Gurbe Scheenstra – a difficult name for an average Sri Lankan to pronounce. It is not a commonly known name even in Gurbe’s home country – the Netherlands. He is the Country Head of ISM APAC (Pvt) Ltd – Sri Lanka branch of a multinational company in the IT/BPO industry. The company has also been [...]

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Tuk-tuk driver who wanted a “future”


Gurbe Scheenstra – a difficult name for an average Sri Lankan to pronounce. It is not a commonly known name even in Gurbe’s home country – the Netherlands. He is the Country Head of ISM APAC (Pvt) Ltd – Sri Lanka branch of a multinational company in the IT/BPO industry. The company has also been recognised last year as a “Best Company in Sri Lanka for 2017” by Great Place to Work Institute Sri Lanka.

Recently, one fine evening we met and spent few hours discussing about many things – about Sri Lanka, about Netherlands, and about us, our work and many other things.

On one instance, he spoke with appreciation about one of his young employees who previously happened to be a tuk-tuk driver in the Colombo city. After seeing a newspaper advertisement for an office assistant vacancy at ISM APAC company, he turned up for the job interview.

Gurbe has asked him “what was his income from tuk-tuk hires?” – About Rs. 50,000 a month! Apparently, the next question was that “why do you want to give it up for a job which wouldn’t give you even half of that?” His reply: “I want to have a future!”

He got the job and, gave up the tuk-tuk hires. Since then, according to Gurbe, he has performed his duties well above the required standards and, never disappointed the company management. I wondered how many of our young tuk-tuk drivers would have a similar understanding about what they do and a boldness to make a change to their life.

Choosing the destiny

I know a couple of families who have bought tuk-tuks. One of them was eagerly waiting until their son turned 18 years of age entering to adulthood to bless him with a tuk-tuk! A school dropout, the son’s joy on getting a tuk-tuk was as if he won the whole world. He decorated it according to his specifications and standards and, got a Hi-Fi sound system fixed.

What his parents didn’t know was that it could be a curse rather than a blessing. With this gift, the parents have knowingly or unknowingly fixed their son’s entire future on being a “tuk-tuk driver.”

Let me elaborate my point which I shared at different occasions, sometimes even with tuk-tuk owners. Unless the young adults driving tuk-tuks do not realise it themselves, they have made a choice to be “tuk-tuk drivers” or just “drivers” for their entire life. By their own choice, they have decided to shut down any opportunity that they can have to continue with their education or to acquire skills in any vocational area.

My road, my style

There is, however, more to add to the tuk-tuk story. Not only will they not develop their vocational skills, but also they don’t receive any exposure to a formal world of work. Consequently, they hardly acquire discipline and soft-skills they require to progress in the working world. They haven’t worked under authority; as a result, they hardly have a sense of the importance of working under authority with respect and honour.

For them it is all about “my style”. They make money, and thanks to our sub-standard public transport system, there is a growing demand for tuk-tuk transportation.

They spend more time idling on roads and junctions irrespective of how it blocks others’ way. Long ago, I learnt that an “idle mind is the workshop of the devil” – no wonder why young tuk-tuk drivers drag into various activities which bring about destruction to themselves as well as to the society.

They all have lots of stories to tell you too about either their experience with or about their engagement in activities in the “dark side” of the society; drinking, drugs, rape, prostitution, crimes and other. Going in a tuk tuk recently, I listened to the driver who kept explaining to me about his experience as a tuk- tuk driver in Colombo.

As we slowed down due to a traffic jam, he got little uneasy; even with his zig-zag he was caught up in the traffic jam and, tried to creep through vehicles between two lanes. While scolding the driver of one vehicle which blocked his way, he then drove on the pavement, explaining to me his own version of traffic rules:

“If those of us who can go through are allowed to go Sir, then there will be no traffic! This traffic is there, because they block our way!”

The traffic policeman standing on the pavement, also stepped back giving him the way to drive through. When rules are not enforced, everyone will have their own rules!

Tuk Tuk registration

Annually there were around 100,000 new three-wheelers registered in Sri Lanka until 2015, but the new registration declined significantly during the last two years due to the increase in import duties. In 2017 there were only 29,000 new three wheelers registered.

File picture of a female tuk-tuk driver.

The decline in three wheeler registration confirms that it is no longer affordable to the lower middle class families as the average unit price has increased from around Rs. 500,000 to Rs. 750,000.

According to official data, there are over 1 million three wheelers in the country. There is no doubt that the three wheel fleet in the country provides a convenient mode of transportation in both urban and rural sectors. Although three wheelers have become an irritation to road discipline and traffic order in the urban setting, their service is invaluable in urban suburbs and rural areas, especially from main roads to the interiors.

Informal transport system

The three wheel transport system is an “informal” transport system for which demand has increased largely due to the sluggish performance in the formal public transport system. In fact over the past many years, there has been no visible improvement in our public transport system. Neither is there any plan to introduce higher standards and mechanisms of public transport system.

As the country grows, the three wheel transportation is likely to shrink as people shift to higher public transport system and private motor cars. Until such time, the tuk-tuk culture will exist and, in fact, expand in Sri Lanka.

There is no regulatory framework for this informal transport system. What you need is just a driving license and a tuk-tuk only. However, tuk tuk drivers have organised themselves into associations and trade unions, so that they can create and enforce their own regulations to defend their rights and privileges.

Fall in unemployment

You would be amazed to notice Sri Lanka’s falling unemployment rate, which is now as low as 4 percent by the fourth quarter of 2017 – one of the lowest in the world.

If you know the “interrelationships” among economic variables, I am sure you would question why our economy looks like a “dancing floor of drunkards” – they move here and there and everywhere without a pattern.

Low unemployment does not go with low GDP growth rate, slower per capita income growth, stagnant investment flows, and declining export ratios. Our unemployment is low, because a significant portion of our productive labour is in the wrong places.

In terms of numbers, the unemployed population in Sri Lanka is 342,000 only, while it is largely “educated unemployment.” This means that the higher the level of education, the greater the possibility of being unemployed. If there has been no tuk-tuk culture in Sri Lanka, then you need to add one million more to our unemployed population; then, the rate of unemployment would rise to more than 15 per cent! Thanks should be extended to our sub-standard public transport system, which has created a demand for informal transport systems such as tuk-tuks and, they keep our unemployment rate down.

The young adults who make numerous informal occupational choices including “tuk tuk driving” doesn’t seem to be making irrational decisions! People respond rationally to “incentive systems”. Policies of a country can create incentive systems to keep the country under-developed as well.

(The writer is an Economics Professor at the Colombo University)

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