The friendly neighbourhood Tuk-Tuk found itself in a spot of trouble last week, when the United States Embassy issued a travel advisory to US Citizens travelling in Sri Lanka warning them against errant trishaw drivers. It advised US citizens maintain situational awareness of increasing incidents involving trishaw drivers, especially in Colombo, inappropriately touching female passengers. In a security message posted in their website, the embassy published a guideline for female US citizens to adhere to when visiting Colombo, such as avoid travelling in trishaws alone in Colombo- “If you have to travel alone (especially at night) use a company that tracks your ride rather than trishaws and make sure family members or friends know your travel plans,” the statement said. Many of the reported incidents occurred at the end of a ride, the embassy stated, encouraging travellers to use registered companies providing trishaw taxi services. Travellers opting to use tuk-tuks were requested to note the registration plate before boarding and also to snap a photo of the driver. In an island where public transportation is a burdensome affair, tuk-tuks are the preferred choice of travel for many who opt to travel safe and free. Stepping out into rush hour traffic, one could see dozens of women hailing trishaws to get home in the evening hours, regardless of advisories issued. The travel advisory issued by the US embassy ruffled a few feathers, with many questioning the safety of women travelling alone in trishaws. The Daily Mirror spoke to several representatives concerned with the issue, to elaborate on the matter.
‘Conspiracy to disrupt local trishaw services’
All Island Three Wheel Owners Association, Sudhil Jayaruk
Speaking on the advisory issued by the US embassy Chairman of the All Island Three Wheel Owners’ Association, Sudhil Jayaruk said that the Association cannot accept such statements. “We have been in service of hundreds of passengers for decades. There have rarely been any reports of women being harassed by trishaw drivers in the country and local officials have never made any statements as such. Therefore we question the grounds on which this statement was made,” Jayaruck said.
“Foreign women who visit our country are respectable women. But there are also women who misbehave and expect the driver to encourage their behaviour. A foreign woman being harassed in a trishaw is unheard of. But the tourism industry on the other hand is plagued with misdeeds and we have heard of countless reports where foreigners have been harassed or even murdered. Why are trishaw drivers being targeted?” he questioned.
“In my experience as a three wheel driver, I have met foreign women who expect the driver to engage and encourage in various illicit activities. If the driver is coerced by the passenger, it cannot be the fault of the driver.” Jayaruck added however that it was the responsibility of the driver to act in a responsible manner faced with such a situation where the passenger makes unethical demands.
Sudhil Jayaruck states that the US Embassy has made this statement on baseless allegations. “If there were such reports, there is a tourist police in every major city, where the officers have acted in unbiased and fair way. The police have assisted countless foreigners who were in need and resolved their issues promptly.
Therefore we need evidence and an account of the incidents where they claim that women have been harassed by three wheeler drivers, or else they should rectify or withdraw their statement” he said.
Jayaruck is of the belief that an external force is at play in a masterful plan to disrupt the local trishaw services.
"A foreign woman being harassed in a trishaw is unheard of. When such statements are made, the message is spread around the world, and it is a disgrace"
“When such statements are made, the message is spread around the world, and it is a disgrace. Other countries pay attention and take similar precautions. We admit that there are drug peddlers, pimps and criminals who also drive three wheelers to aid their activities. However I view this statement as an attempt to disrupt trishaw services in the island. This is an incident where the embassy has made the allegations or complaints public. There are powerful countries which have deployed their taxi services in Sri Lanka. This is an act of the taxi mafia. It is not unheard of and there have been similar reports from other countries where these international taxi operators were engaged in similar conspiracies.
In his comments Jayaruck also stressed on the need for government intervention.
“This is precisely why we have demanded for regulations to be implemented. We have sought the intervention of the Minister of Transport to discuss this issue with the US embassy. They should realise that there are close to 800,000 trishaw drivers in the island and any attempt to disrupt their income would result in grave consequences,”
Jayaruck warned, adding that the association would resort to trade union action if a favourable solution is not agreed upon.
‘Regulatory mechanism being formulated’
National Council for Road Safety (NCRS)
Chairman Dr.Sisira Kodagoda
The Daily Mirror also approached the National Council for Road Safety (NCRS) Chairman Dr. Sisira Kodagoda, to query his stance on the issue.
“As soon as the issue was brought to my attention, I sought an audience with several representatives of the trishaw drivers unions. We discussed their concerns. I have to admit that there are shortcomings in local trishaw drivers. Several incidents have been reported especially during evenings that were brought to our attention. All passengers will not agree with demands of a trishaw driver and disputes can take place. However, we have requested for more information from the US embassy, providing a detailed account of such instances,” Dr. Kodagoda said.
