Tales of a Tuk Tuk Driver

‘Doctors will rarely ask whether or not you have committed a crime, what your profession is, or how much money you make. They will look at your position inthe line, call out your number, ask for symptoms, produce a diagnosis, and move on to the next person. Lawyers on the other hand, can afford to ask you whether you are innocent, what you do, and how much you are willing to pay. Depending on your answers they will decide whether or not to represent you. 

Tuk tuk drivers must be like doctors. They must take anyone, and everyone, wherever they want to go. Theirs is a job that is fuelled by luck.’

It is clear that the number of three wheelers in Colombo has dramatically increased over the past few years.  In fact the streets seem to be swarming with them.  Parallel to this, since the end of the war, night-time adventures like trips to theatres, restaurants and clubs, have risen because people are no longer afraid to stay outdoors after dark. Safety concerns have considerably lowered.

However, it is odd that public transportation has not seen similar results.

Why then has the number of three wheelers risen? Is it because we now have more places to visit that deviate from the regular bus route? Or – for the average middle and upper  middle class citizen - more money to spend and seemingly less ‘valuable’ time to waste?

Prior to writing this article, these were questions and answers that arose from pure conjecture. Though cases of supply and demand are intrinsically linked and often cyclical in nature, I could only speculate reasons for an increase in demand, while I remained at a greater loss for the rising ‘supply’ of three wheeler services.

I arrived at a simple solution: I thought I’d ask a few tuk tuk drivers. 

Out of the drivers that I spoke to, some said that they had been in the profession for a considerable amount of time; between 5 to 15 years.  Many had initially joined because the vocation brought with it a sense of independence, the freedom to choose their own work hours and routes, as well as the pride of owning their own vehicle.

Most people think that travelling in a tuk tuk is for the privileged. But the truth is the tuk tuk is driven by the poor person. It is also driven for the poor person.’ Driving a tuk tuk gives the driver the flexibility of dropping their children at school, the ability to carry things to and from their homes, to travel through narrow, secluded roads and the privilege of doing something they love all day.

Other drivers who have joined the tuk tuk race within the last 2-3 years echoed similar reasons for their choice of profession. A variety of explanations emerged however, when the following questions were posed:  what did you do before becoming a tuk tuk driver? How did you purchase your three wheeler? And why do you think competition has increased so much over the past few years?

Several replied that they had been engaged in small business activities - the sale of food and beverages from the back of their vans; the exchange of plastic and aluminium materials on the pavements; some had been street vendors selling wholesale  goods across Colombo- but now their shops had been cleared, relocated or discouraged due to urban beautification efforts. Others, who once ran small shops, were adversely affected by economic fluctuations in the country. A few others replied that they had moved out of garment industries, manufacturing companies, saw mills, government offices, IT departments, and other lucrative posts on pension, or due to low/no pay.

A great many of them had already owned a three wheeler, for personal and business purposes. These were immediately put to use on the streets once their luck turned. Since then, they have been struggling to make ends meet with an occupation that had once appeared to be profitable, and easy to tap in to.

In the past two years, local banks and finance schemes have caught on to this ready market of aspiring three wheeler drivers. By allowing them to pay back their loans in instalments, the purchase of a tuk tuk has become easier. This initiative is commendable as it creates job opportunities for hundreds of people who would otherwise be left unemployed. Yet, the irony is that both these loan schemes and the latest models of three wheelers, which are being imported into the country, have the average life span of four to five years.

‘Once the loan scheme is fully paid off, it will be time for me to trade in for a new one. If I am lucky, I will only have to repair and restore parts. If I’m unlucky, between now and then, I’ll have to take out another loan for something else. With or without your three wheeler, the payments go on.’ Along with these schemes, it is also rumoured that large numbers of three wheelers are being provided at substantially reduced rates by politicians and other influential persons.  Therefore, it is hardly surprising that in addition to looking for fulltime jobs, many three wheeler drivers have also taken to the occupation part time -running solely morning and afternoon shifts, or alternating between the day and night - while juggling other jobs in restaurants, public services, and other industries, to earn extra cash.

Moreover, the promise of a demand for three wheelers, in a city that has become dependent on such a service, has brought in an influx of out of town tuk tuk drivers. Many bring children to school, and men and women to work, and with them, a sizeable contribution to the growing numbers of three wheelers running in Colombo. Interestingly enough, their presence has been further facilitated by the introduction of meters to the tuk tuk trade. A comparatively recent initiative, the meter, aside from trying to introduce a sense of fairness and standard to prices, also attempted to draw three wheelers out of their parks and on to the streets. With this new piece of machinery, people have no longer become reliant on parks and familiar faces, but are more trusting and accepting of often unknown three wheeler drivers.

Strikingly, in relation to this new mechanism of ‘fairness’, most three wheeler drivers adamantly disputed their assurance of equality. Out of town drivers, various other drivers and taxi companies were said to be driving for lower (and sometimes higher) prices per kilometre. They could afford the reduced petrol rates outside of Colombo, and were keen on attracting more customers. Repeated suggestions were made that meter rates be standardised, albeit with the understanding that fuel fluctuations should proportionately tally with the meter rate requirements. 

Above all, the three wheel drivers submitted that ‘any policy changes that are made should be both sustainable and current’. Promises which have been made in the past regarding petrol subsidies, remain unfulfilled and difficult to implement, and speed limits that have been allocated for three wheelers have long since been surpassed on the speedo-meters of newer models. Prices for three wheelers, largely due to tax, have dramatically risen in the last few years. While prices for simple parts, remain far above that of their counterparts in India and China.

‘Development should take place without harassment’. Though the conversion of roads to a one-way system has resulted in the price displayed on tuk tuk meters rising, at the same time they have made drivers travel around in circles, miss pick up opportunities and waste large amounts of petrol. Likewise, as roads are being widened, the space tuk tuk parks occupy are being encroached on.  This gradually threatens to keep them running all the time or completely forces them off the road.

The instances and the frequency in which a three wheeler presents itself in Colombo’s everyday scenery, consciously, or unconsciously, has made the three wheeler ever proliferating and iconic. Despite the fact that many drivers have left behind their former jobs, or entered this job due to lack of economic security, as the competition between three wheelers continues to grow, they are finding themselves re-entering a state of uncertainty. Living on daily wages, each morning, for the most part, they must wake up and get on the road.

One day away from the wheel, can mean one week without a meal.’ It remains an occupation of luck and chance. Three wheel drivers are increasingly aware that for every rapid growth, there is a saturation point.

The next time you get on a tuk, be sure to ask your driver for his story. Because everyone has a tale. 

Read 38691 times Last modified on Monday, 20 October 2014 04:08

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