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The United States Embassy in Colombo recently issued a warning to US tourists to avoid travelling alone in three-wheelers, after a spate of sexual harassment complaints. In the security message posted on its website, the US Embassy in Colombo further said that it has been made aware of an increase in incidents involving tuk-tuk drivers in the Colombo area inappropriately touching female passengers.

“Females should avoid travelling in tuk-tuks alone in Colombo,” the message warned. The message further advised US citizens in Sri Lanka to use a three-wheeler taxi company that tracks the ride if they have to travel alone, especially at night. The Embassy recommended riders ‘take pictures of the tuk driver and vehicle licence plate’ prior to getting in. The message further recommended using ‘force if needed – make noise, be assertive, and strike back’ to defend oneself.

The message was met with mixed reactions by the Transport and Tourism Development and Christian Religious Affairs Ministries as well three-wheeler drivers’ unions and the general public. In reaction to the message representatives of three-wheeler associations staged a protest outside the US Embassy in Colombo on July 3 calling for the withdrawal of the travel warning. “If the travel warning is not withdrawn, we would stage a larger protest outside the US Embassy,” a representative had reportedly said.

No complaints

Minister of Tourism Development and Christian Religious Affairs, John Amaratunga in a statement to Xinhua said that he has not received a single complaint regarding the issue. He claimed that it is an act of sabotage, that there have been some cases of harassment but insinuated that the issue has been blown out of proportion. “Not even the embassies have complained to me.”

Secretary, Ministry of Transport & Civil Aviation, Nihal Somaweera speaking to Nation said that the ministry was not informed by the US Embassy of such safety issues.
Attorney-at-Law, Superintendent of Police, Ruwan Gunasekara informed that complaints regarding harassments of foreigners while travelling by motor tricycles are very low. “According to him only four complaints were made in 2016. “They are one sexual harassment, an assault and two minor incidents. Only three incidents have been reported so far in 2017, a sexual harassment complaint, robbery and one minor incident.” He informed that all suspects have been arrested.

Tuk-tuk take

A three-wheeler diver working in Borella declared that he is not worried about the message issued by the Embassy as tourists are few and there are enough local passengers for him to make a living. “Not many Americans visit Sri Lanka. Americans who travel by three-wheeler are very few. So, we shouldn’t be bothered,” he said.
Three-wheeler driver, Sherly Francis Silva said that such claims are baseless. “Many foreigners were killed and harassed in hotels and night clubs. Nobody talks about that. Three-wheelers had nothing to do with that,” Silva argued. “This is some crap to promote three-wheeler taxi company business. I have been driving for 30 years now. I’ve never heard of any such harassment,” he said. “Whether the passenger is a local or a foreigner we treat them alike. In fact, sometimes we care more about foreigners because we feel a sense of responsibility towards them,” Silva said reiterating the fact that it is their duty to prove their innocence of such unreliable rumours.

He rebuked that the message may have been posted on the Embassy site with the intention of rendering three-wheeler drivers jobless while attempting to promote companies that earn through exploiting three-wheeler drivers’ labour.

Negative perception

Vice President-Communications, Digital Mobility Solutions Lanka (PVT) Ltd, Portia Ratnayake pointed out that although the hype about the safety of travelling in tuks was created by the recent warning issued by the US Embassy, the general perception of local three-wheelers held by tourists has not been favourable.

“This is due to the fact that the local taxi industry has hardly ever been regulated; though it has always been an integral part of Sri Lanka’s tourism industry and the local economy at large. The warning therefore only seems fair,” opined Ratnayake, while also admitting that it has made the country look bad, in the process.

Three-wheeler driver, Silva explained that though the public perspective of three-wheeler drivers were bad 20 years ago, the situation has changed now, as driving a three-wheeler has become a profession with more educated people engaged in the profession. Another three-wheeler driver working in the heart of Colombo pointed out that there is no cause for worry when a three-wheeler from a stand is hired. According to him safety becomes an issue when a three-wheeler without proper identification is hailed.

No responsible authority

According to Chairman, All Island Three-wheeler Drivers’ Union, Lalith Dharmasena, the main reason for inappropriate behaviour on the part of the drivers is that there is no proper institution to take responsibility for three-wheelers.

“Though there are more than 1.3 million three-wheelers in the country, at least 10 per cent of them are not registered in any union. Three-wheelers have been used in Sri Lanka for more than 38 years. Yet an authority responsible for the regulation of three-wheelers has not yet been established,” pointed out Dharmasena.

“The industry should be properly streamlined. Under the current setup anyone can become a tuk driver as there is no responsibility attached to the profession. There is an urgent need for government intervention.”

He explained that revoking the Association membership of a driver over misbehaviour is like a slap on the wrist. “Because he can still drive. This industry needs a monitoring system where undisciplined drivers are punished more severely,” Dharmasena added.
Darmasena said that since All Island Three-wheeler Drivers’ welfare Association was established in 2002 they have taken many steps to ensure the discipline of tuk drivers. Introducing meters in January 2005 in order to attract, protect the commuter and the industry and introducing uniforms to member drivers are some of the steps taken by the Association to ensure safety of three-wheeler passengers.

New regulations

According to Officer in Charge of Motor Tricycle Management Regulation Project, Jeevinda Keerthirathna management regulation for three-wheelers is in the process of being implemented. He assured that the Gazette Extraordinary on Motor Traffic (Motor Tricycle) will provide solutions to many three-wheeler related security issues.

According to the Gazette Extraordinary on Motor Traffic (Motor Tricycle) Regulations, No. 2001/2 published on January 9, 2017, when a motor tricycle is used for the purpose of carrying persons or goods for fee or reward, information such as registration number; name and driving licence number of driver; a photograph of driver (size : 65×50 millimetres) telephone numbers of the respective police stations where the vehicle is registered should be displayed behind the driver’s seat for the benefit of the passenger.