17th February 2002

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  • Retired soldier with a creative mission
  • Don't blame the trishaw driver
  • Cheap but unsafe mode of transport
  • Retired soldier with a creative mission

    Defied the odds? Relate your success story

    Do you run a business that is unusual or against all odds? Have you succeeded in life as a small or medium-scale business battling against multinationals and giant local conglomerates and still made it to the top?

    The Sunday Times Business would like to hear from you to highlight your success and the winning formula. Write/ contact the Business Editor, (e-mail or The Sunday Times, 8, Hunupitiya Cross Road, Colombo 2. Telephone: 304179.

    Mahinda Ranasinghe is a determined and energetic man, full of ideas and a demonstrated dexterity with mechanical and electronic equipment. 

    A former soldier - he served in the army's field engineers' regiment - he is an accomplished watch and clock repairer with 25 years of experience, an English teacher and a qualified masseur.

    He is a musician and says he is skilled in masonry and carpentry and also able to repair electronic products. A tool cupboard in the small loft-like room that serves as his workshop-cum-office and bedroom is filled with an assortment of tools. When not teaching, he spends much of his time dreaming and designing. 

    Ranasinghe, a lean and fit 62-year-old with three grown-up children, is looking for ways to manufacture and sell a new clip-on necktie that he has designed and for which he holds a patent.

    "My design is better than the existing clip-on ties," Ranasinghe said in a recent interview at his home in Peliyagoda.

    "It is more firmly held in place and is meant for people who don't know how to tie the knot." According to him, very few people know how to really tie the knot of a necktie.

    He says he made a few sales but was forced to suspend sales because of a lack of working capital. He is now seeking a partner who can support the manufacture and marketing of the new design as well as his other ventures.

    One of these is a multi-channel television antenna that he has designed and says provides better reception than existing models in the market.

    He can operate the antenna with a button set in the wall next to his bed. This is one of many small but useful gadgets that he has put together in his workshop, making use of his flare for designing and technical skills that he says has been with him since childhood. "I may not be rich financially," he says. "But I'm rich in ideas."

    Don't blame the trishaw driver

    Taxi meters - drivers for it
    M. B. M. Musammil, President of the Borella Alliet Place Eksath Three-wheeler Park when contacated by the Sunday Times said: "We endorsed the idea when the former transport minister suggested the idea because we don't have to argue with the customers if we have a meter system"

    His association has over 30 drivers who operate on a shift basis because most of them are employed in government offices. 

    Priyantha Wijesekara, secretary of the Kandy Three-Wheelers' Association and a four-time president, feels that introducing a taxi meter system is good because the commuters will not be cheated. "A lot of people change their fare according to the customer. If he (passenger) is not from the area or looks a bit out of place some people charge about 20 to 30 rupees extra. If they are well dressed and look affluent, they (drivers) increase the fare. So if a meter system is introduced everybody will get a fair price."

    The association has about 2,000 members and they are to discuss the taxi meter issue at their next meeting, according to Wijesekara. "Most of us endorse the idea but it has to be done the proper way. The government will have to take the initiative and pass relevant laws and lay the groundwork. We will not discuss this among ourselves and buy meters. It has to be a uniform decision and must come from the government."

    If this system is implemented, Wijesekara feels their hires will improve because the commuters will trust them on the fare. "They will not be reluctant to get in because they know that we will not charge exorbitantly. That trust is important," he said, in a telephone interview.

    By Naomi Gunasekara
    How often have you got into a three-wheeler having negotiated the price and been asked to pay more because the three-wheeler had to climb a hill or take a somewhat deteriorated route? How often have drivers asked you for more than what you normally pay because of city traffic? And how often have you been fooled by a driver who agrees an amount and later asks for more denying the fact that you agreed for a lower price?

    The answer is: it happens all the time. And at one point or the other most of us have been fooled by the tricks of these trishaw drivers or have been forced to argue with them for whatever it is worth.

    Despite these issues and the continuous allegations made against trishaw drivers for indulging in crime, the three-wheeler industry keeps growing because the three-wheeler serves as a multi-purpose vehicle. 

    From taking one's children to school, going to office, doing the marketing, transporting goods and escaping the city traffic, the three-wheeler does wonders and solves transportation problems for many (especially in areas where bus services are minimal), so much so the former Deputy British High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Martin Hill, drove a trishaw with a DPL number plate to office during his tenure of service in Sri Lanka.

    With the media highlighting the diverse misdeeds carried out by trishaw drivers, and the blame placed by the police on trishaws for causing most of today's fatal accidents, industrial giant David Pieris Motor Company (DPMC), the largest franchised automobile distributor in Sri Lanka for two-wheelers, three-wheelers, cars, vans and tractors, feels that the three-wheeler industry is treated with prejudice.

    In this context, Jagath Kulatunga, General Manager Marketing of the David Pieris Motor Company (DPMC), shared his views on the three-wheeler industry in Sri Lanka, responding to the public discussions generated by The Sunday Times Business pertaining to issues of transport and reducing travel costs by reverting to the taxi meter system.

    DPMC represents world-renowned companies like the Ford Motor Company and Bajaj Auto and Escorts of India. Having sold just two trishaws in 1978 - the year trishaws were introduced to Sri Lanka - today the company sells over 15,000 three-wheelers annually.

    According to Kulatunga, Bajaj three-wheelers have been the most successful self-employment project in Sri Lanka for the past twenty years for it provides sustenance to over 500,000 people by way of direct and indirect employment. "Once you leave out fuel costs and other expenses, a three-wheeler driver earns over Rs. 500 per day. That is over 15,000 per month. Even a junior executive in a company doesn't get as much," he said.

