoon EconomyNext

Is bringing some discipline to the tuk-tuks and making them charge uniform rates even possible and therefore should they be regulated?

Clearly some regulation is called for.

In the Western province most tuk-tuks have meters, although the flagfall charge, that’s the charge for the first kilometer, may differ.

Tuk-tuks running for Ride Hailing companies are possibly the cheapest.

But in metros like Jaffna, Kandy and Galle, the tuks are a law on to themselves. A ride that would cost Rs.60 in Colombo will set you back 250 in Galle or Kandy because none of the three-wheelers have meters.

Earlier this month, a collective of three-wheeler driver associations requested Transport Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera to establish a provincial-level regulatory authority for three-wheelers engaged in passenger transport services.

Among other things, the associations recommended the introduction of a uniform to distinguish professional, full-time three-wheeler drivers from other individuals driving three-wheelers or those working for ride-hailing companies.

According to a statement from the Transport Management Ministry released January 17, they also made a case for registering full-time professionals and for determining a minimum age for driving a three-wheeler as a taxi.

Three-wheeler drivers claim they have been agitating for a regulatory body for years, a demand they say was ignored by successive governments.

The All-Island Three-Wheeler Drivers Union Chairman Lalith Dharmasekara told EconomyNext that successive transport ministers have failed to implement three extraordinary gazettes pertaining to regulations for three-wheelers to date, Namely extra-ordinary gazette no 1821/31 of 2013, no 2001/2 of 2017 and no 2035/51 of 2017.

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The Yahapalana cabinet had appointed an eight-member technical committee to prepare a report with recommendations for regulating the three-wheel drivers’ profession in Sri Lanka, said Dharmasekara.

After the report was submitted to the cabinet, he said, the government never took steps to implement its recommendations.

Dharmasekara complained that incumbent minister Amaraweera, too, is trying to avoid the issue.

But does the three-wheeler taxi service in Sri Lanka really need regulation?

Founding Chair of LIRNEAsia Rohan Samarajiva calls for a minimalist regulatory structure.

As all regulation must be done with care so as not to cause any harm to the sector being regulated, Samarajiva told EconomyNext, minimal regulation of three-wheelers ought to be employed.

Explaining the processes and problems that need to be addressed in relation to three-wheeler driving in Sri Lanka, he said that according to the Constitution of Sri Lanka, only inter-provincial transportation is within the purview of the central government. This means that any regulation should be carried out at the provincial level.

If local government authorities are going to set standards and regulations then they would come under the provincial commissioner of the local government which is connected to the Ministry of Local Government.

Which, according to Samarajiva, is how it should be done if regulations were to be set.

“In setting up standards or regulations there are two problems that need to be addressed: price surging as three-wheelers charge a fare to go from point A to point B and the quality of service provided by the three-wheelers,” he said.

Though he recommends a price regulation as a possible solution to these two problems, Samarajiva argues that such a move could prove tricky. He also advocates setting quality standards.

“If the standards are not in place, it becomes somewhat meaningless,” he said.

For example, in most three-wheelers, the roadside passenger exits are closed in order to prevent injuries from accidents.

“There are two ways to enforce these quality standards: one way is for the government to be proactive by doing random inspections and the other is for the government to be reactive by putting out telephone numbers or some other mechanism so that passengers can complain and the relevant authorities can take action,” said Samarajiva.

Generally the reactive approach is better as it consumes fewer resources, he added.

On the issue of pricing, Samarajiva believes the system had somewhat worked out even without any regulation as meters are installed in pretty much every three-wheeler in the city now since most drivers felt pressured to install meters.

In the case of premium pricing, he said, three-wheeler drivers should be allowed to charge a premium for rides at night in order to incentivise night-time hires. Though there are three-wheelers available during the day, it is hard to catch one at night due to a limited number of three-wheelers running at that time, leading to increased demand.

The premium pricing could also be applied to rides during rough weather conditions, said the professor, as drivers are putting themselves and their vehicle at unnecessary risk.

“This is the whole business of surge pricing,” he said.

However, some are of the opinion that it is unfair to charge such higher prices. The premium could therefore be added to the meter itself and the higher charge made legal rather than compelling people to violate the rules.

“Both price and quality can be handled in this way,” said Samarajiva.

The former chair of the Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) is also opposed to the calls for an age limit.

“A lot of middle-class people want to put age limits on the three-wheeler profession which makes no sense at all and is totally against the constitution and fundamental rights,” he said, stressing that anybody with proper driver training would be qualified for the job.

On overall regulation, Samarajiva isn’t all that enthused.

“I personally don’t think it is the highest priority in the world. A lot of things need fixing. There are three-wheeler mafias in places like Jaffna and in front of the Fort Railway station that need a crackdown. Meters must be installed in those three-wheelers since they tend to charge excessive fares,” he said.

However, he added, there is no need need for a regulatory authority to implement legislation.

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