Mobility, Austerity and Survival in Neoliberal Sri Lanka

Tuk tuks are a major part of Sri Lanka’s urban landscape. They are everywhere, leading some foreigners to call Sri Lanka a “land of tuk tuks”. Riding these vehicles is inevitable for anyone getting around anywhere in the country, and tuk tuk drivers may as well be the most prominent figures in Sri Lankan public space. Even souvenir gift shops sell tuk tuk memorabilia, associating the image of Sri Lanka with its ubiquitous tuk tuk fleet.

Tuk tuks are three-wheeled doorless motorised vehicles that can carry up to three or four passengers and are about half the size of an average car. They act as a “cheap” mobility option that performs the tasks of a taxi, and most transactions happen in an informal cash-based economy.

While some tuk tuk drivers use digital platforms like Uber or PickMe to find clients, a large proportion of tuk tuk drivers do not have smartphones with access to these platforms or with maps that are updated live. In fact, most tuk tuk drivers prefer not to use apps to find riders, as the cost of rides tends to be lower on apps than what they would otherwise earn, and platforms like Uber take a portion of the payment if this is done by debit or credit card. Most drivers are men, but some tuk tuks are driven by women too.

These vehicles have been proliferating for a while, and they are doing so in the context of neoliberal globalisation and Sri Lanka’s post-colonial condition. Indeed, it is through post-colonial circumstances that Sri Lanka engages with global capital flows. In the colonial era, Sri Lanka was given a production role by the British Empire that rendered the nation a “plantation economy” primarily dedicated to agricultural exports, which entailed underdeveloping the nation by design.1

In today’s global economy, this legacy translates to a post-colonial “lag” in development. This is particularly vulnerable to neoliberal predation, as the austerity measures Sri Lanka has recently been compelled to take attest to. In the context of this underdevelopment, in which most of the population has little to no access to inherited wealth and capital due to the extraction and accumulation of private property by the colonial administration, the issue of mobility relies on ingenious means.

In urban hubs, tuk tuks act as a key pillar of the Sri Lankan economy, and their massive fleet can be thought of as a form of mobility infrastructure that satisfies the particular needs of the neoliberal economic era. Based on fieldwork conducted in Sri Lanka in February 2023, I suggest that “tuk tuk economies” reflect the broader social, economic and political patterns that affect the Sri Lankan political and economic landscape more broadly.

Namely, the mass supply of tuk tuks today responds to neoliberal austerity measures that have led to the Sri Lankan state’s abandonment of its attempts to deliver public transport infrastructure. In return, this has produced a mass supply of neoliberal “mobility entrepreneurs” who participate in the Sri Lankan economy through their personal motorised vehicles.


Tuk tuks, Neoliberal Austerity and Transport Infrastructure


The mass fleet of tuk tuks that circulates Sri Lankan streets is symptomatic of its political economy today. The country has recently embraced austerity measures to satisfy the demands of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  Since 2022, the IMF and the Sri Lankan government have negotiated a loan worth up to 4 billion USD which is meant to help Sri Lanka alleviate its debt and inflation crisis. This would be Sri Lanka’s 17th loan from the IMF since 1965.

In return, as is typical of the loans given by the IMF in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, the Sri Lankan government is expected to adjust its economy through tax reforms, privatisation of industries and other austerity measures, as “financing assurances” to the IMF. Accordingly, Sri Lanka has sought to adjust its economy, implementing quotas to manage shortages (like fuel), and implementing major trims to government jobs early in 2023.

Austerity measures are now expected to create mass unemployment (as the shift from 2% to 7% unemployment rates in South Korea upon taking an IMF loan in 1998 suggests), lead to the collapse of social security networks and ultimately transfer the debt accrued by the government to ordinary citizens, who must now adapt to an extremely tight economic landscape.

A key part of this discussion is how the imposed austerity in Sri Lanka is the result of loans taken by a government pushed by Western imperial “development regimes” that demand post-colonial nations to modernise and “develop” in order to participate in a global economy. These development regimes are exploitative in that their expectations are in direct contrast with the impoverishment by design that colonial rule left behind.

In other words, austerity measures—and their “structural adjustments”—are a form of “neo-colonial venture” in which Western financial institutions manipulate post-colonial nations to open up their markets and facilitate the extraction and accumulation of wealth by transnational elites. Some have referred to this as “the IMF trap”. Austerity is colonialism, and the cost is taken on by ordinary citizens first and foremost.

Sri Lanka is just the latest of dozens of ex-colonies that have been coerced into these circumstances, leading to the state abandoning its political duties and allowing private industries to take over instead. This is how neoliberalism operates in the post-colonial world, making sure that global capital continues to have access to the resources that imperial powers had during the colonial era. These forms of wealth extraction still rely on a relationship structured by colonialism, but they do so in subtle and “democratic” ways.

