MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Sitting at a sales centre in Muzaffarabad alongside his new mechanised rickshaw - a three-wheeler minicab - Abdul Rasheed is all set to resume driving passengers and earning a living after six months off work due to illness.
But it’s not just the body of Rasheed’s vehicle that is new. It also has an efficient four-stroke engine, unlike the great majority of the 4,000 or so “auto rickshaws” in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
For Rasheed, 39, there are both financial and environmental advantages to having a four-stroke rickshaw rather than the older, two-stroke models.
The vehicle consumes 20 percent less fuel than two-stroke rickshaws, enabling him to carry more passengers for less outlay. With a daily fuel expense of 300 Pakistani rupees (about $3) and earnings of 1,200 rupees (about $12), Rasheed is confident that he can earn back the 178,000-rupee purchase price (about $1,700) within one year.
“It’s fast, smoke- and noise-free and easy to drive due to the four-stroke engine, and passengers like to travel on it owing to its luxury,” said Rasheed.
The father of five is proud to have brought the first four-stroke auto rickshaw to Muzaffarabad from Rawalpindi two years ago – but he had to sell it 18 months later when a skin allergy forced him to stop work.
Auto rickshaws are a relatively cheap means of travel over short distances and are common in almost every city and town in Pakistan.
Four-stroke vehicles manufactured in Lahore are starting to replace two-stroke rickshaws, some of which are half a century old, on the streets of mountain-ringed Muzaffarabad, where a haze formed from vehicular smoke and dust typically fills the air.
Doctors and environmental experts say that old rickshaws are the main source of vehicular smoke in Muzaffarabad because two-stroke engines combust fuel inefficiently. Along with dust generated by construction, the smoke can trigger a number of diseases and allergies.
Ahmad Junaid, a general physician at the prime minister’s secretariat of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, said that vehicle emissions are particularly harmful to people with conditions such as chronic bronchitis.
The new rickshaws are not completely quiet or smoke-free. However, according to environmentalist Shafique Abbasi, “Four-stroke three-wheelers are relatively environmentally friendly (and need) to be promoted in the city to curb smoke and noise pollution.”
SALES 'PICKING UP'
Syed Attique Shah, sales manager of Pakistan’s largest manufacturer of three-wheeled auto rickshaws, Sazgar Engineering Works Limited, said that sales of the more efficient rickshaws are “gradually picking up.”
According to Shah, there are currently about 150 four-stroke rickshaws in Muzaffarabad, compared with more than 4,000 two-stroke vehicles. But over the past month, Sazgar – the only rickshaw dealer in Muzaffarabad – has been selling five of the new rickshaws each day, compared to just 20 for the whole of the 2012-13 financial year.
“People’s response to the new year (2014) model is very good as the company has made many improvements,” he said.
An additional environmental benefit of the four-stroke rickshaw is that it can run on compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) as well as petrol, unlike two-stroke engines, which run only on petrol.
Because CNG and LPG are not available in Muzaffarabad, all of its rickshaws run on petrol, but three-wheelers in other Pakistani cities use the cleaner fuels.
“There is huge demand for our rickshaw in Karachi, Lahore and other cities of Pakistan,” said Muhammad Azeem, a mechanical supervisor at Sazgar.
Azeem says the company is supplying 1,400 vehicles monthly to Karachi. With a population of 24 million, it is Pakistan’s largest city, and has the greatest number of three-wheelers – an estimated 180,000.
In Karachi, where CNG is readily available, four-stroke rickshaws have largely replaced two-stroke vehicles, which ran on a mixture of petrol and engine oil and polluted the city with smoke and noise.
Muhammad Altaf, a former rickshaw owner, explained that auto rickshaw drivers in Karachi are buying four-stroke vehicles on installment, with a down payment of just 5,000 rupees ($47).
Akhtar Hussain, 52, a shopkeeper who works near a rickshaw stand in Muzaffarabad, said he hopes the regional government will help drivers of two-stroke rickshaws replace them with four-stroke vehicles to reduce pollution and noise in the city.
“The old rickshaw is neither good for passengers nor for the driver, not only due to its awkward smaller seats but also due to smoke and noise,” Hussain said.
Muhammad Gulzar, 40, who drives an old two-stroke rickshaw, says he is ready to buy a four-stroke model if it is subsidised by the government.
“Passengers prefer to ride it, but its price is high,” said Gulzar, a father of five children, while waiting for passengers at a rickshaw stand.
The transport minister of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Tahir Khokhar, says a plan has been sent to the federal government of Pakistan for provision of funds to pay the interest on loans provided by local banks to 3,000 two-stroke rickshaw owners so that they can purchase four-stroke vehicles on installment.
Meanwhile, Pakistan is also exporting three-wheelers to Bangladesh, Egypt, Japan, Kenya, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Uganda, with Sri Lanka being the largest importer.
Roshan Din Shad is a freelance journalist based in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir.