Meter Taxis: A Cyclical Phenomenon Going Off the Tracks Again?

19 Feb


The meter taxis of Colombo, a well known and popular phenomenon are all over the city now, readily available for hire, without the hassle of calling and booking them in advance, as when they first appeared.
For a while it seemed like a city commuter’s utopia. Crowded buses and trains are no longer the only feasible option, but as in everything else true of the Sri Lankan economy, cracks have started to appear. Angry passengers now complain of doctored meters – of the rates running too fast, of the rates being more than Rs.30/km (or as of a few days ago, Rs.32/km) and the distance covered showing more than what was actually covered, thus jacking up the fare.

Is there a mechanism for customer complaints? As of now there don’t seem to be too many options; the meter taxi industry, despite its boom and popularity over the last few years still has no regulations in place from the government. Those who ordered the taxi from a company, have the option of complaining to the company concerned but any action taken will be at the entire discretion of the company.

It might also be prudent of the customer to ask the taxi how much it charges per km. Many ‘freelancers’ out on the roads simply have a meter put in without bothering to tell the customer that their rates are Rs. 35 or 40 per km. For that matter, there are many meter taxi companies which have mushroomed suddenly, which follow the same policy. The policy being ‘caveat emptor’ (let the buyer beware).
According to Lalith Dharmasekera, Chairman of the All Island Three Wheeler Drivers Association and one of the driving forces behind the introduction (or rather re-introduction) of the meter taxi in Sri Lanka, the Consumer Protection Act stipulates that all consumer durables should have prices exhibited on them. He is following this regulation on all the taxis registered with him in his company, Budget Taxi, but other taxis, especially the ones charging more, are not following this rule.

“Customers are getting ripped off because they think all meter taxis charge like we do. I have brought this to the attention of the relevant government authorities several times but no action has been taken as yet,” he averred.
Meanwhile there are three main meter manufacturing / importing companies In Colombo: Link, Lisvin Trading and D & D Lanka Technology, all of whom maintain that their meters can’t be tampered with; but they add that if the customer feels the meter is faulty, to let the meter company know, along with the relevant vehicle plate, so that they can track it down to take action.

Regulation then is still very much an internal matter. The DIG Traffic was unavailable for comment on what recourse the public had or could hope to have but Police Spokesman Ajith Rohana said that people could complain to the police, if they had the vehicle number or could identify the driver, and action would be taken under the Sri Lanka penal code.
According to Dharmasekera, who is still in talks with the government to regularize the three wheeler industry, a Motor Traffic Act with all the necessary regulations for three wheelers was drafted as far back as 1998 but never implemented. Twice in the Western Province, acts had been gazetted to control the industry but then revoked near election time to please the vociferous three-wheeler drivers who didn’t want to be regulated.
However, despite the lack of a backbone from the government, the ‘concept’ as Dharmasekera calls it has gone through and gathered momentum in a manner the government can no longer ignore.
He has been tracking the various gazettes, acts and developments over the last several years, having been himself involved with many of them. He shows copies of all the relevant documents which he keeps carefully filed, including the Mahinda Chinthana 2010 Manifesto.

“Here, on page 45, they have said they would regularize three wheelers and have even given viable solutions on how to do it, so why hasn’t it been done yet? They drafted another Motor Traffic Act for 2011 but stopped that too.

“When the president tried to implement it, he was met with opposition from the usual quarters again and so he instructed the relevant authorities to ‘discuss and implement’ a viable solution. As part of this, the Chairman of the Road Passenger Transport Authority of the Western Province placed a notice on the Daily News of 29 August 2011 asking for public opinion on the process and how they wanted it done. That was back in August. I keep calling them up regularly to check on their progress and the answer is always that they are ‘discussing’ it. They will keep on ‘discussing’ it forever. The President said ‘Discuss and Do’ but the ‘do’ part of it is always the problem with government bureaucracies.”

According to Dharmasekera, the history of three wheelers in Sri Lanka began in 1978, when David Pieris and the Hebtulabhoy company imported two of the vehicles from India to serve as Taxis. They proved very popular as they were much cheaper than the Morris Minor taxis then around, much to the agitation of the Morris Minor Taxi drivers who were soon put out of business.

“At that time, both the Morris Minors and the three wheelers came equipped with manual meters” explains Dharmasekera.
“However the manual meters could be manipulated by the drivers which led to the customers learning to distrust meters and resorting to bargaining the fare to the destination beforehand. Over time this became the norm and the meters were removed from the taxis altogether, as they had become obsolete.”

