Being at the mercy of every Tom Dick and Harry : Trishaws that we cannot be without | Sunday Observer

Being at the mercy of every Tom Dick and Harry : Trishaws that we cannot be without

In a jam packed city, trishaws are indisputably the easiest mode of transport. People from all walks of life at one point or another have had the good or bad experience of travelling in a trishaw. Tuk tuks are hard to avoid, especially, if you are in a hurry to get somewhere.

But, beneath this convenient mode of transport lies a time bomb about to go off. Although a decision by the Government to slash loans and finance facilities for trishaws in the 2017 budget as a deterrent, has had an impact on their over thriving business, the youth’s defection to this easy-money-spinner is not on the wane.

Besides the talk about the alarming trend of school leavers and youth turning into unskilled trishaw drivers, depriving the country of a skilled labour force, there doesn’t seem to be a concerted effort to address this deep rooted issue. The latest statistics from the RMV, after the November budget indicate a decline in three wheel registrations this year, but come the next ‘big’ election, the tide is bound to change. With over 1.2 million three wheelers islandwide, and over 300,000 within the Colombo district itself, this sector signifies an important ‘electoral college’.


The 2017 budget slashed the loans to three wheleers from 70% to 25%, meaning those who make a purchase after December 2016, have to pocket out 75% of the cost of a trishaw, while the balance can be obtained from a Finance company. Previously, Finance companies were allowed to pay 70%.

The local Industry, especially, the booming construction sector continued to suffer with a fast dwindling skilled labour force. This sector has been pushed to a limit of searching beyond the shores of Sri Lanka for manpower.

With the rising demand, carpenters, masons, plumbers, electricians, technicians, etc have suddenly become rare birds.

It is believed that, of the 300,000 auto trishaws in the Colombo district, at least 40,000 are driven by youth in the 18-25 age group (as confirmed by Three Wheeler unions). Given that most are even without a proper dress code, sporting neo-tribal tattoos and bold accessory, demanding etiquette and mannerisms from the drivers, leave alone basic training in public transport or road rules, would be futile.

“It appears to be the most popular job among the youth nowadays,” United National Three Wheeler Drivers’ and Industry Workers’ Union Secretary Rohana Perera says.

The Union, currently clamouring for action to streamline this highly disorganized mode of public transport in the country, has proposed a set of guidelines for the registration for trishaw drivers. But the fate of the proposals which were handed over to subject Minister, Faizer Musthapha in December last year is yet unknown.

“We haven’t heard from the Minister since,” said Perera, who is adamant that none of his children should follow in his footsteps. The guidelines propose a solution for the disturbing youth issue as well.

Responsibility and respect

Chief among the recommendations aimed at minimizing accidents and crime is that no auto driver below 25 years of age be given permission for public transport. “We believe the young drivers are not mentally or physically fit to face the challenges that come along with this job.”

The rules are expected to deter school dropouts and school leavers from becoming auto-drivers.

The Union has also recommended that those who fulfil the age criteria must be exposed to a proper training course and an examination, before allowing them on the street. “They should pass this exam. Every Tom, Dick and Harry must not be set loose on the streets in trishaws, placing people at their mercy. They must come with a sense of responsibility and respect,” the Secretary pointed out.

In addition, the Union has also proposed that all auto trishaws carrying public transport in the Western Province, should bear a local address (in order to qualify for WP in the number plate), and they be compelled to join the Three-wheel Associations accredited by the area police, so that there is a profile maintained for any reference. All Three wheel associations island wide have largely endorsed these proposals.

“The seasoned trishaw drivers take the job seriously. For them, it’s a responsible job. We go to the ‘stand’ at a particular time and go home at a particular time. We take pains to dress properly, even when operating in the night,” Perera said, explaining why the government should intervene in their effort to put this sector in order.

The trishaws, just as much as being a great source of convenience mainly for middle income groups, are also a contributor to the rising number of accidents within the city limits, and are allegedly a crime booster. In 2013, three wheelers had reportedly accounted for 8% of fatal accidents in the country.

According to the National Council for Road Safety, in 2014, there were 6,401 road accidents involving three wheleers, of which 274 were fatal. This accounted for 14% of the total fatal accidents that year. While the accidents involving other vehicles (except motor bikes) showed a downward trend over the years, the trishaws registered an upward trend with 6,871 accidents in 2015. (over 400 more than the previous year).

The Secretary of the Association says, the decision to slash loans to this sector would be a temporary solution, but the country needed a more sustainable remedy for the growing problem of school leavers opting to become three wheel drivers, as well as the more burning issue of youth under-employment.

School-leavers join as trishaw drivers

The youth who have taken up the ‘three-wheel job’ have a different story to tell, and it’s worth paying heed to.

Chamara, 23, a resident of Katunayake operates a three-wheeler near the Twin Towers, in Colombo Fort. Originally from the Central Province, he is the father of a two month old boy.

“After my A/Ls I joined a garment factory in Katunayake. I was earning Rs 25,000 a month. If I do ove time during my off days my salary could be increased to Rs 30,000. But, the work was exhausting.”

My brother is also a three-wheel driver so I bought my own three-wheeler six months ago and joined him. Now I work from 9am – 5 pm and take the weekends off. Some days, if I feel like it, I stay home. My net profit is something around Rs.2,000. I save some money every week.” “It is not an easy job, but compared to my previous job, this is much better.”

Dimuthu Madarasinghe, 25, is from Deniyaya. He resides in Kiribathgoda and operates his own three-wheeler after office hours.

“My parents are in Deniyaya, I work for a famous tea company in Kiribathgoda. I take hires from 6pm to 11pm as part time work. Sometimes, I take hires for regular customers, like school trips in the morning from 5 am to 8 am. I get most hires from a (web based) company. It is safe. I know who my clients are. Otherwise, it could be risky in the nights.”

“It is easy to earn Rs. 2,000 net profit a day. I believe the government should do something to regulate this sector, to make it safer for the public as well as for us. But, the Government is yet to regulate the private bus sector, so I am unsure of anything happening very soon.”

Prasad Sanjeewa, 20, a skinny young man sporting a newsboy hat, whom we came across in Maradana, too has his own three wheeler.

“I am from Avissawella, I live in Kolonnawa with an uncle. I used to work for a small hotel at Hyde Park as a training supervisor. I saved some money and bought this three-wheeler in November 2015.”

“I met with an accident during my O/Ls, as a result I could not sit the exam, except for one paper. I gave up school after that. “

“Now I work for a reputed four star hotel in Colombo Fort, as a room boy. I have a regular shift. This is my part time job. I save at least Rs.15,000 a month from my three wheel income as I need to pay Rs.12,800 a month to the Finance company.”

Roshan, 26, has sat the GCE A/L in the Commerce stream and obtained a B pass and three simple passes. He resides in Nugegoda with the wife and their 12 month old son. “I am from Badulla. I have three brothers and three sisters. None in my family is a three wheel-driver. “

“I worked for a private company (multinational company) in Horana for three years as a Supervisor. When my mother fell ill, I lost my job. I looked for jobs but could not find anything suitable. So I ended up as a trishaw driver.

I used to earn Rs.2,000 net profit a day but now it has decreased to about Rs.1,500. There are so many in this business and it has become very competitive.” “I was lured to this job by my friends who are also three wheel drivers. I find this job satisfying and I am my own boss.”