“The US embassy has a responsibility to inform the Foreign Affairs Ministry, or the Transport Ministry if such issues were brought to their notice. As far as I know, they have not reported to either of the ministries and have directly issued this message to the media. In this instance, the US embassy has taken responsibility to warn their own citizens,” Dr. Kodagoda elaborated.
The NCRS Chairman insisted that there is a pertinent need to address these issues. “ We have requested information from the embassy reasoning the statement to rectify these problems. There are drivers who engage in the taxi service as a part time activity. A system is being formulated to address this issue to identify part time drivers. I will submit a letter to the embassy secretary, requesting more information and reasoning to rectify the issue. We have to assure the safety of all passengers of the country, regardless of their gender or nationality,” he said.
"The US embassy has a responsibility to inform the Foreign Affairs Ministry, or the Transport Ministry if such issues were brought to their notice. As far as I know, they have not reported to either of the ministries and have directly issued this message to the media. In this instance, the US embassy has taken responsibility to warn their own citizens"
It is evident from comments we gathered that issue does not lie in the quality of trishaw drivers, but the absence of a mechanism to monitor and regulate trishaw drivers. In the 2017 budget speech delivered by the then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, it was noted there was approximately 1.3 million three wheelers operating on our roads. “The vacuum in the regulatory mechanism has resulted in the industry growing haphazardly” he added. Despite his proposal to introduce a regulatory mechanism and the issuing of a gazette with new rules to come into effect by April, we see no positive change on the streets. It is unfortunate that authorities are reminded of the requisite regulation of this trusted and reliable mode of transport, only when a blanket warning is issued by a foreign embassy.
‘A problem of the authorities’ own making’
All Island Three wheeler Drivers’ Union, Lalith Dharmasekara
Speaking to the Daily Mirror, the All Island Three wheeler Drivers’ Union President Lalith Dharmasekara said that he will not give any validity to the US statement.
We have dealt with such issues since 1999. Our association has brought countless proposals not only to the Western Provincial Council but the consecutive governments and ministers of transport, to regulate the trishaw drivers’ profession.
There have been various recommendations, gazette notifications and committees and advisory panels established since then, promising to champion the rights of the trishaw driver. Decades have lapsed and we still have no framework to regulate the industry,” Dharmasekara lamented.
“In 2009, when Nandana Gunathilake was the Tourism Minister, the tourist friendly tuk-tuk concept was launched. Trishaws drivers were identified and trained. They had to complete a course where they were taught English. They were given hospitality service training and their trishaws were branded as a tourist friendly tuk-tuk.
“We were identified as a vital part of the hospitality industry and were a part of such programmes. But all our efforts, time and motivation have been wasted and it was yet another abandoned project” Dharmasekara said.
"In 2009, when Nandana Gunathilake was the Tourism Minister, the tourist friendly tuk-tuk concept was launched. Trishaws drivers were identified and trained. They had to complete a course where they were taught English. They were given hospitality service training and their trishaws were branded as a tourist friendly tuk-tuk"
The President of the union charged that the present government was no different as they have not implemented any of their promised changes. “All top officials have been boasting that they would bring about change, the very next day. Gazettes were printed at the beginning of this year stating that regulations would come into effect by April. Six months have lapsed and nothing has happened,”
“Whatever regulation there is, it has been created by us. We introduced metrers as a self-regulatory measure. The Consumer Affairs Authority admits that they have no power to address the grievances of the commuter. This is why I can’t accept charges of harassment. Such negative publicity is not healthy and this would result in detrimental consequences. We have made our stance clear and demanded for regulatory authorities to every tourism minister during the last two decades. Trishaws were a promotional tool the government intended to use in the tourism industry. Today, trishaws have become the very reason causing negative attention to the island’s tourism industry. It is high time that the government realised the importance of regulations and take our demands seriously. The advisory issued by the US embassy is a result of complete ignorance by authorities and we cannot be held responsible for this,” Dharmasekara opined.
The Daily Mirror also found several messages posted on the popular travel website tripadvisor on the forum of safety and travel in tuk-tuks. Among the many positive experiences of travellers using tuk-tuks for their journeys, the concerns raised were mostly about foreign travellers being fleeced by drivers. The website also had a post about travelling in Sri Lanka in trishaws with a special guide for women. Other popular travel websites such as Lonely Planet also had forums for discussion on the same topic, where travellers felt that scams were a more severe problem than their safety. Several attempts to contact officials at the Ministry of Tourism, to query their stance on the issue, failed.