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In defence of three-wheelers


Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Saturday, 16 September 2017 00:00


Sri Lanka has a productivity issue, which coupled with its low unemployment has exacerbated the need for workers. Many pundits have been heard to say, especially at conferences, that a key challenge to improving productivity are three-wheelers because many people, particularly men, prefer to be self-employed taxi drivers rather than working at a factory. This has essentially trickled down to the mainstream thought process and a sentiment has emerged that this needs to be artificially changed or that three-wheelers are driven by lazy people. 

It is true that a significant number of people drive three-wheelers. But these numbers need to be put into perspective. As of 31 September 2016, according to statistics compiled by the Department of Motor Traffic, the number of three-wheeled vehicles in the country stood at 1,094,815. This would likely have increased by a couple of hundred thousand by now pushing the number to about 1.5 million to two million. Some of these vehicles would be used as personal vehicles and not as taxies but even if we say that 1.5 million people are employed as drivers for these three-wheelers it is still about the same as the number of people working in the public sector. 

Now the public sector is famous for its low productivity, mismanagement, wastage and corruption but governments are notoriously wary of attempting to reform the public sector. Even the current Government is busy putting together plans to increase the number of public employees with little consideration to how useful they would be or what practical service they would provide to the public. In fact as many as 20,000 new graduates are to be employed as development officers with little value addition to the public service. Yet, the three-wheeler drivers are criticised, one might argue disproportionately, because they are seen to be underproductive.

But are three-wheeler taxies in Sri Lanka really as unproductive as pundits would have us believe? For years three-wheelers have kept mobility fluid and affordable in Sri Lanka. So much so that when companies like Uber entered Sri Lanka, they found that they could not undercut prices as they were already low. This is especially essential to Sri Lankans as our public transport system is a nightmare, especially if you are a woman travelling alone, and having affordable transport via three-wheelers not only increases mobility but also allows women to be a larger part of the workforce. 

In a country that suffers from large chronic trade deficits, it is extremely cost-prohibitive for a family to own more than one car. Still, more than 50% of Sri Lanka’s six million odd vehicles are motorbikes and a fraction of them are cars. In such a situation without three-wheelers to provide mobility it would be extremely difficult for many people to carry out their everyday tasks. In many parts of the country it is three-wheeler drivers who step up at times of emergency and even take people to hospital. How is it that these services are overlooked? In rural areas where there are few attractive jobs three-wheelers provide employment and labour should be allowed to move up the value chain. 

Pundits driving their glinting cars in Colombo would do well to look outside their air conditioned boxes and reconsider the definition of productivity. Of course there are safety and other issues and these need to be addressed at policy and legal levels. But the humble three-wheeler provides a tangible improvement in the lives of millions every day and that too is productivity.


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