By Alfred Koroma
Ministry of Transport and Aviation in collaboration with Motor Drivers Union has recently increased prices of public transportation following 20 percent increase in the pump fuel price.
As it is always the case, the increment has effected change in vehicular fare for areas within the Freetown Municipality, the provincial areas of the country and the border routes. But this time around, this writer thought it fit to look at the plight of passengers in the hands of commercial drivers in the public transportation sector.
To the common passenger, it is obvious that another increase in public transportation fare is worrisome certainly because of the lack of control on how commercial drivers, particularly within the Western Area of the country handle vehicle fare at the expense of passengers.
Hike in the price of fuel as a commodity could be understandable considering international demand where the price of the commodity is first determined. As once postulated by the current Trade and Industry Minister, Sierra Leone like other small underdeveloped nations, hasn’t got the capability to leverage global price of any commodity the country import. We are a small number of consumers. As such, we go by how producers and perhaps influential consumers in global market want things to be.
But, aside from the fact that the country does not possess the leverage to influence price in world market, government, locally determines prices for business activities within the country. In an effective price controlled system, governments ensure that stipulated prices for every business activity within the country is followed and obeyed by citizens to the letter. But that has been on the contrary in Sierra Leone. Successive governments have done little or no effort to ensure effective price control in the country’s business and socio-economic activities.
One of the business areas affected most by the state’s inability to control prices is the public transportation sector. Public transportation fares, particularly within the Western Area remain the most rambunctious and inconsistent price of service accentuated by lack of control of commercial vehicle drivers in the country’s transport sector.
It is no secret that poda, taxi drivers in the Freetown Municipality are exceedingly exploiting passengers in the street. Before the Ministry of transport announced the recent increment in the vehicle fares, commercial drivers had already been demanding over payment from passengers twice more than what the Ministry has now required passengers to pay.
The problem does not only ends in the over payment passengers have been subjected to, but that the habit of taxi and poda drivers running ‘halfway’ without reaching the required destinations has further exacerbated the lamentable plight of passengers.
In spite of the abnormal fares collected from passengers, commercial drivers, particularly in the eastern part of the city, have inculcated the habit of running halfway; forcing passengers to pay twice or more than the legitimately required fare.
Listen to passengers moving in and out of Wellington, Calaba Town on to Waterloo, or make a move in those areas within the rush hours of the day. You realise how devastating it has become to on-board a poda or a taxi in this city. It is obvious that there is unsolved problem in the public transportation in the country. A situation in which everyone involved has a lamenting story to tell. Passengers grumble at drivers with their apprentice for being so lawless and heartless in demanding over payment from them; drivers in turn point to the traffic police as the cause behind their actions while vehicle owners also have their own part of the scene in the transportation sector.
Each poda or taxi driver you approach with regards their behaviour with passengers point fingers at the police as the cause behind their action. The premise given is that they (drivers) simply demand extra payments from passengers because they as well, have to pay for what they called ‘booking’ to traffic police at various locations on daily bases. Failure to pay the said booking attracts unimagined consequences that will impede the work of the driver involved for the rest of that day.
Driving profession in general is governed by series of traffic rules and regulations incumbent on every driver to strictly follow. This is perhaps what gave birth to the term ‘booking’ among the commercial drivers and the traffic police. Booking is understood to be a form of bribery in which taxi and poda drivers pay certain amount of money traffic police officers at various locations to untangle themselves from traffic rules regulating their work. Paying certain amount of money to traffic police for the day place taxi and poda drivers above traffic rules each day, setting them free from any lawful behaviour.
One vehicle owner who had also worked as an apprentice running between Waterloo- Bombay described their business that has been embedded in police harassment for booking as ‘difficult’ for them. If you are running your vehicle from Waterloo to Bombay, you spent more than Le70, 000 per day to book to traffic police in locations such as Bombay, Savage Square, Upgone, Ferry Junction Shell and Tombo Park, excluding the Toll Gate payment, he said.
But in all of these payments, it is the passengers who suffer the greatest consequences. The drivers will pay, but they come back and exploit it from poor passengers desperately waiting in long queues.
Inadequate availability of vehicles for public transportation coupled with the drastic increase in the human population within the Freetown municipality over the years has further accelerated the problem. The population increase has piled considerable pressure on the inadequate vehicles available for public transportation. It is no joke that movements within the city without a private means of transportation have become a tougher jungle – problem commercial drivers have capitalized on to exploit passengers.
The existing circumstances in which no government vehicles are available to transport passengers within the city coupled with the recent increase in transportation fare could be regarded as another opportunity for public transport drivers to exploit passengers.
The transport sector is every essential in the socio-economic activities of every nation. This is because transportation is enormously connected with how commodities in the market will cost a consumer. It is important to handle the sector with all seriousness. Commercial drivers in public transportation should be monitored to ensure that halfway trips and demand of excess payment of vehicle fare from passengers is mitigated.