“Years later now, we seem to have come full circle even though the meters are digital and can’t be tampered with. Meter Taxis are a much felt and appreciated need by the public but if they start distrusting it again due to the lack of necessary rules and regulations, the meter might become obsolete as before.”

He however insists that digital meters can’t be tampered with according to the whim of the drivers although they might malfunction, in which case only the meter company can fix them. According to him the jacked-up prices that consumers complain of could be due to their not checking first what the rate per km is, and also because certain drivers use the night-time rate which is 15 per cent higher.
“If you are getting in before 10 pm, check if the meter is set at Rs. 50. If it is set at Rs 57.50, they are using the higher rate,” he cautioned.
After trying several times to get the government to regulate the industry – which they still haven’t given up on – Dharmasekera and his friends decided to take matters into their own hands. They tested out the first meter taxi since the early eighties. On 05 January 2005, Kelum Jayasumana, an organizer at the All Island Three Wheeler Drivers Association, attached one of the two meters imported by businessman Tejasri Gunathilake from India for them, and tested it by driving it from Kotahena to his stand in Galpotha.
Says Jayasumana, “The other three wheel drivers were dead against this. They even threatened to kill us but we went ahead with it. They just didn’t understand the concept of optimum pricing. Every day they kept charging more and losing more and more of their customer base but they got livid at the suggestion of regulations and meters.”

According to him, the customer reaction initially was suspicion rather than elation. “They weren’t sure initially how much the meter would show at the end of the journey and they weren’t comfortable with that. They insisted on fixing the price beforehand and then were elated when the meter showed less than what they had bargained upon.”

In the background, Kelum Jayasumana, the first Meter Taxi driver of 2005, now a Director at Budget Taxi

Initially, in 2005, the rate was fixed at Rs.25 for the first kilometer and Rs.18 for every kilometer after.
The second meter was tested by Roshan Boosa in Maradana the following week, and soon after, 20 meters were imported from India (Lisvin Trading) to be trial run in several busy centers of Colombo. The customer feedback was ecstatic. A few years later, the drivers started to distribute photocopied sheets of their first hotline number to be set up: 0712500800, which began operations on 10 March 2008. It was operated by Deepthi Jayasumana, Kelum’s wife.
She laughs when asked what the customer response was like the first day. “We had 58 calls but only 16 vehicles, continually busy. We could not service many of the calls.”

Demand continued to exceed supply over the next few years despite the growing number of vehicles registered with Budget Taxi (initially known as 3wheel Lanka (pvt) Ltd). They started with 72 vehicles collaborating with them and today have a fleet of 1,500 at their disposal. The call center operation has also expanded significantly with 72 people working in a fully computerized office, more than 20 of whom man the hotline booths for both car and three wheeler taxis, round the clock.
In exchange for getting the hires passed on to them, the registered vehicles have to pay Rs. 100 a day to Budget Taxi – in addition to maintaining strict standards of behavior and etiquette as well as dress code.

“Once upon a time, we had all these standards but now, due to the lack of regulation, anyone and everyone can join which has led to a lack of respect for the profession,” avers Dharmasekera.

“I am trying to change that. We need to bring dignity and respectability back to the profession and in order to do that, we need to behave professionally.”

Strict adherence of the Rs.32 per km is also a stipulation and many left over the years, disputing the feasibility or rather the lack of enough profitability, of that figure. He names several well known companies, including Fair Taxi, Sanway, Sari Sara, Romacar and Serinco as having branched off from him.

“They branched off from us, kept infighting and branched off some more even amongst themselves. Now, even those with absolutely no business sense or experience in this field have started meter taxi companies. There are nearly a 100 meter taxi companies out there now, all concentrated in Colombo. Competition is good but this is getting out of hand which is why regulation is urgently needed. If quality is compromised on, the customers will lose faith and the disastrous cycle which started back in 1978 will occur all over again.”

He further added, on the need for regulation, “As there is no governing or regulatory body, no-one knows how many three wheelers out there are for hire. There are about 700,000 registered three wheelers in the western province alone, out of which I assume at least 400,000 are run on hire. Assuming a family of 4-5 depends on these individual drivers, that’s more than a million people directly dependant on that economy. Add to that the indirect economy of finance, insurance, repairs and maintenance etc and you can see how important regulating this industry is for this country.”
Meanwhile out on the roads, more and more three wheel drivers have either opted for a meter or have decided to opt for a meter.

Says Dissanayake (44) who has been running his three-wheeler independently for the last thirteen years, “Income has dropped significantly for the non-metered taxi with the advent of the meter taxi. So I went to the Link company last month and had one put in too.”

