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The commencement of passenger transport by Three Wheelers that are operating at present in Sri Lanka dates back to the latter part of 1978. Consequent to the open economic policies introduced to Sri Lanka by the Government of that period, vast changes took place in all sectors, including employment, goods and services. The Three Wheeler hiring service too can be named as one such sector.

The vehicle that had become most popular as a hiring car at that time was the Morris Minor. That taxi service was operated by single owners and institutions owning a number of such vehicles, employing drivers.

The Three Wheeler was introduced to that hiring car service as a smaller vehicle that fulfills the transport needs of the people by providing a cheaper service to them. This introduction proved to be successful, as a Three Wheeler could be bought at a comparatively cheaper price than a car and due to various other reasons such as fuel efficiency and being easy to use and maintain.

Intervention by David Pieris & Company and Hebtulabhoy & Company 

The single honor of introducing this vehicle to Sri Lanka should go to Mr. David Pieris who was a Director of Richard Pieris & Company at that time and presently the Chairman of David Pieris Motor Company Limited.

He imported Three Wheelers from the Bajaj Company in India at that time and was successful in introducing the Three Wheeler as a hiring car service in collaboration with Hebtulabhoy & Company which had earned much goodwill in Sri Lanka as a successful Enterprise. It is said that this service commenced with 2 Three Wheelers.

It was under the personal supervision of Mr. David Pieris that initially drivers with a valid licence for driving heavy vehicles were given a special training in driving Three Wheelers and provided with the necessary recommendations.

Daily fee and standard

Those drivers who obtained such certificates were initially provided with Three Wheelers to engage in passenger transport by Hebtulabhoy & Company on the basis of their making a daily payment of Rs. 10/-.

It should be mentioned in particular, that it was compulsory at that time for Three Wheelers to be painted in yellow and black and to have a meter indicating the fare whilst the drivers had to wear specific attire.

These Three Wheelers which entered the transport fleet soon became very popular amongst the people by providing their services at a charge less than that of other hiring vehicles at that time.

It is said, that due to this very reason strong opposition and displeasure against Three Wheelers arose amongst the drivers of hired minor vehicles and at times ended up with physical assaults. The reason for their opposition has today become a reality and the Three Wheelers have completely taken over this transport service with the elimination of the original hiring car service.

We should examine deeply the course of action adopted by Hebtulabhoy & Company and the drivers involved in this exercise in order to find out how this change took place.

The Three Wheeler drivers earned a considerable daily income. To put it in their own words “we didn’t have the freedom to either eat or sleep. There was someone waiting for us when we returned after one hire. We got a good income. The former taxi drivers were extremely angry with us. But people preferred us”.

As the Three Wheelers grew in popularity day by day, the Company too increased their daily fee to Rs. 25/-, Rs. 30/-, Rs. 40/- and Rs. 50/- and so on. The Three Wheeler drivers protested against this.

For employment rights

The Three Wheeler drivers submitted their protest and problems to the late Mr. Cyril Mathew, who was Minister of Industries of the Government at that time as well as the leader of the Pro-government trade union, the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya, posing a strong challenge to the company. An organization too was formed to protect the rights of Three Wheeler drivers.

As a result of this struggle, all Three Wheelers were taken over by the Government and given to the drivers concerned on the basis of their becoming owners of such vehicles by paying the company an amount daily for the Three Wheeler driven by them. (a scheme of leasing).

Thereafter, with the intervention of the Government, subsidized loan schemes were formulated for the purchase of Three Wheelers by the Tobacco Company under the Chairmanship of Mr. K. Ganeshalingam (Former Mayor of Colombo) and the People’s Bank as well as by Finance Companies. The Three Wheeler drivers who started as employees of a company became fortunate enough to become the owners of the Three Wheelers. Thereafter this hiring service developed rapidly as a means of self-employment, fulfilling the various transport needs of people of all walks of life throughout Sri Lanka.

But the authorities have been unable to develop a formal administrative entity or a code of laws to match this rapid development and expansion.

It is also unfortunate that the organizations that were formed have been allowed to be destroyed on account of the drivers who had made this their means of livelihood, failing to take an interest in maintaining the strength of their vocational unity which is essential to the development of the quality of this service as well as its security.

