Asphalt cowboys and yahapalana puppets
Posted on May 17th, 2018

Editorial Courtesy The Island

Private bus owners have once again proved that they are no respecters of government decisions; they are a law unto themselves. They contemptuously rejected a Cabinet approved 6.56% bus fare hike and forced the government to grant a 12.5% bus fare increase and a minimum fare of Rs. 12. No government seems equal to the task of taming them. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration claims to do everything very scientifically, and it must have used some scientific method to work out the 6.56% fare hike without increasing the minimum fare. The yahapalana science has given way to bus mudalalis’ terrorism.

The government’s shameful capitulation to the private bus operators’ demands came a few hours after the Cabinet Spokesman’s declaration that everything was in place to face a private bus strike. Had the government been actually prepared to square up to the private bus operators, it would have been able to negotiate a solution on its own terms without giving in.

It is not fair to expect private bus operators to incur losses. Their grievances should be redressed. But they must not be allowed to win their unreasonable demands through strong-arm tactics.

President of the Lanka Private Bus Operators Association (LPBOA) Gemunu Wijeratne has admitted that many private buses are running on kerosene, which is cheaper than diesel even after the price hike. So, why should they ask for a fare hike? They will continue to use kerosene while benefiting from the increased fares. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government claimed to have restored the rule of law. But, no one has so far been arrested for running buses on kerosene illegally. Has the government chosen to handle them with kid gloves because they backed its yahapalana project in the run-up to the last presidential election?

Private bus owners have had the chutzpah to demand priority lanes for their vehicles. All roads in urban and suburban areas in all parts of the country are so congested that there is hardly any room for even pedestrians to walk thereon without risking life and limb. However, separate lanes have been allocated for buses along some arterial roads. Such experiments are welcome and should, in fact, be encouraged, but much more needs to be done if a lasting solution to the ever worsening problem of congestion is to be found.

Bus operators cannot demand priority lanes for their leviathans as a matter of right. Many of their contraptions are not roadworthy and/or have drug addicts behind the wheel. LPBOA Chief Wijeratne has revealed that more than 25% of private bus drivers are drug addicts and they are responsible for most road accidents, which snuff out about seven or eight lives a day. That may be the reason why some bus drivers look like zombies and drive as if they had a death wish. Wijeratne deserves praise for making this revelation, but strangely the police have not taken any action. They swoop on poor motorcyclists who park on the roadside to buy provisions on the way back home, but turn a blind eye to the druggies behind the wheel, wreaking havoc on roads.

Congestion is a serious issue which must be tackled as a national priority. It requires long-term remedies such as railway development and better infrastructure. But, it should be separated from the issue at hand—the private bus operators holding governments to ransom to win unreasonable demands including unconscionable fare hikes.

No government worth its salt will allow private bus operators to control the public transport sector. Action is called for to develop the state-owned bus service and operate more trains.

The J. R. Jayewardene government which came to power in 1977 allowed its henchmen to plunder the CTB of its assets. Many buses in running condition were condemned and sold for a song. Private bus operators were given unbridled freedom and a monster was thus created. Successive governments have only paid lip service to developing the CTB, which continues to be run down. People are paying for the sins of rogues in the garb of politicians.

Curiously, nobody in the yahapalana camp has called upon the government to place the Transport Ministry under former Army Commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka so as to tame the private bus Mafia.

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