Blind spot over new taxi permits

Lautoka Zone 1 taxi permit holder Jailesh Prasad operates from an empty base along Vakabale St in Lautoka. Picture: REINAL CHAND

WHEN the Land Transport Authority announced in May this year that 1560 new permits were up for grabs in Lautoka and Nadi, almost everyone gave the plan a big thumbs up.

For low income earners, the permits meant the ability to make a living.

For taxidrivers who had been “slaves” to permit owners for many years, the permits meant freedom. For travellers the permits meant more transport providers, and for car traders the permits meant more business.

In short, the initiative, as shared by Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum to thousands of hopefuls during the taxi permit lottery on July 29 at the Lautoka Girmit Centre, was designed to give recipients the liberty to do business and earn a better living.

The requirements were relatively simple — a completed application form, valid photo identification (passport or voter registration card), police clearance report or receipt, proof of household income.

Applicants had to submit that the combined income of the applicant and the household members was below $20,000.

Thousands queued outside the Lautoka and Nadi police stations to pay $20 and obtained clearance reports, before lining up yet again at the Fiji Revenue and Customs Service offices to obtain proof of household income.

Many applicants who were interviewed said they were looking forward to a better life and thanked Government for the initiative.

In the past, taxi permits were relatively hard to obtain, so for the more than 2500 people who met the eligibility criteria, getting a taxi permit for free was akin to winning the lottery. Initially, the Fiji Taxi Association lauded the move by the LTA.

President Raben Bhan Singh said 25 per cent of the association’s 112 members had applied for permits and it was a good opportunity for low income cabbies to get a better life.

However, six months later the association has changed its tune.

“We are facing big problems in the Lautoka City central business district area,” Mr Singh said during an interview with this newspaper this week.

“Ever since the new permits came in, income for our members have gone down by 50 per cent.

“Drivers are struggling and permit owners are facing great difficulty — many of them have taxis parking at home because drivers are unable to earn enough to pay the owner, let alone make something for themselves.”

Mr Singh claimed that poor background checks on new permit applicants and lack of enforcement by the Land Transport Authority was also costing taxi operators dearly.

“We don’t know how they screened the applicants because we know of businessmen who received permits and some families received two or three permits.

“The LTA also said the new permit owners have to operate within their zones, but we see Lautoka Zone 1 taxis in the CBD everyday — and the LTA and police are not booking them.”

spokesperson Ana Naisoro, however, said traffic police were handing out infringement notices to those who broke the law.

“We are booking alleged breaches such as inconsiderate driving and other offences,” she said.

“However, the issue of operating outside zones will be an issue LTA will have to answer because they had opened up the operations of the zones so that’s out of our control.”

Questions sent to the LTA on November 30 and again yesterday for clarification on the issue remain unanswered.

The Fiji Taxi Association’s concerns about the impact of the new permits were also shared by individual permit owners.

Some, who spoke to this newspaper on the condition of anonymity, said the taxi permit lottery initiative was ill-conceived.

Quite a few said drivers had parked their taxis and refused to drive because of the huge reduction in income.

Others claimed that drivers who had received permits and bought new vehicles were now complaining that they were not earning enough to meet loan repayments, let alone make enough to feed their families.

Interestingly, they all wanted their predicament publicised, and yet they did not want to be named out of fear of being victimised.

Yesterday, this newspaper witnessed more than 30 new permit holders waiting for an audience with Acting Prime Minister and Attorney-General
Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum at Tropik Wood Industries Ltd in Lautoka.

The A-G was there to officiate at a bonus payout for workers.

Taxi operators who have been in the business for some time said bringing 1036 permits into Lautoka — a city with 400 existing taxis and more than 400 illegal operators — without addressing key issues was flawed.

They said Government should have addressed the pirate taxi issue and conducted a survey to determine the real need for more cabs before opening up the permits.

Some have even claimed that instead of giving low income earners an opportunity to make more money, it has subjected them to even more debt.

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