The response to the Government’s decision to make three-wheeler meters mandatory
BY Sumudu ChamaraThe three-wheeler or tuk-tuk is the most commonly used mode of transport by a majority of Sri Lankans, especially the low and middle-income class population, and has become an integral part of Sri Lankans’ lives. However, despite being considered by many Sri Lankans, there is a question as to how people-friendly they are and what Sri Lanka has done to strengthen the relationship between taxi service providers and passengers.It was recently revealed that having a fare meter will be made mandatory for three-wheelers used for passenger transport with effect from next year, starting January from the Colombo District, which, according to three-wheeler associations, is a result of long-drawn-out discussions.All Island Three-Wheeler Drivers’ Union Chairman Lalith Dharmasekera, who welcomed this move as a long-awaited decision, said that even though requests had been made to the Government to regulate the three-wheeler service for around 20 years, transport ministers of successive governments had failed to implement three extraordinary gazettes pertaining to regulations for three-wheelers.According to him, after 15 January 2022, every three-wheeler involved in passenger transport in the Western Province should have a meter, and starting from 15 February 2022, this programme would be implemented in the Southern Province as well. After that, this programme would be implemented in other provinces, and by 22 June 2022, three-wheelers operating in all provinces should have been covered under this programme.Dharmasekera added that no government really wants to regulate three-wheelers as there are a considerable number of people who benefit from its pricing irregularity, which includes politicians and businessmen.During the past few years, there were discussions on making fare meters mandatory for three-wheelers, the most recent one being the decision taken by the National Council for Road Safety in 2018. Not only did it decide to make fare meters mandatory, but it also proposed that three-wheeler operators issue a bill at the end of the journey.However, in some areas, especially where foreign tourists frequent, such as Kandy and the coastal areas of the Southern Province, finding a metered three-wheeler is almost impossible, and three-wheeler operators who choose to install a fare meter are often frowned upon. The situation in Colombo is quite the opposite – here, people tend to refuse to travel in meter-less three-wheelers, which persuades three-wheeler operators to install a meter, making it more common.Three-wheeler operators/ownersTo find out about what three-wheeler operators think of the Government’s decision, The Morning spoke to several three-wheeler drivers.Hashan, a 34-year-old who works as an independent three-wheeler operator (not affiliated with any taxi services), said that even though making meters mandatory could be interpreted as a progressive move, installing meters alone will not ensure a reasonable fare because the fare meter can be tampered with according to the three-wheeler operator’s wishes. He said that in this context, checking whether three-wheelers have meters alone is not sufficient, adding that the authorities will have to check whether the meters function properly and have not been tampered with.“This is not a new proposal. This has been discussed for years, but it was never put into action. It was always limited to discussions, and I don’t think the Government will go ahead with this. However, if the Government is actually going to materialise this plan, they have to be reasonable and give three-wheeler operators more time to install a meter, or give a fare meter for free or at a concessional rate. The Government cannot forget the fact that most three-wheeler operators are daily wage earners. A good fare meter costs around Rs. 15,000 and we are really not in a position to spend such a big amount right away,” he further said.A 46-year-old three-wheeler operator, who has also rented out several three-wheelers to be used for the transportation of passengers, also shared the same opinion. He said that if the Government genuinely wants to make meters mandatory, it has to take some measures to make meters and the fare meter installation process more affordable to three-wheeler operators and owners, and give sufficient time for them to prepare.In addition, he said the Government should refrain from declaring a fine for the non-installation of meters.“There are plenty of three-wheelers that have installed meters; in Colombo, not having a fare meter could be disadvantageous because passengers prefer a metered three-wheeler over an unmetered three-wheeler. Usually, a three-wheeler that does not have a fare meter is a result of the owner or operator not having the money to install a meter. In this context, they should not fine three-wheeler operators for not having a fare meter in the event they implement this decision,” he noted.Another three-wheeler operator working for a famous taxi service opined that regularising three-wheeler fares is a good move. However, he opined that even though this has two main parts – i.e. ensuring that three-wheeler operators do not overcharge, and three-wheeler fares being revised to match changing costs of living and for the maintenance of three-wheelers – the Government pays attention to only the first one.He noted that even though three-wheeler operators can decide to fix the amount shown by the meter, in a context where the Government does not regulate or support reasonable, timely fare revisions, passengers reject the act of changing the fare in that manner and tend to view it as an arbitrary act.