How bureaucracy stifles initiative

Drivers walking out of the Prime Minister's office in Suva after registering their complaint on Monday, September 3, 2018. Picture: RAMA

ON April 20, 2017, a group of 110 drivers got together and registered a co-operative company to operate long distance private car services within Fiji.

They were hoping that by registering a company they would be able to run their business legally without harassment from the Lands Transport Authority which has been imposing heavy fines on the operators.

Four years later, they are still fighting to be legalised despite a number of meetings with, and letters to, the Transport Ministry, LTA, the Attorney-General and the Prime Minister’s Office.

The latter have not even bothered to respond.

It seems amazing that here is a group of entrepreneurs who have been striving to legalise their operations so that they can operate within the law, enter the tax net, yet the authorities are refusing to play ball.

As a result, they are forced to operate outside the existing law because there is a high demand for their services

. They are constantly harassed and victimized by LTA and the police, and forced to pay stiff fines.

The private car hire business is not new. It has been operating for almost thirty years, providing long distance private car services to business executives, government officials, families and individuals between Suva, Nadi, Lautoka and Ba, seven days a week, meeting the needs of a certain sector of society.

The service is extremely convenient as opposed to travelling by bus, coach or taking a flight.

Travel is at one’s convenience, there is door to door pick up and delivery, with requested stops on the way easily accommodated.

The private cars are well maintained, kept clean, and comfortable. So high is the demand for private hire cars that there is a host of other illegal private car “taxis” in business apart from the 110 members of the Trans-link Transfers Co-operative Ltd that was registered in April 2017.

LTA a stumbling block

Since the registration of the co-operative four years ago, the group has been knocking on the doors of the Transport Ministry, the Suva City Council and the LTA to be given legal status, without success. The stumbling block appears to be the LTA. Officials of the co-operative met with Transport Minister Parveen Kumar, along with LTA’s CEO and board members in June 2017. The director operations of the Suva City Council and his team were also present at the meeting. The Transport Ministry was accommodative of the request to legalise the private hired car business. Likewise, the SCC provided a base at its foreshore car park for a parking fee of $20 per month. LTA, however, advised the minister that there were no existing rules or regulations under which the private car operators could be accommodated, but said the board would work out solutions by reviewing the existing regulations to see if it could legalise the operations of the co-operative. The matter has dragged on since then on one technicality or another. LTA it seems wants them to take up a taxi permit, but the group feels this may not be the best option for them because of the demarcation of taxi zones. The problem it seems is how to slot them under the existing legislation. The group is suggesting changes to the LTA regulations to facilitate their operations. They have suggested they be registered as Licence Hire (LH) or simply Hire Cars (HC) among other options. Under the LH regulations, they are not allowed to carry passengers on the return journey. The co-operative says this defeats the purpose of their operation as it will make the one-way journey too expensive for their clients In October, last year, the group suffered a further setback when the SCC stopped them from using its parking facility at the Suva for as a base despite the fact that they were paying for the use of the parking lot.
The withdrawal followed an alleged intervention from an assistant government minister who complained to the SCC.

Minibus experience

The plight of the private hire cars is similar to the problem my government encountered with mini bus operations when we took office in May 1999. Mini buses were operating illegally and facing stiff penalties from the LTA and the police. Repeated applications made to the LTA for their operations to be legalised, were refused. Transport Minister Adi Koila Nailatikau took the “bull by the horn” and decided to legalise the operations of the mini buses amid strong protests from the Opposition and bus and taxi operators. As a result, mini buses are now operating successfully. They have their own niche in the transportation system, providing a much needed service particularly in areas not covered by bus routes. I believe private car operators should be given similar legal status. As mentioned they provide an important service for local travellers who prefer to undertake long
distance travel at their own convenience and comfort. The service is very much in demand.

Private cars serve tourism

I see no reason why LTA is balking from legalising them when such “private car operations” are freely available in the local
tourism industry. An overseas company is openly advertising online tours and transfer rates to destinations within Fiji using private cars. For instance, they charge $14.26 for private car transfer from Nadi Airport to hotels in Denarau; $67.91 to The Pearl at Pacific Harbour and $193.55 from Labasa to Savusavu etc. If such services are legally available for
tourists in Fiji, why are locals denied the convenience of being able to travel long distance by hired private cars? It makes no sense. They are not likely to clash with the normal taxi business as they serve two completely different markets. It is time LTA took off its blinkers so it can meet the aspirations and needs of our people. We all know that the illegal service exists and is constantly in demand, even by government officials, because it is convenient and within one’s budget. The operators are earning an income through honest means, albeit without legal sanction. In these difficult times, the government needs to encourage and facilitate entrepreneurs who are looking for ways and means to feed their families.

LTA needs change of outlook

LTA needs to stop functioning just as an enforcement agency. It has a responsibility to rationalise and streamline the transport
industry. It should ensure orderly operation of services which cater to the needs and convenience of the travelling public.
Regrettably, the entire industry is in a state of chaos today. Bus owners are complaining because the system of dedicated routes has been replaced by an “open” system where different companies are allowed to operate on the same route, without a proper needs assessment being carried out. As a result, we see buses running half empty and owners complain of running at a loss. It is also alleged that some bus companies are able to serve “new routes” through questionable means or official intervention.
The taxi industry is in a similar mess. Permits were issued at whim for political gain. I refer to the preposterous pre-election
gimmick when lots were drawn to allocate taxi permits. Permits should be granted on the basis of need and merit. Not as a matter ofchance or a gimmick to gain votes. Consequently, there is an excess of taxis on our roads. Apart from the cut throat operation this generated, we find taxis running around without a fixed base. Definitely, LTA needs an urgent shake up. It should be there to serve the industry,not just to police it. Above all, it should not compromise on the proper discharge of its duties and responsibilities by succumbing to political pressure.

MAHENDRA P. CHAUDHRY is a former prime minister of Fiji and the leader of the Fiji Labour Party. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of this newspaper.

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