Three Wheeler Owners’ Association refuteS warning | Sunday Observer

Three Wheeler Owners’ Association refuteS warning

Three wheelers, popularly known as tuk tuks are one of the most widely used forms of public transport in Sri Lanka. More convenient than the often overcrowded buses and trains while being cheaper than cabs, three wheelers play a vital role in urban transport.

However, the US Embassy’s decision last week to warn its female citizens visiting Sri Lanka against travelling alone in three wheelers after a spate of alleged sexual harassment reports, have now raised fears within the nearly 800, 000 strong three wheeler industry regarding the negative press statement. With the warning being reported not only in the US but also in many other countries, those in the industry and passengers alike have now expressed their displeasure at the blanket warning issued, claiming that the warning is perhaps an overreaction.

Nevertheless, the warning issued has also again brought into discussion female passenger safety in three wheelers with calls to better ensure the overall safety of women in public transport. However, with claims of such incidents few and far between, the industry is now attempting to minimize the damage caused by the warning while insisting that it be withdrawn before further damage is caused to their livelihood.

False allegations

Chairman, All Island Three Wheeler Owners’ Association (AITWOA), Sudhil Jayaruk, slammed the warning, claiming that allegations of harassment levelled against the industry are completely false. “The reason I say this is that a large number of lone women travel by three wheelers all over Sri Lanka on a daily basis without any incidents,” he says, adding that it is one of the safest and cheapest modes of transport for women in the country.

“In fact, if you ask any female they will tell you that they are taken to their destination in a safe manner and are protected by three wheeler drivers,” he says.

According to him people trust three wheeler drivers with bringing their children home from school, to take a patient to a hospital or to travel back home in the night, so, to claim there is a rising trend of harassment is not only damaging but unfair on them.

Jayaruk claims, a professional three wheeler driver would not seek to harm a passenger. “Many drivers are poor and would not commit such an act which will negatively affect their only livelihood,” he points out, adding that the profession is an honourable one. “The driver’s only focus is to reach the destination and receive the fare as opposed to misbehaving with his passengers, therefore, we refute such allegations” he says.

However, he also drew attention to those owning three wheelers but are not professional three wheeler drivers. “These men are involved in all sorts of criminal activity such as, prostitution and drug peddling,” he says, adding that women should therefore be vigilant when picking a three wheeler to travel in.

Jayaruk pointed out that travellers to the country should also be aware of its culture. “We notice that some visitors engage in various illegal and inappropriate activities,” he says, adding that such travellers are prone to be victimized by people posing as three wheeler drivers.

He questions why this warning comes at a time when foreign taxi companies are attempting to gain a foothold in the local market. “These companies charge passengers less but pay drivers more for hires,” he points out adding that they are attempting to harm the local taxi industry for their benefit. “Warnings such as these will only cater to the needs of these companies,” he pointed out. Foreign tourists will then opt for such companies as opposed to local three wheelers if such security issues are raised, he said.

According to him as opposed to harassment the most common complaint is overcharging of foreigners. “This is the first time we are hearing of a so called spate of harassment incidents,” he says, adding that if so, victims should make official complaints to the authorities.

“Our Police are very strict on wrongdoers and drivers have been punished for overcharging according to the law,” he says requesting that any alleged harassment incidents be reported to the Police for investigation.

Negligible complaints

Despite the various allegations of harassment incidents, according to the Director of the Police Children’s and Women’s Bureau, WSP Lanka Rajani Amarasena, the division has hardly received any such complaint from foreigners in the recent past. This is a fact backed by statistics provided by Police Media Spokesman SP Ruwan Gunasekara.

According to SP Gunasekara only four incidents were reported against three wheeler drivers in 2016 which consisted of, a sexual assault, a sexual harassment, and two incidents of cheating. “In 2017, only three incidents have been reported islandwide, one being a case of sexual harassment and two incidents of cheating,” he said, adding that these drivers were arrested and tried in courts.

Police say, if anyone experienced such harassment or assault of a sexual nature they can always report to the Police Emergency Hotline 119 or the Police Children’s and Women’s Bureau Hotline 011- 2 444 444. Alternatively, victims can also report incidents to the Government’s Women’s Helpline on 1938.

Varying experiences

However, with only a very few complaints being lodged, it is confusing how the embassy claimed there was a spate of incidents within Colombo in connection with three wheeler drivers, as the embassy has refused to explain and comment regarding the incidents referred to in the embassy statement, or provide data behind the decision to release such a statement.

With isolated incidents, the experiences of female passengers in Sri Lankan tuk tuks have been varying.

For a local female who wished to remain anonymous her one time bad experience with a particular three wheeler driver has not stood in the way of her travelling in three wheelers, thereafter. Narrating the incident, she said, the young driver had attempted to strike up a conversation with her, on the way to a business meeting. “He said things like I have a beautiful smile and that I look like a presenter on television” she says, adding that the driver then agreed to wait for her. “I gave him my number and let him wait for the return trip,” she says explaining that it was on the way back that things took a turn for the worse.

“He suggested we go to the beach and talk while holding hands,” she recalls adding that he appeared to think they were now in a relationship. According to her realizing that he was potentially deranged she attempted to take another three wheeler. “However, he then made off with me still in the tuk tuk while he turned and touched my knee,” she says, adding that she threatened to call the Police but never did. Not only was she harassed but was also over charged for the trip, she claims.

Saying she has never faced another such incident despite travelling in three wheelers often, she suggests there should be some regulation on how three wheeler drivers should handle their passengers.

She says, the authorities should be concerned about three wheeler drivers’ lack of road discipline, which has led to a large number of fatal accidents.

Meanwhile, Jordana Narin, a 22 year old from New York who currently works in Sri Lanka says, the US Embassy’s warning for American women to avoid travelling alone in tuk-tuks in Colombo is disagreeable.

“As an American woman I have felt quite safe travelling in tuk tuks. I have only lived in Colombo for a week so far, but I feel secure. She says, while at night when the risk might be higher she continues to use three wheelers but prefers to hail them through smartphone taxi call-up applications.

Retraction needed

While the Ministry of Tourism Development has admitted there may have been some isolated incidents which they are not denying, Ministry officials have claimed they don’t agree with the Embassy on the warning issued.

In this scenario according to the All Island Three Wheel Owners’ Association the only solution to the issue is the retraction of the warning issued by the US Embassy.

“Though they claim the statement is only meant for US nationals, other nationals too pay attention to such warnings which will affect the livelihoods of innocent drivers,” he says adding that therefore, the Association has now requested relevant government authorities to do the needful to mitigate the harm caused by this undue warning.

“Such a warning is unconscionable and our livelihoods will take a hit,” he says asking the US Embassy to retract it. “We have done nothing to deserve this, so it must be rectified,” Jayaruk requests.