Car spare parts dealers in Sri Lanka’s main city of Colombo are receiving a steady stream of customers looking for what is fast becoming a prized commodity in the island nation – the side mirrors of Suzuki Wagon R. The scramble for the humble product highlights rising economic risks for the South Asian country as imports slump, foreign exchange reserves plummet and a potential sovereign default looms.
Suzuki Wagon R is immensely popular in Sri Lanka, given its low running costs. With some 30,000 units sold over the past 4 years in a nation that has relatively high road crash rates, replacement side mirrors are commonly sought in the spare parts shops scattered across the suburb of Nugegoda.
“Everyone is looking for Wagon R parts,” said Supun Deshak, a salesman at one store in the district where shop fronts are piled high with reconditioned spare parts. The difficulty is that importers are struggling to source car parts because they are deemed non-essential imports under rules drawn up by the government to save dwindling foreign exchange reserves especially after the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Reserves have plummeted to $2.36 billion from $7.5 billion in January 2020. At the same time, the Sri Lankan government faces a debt obligation of around $4 billion this year, and local banks are often unable to provide dollars that importers need. According to Yasendra Amerasinghe, chairman of the Ceylon Motor Traders Association (CMTA), which represents the country’s major vehicle importers:
“The biggest concern right now is the difficulty in importing spare parts for maintaining the existing fleet of vehicles.”
The CMTA estimates imports of car spare parts will fall by around 30% in value terms this fiscal year, compared to pre-pandemic levels, primarily because of the foreign exchange shortages in the past few months. Five auto dealers in Colombo told Reuters many spare parts were already in short supply, with only a trickle of new stock coming in from abroad, driving up local prices.
Amplifying the problem are thieves looking to make a quick buck by stealing side mirrors of popular models like the Wagon R to sell in a thriving grey market, the dealers said. The price of reconditioned Wagon R mirrors has surged by more than 35% from pre-pandemic levels to at least 30,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($148.5) per piece, the dealers said.
The Rise in Second-Hand Car Prices
The economic crisis in Sri Lanka which is the worst in a decade, has also triggered an escalation in second-hand vehicle prices. Almost all car imports were banned in March 2020, followed by a stop on imports of other non-essential goods like air-conditioners, refrigerators and video games consoles, as part of the government’s bid to deal with the financial strife.
That has pushed the cost of some second-hand vehicles up by more than 100%, the CMTA said. Sri Lanka does not mass produce any cars locally. A used Suzuki Wagon R currently costs around 5 million rupees ($24,752), well above the 2.8 million rupees a brand new vehicle cost in 2018, said CMTA Vice Chairman Virann De Zoysa.
That’s added further pressure on the spares market as many car owners look to cash in on the price jump but first try to spruce up their vehicle with replacement parts, said Musthaq Nazeer of Azka Auto Supply, a small shop packed with car mirrors and lights.
As global automotive supply chain disruptions add another layer to the problem, the CMTA said it has asked the government to classify car spare parts as an essential item, along with some food and medicine, to increase imports. “Every distributor’s out of many, many key parts,” De Zoysa said. “We’re turning away customers on a daily basis.”
A 3d animation professional with over 20 years of industry experience having served in leading organizations & production facilities of Pakistan, an avid car enthusiast and petrolhead with an affection to deliver writings to help shape opinions. Formerly written for PakWheels as well as major publications including Dawn. Founder of CarSpiritPK.com