Blessing or Curse? Three-Wheelers in Sri Lanka.

This article was published in Ceylon Today on March 12 2014

Colman's Column3

Three-wheeled motorised rickshaws, or tuk-tuks, first emerged in Japan and Italy 50 years ago. Now they can be seen everywhere – Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Nigeria, Peru, Sri Lanka and Thailand are the biggest markets. They are growing in numbers in cities in east Africa and in Cape Town and Johannesburg, the Middle East and China. In many ways, the three-wheeler (aka auto-rickshaw, samosa, tempo, tuk-tuk, trishaw, auto, rickshaw, autorick, bajaj, rick, mototaxi, baby taxi or lapa) is a wonderful invention. I find them very useful (and relatively cheap, if I am vigilant) in getting around the shops and restaurants when I am in Colombo. Back home, it is useful to send for a three-wheeler when I need a gas cylinder or a crate of beer. Three-wheelers are ideal for negotiating the rocky road to my front gate.


There have been dour and earnest academic papers on the virtues of the three-wheeler. Let me quote from one of them. The authors are AK Somasundaraswaran, MBIT Kumari and DHSDA Siriwardana. They assert that the three-wheeler “provides door-to-door services and helps to reduce the unemployment problem and improve the poverty level”.  That is a fair enough argument. Then they get over-excited and partisan on behalf of the three-wheeler. They complain that it is a “pathetic situation” that “their operations fail to get the credit from the society”.

Messrs Somasundaraswaran, Kumari and Siriwardana have a somewhat rose-tinted view of Sri Lankan buses too. “In Sri Lanka, after a reformed public transport arrangement in 1977, private sector has taken a key role in providing transport services. Since then the private buses started their operation in a well organized manner with a schedule time table”. More about Sri Lankan buses in a future article. Our idealistic authors see three-wheelers as filling gaps that even such a well-organised bus service cannot fill. “Transport in early morning or late night has become a problem for the public, especially commuters in rural areas or in small cities. Three-wheelers perform many of the same functions as the taxi and it is considered as a next step up ladder for personal mobility to buses in small cities.”


Three- Wheelers and Poverty


H D Karunaratne of Colombo University looks at three-wheelers as a means of poverty reduction. He says: “Over 70% of these taxis are utilized by the urban community and are handled by low income groups in urban areas. As a driver, service man, repairer, producer of parts, retail seller of parts, and parking assistant, poor people had opportunities to earn money from the three-wheeler taxi industry. In addition, indirect income generating opportunities were also generated by that industry.”


Professor Karunaratne gave a figure of 200,000 three-wheelers in the country. Minister Basil Rajapaksa announced his plan to make Sri Lanka poverty-free by 2016 through self-employment opportunities rather than the old Keynesian way of spending government money and creating jobs. He said this at a ceremony held at Hyde Park, Colombo in connection with the distribution of 250 three-wheelers among self-employed persons in accordance with the Mahinda Chinthana Vision. The event was organized by the Self-Employed Persons Federation, which expected to distribute 1000 three wheelers during 2013. According to the Federation, there were nearly 500,000 three-wheeler drivers in the country 92,000 providing spares and other services.  Three-wheelers gave jobs directly to  600,000 people.  There were almost 2.5 million indirect beneficiaries. Annual sales figures for the wheelers stand at 40,000 to 45,000 units and its demand will further increase with the opening of Northern and Eastern markets.


I recognise that inconvenience to me is a trivial matter compared to eliminating poverty in Sri Lanka by 2016. I am an early riser, so it is not a major problem to me if I have to set off at the crack of dawn to do my grocery shopping. If I set off any later, every available space in town is filled  by three-wheelers. If I squeeze into a small space that is too close to a pedestrian crossing or infringes on a pavement, the police will quickly nab me. Recently, I grabbed a space outside the hospital only to be told by a taxi driver that the space was reserved for three-wheelers.

According to the Sunday Times, there are 800,000 three-wheelers operating in the country, of which about 300,000 operate within the Colombo.


Our doughty champions of the three-wheeler, Somasundaraswaran, Kumari and Siriwardana, found in their survey of three-wheeler drivers that “About 68% of them have drinking habits and 87% have smoking habits. Superficially, 66% of the drinking drivers operate their vehicle under the influence of liquor.” I am not quite sure what “superficial” drunken driving is.


At a workshop held in Colombo on March2 2014, Professor  K Karunathilaka of Colombo University said his  research showed  there are about 480,000 three wheelers in Sri Lanka at present. He acknowledged “three wheel drivers massively contribute to Sri Lankan economy” but his research showed that that 48 percent of them were careless drivers.


It is easy enough to trawl the newspapers and find many examples of horrific accidents involving three-wheelers.  There were 7,927 accidents in 2010 involving three-wheelers. One can easily observe why accidents happen. They turn around onto the main road without looking. They overtake on the inside. They tootle along in the middle of the road with their indicators on.  The spot fine for turning without signalling is  Rs 500, while the maximum court fines is Rs 5,000.  The maximum court for reckless and dangerous driving is Rs 5,000. The spot fine for causing obstruction is  Rs 500 and the  court fine Rs 1,000. The fines are the same for crossing the single line and double continuous line.

Will the Market Decide?

I had hoped that with the advent of the Nanocab and metered three-wheelers, my transportation around Colombo would be less fraught than in the past. Those tiresome negotiations about fares and grumbles from drivers about distance should have ended. We are not quite there yet. On a recent visit, I prebooked a metered Nanocab from the suburbs. We had eaten up quite a lot of the road on the way to our destination when the talkative driver announced: “l forgot to switch the meter on.” I said “Oh.” There was no further conversation.


Metered three-wheelers seemed great in theory. Initially, it worked well for me in practice. I got in a resting vehicle near House of Fashion and went to Liberty Plaza. The fare was 130 rupees. In the past, I would have had to pay much more, even with prior negotiation. From Liberty Plaza, I accepted an invitation from a driver to get into his “meter cab”.  When we got to the Cricket Club Café, he said: “Two hundred rupees.” I asked why his charge was more than for the equivalent or lesser distance in the other direction. “‘What does the meter say?” I asked. “Meter broken,” was his riposte.

In Colombo, there may be enough gullible tourists around for the drivers to get away with this and not worry about repeat business. Perhaps some economic law will start to kick in and bad practices will be driven out by good ones. Surely, there is a glut of three-wheelers in the market anyway?

Professor Karunaratne gave a figure of 200,000 three-wheelers throughout the country. Professor  K Karunathilaka of Colombo University said his  research showed  there are about 480,000 three wheelers in Sri Lanka at present. According to the Self-Employed Persons Federation, there were nearly 500,000 three-wheeler drivers. According to the Sunday Times, there are 800,000 three-wheelers operating in the country.

Three-wheeler operators recognise that, with more operators trying to establish themselves and with the increase in metered cabs and Nanocabs, business is falling off. Who would want to endure a white-knuckle ride in   three-wheeler risking carbon monoxide poisoning when one could travel in comfort in a Nano cab? Many three-wheeler operators are losing business, with some of them already looking for other work. We have always tried to help local drivers who have given us good service. For example, we have passed on second hand mobile phones and even helped with small loans. They may soon be beyond help, left stranded on the shore by the tide of evolution. One driver that we have used on a regular basis has given up and gone to work in a shop in Colombo.

It is the President’s vision that Sri Lanka should rise in the world as a country by raising the living standards of families, thereby ensuring village development, provincial development and eventually national development.  It is clear that if the government wants to promote the use of three-wheelers the voice of an old curmudgeon like myself will have no influence. However, what does the market think about all this?