Decorated tuk tuks a thing of the past, soon | Sunday Observer

Decorated tuk tuks a thing of the past, soon

The three wheel wisdom or the three wheel humour, call it what you may, has earned a special place and popularity in its own right among locals and tourists in Sri Lanka. This subculture, however, is destined to go under the axe by the turn of this year.

The government has instructed that additional stickers and accessories on three wheelers must be removed since they are a cause of accidents, among other things.

Despite the given justifications to ban it, colourfully decorated tuk tuks have not failed to inspire every road user - the young and the old alike, all these years. It has also been a tourism promotion tool. Just like the intricately painted trucks in Pakistan that is famous the world over, decorated tuk tuks in Sri Lanka have made a name for their fun aspect and a tuk tuk ride in Sri Lanka is on top of the ‘must do’ list of every fun loving tourist.

The regulators justify the move saying it is a cause of accidents. They say, the stickers and the modifications are a distraction for the traffic police officers on duty. “The law had been in existence since 1996, prohibiting additional paintings and stickers on any vehicle. It’s just that it was not strictly enforced by the Traffic Police,” DIG Traffic, Chula De Silva told the Sunday Observer.

The law is to be enforced in particular, for auto trishaws (tuk tuks) from this year. (Trucks and private buses plying the roads too have decorations and stickers.)

This means, sticker-adorned auto trishaws, appearing from nowhere to give you spontaneous fits of laughter, after a long dull day at work, will be no more. Without these attractions the tourists will hardly remember that ‘tuk tuk ride’ in Sri Lanka, which they had been yearning for, during holiday trips in Paradise Island.

However bizarre and paradoxical the statements on auto trishaws one may find, it is not hard to relate to the stories behind the three wheel slogans. Most of these slogans preach piousness, morality or more popularly a lesson in life. Such as, “Kello nothing yaluwo anything” (girls are immaterial friends are valuable) or something like Salli gaswala hedunoth, kello wandurantath luv Karai (If money grows on trees women will love even monkeys). Obviously, the man behind this particular slogan has had a very bitter experience involving a member of the fair sex.

Apart from the humour, behind this colourful craze is a vast industry providing livelihoods to over 100,000 locals directly. “In addition, there are many indirect beneficiaries,” the All Ceylon Three Wheeler Accessories & Spare Parts Manufacturers’ and Dealers’ Association President, Y.M.Nassar told the Sunday Observer.

He said, the government’s decision to impose a curtain ban on three-wheel slogans and modifications is a major blow on his industry. “Thousands would be rendered jobless if the regulations are implemented as planned,” he warned.

This is an area of occupation mostly involving the lower strata of society, whose standard of living has been uplifted due to the jobs created and they are not depending on government support anymore because they have a dignified income, according to Nassar.

Many locals have set up their own businesses and factories to manufacture accessories, decorations and modifications from stickers to side mirror covers, steel buffers, seat covers, number plate stands, antennas, and so on. They are of Sri Lankan make, not imported from China or India. These factories are scattered islandwide including in Galle, Thalangama, Kottawa and Wellampitiya.

“While there is no known effort to limit the import of three wheelers from India as a solution for road safety, we cannot understand the rationale behind trying to deprive the local entrepreneurs by shunning the use of the decorations,” Nassar opined.

“We are as good as dead if the said regulations are enforced by the government” he lamented. “I started a local three wheel manufacturing plant years ago, before the Indian products invaded the market, but without state patronage this factory closed down. I lost Rs.250 million. It will be the end of the road for us if the current law comes into effect,” he explained, saying that he is not in a position to suffer another financial blow.

“The government is our mother and father, if they fail to look after us, who will?” Nassar asked.

“Why is it always the small guy who gets targeted by state regulation,” the elderly owner of Barakath Traders at Maligawatte asked, referring to the law that is in the offing. He is one of the oldest three wheel accessory shop owners in the locality.

“If the decorations are an eyesore, why would they promote tuk tuk safaris and races as tourist attractions? The authorities fail to see the potential of our business, don’t they realise that the ordinary three wheelers are not attractive?,” he questioned.

These wisdom phrases on three-wheelers give an insight into the man behind the wheel, Jeevithe Mal Amma Innakal (Life is a bed of roses till your mother lives) is a common slogan frequently used, derived from a song by the popular local musical band, Sun Flowers.

Some three wheelers are a loud statement of the owner’s innocent obsession. It could be over the revered reggae legend Bob Marley or fictional Captain Sparrow of the popular American fantasy swashbuckler film Pirates of the Caribbean. On a different note, this passion speaks of one’s religious faith, often Islam. For others it is a revolution, an obsession with the legacy of Argentine revolutionary leader Ernesto Che Guevara. “Che wants you to rebel” is a catchy phrase you would not miss on the road any given day – but you must excuse the odd spelling.

Such crazy passion is manifested by sketches of their favourite theme adorning every possible corner of their tuk tuk, from seat covers to sun shields and mud guards to side mirror flaps.

A few such catchy slogans that caught my attention on the road…’Why fight the inevitable’,’Stand up for your rights’, ‘Your envy is my success’, ‘Some job is better than no job’, ‘Let’s get together and feel alright’, ‘Patience has its rewards’, ‘Love is hard and will always be’, ‘Money is full of pain’, Genu kalisamata heda wunata, pirimi cheetta endama kethai bro – Trousers on women are fine but not the lungi on men..Salli neththam yaluwoth ne, kelloth ne, Amma neththam mekath ne – No friends or girls if no money, I will not have this (three wheeler) if not for mother.

“There are even drug addicts trying to find a decent living here, than engaging in pick pocketing in the city or small time robbery. If this industry shuts down, how will they survive?,” asked M.Saleel, the owner of a sticker shop at Bodhiraja Mawatha, Colombo.

Bodhiraja Mawatha near Kettarama is where three wheelers from every nook and corner call over to get their new look, a complete transformation before they hit the road. The sticker shops, modifications and cushions are all done in tune with the owner’s taste.

Even ‘used’ auto trishaws are done up here so that it is more appealing to a new buyer. According to Saleel not just three wheelers, but vehicles belonging to the police department and other government agencies come here for a catchy phrase or an image. It is a custom popular among the rich and the powerful as well.

The private sector and the Rights organizations too, exploit Sri Lanka’s tuk tuks for their campaigns as it is a popular and a conspicuous mode of transport, referred to as the poor man’s luxury.

“I have two employees in my shop. They are both married with kids. They are educated but are happy to settle with this modest job,” Saleel said worried that he might have to show them the road if his business closes down.

According to the All Island Three Wheel Drivers’ and Owners’ Association, President Sudil Jayaruk, the new set of guidelines on extra stickers and wordings should be amended as regulations on ‘indecent decorations and phrases’.

“We support the government’s move if the regulations are only on indecent images and wordings but asking to remove all decorations is an injustice,” he said.

Pix Saman Sri Wedage