The tuk tuk economy is representative of this, as it takes over an infrastructure need that would otherwise be met by state-provided public transport. An example of this can be seen in the abandonment in 2022 of a light rail project that was under government-led construction in Colombo for five years. The light rail, funded in part through a Japanese loan, is reminiscent of “​​the promotion of capital-intensive mega-projects as the surest vehicle for catalysing high economic growth and poverty reduction” that characterises development economics and pushes post-colonial nations to take predatory loans.2

However, the project was abandoned for not being “cost effective” amidst Sri Lanka’s debt crisis, re-routing the provision of mobility services to private industries. The neo-colonial relationship of this development regime is at play here, as nations like Sri Lanka are turned, through austerity measures, into a “market society [that] operates through the creation of scarcity” when they cannot pay back the money borrowed to develop in the ways the “first world” expected them to.3 It is precisely in this context that the tuk tuk economy is booming.

The mass supply of tuk tuk drivers and vehicles is a form of infrastructure, though a particularly neoliberal one. Neoliberalism is characterised by “the privatisation of everything”,4 and so the responsibility and provision of public services, like transport, is transferred over from the government to private sectors, tuk tuks, in this case. After all, Tuk Tuk drivers are self-employed individuals that operate on their own and offer a private service to private clients.

The tuk tuk economy is also not limited to ride transactions but also manifests in the industry of the vehicles themselves. Since 2019 there even seem to be investors ready to participate in an electric tuk tuk industry, for example. As much as its social embeddedness has allowed the tuk tuk to feel like a form of cultural heritage, it remains a private industry that flourishes precisely because of the absence of state-provided transport infrastructure.

The tuk tuk economy appears at times to be mainly local, but it remains global. Tuk tuks, being motorised vehicles, need petrol to function, and petrol is a global commodity that responds to global prices. In a global economy in which Sri Lanka’s standing is worsening, fueling the tuk tuk economy is global too, having major ramifications on the cost of living in Sri Lanka. The long queues to fuel up vehicles and the quota limiting the amount of petrol each car could get were symptoms of the “creation of scarcity” that neoliberalism leads to in post-colonial nations.

There is a cost to austerity, and even if embracing “structural adjustments” allows the government to alleviate its debt-based diplomatic tensions, ordinary citizens and workers absorb the cost in the new forms the economy takes. Tuk tuks may be cheap in the eyes of foreigners, but they are much more expensive than public transport would cost, particularly given the fluctuating costs of petrol. That tuk tuks are everywhere is a reflection of the neoliberal economic forms that have spread globally for the last four decades and which have now aggressively expanded their grip in the Sri Lankan context.

Tuk tuks, in that sense, are a window to Sri Lanka’s broader economic landscape, and its ramifications are many. After all, neoliberalism is more than an economic system, having major implications “with respect to lifestyles, modes of expression and a wide range of cultural practices” as well.5 This, I argue, is particularly palpable in the entrepreneurial spirit found in Sri Lankan tuk tuk drivers.


Tuk Tuk Drivers as Mobility Entrepreneurs


Finding a tuk tuk can be done anywhere. All it takes is making eye contact with a driver and the negotiation will develop on its own. It is typical to agree the fare prior to the ride, though apps like Uber are at times used to agree the costs in a “fair” manner, and a minority of tuk tuks employ fare meters to determine the cost of a ride.

The tuk tuk, however, is not limited to performing taxi-like transactions. I think of tuk tuk drivers as “mobility entrepreneurs” who employ their tuk tuk as a form of capital that grants them access to different forms of income. Drivers often perform many roles beyond just driving, such as delivery services, or being tour guides and translators as they participate in the tourist economy.

I understand entrepreneurship as a way of internalising, by necessity, neoliberal forms of arranging society in which workers see themselves not only as victims but also agents of the neoliberal economy. In Sri Lanka, the “pride” that drivers show in their tuk tuk (which is often customised as a form of expression), for instance, reads as an embrace of their precarious work conditions that have now been recast “as tools at their service”.6

Tuk tuk vehicles enable their drivers to involve themselves in urban economies in different ways, particularly as these tend to be dependent on the connectivity granted by mobility and the ability to get transactions done quickly. The tuk tuk excels at this, being a small, nimble and agile vehicle that navigates the city almost as if it was racing to avoid obstacles on the road. The tuk tuk, similar to motorbikes, is ideal to navigate the city landscape completing multiple transactions in quick succession. Through the investment that a tuk tuk entails, drivers become mobility entrepreneurs that adapt to today’s globalised neoliberal economy, wherein individualised schemes of labour like this one thrive.