He is not affiliated to any company and says he decided to fix the meter at Rs. 35/km as he has a family to support and it wouldn’t have been feasible otherwise. He said his income used to be about Rs. 30,000 per month before but now has increased slightly. He still isn’t sure if this is a good thing or not as the earlier income was earned with much lesser hires which meant lesser exertion for him as well as less wear and tear for his vehicle.
“Those days, with just one or two hires, I could earn Rs. 1,000 a day. But that was all the hires likely to come by. Now the demand is a lot more. If I work both day and night, I can earn up to Rs. 2,000 a day but it is tiring for me and wears out my vehicle a lot faster too. But I notice the customers are happier. I guess it is a good thing for them.”
Chathuranga (26), joined with Budget Taxi just four days ago. He has been running his own vehicle in Mathugama (Kalutara) for the past three years and says he earned about Rs. 500 a day. Friends had told him he could do much better with Budget Taxi and so he joined with them. On average, he has been earning more than Rs. 5000 a day over the last four days, he says.
He is required to keep a notebook of income and expenditure and the entry for his first day, 13 February 2012, shows:

Hire : Rs. 5,450
Petrol : Rs. 2,020
Food : Rs. 440
Profit : Rs. 2,990

He is quite happy with this. Other three wheel drives at a stand outside, scorned this. “Anything less than Rs. 40 per km is not feasible. If he says he got that amount he is lying. He would have had to drive all day without even food to get that amount. And even if he did, the cables on his steering as well as his tyres would wear out a lot faster; the monthly maintenance needed for this will eat into his profits.”

Parked under a tree outside a famous hotel in Colombo 07 are a few three wheelers, reminiscent of the old days of idle three wheelers and even more idle drivers. One would think these would be the drivers that would hold out against metering their taxis; they were operating a cartel in a prime spot where they could be assured of foreign customers who would pay them significantly more than locals. They had got it made; they were the ones who used to spurn local customers but surprisingly, they say they are going to be putting in meters for their vehicles this month.

“Tourists used to pay us double the fare of the locals. And we could make a lot of money by taking them on tours of the city which lasted only a few hours. Now however, even the tourists are asking us, ‘Where is your meter?’ We have no choice but to put in meters and with that, we’ll lose significantly,” says one driver with a depreciating smile at his own predicament.

As Lalith Dharmasekera maintains, his ‘concept’ has gathered a momentum of its own, rolling over those who would have impeded it – and have impeded it in the past.
“Drivers who objected to the meter, cursed me as a Rakshasa and Yakko and told me I would go to hell for this but my intention was never to become a rich businessman, although I admit that has happened.
I only wanted to bring dignity and professionalism back to the profession as well as an optimum pricing system satisfactory to both the customer and driver.

“Since 1978, nothing has been done despite various efforts to regulate this industry. It has gathered a momentum of its own now, which others can’t ignore. Talks are still underway for regulation of the industry. Hopefully something tangible will soon come of it.”

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5 Responses to “Meter Taxis: A Cyclical Phenomenon Going Off the Tracks Again?”

  1. drac February 19, 2012 at 8:08 am #

    This is a very informative and extremely well researched article, thanks a lot for writing it.

    Perhaps the meter is indeed tamper-proof, although I doubt being “digital” really makes a difference. The most common method of tampering I’ve seen is by “fixing” the cable that links the meter to the front wheel (and thereby determines distance travelled).

    When they first came out, there were 3 players in the taxi meter market – one type had a known issue of undercounting distances travelled (approximately 400m per 10km travelled). The fix was in adjusting the cable, not in doing anything to the meter itself.

  2. Tulie February 19, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

    Thanks Drac.

    We heard the accusations against that particular company but could hardly put that in the paper, without any solid proof 🙂

    The head of that company maintained that Dharmasekera was concerned only about making money for himself while he himself was concerned about the poor drivers who needed to make a living. But of course he insisted that his meters and mechanisms were completely above board too 😀

  3. Nisal February 19, 2012 at 4:24 pm #

    Good article 🙂

    • Tulie February 19, 2012 at 4:48 pm #

      Thankee 😀

  4. jaakotu March 18, 2012 at 4:22 pm #

    Tulie,

    Someone directed me to your blog as he was writing a review of CAB the Biennale. I have followed your blog posts and reading this, well, its hardly a ‘blog’. Please could you send me your contacts on my gmail ? Am launching a hopeful ‘good-read’ website for Sri Lankans both in and outside the country and your work is detailed research and some of it would be a great share on the website. I dont wish to just link to blogs but hopefully to present the content in a bit more accessible way to the audience of a website. Please contact and thanks for the informative read.

    Gaya

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