- ‘The quota is too limiting’
By Dimithri Wijesinghe
As of Monday (17), Sri Lanka’s fuel prices have been reduced, with Lanka IOC announcing that it had decided to reduce fuel prices to the same rates as the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation. Despite these reductions, however, tuk-tuk drivers have refused to reduce their taxi fares.
Before this most recent reduction, when fuel prices were amended just earlier this month, the All Island Three-Wheeler Drivers’ Union had stated that three-wheeler taxi fares in Sri Lanka would not be reduced despite a drop in petrol prices, citing the low fuel allocation through the National Fuel Pass QR code-based quota system, which allows for a weekly fuel quota of five litres for three-wheelers.
This limited allocation has been met with great opposition from tuk-tuk drivers who claim that five litres is simply too little to sustain their livelihoods and therefore, despite the reduction of fuel prices, they cannot reduce rates as they are already functioning with a handicap imposed by the Government.
Considering that the National Transport Commission (NTC) has not yet regulated the tuk industry under its Act, the public has continued to experience arbitrary pricing in relation to tuk-tuk fares. In response to this arbitrary pricing, the All Island Three-Wheeler Drivers’ Union stated that for the time being, Lankan taxi fares would be maintained at a price of Rs. 120 for the first kilometre, with the rest to be charged at Rs. 100.
Addressing the concern that the fuel allocation is too limiting for three-wheelers, Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera said in Parliament that since there were 11 million three-wheelers registered with the Department of Motor Traffic, the Government was unable to increase the fuel quota for all of them. However, it has taken steps for provincial offices to identify commercial three-wheeler taxis (as per registrations at the provincial and divisional secretaries, there are only 350,000 commercial tuk-tuk drivers) which will then be allocated an increased quota.
Given the discussions on the limited fuel quota and refusal to reduce prices, The Sunday Morning Brunch reached out to a number of tuk-tuk drivers in and about Colombo for their thoughts.
Himadya Maduranga, who is currently registered with both PickMe and Uber as a tuk-tuk driver, shared that he typically drove his tuk-tuk from 4 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. He said that a full day of riding required at least four litres, adding that the allocation of only five litres for the whole week was too “ridiculous” to even think about.
“I cannot imagine how anyone who relies on tuk-tuk fares for their livelihood is managing. Thankfully, I have other means and I have redirected my efforts to earn money in other ways simply because it is just not possible to turn a profit anymore. How can you expect me to earn a full day’s fare?” he questioned, adding: “I know that a lot of people are turning to bribe the fuel station workers to get more fuel. Sometimes we even get fuel from other peoples’ QR allocation.”
Limited allocation makes it difficult to continue
The tuk-tuk owners noted that typically, a full tank for a regular three-wheeler held about eight litres and the fuel usage was largely dependent on the type of driver you were. Regardless, many claimed that they relied on a full tank to be able to take trips freely without the fear of getting stranded.
K.H. Jayalath said: “It is very difficult right now as this limit is affecting us badly. Even if the prices are reduced, it is nowhere near what it was in the earlier days. Before this crisis, I would get a full tank for just over Rs. 1,000. Now it costs just over Rs. 4,000 to get a full tank, but even if we could spend that much, we are not allowed to do so.”
“Typically, if I were to make a trip from Bambalapitiya to Ja-Ela or Minuwangoda, I would need to expend my full tank for the round trip. Then I would have to replenish by the next morning, or I would have an empty tank for the next few days,” he said. “I had given up for the longest time because five litres per week is quite literally a per day requirement.”
Similarly, Suranga Aponso said: “Before this crisis, I would pump seven litres per day, but now it is not possible due to the quota. What am I to do with five litres? I live in Moratuwa and I operate in Kollupitiya. It costs me three litres to simply travel from my home to the city and back, so you will understand how limiting this quota is. Once I travel to this area, I will have already spent half of my week’s allocation.”
Aponso added: “To earn a liveable income from taxi fares, I would have to make at least seven trips around Colombo. There is a reason why I come to Colombo; in the Kollupitiya area, there are many office workers, especially women, who travel quick, short distances in tuks. That is the best way for us to make do with the quota we have. Even though this is just a meagre amount, we are managing because we can maintain the Rs. 120 rate on our meters. But if we are made to reduce this rate, then it is simply over for us.”
It depends on how you manage your tuk
While a majority of tuk-tuk drivers shared the opinion that the five-litre allocation is simply too limiting, there were a few outliers. One such individual was Dasun Sampath, who shared that “it all depends on how you run your tuk”. He stated that he was able to manage in a satisfactory manner with just one-and-a-half litres of fuel.
“I am able to earn about Rs. 4,000. I come to the front of the Majestic City at around 1 p.m. and I am there till late evening. Typically, with just one-and-a-half litres, I am able to travel about 35-40 km. However, I understand how others may say it is not enough, since fuel expenditure depends largely on the driver and the vehicle’s condition. If you speed, you can only just about reach 25 km per litre, but if you are cautious I think you can manage.”
He added: “The country is facing a tough situation right now and I personally have learned to save fuel and run my vehicle in a more efficient way. I have learned to maintain a low expenditure for fuel because I am cautious and I think this is a positive that has come out of all this. I will not say it is easy, as it is certainly not a comfortable situation, but it is not impossible to survive on this quota.”
Fares unlikely to reduce
While Dasun Sampath had a more positive outlook on the situation, the majority of tuk-tuk drivers expressed that they were relying on this new announcement of an increase in the allocated quota. However, despite this, they noted that the quota was still unlikely to be sufficient to enable them to reduce current taxi fares.
Some tuk-tuk owners also opined that a passenger who opted for a tuk-tuk was someone who could afford it and was looking for a level of comfort: “You can always take the bus, but you chose the tuk-tuk because you are either in a hurry or most likely you want a private mode of transport. If you chose to take the tuk, then I assume you are someone who can afford it.”