Noisy three-wheelers on the way out in Pindi

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Feb 24, 2013.

Islamabad – The days of 2-stroke engine rickshaws in Rawalpindi might be over, as a fresh crackdown to get them off the roads is underway in the city.

The noisy three-wheelers, popular in the congested parts of the inner city where they navigate the chaotic traffic flow better than taxis, are a source of air pollution due to its exhaust emissions.

So the district government is trying to get the 2-stroke rickshaw owners to switch to a less harmful engine.

“The 4-stroke engine is more environment friendly than the 2-stroke variation,” Awais Tarrar, secretary District Rawalpindi Transport Authority (DRTA), said.

Rickshaw entry is banned in the federal capital and this is not the first time a campaign to ban the 2-stroke engine rickshaws was launched in a major Punjab city.

Down with the Rickshaws

In 2005, based on recommendations from the Lahore Clean Air Commission, the Lahore High Court ordered the provincial government to introduce 4-stroke rickshaws immediately and phase out 2-stroke rickshaws by the end of 2007.

As a result, the Punjab Government focused on selling new and subsidised 4-stroke engine rickshaws, targeting five major cities including Rawalpindi. But despite the subsidy, purchasing a 4-stroke rickshaw proved to be expensive for the average rickshaw driver. That and inefficient enforcement meant that 2-stroke rickshaws continue to ply the roads.

Since the Rawalpindi campaign was resuscitated, the DRTA has successfully converted over four dozen rickshaws to 4-stroke engines. Just between February 11 and 17, the DRTA has issued 200 challans, Tarrar said.

But word has not reached the ears of Muhammad Younas, a rickshaw driver outside the Arid Agriculture University in Rawalpindi.

“I’ve been driving a rickshaw since Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s time,” Younas said. “There is no way the 2-stroke rickshaw is going away.”

Younas thinks 2-strokes will prevail because the 4-stroke rickshaw is a “failure.” This sentiment is shared by other 2-stroke rickshaw drivers. It is based on the associated costs of the 4-stroke rickshaw.

4-stroke Ain’t Cheap

The 4-stroke rickshaws first appeared in Rawalpindi around 2006, when the Punjab Government started subsidizing new rickshaws. Today, there are 3,100 Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) rickshaws registered with the DRTA.

Umar Farooq, a rickshaw driver who recently bought a new 4-stroke rickshaw, said it is a hit with the passengers.

“This rickshaw is more spacious than the old 2-stroke rickshaw,” he said. “People like to prefer travelling in it.”

In return, Farooq charges the passengers Rs20-30 more than the regular fare. But he had to pay up Rs195,000 to buy the rickshaw. That is a steep price, given that 2-stroke rickshaws can be bought for as cheap as Rs10,000.

“Conversion to 4-stroke from 2-stroke can cost anywhere between Rs30,000 to Rs60,000,” said Nazir Ahmed, another 2-stroke rickshaw driver who said he had not been contacted by DRTA,

The conversion includes a key-based ignition mechanism and a new body, Farooq said. The engine’s spare parts are imported, so they are expensive compared to the indigenously produced 2-stroke spare parts.

“The 4-stroke gear box costs around Rs2,500,” Ameer Khan, who runs a rickshaw repair and spare parts shop in Chah Sultan in Rawalpindi, said. Comparable repairs for a 2-stroke engine can be done with individual nuts and bolts which never exceed the Rs100-200 range.

Younas and Khan said there are no trained mechanics of the 4-stroke engine available, either, which means the rickshaw might be out of commission if the mechanics cannot figure out the fault.

The challenge for 4-stroke’s survival is in the economics.

Pollution vs Poverty

On the roads of Rawalpindi, the air pollution debate loses its feet quickly. Instead the discussion is usurped by more pressing needs: livelihood and food security. Statements about emissions and smog are met with incredulous shakes of the head followed by the occasional “No one dies of pollution” rants.

If the people do not care, the government does not either. The Government of Punjab’s allocation for Environment in 2012-13 is just 0.14 per cent of its total Annual Development Programmes budget.

An official in the district environment office in Rawalpindi said there are only six technical staff members for a city of around 3 million people.

Stake in Policymaking

Rawalpindi’s Rickshaw Union is not as effective an organisation as those in other Punjab cities, rickshaw drivers said. In recent days, Union representatives have condemned the DRTA campaign, but there have been no significant street protests.

A 2009 Centre for Public Policy and Governance (CPPG) report on Punjab government’s rickshaw policy recommended that stakeholders such as rickshaw unions, mechanics, khiradias and dealers should be involved in policymaking about phasing out 2-stroke rickshaws. Rawalpindi rickshaw union representatives said they have never been made a part of the conversation on banning rickshaws.

Meanwhile, the conversion campaign goes on without any new policymaking efforts.

End in sight?

The DRTA stopped issuing and renewing permits for 2-stroke rickshaws in 2007. Back then, there were 4,000 2-stroke engine rickshaws in the city. (The count has not been updated since.)

Tarrar said some of the rickshaws have phased out to smaller cities and towns. An assertion that implies the count of 2-stroke rickshaws in the city is lower than 4,000 at present.

So far, 55 rickshaws have been converted in two weeks.

“We are giving the rickshaw owners 7 to 10 days to convert the rickshaws because it is not an inexpensive procedure,” Tarrar said.

Even if it is assumed that all the 3100 registered CNG 4-stroke rickshaws were actual replacements of 2-stroke rickshaws, this still leaves 900 2-stroke rickshaws, at most, on Rawalpindi’s roads.

Then at this rate, it will take until October 2013 to get rid of the 900 2-stroke rickshaws. Perhaps even longer than that.

Tarrar is optimistic. He said the whole campaign will be wrapped in a month or so with all the 2-strokes converted. Tarrar’s optimism is matched by Younas’s belief that 2-stroke rickshaws are invincible. Let time be the judge of the 2-stroke rickshaws.


Rickshaw crackdown process: The DRTA officials, with help from the traffic police, impound the rickshaws and issue a challan to the driver. When the owners come to recover their impounded vehicles, they are asked to affirm on stamp paper that they will get their rickshaws converted in a specified number of days, the rickshaws are handed over to the owners but the original documents of the rickshaw are confiscated and will only returned if the owners return with proof that the rickshaw has been converted to the eco-friendly engine.

2-stroke and 4-stroke difference: The 2-stroke engine does not have a lubricating mechanism, so lubricating oil is mixed with fuel. During the combustion cycle in the engine, some of the unburned fuel and significant amount of oil escape through the exhaust as soot or thick black smoke. The 4-stroke engine is better because it has a separate lubricating system and because it burns the fuel thoroughly.

The percentage of Carbon Monoxide emitted by a 2-stroke rickshaw is double that of a 4-stroke rickshaw, according to a Pakistan-Environment Protection Agency (Pak-EPA) study. (The study was cited in a 2009 Centre for Public Policy and Governance (CPPG) report on the Punjab government’s rickshaw policy.) Carbon Monoxide (CO) is a poisonous gas and a major air pollutant.

The 2-stroke engine also emits 37 times more unburned hydrocarbons than the 4-stroke, according to the same study.  Most of the 4-stroke engine rickshaws plying on Rawalpindi roads use Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) which further reduces the harmful emissions.

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