Mundane autos in India, hero tuk-tuks in Iraq

In the recent anti-government protests in Iraq, Indian-made tuk-tuks have become a powerful symbol of the protest.

Iraqi demonstrators use tuk-tuk during ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq. (Reuters Photo)

The ubiquitous three-wheeled auto-rickshaw in India is better known as ‘tuk-tuk’ outside the country. The word tuk-tuk has roots in Thai, onomatopoeic to the sound made by the vehicle referred to. In recent years, the vehicle has gained popularity in Africa and the Middle-East. Many of these three-wheeled vehicles plying on the roads of these nations come from India’s most popular three-wheeler manufacturer Bajaj Auto and TVS Motors. 

Indian-made tuk-tuks that sell in Africa and the Middle-East are known for being hardy, convenient, lower-cost alternatives to taxis and other modes of public transport. They appear to be the sweet spot between expensive private transport and inconvenient or non-existent public transport in many of these nations.

Iraq is one of those countries in the Middle-East that saw a windfall of the tuk-tuks in the past few years. The tuk-tuk was first seen as an alternative to the taxi due to suboptimal road conditions, poor road networks, and low purchase costs. The humble tuk-tuk was adopted because it provided livelihoods to urban youth and many others in the city of Baghdad while jobs were hard to come by. Over time, the vehicle became very popular among commuters. In the past couple of months of protests, the vehicle can be seen in the foreground of many photographs and videos emanating from the country. Urban youth to whom these vehicles provided employment opportunities have been using tuk-tuks to ferry injured protesters for free to medical facilities. These vehicles can weave through narrow streets and between protesters through tear gas and reach the injured, a feat regular ambulances cannot achieve. 

Tuk-tuk drivers risk their lives carrying protesters and the popular Indian made three-wheeler enables this. The tuk-tuk has also inspired street art, music videos and even a field newspaper for the protesters who have taken to the streets of Baghdad. Anti-government activists with a background in publishing online news are founders of the field newspaper ‘Tuk-Tuk’. They told the AP that the publication was named after the powerful three-wheeled symbol of the protests. They write, edit and print the newspaper in the thousands to distribute in the streets of Baghdad.

Editor Ahmed al-Sheikh Majed told Reuters that the newspaper is the only way in which consumers can get reliable reports of unrest in the country in a time of information blackout in the state.

Some locals and foreign observers even dubbed the protests “tuk-tuk revolution” for the essential role these vehicles have played in the past few turbulent months in Iraq.

Auto-rickshaw drivers in many cities of India are perceived as men charging exorbitant fares for first and last-mile connectivity but the youth riding tuk-tuks in Iraq are seen as men of valour riding around the streets of Baghdad aiding anti-government protests and potentially saving lives.

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