    Addressing the transportation problems in remote areas and being the sole means of transport in the night in areas where public transport is rare, the three-wheeler used by both the middle-class (for purposes of travel) and the small-scale entrepreneur (as a family vehicle cum business companion), three-wheelers help the smooth flowing of the economy by solving the transportation problems of both private and public sector employees.

    Recognising the importance of three-wheelers as means of self-employment and uplifting the standard of living of unemployed youth, 48 financial institutions provide loan facilities to this industry while institutions like Sarvodaya and SANASA too encourage people to buy three-wheelers under various loan schemes.

    According to Kulatunga, the misconception that three-wheelers cause the most number of fatal accidents and road blocks and that three-wheeler drivers engage in criminal activities must be changed because "all three-wheeler drivers are no rapists" and "those who encourage illegal activities are the big businessmen who employ their men as trishaw drivers."

    Hence, to further develop the three-wheeler industry in Sri Lanka the above misconceptions need to be dealt with in a rational manner to ensure customer confidence. "Statistics show that three-wheeler accidents amount to 5 percent of the total number of accidents while vans and jeeps cause the most number of accidents (23 per cent). Three-wheelers take minimum space so they also minimise traffic congestion," he said.

    Although people are led to believe that three-wheeler drivers are dangerous because they are involved in most of the crimes, Kulatunga feels that the crime rate has increased because people see so much crime on TV and has become immune to seeing crime. "People forget that this is a time where fathers rape their own daughters and parents kill their own children. So why the emphasis on the three-wheeler industry?"

    "The Ministry of Health purchased over 40 three-wheelers last year because it is a very convenient and low-cost mode of transport. The Transport Ministry also got over 100. The Women's Affairs Ministry too gave about 25 three-wheelers to female drivers. If trishaw-drivers are all criminals or rapists will these women take to trishaw-driving?" queried Kulatunga who strongly believes that three-wheeler drivers are thought of as criminals when the criminals actually use stolen three-wheelers to commit their misdeeds.

    According to Kulatunga, Sri Lanka imports a vast number of second-hand diesel vehicles, which cause pollution and health hazards. "Between 1990 and 1997 we have imported over 690,000 such vehicles. They use a lot of fuel and cause pollution but the three-wheelers being brand-new don't cause such environmental problems. Besides they don't consume a lot of fuel. We can cut down on fuel imports and save foreign currency if we limit the number of unwanted vehicles coming to Colombo by operating a shuttle service. Cars and vans do about six kilometers per litre whereas three-wheelers do 22 kilometers."
    According to Kulatunga, it is a fallacy to say that three-wheelers create traffic congestion because it is the dual-purpose vehicles that carry one or two people to Colombo and long vehicles like lorries and containers that contribute towards congestion during peak hours. "Drivers are unaware of road regulations. Most of them do not know what the amber light signifies or other basic road rules. Although trishaws are blamed for causing roadblocks it is cars and Pajeros that block the roads. From 7.30 the roads near leading schools get blocked because vehicles are parked all over the road. People who say that trishaws cause traffic congestion are blind to these issues."
    Meter system
    "A meter system is good provided the meters are not tampered with. If there is room for tampering it is the commuters who will suffer. They will not trust the drivers and the whole industry will suffer in return," said Kulatunga when asked if a meter system would help increase customer confidence in three-wheeler drivers.

    "If a meter system is introduced the commuter must have a general idea that taking a trishaw from a particular point to another will cost a particular amount which will not vary. It should be like bus fares. When you get into a Maharagama bus from Colombo you know exactly how much the journey will cost. So if a meter system is introduced to three-wheelers, the prices from one point to another should be uniform," he said.

    According to Kulatunga, if tamper-proof meters are fixed and the drivers go by the meter, then they will get a better income because the commuters will trust them and use three-wheelers more often. "We all prefer to park our vehicles in our office and take a trishaw when we have to go to Fort because it is so difficult to travel in Fort in a car. So what the trishaw drivers have to do is to ensure that they will stick to reasonable prices because commuter confidence will bring them a better income." 

    If the meter system is to be adhered to, the government will have to take steps to implement the programme islandwide and ensure that it is strictly adhered to. "The rate will have to be decided by the government because the rate has to be reasonable and uniform. A body must be appointed to monitor the system and ensure that the commuter is not unfairly treated," he said.

    Referring to the regulatory body he suggested, Kulatunga said it would be better to involve the various trishaw drivers' associations in existence throughout the island, the police and the Registrar of Motor Vehicles in order to ensure that the system is strictly implemented.

    With companies like DPMC endorsing the idea of reverting to a meter system to ensure a better and reasonable service to the commuter one can only hope that law enforcement authorities will consider the suggestion and provide the commuters with some relief.

    Cheap but unsafe mode of transport

    Today the trishaw is the poor man's most convenient mode of transport. It does the job of a car and a lorry. Yet whether it is also the cheapest and the safest is an issue.

    The price of a ride depends solely on the whims of the trishaw driver. Seldom or never will two trishaw drivers quote the same price for the same journey. Due to the lack of meters or a proper regulated pricing system the commuter is at the mercy of the trishaw driver.

    The introduction of meters would actually bring multiple benefits to all. Whilst it will be a real boon to commuters it will also minimise to a great extent the unprecedented number of road accidents caused by trishaws. 

    The dangerous driving at breakneck speed, wending in and out of traffic lanes, driving on the sidewalk in their haste to overtake other vehicles - all these evils would diminish, as metered fares would be determined by mileage and time. 

    The safety of passengers would be assured and road traffic would be more disciplined. In the good old days one could enjoy a carefree ride in a yellow-topped taxi without undue stress on the purse. Let us hope that the authorities will endeavor to give the poor man a more safer, cheaper and conveniently reliable mode of transport in the future by introducing meters to trishaws.

    Monica de Alwis

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