Asitha Udaya Priyanthawas a happy 22-year-old when he found his dream job: driving a tuk tuk.
Cruising the busy streets of Colombo in his three-wheeler, he told news agency AFP in a 2017 report how he was “his own boss” earning good money in his own time.
Tuk tuk drivers could easily earn up to 30,000 Sri Lankan rupee (85 Euro)in a month.
But that was before the economic crisis struck in 2019, and troubles peaked by 2022, resulting in long hours of power cuts, and a massive shortage of basic items, such as food, medicines and fuel.
Many like Asitha have lost their livelihoods and their sole source of income.
The Sri Lankan government has recently announced its decision to convert all petrol three-wheelers into electric vehicles.
The move to e-vehicles, the government says, will help deal with not just expensive fuel but also build a more sustainable economy.
“With a socio-economic crisis gripping the island, a shift towards sustainable mobility is a necessity for green recovery,” says the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which is backing the project.
The project itself will run in three phases, starting with the pilot phase, which will test conversion to e-tuk tuks. Then, the demonstration phase will engage the finance sector for conversions. And finally, the acceleration phase will use market forces for conversions through concessional financing.
The idea is to convert 500,000 tuk tuks, whose drivers are solely dependent on hires for their livelihood, within the next five years.
The Reporter’s View
There are 1.2 million tuk tuksin Sri Lanka, a major lifeline of its 21 million people.
According to the Census and Statistics Department, around 47% of the registered three-wheelers are used for hires.
Nearly 6% of Sri Lanka’s national labour force consists of tuk tuk taxi drivers, according to research by the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka. And about 12% use tuk tuks as a secondary occupation, making it among the top 10 secondary occupations in the country.
Last year, petrol prices touched nearly 420 rupee (1.2 Euro) for a litre, while the inflation rate skyrocketed to a whopping 69.8%.
It became almost impossible to drive and maintain a tuk tuk.
The tuk tuk project is an attempt by Sri Lanka to focus on reviving the micro-level informal sector that will inject the much-needed currency into the local economy.
Most foreign tourists experience the tuk tukas a passenger, sitting in a low-rise, small bench seat behind a driver holding bike-style handle bars, navigating busy, strange cities at break-neck speeds.
Many tell tales of bargaining over the prices, or as the new trend goes, hiring the entire tuk tuk to drive on their own.
Despite the financial downturn, tuk tuks remain a popular part of the tourist’s experience.
It becomes imperative therefore, that the conversion to electric versions is supported by a robust infrastructure including charging stations and repair workshops, retaining its reputation as a cheap, safe and convenient mode of transport for even days-long travel across the island.
Electrifying transport options in crisis-hit Sri Lanka has another angle to it.
Many say it will have an enormous impact on the poor air quality.
In December 2022, the country’s air quality spiked to 249. Good air quality ranges between 0-50.
Many are unaware that tuk tuks emit more CO2 than a car.
Converting to eTuktuks that emit zero emissions, will therefore support the long-term climate goals, especially when the fleet grows to be a major part of the public transport system.
In fact, the country’s postal service is planning to replace the traditional bicycles used to deliver letters, with around 1,000modern electric tuk tuks.
“We also hope to provide an official uniform (for postal eTuk tuk drivers),” said Shantha Bandara, State Minister of Mass Media in a report published by the Colombo Gazette earlier this year. “By doing so, our ultimate goal is to create a strong postal service in the country.”
Meanwhile, the Transport and Highways Minister Bandula Gunawardena is keen on the country’s new eTuk tuk conversion.
“Electric three-wheelers will not only benefit individual drivers but also spring board our economic recovery,” he said, as quoted in an IANS news report from July.
With a $2.9 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund in March this year, Sri Lanka has taken steps to lower fuel prices.
Read more here: IMF approves $3bn bailout loan for Sri Lanka
The bailout programme will run for four years, coinciding with the five-year project for electric vehicle (EV) conversion, a small part of the recovery process.
But in Sri Lanka, such reform that includes conversion of three-wheelers to EV technology can reduce the burden of foreign exchange payments for fossil fuel imports, writes Pradeep Kurukulasuriya, Director and Executive Coordinator of Nature, Climate and Energy at UNDP, in an official blog.
“These measures can effect behavioural change at a scale that will trigger other positive outcomes,” he says, pressing the need for urgent action that will lead the country “away from fossil fuels that put a strain on the economy”.
Read more here: Sri Lanka’s energy crisis is a glimpse of what’s coming