In 1985, under the leadership of the then Minster of Transport, Hon. M.H Mohamed and with the intervention of the organization formed by the Three Wheeler drivers and the TTA officials, a meter was introduced to indicate fares of Three Wheelers in order to provide relief to customers and steps were also taken to establish an institution to ensure the security of the industry. This effort too became confined to only a ceremony, meeting and propaganda.

Intervention by the Provincial Council Member Mr. Renuka Perera

The National Union of Sri Lanka Taxi drivers was formed in 1999 under the leadership of Western Provincial Council Member Mr. Renuka Perera and with the participation of Three Wheeler drivers in order to find solutions to the problems faced by all parties on account of the informal situation prevailing in the industry at that time. 

On a proposal submitted by him, steps were taken by Hon. Lasantha Alagiyawanna, the Minister of Transport in the Western Provincial Council with the unanimity of all members of the Council to enact Road Passenger Transport Three Wheeler Service Ordinance No. 6 of 2002 by extraordinary gazette notification dated 20th Feb 2003 to regularize and develop the Three Wheeler transport passenger service by establishing the Three Wheeler Service Bureau.

Due to the objections of a group of Three Wheeler drivers who did not have a proper understanding of this move the establishment of this bureau was suspended. The union which put forward the proposal as well as the group that objected thereto became silent thereafter.

But due to this informal situation, the problems faced by the drivers as well as customers become aggravated day by day. Meanwhile various persons attempted to implement proposals which were immensely detrimental to the entire industry. It should be mentioned that certain officials took steps to put forward proposals to ban Three Wheelers on the pretext of minimizing air pollution through the Ministry of Environment.

Relief through the 2005 Budget 

Even though relief measures such as removal of the VAT levy from vehicles obtained under leasing schemes up to 2004, granting of tax relief on equipment required in using gas as fuel, granting of loan facilities to obtain the meter indicating the fare and granting of a fuel subsidy were introduced by the Government in appreciation of the service rendered by Three Wheelers to the sphere of public transport, such relief measures were not continues on a long term basis.

Reminiscences of a driver of the past

We place on record the views of a Three Wheeler driver of the commencement stage to facilitate a correct understanding of the situation that prevailed. By name he was Mr. W.P Sarath who used to live in the Keselwatta area in Colombo. He had been engaged in tinkering and painting of motor vehicles before becoming a Three Wheeler driver. He entered this field towards the latter part of 1980. He remembers the Three Wheeler vehicle number as 11 Sri 4470 and its price as Twenty Four Thousand Rupees. 

At that time, the upper part of the Three Wheeler was painted in yellow whilst the lower part (body) was painted in black. It was compulsory to have a meter indicating the fare and for the driver to be properly dressed. The price of a litre of petrol at that time was
Rs. 12/ and the charge for the first kilometer was Rs. 1.40, Rs. 18/- was charged for a journey from Pettah to Wellawatta (near Hotel Ceylon Inn) and a sum of Rs. 20/- was charged after negotiation with the passenger.

Normally the daily income was about Rs. 200/- whilst very often this was exceeded. Even though the income was stable, he reverted back to his old job of tinkering and painting.

We should give services consideration to the reasons he gave for this decision.

  • The main problem was the increase in the number of Three Wheelers. (Three Wheeler drivers state the same at every stage as they did in 1988).
  • Although the occupation that was under an institution becoming a form of self-employment was favorable development, persons of unbecoming behavior in society entering the field as a result of it being open to anyone has created problems.
  • The occupation was given up even though the income was good due to severe difficulties that arose in maintaining vocational dignity.
  • Even today there is a Three Wheeler for personal use. It is a successful means of self employment if it is properly organized.
The statements of the above Three Wheeler driver clearly indicates the values and weaknesses that prevail in this field.

Failure to carry out responsibilities

Even in the face of all these challenges and lack of proper attention to these problems on the part of any persons in authority, the Three Wheeler has by now turned out to be the “people’s friend on the roads” amidst these difficulties by providing a continuous source of passenger transport to the people day and night and complementing the weaknesses in the traditional means of public transport, providing solace to the much harassed road passenger community of this country. But up to now, the government has failed to fulfill the much needed task of formulating a code of laws for Three Wheelers and setting up an institution related thereto.

  • A table showing distribution and registration of the Three Wheelers year by year from the very inception.
  • The pictures of types (models) of Three Wheelers introduced from the very inception.
  • Three Wheelers running on diesel and conversion to gas and introduction of the Three Wheeler car.


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