A key component of the entrepreneurialism displayed by tuk tuk drivers are the relationships they establish with their clients, which have the potential to be durable rather than just transactional. Tuk tuk drivers, as entrepreneurs, not only deliver a service but also establish their own portfolio of clients with whom they seek to maintain a business relationship.

As I navigated cities like Kandy or Matara as a tourist, the tuk tuk drivers whose services I hired insisted on exchanging phone numbers with me and have sought to stay in touch even after my departure. The main purpose, in addition to their genuine warmth and friendliness, is to maintain a channel of communication for the next time I or an acquaintance visit Sri Lanka. This is something all drivers are almost methodical about. They have tasked me with telling people about the beauty of Sri Lanka, and, should someone I know ever visit, I must contact them so they can be their tour guides and ride them around.

These, of course, are services to be done in exchange for a foreigner-rate service at a significantly higher cost than for a local customer, though still affordable for a tourist with spending power. This friendship-business relationship, characteristic of the entrepreneurial ethos, aligns with the neoliberal pattern in which private and public life as well as personal and professional relationships are increasingly blurred. The generally friendly and conversational demeanor of most drivers are a testament to this.


Tuk Tuk Drivers as Informal Workers


Tuk tuk drivers are informal workers who are self-employed in an informal economy. As such, they bear by themselves all costs involved (like the initial investment in the vehicle, its constant maintenance and the costs of fuel) and, evidently, the work entails no benefits such as health insurance or saving schemes. The work itself can be lonely, exhausting, strenuous, lends itself to accidents on the road and income is not particularly rewarding. There are also no provisions such as health insurance guaranteed by an employer.

Tuk tuk drivers are prime examples of the kind of worker that is ever more prominent in neoliberal times, as workers are atomised and unprotected in an economy produced by the government’s withdrawal. This is a condition of precarity and vulnerability, and drivers are expected to respond by becoming “autonomous, individualised, self-directed, [and] decision-making” subjects who rise to the challenge the economy presents to them. Ultimately, they become “entrepreneurs of the self”.7

Tuk tuk drivers’ overall condition of precarity creates a “speed imperative” that tuk tuk drivers must respond to. The faster they are able to move through the city, avoiding obstacles like pedestrians, potholes, cars and buses with an agile ability to move in a zig-zag, the more rides they are able to complete. And the more rides they complete, the higher the income they bring home each day. Tuk tuk drivers move fast, and this speed responds to the neoliberal precarity that the job entails.

The way tuk tuk drivers move through the city responds to their precarious position as part of Sri Lanka’s working class. There is a need to secure income on a daily basis, and the work of being a tuk tuk driver gives no guarantees, especially in a market where the supply of tuk tuks is likely to exceed its demand.

Tuk tuk drivers in Sri Lanka are becoming a form of subject that is symptomatic of today’s neoliberal economy. While many of them used to be professionals in other industries, participating in the tuk tuk economy has become an income relief in the times of crisis that strike the country, and this requires of them a uniquely entrepreneurial spirit.

Tuk tuk drivers’ entrepreneurship shows how precarity, as a manifestation of neoliberal adjustments to the economy, is mediated by individuals who become entrepreneurial to adapt and participate in the “hyper-meritocratic” economic arena that sprouts in areas of state abandonment. The austerity that the Sri Lankan government has been pushed towards has left a gap to fill in the provision of public transport infrastructure, while the tuk tuk drivers adapt themselves in the hope of a better life in the ever more precarious life conditions of today’s neoliberal Sri Lanka.

  1. Shanmugaratnam, Nadarajah (1981). Impact of plantation economy and colonial policy on Sri Lanka peasantry. Economic and Political Weekly. 69-80.
  2. Goldman, Michael (2007). How “Water for All!” Policy Became Hegemonic: The Power of the World Bank and its Transnational Policy Networks. Geoforum, 38(5). 786-800.
  3. Esteva, Gustavo, Babones, S. & Babcicky, P. (2013). The Future of Development: A Radical Manifesto. Policy Press
  4. Harvey, David (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford University Press.
  5. Harvey, David (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford University Press.
  6. Galière, Sophia (2020). When food-delivery platform workers consent to algorithmic management: A Foucauldian perspective. New Technology, Work and Employment, 35. 357-370.
  7. Wee, Kag Jig Edmund (2020). Exploring the Realities of Singapore Food Delivery Riders Under Neoliberal Ethos. Honors Thesis NUS ScholarBank.

Max D. López Toledano (they/she) is an Anthropology student at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. Their research interests include gender and sexuality, sports, and environmental anthropology. Max is currently working on their thesis on masculinity in a gay football team in Mexico City and also has an ongoing research project on food delivery riders in Singapore.