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Regulating three-wheelers


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Many consider the humble three-wheeler to be a menace to society and an indication of the youth of this country choosing cushy self-employment over hard work. Though productivity and labour shortages have been burning issues in Sri Lanka, it is evident that the three-wheel culture and its implications are here to stay.

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.

This week, Finance Minister Eran Wickramaratne stated that three-wheelers were an integral part of the Sri Lanka’s economy and rightfully so as we see around 1.5 million three-wheelers being driven in the country each day. This naturally calls for regulation in a meaningful manner.

Wickramaratne stated that the need to regulate three-wheelers had been recognised by the Government that was in the process of drafting a national policy to standardise the industry. He also pointed out that three-wheelers would always be the last mile connectivity for all commuters but asserted that the problem today was not the last mile but the long mile. This highlighted a key issue in the country that not only drives the rise of three-wheelers but also justifies it – a poor and inefficient public transport system.

The high numbers of three-wheelers must be put into perspective. Last year, 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. Despite the public sector being notorious for its low productivity, mismanagement, wastage, and corruption, three-wheel drivers are disproportionately criticised for being underproductive.

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 important to the economy as public transport has a very limited network and is extremely congested.

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.

Therefore, public opinion on three-wheelers and what they represent needs much needed context while the Government needs to take all this into consideration before formulating a regulatory policy that will boost national productivity but will not cripple the mobility of millions.


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