“Using a fare meter to determine how much to charge is not an issue. In fact, having a proper system is good because it avoids unnecessary arguments between us (three-wheeler operators) and the passengers. A majority of our clients are low and middle-class people, and for them to expect a reasonable fare is fair, because they are also struggling with the increased cost of living, like us. However, we rarely see anyone talking about the hardships that we face, and when the authorities and the people talk about a reasonable fare, they only talk about the wellbeing of passengers. Not only passengers, we also deserve a reasonable fare,” he said.Regulating taxi servicesTo look into how the standardisation of three-wheeler fares could benefit passengers, The Morning spoke to University of Moratuwa Department of Transport and Logistics Management Senior Prof. Amal S. Kumarage.He said that making it mandatory for three-wheelers to use fare meters is merely one aspect of the wider issue of regulating taxi services, and that even if the governmental authorities materialise this plan, the country will still have to address a number of other issues pertaining to regulating the quality of services provided by three-wheeler operators.He said that regulating how much is charged from passengers is merely one aspect of making these services more people-friendly, and that installing a taxi meter does not cover all the important aspects as regulation is a much broader issue. “Even if the taxi fare was regulated, if other aspects are not covered, this initiative would not bear fruit,” he stressed.He further explained: “When regulating a transport service, it is not only the fare we have to take into account; the quality of service, the operator’s behaviour, safety, punctuality, and adherence to traffic laws are also important. These are separate aspects of the same service and, therefore, should receive the same amount of attention. In addition, passengers should be able to question any of these if they are not happy with these aspects of the transport service. We have to take these kinds of decisions and look into regulating three-wheeler fares because we consider it an essential service. One might say that three-wheelers are, in fact, an essential service. However, what it shows is the Government’s failure, and it raises the question as to why the Government has allowed a taxi service to become an essential service when there is already a public transport service.”Prof. Kumarage also spoke about the process of regulating taxi services, adding that taxi services operating without any regulation whatsoever can be seen in individual taxi service providers in Sri Lanka at present, while self-regulation also can be seen in organised taxi service providers, especially companies that provide taxi services via apps. In the latter case, he said that usually what happens, or should happen, is the taxi service provider setting administrative practices agreed upon by service providers and clients (passengers). He said that the Ceylon Transport Board (CTB) and the Department of Railways are self-regulated institutions.He said: “If we take taxi services operating on information technology platforms, i.e. apps, which exist in Sri Lanka as well, they operate on self-regulatory methods, which means that the clients have the ability to complain if there is any inadequacy in the service, and the service provider has given a certain assurance in accordance with a contract (between the service provider and the client). Such service providers should have actually presented such instructions and agreements to the passengers.“It is another matter as to whether clients do read those conditions; but, if the service provider decides to regulate taxi services in such a manner, the Government must ask those services to announce such conditions and agreements. For example, if the taxi is getting delayed more than the estimated time, they can say they pay the passengers or that the passengers will bear the loss, or in the event of a vehicle breakdown, they can say what they would do to address it. For example, they can pay the passenger or send another vehicle. Also, they can determine what steps would be taken if the driver acts recklessly during the trip. Put simply, the relevant service provider can say what they are ready to do, which falls under consumer protection.”He added that what the Government is suggesting is a regulatory mechanism, such as the one applicable to private buses, which may involve the government providing a license and permit and/or a meter. He opined that government-led regulatory mechanisms, however, are the weakest form of regulation.Adding that private buses have been in operation for around four decades, Prof. Kumarage said that the country still has not been able to regulate it properly and that the quality of this service, in fact, is declining. He questioned, if the country is not able to regulate around 20,000 private buses, how it is going to regulate the services provided by the three-wheelers, which significantly outnumber private buses.He added: “If we analyse scientifically, I don’t think that merely imposing regulations would result in the outcomes we expect to see. We will have to go for a multifaceted approach – we should either ask the service provider to go for a self-regulatory mechanism, which should be subjected to the monitoring of the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA), or we, the regulatory authorities, should adopt new technologies to properly regulate these taxi services. Without embracing technologies used by taxi service providers, we will not be able to give the service expected by the passengers. This (regulating taxi services, including three-wheelers) has been in discussion since 2010, and I always questioned whether we have an institutional structure to implement such proposals.“Buses should be given priority and that is why we have set up separate authorities to do that. When these institutions and authorities have to focus on another mode of transport that competes with buses, it can create a problematic situation and may affect the main objectives they were established to achieve. These forms of regulations for taxi services can be seen in almost all countries, and there is a question as to whether Sri Lanka is coming up with these plans after studying what other countries have done.”Regulating taxi services, especially three-wheelers, has been a topic of discussion for a long time, and three-wheeler passengers have raised numerous concerns regarding aspects other than the fare. In this context, there is a question as to how much the country can achieve by merely making fare meters mandatory.Passengers would undoubtedly be happy to see a more regulated, standardised three-wheeler service; however, in a context where there are around 1.2 million registered three-wheelers in the country, out of which around 800,000 three-wheelers are engaged in the profession, there is a need to ensure that these reforms are beneficial to both passengers and those who drive three-wheelers for a living.