Private buses are a classic example of capitalism gone wrong in this country. In the pre-nationalisation era of yesteryear, private bus operators made a lot of money and provided a useful service to the people. With the advent of socialism, these companies were nationalised and the state began to have a monopoly in public transport [...]


Road terrorism and the corruption ring


Private buses are a classic example of capitalism gone wrong in this country. In the pre-nationalisation era of yesteryear, private bus operators made a lot of money and provided a useful service to the people. With the advent of socialism, these companies were nationalised and the state began to have a monopoly in public transport with the railways already under it. The load of enabling the people to commute by road fell upon the CTB (Central Transport Board) which however much it tried to do an honest job, and provide a good service, was unable to cater to the burgeoning demands of a fast-growing population. In 1977, the new Government privatised the bus services once again.

Licences were given to private operators to ply on designated routes. They have now become licences to kill and maim. According to the Chairman of the National Council for Safety, every other day someone dies due to a bus accident in Sri Lanka.

It is commendable that at least now, public complaints have reached the ears of the Government. The remedial action seems to be a fine-based option but coming as it did in the annual Budget the impression is that the Government’s interest is only revenue collection as a way to arrest the dangerous trend of road accidents and be a deterrent to drivers.

The Budget proposal seems to be to impose Rs. 2,500 as a minimum fine – a jump from Rs. 20. There is ambiguity whether an amendment is in store when the final reading of the Budget is made. On the one hand, Rs. 20 is no longer legal tender in this country, so to say, when a cigarette is Rs. 55. The bus driver’s complaint is that his daily wage is Rs. 2,000 and the minimum fine exceeds that.

At the 30th anniversary celebrations of the Ravaya newspaper this week with a galaxy of political party leaders present, the speeches revolved around the much talked of subject of our times; bribery and corruption. The JVP leader was particularly harsh on the dooshana walalla (corruption ring) that has enveloped the country – the politician, the government servant, the policeman, the judge etc., not all of course, but many who are in a position of influence who are part and parcel of this ring, and how bribery and corruption are endemic.

The joke doing the rounds on the Finance Minister’s minimum fine of Rs. 2,500 on errant drivers is that what he has actually done is indirectly increased the salaries of the policemen by that process. This is so-called ‘black humour’ at its height because it has serious connotations. The recent acquisitions of motorcycles under the names of a wife or relative of a constable, tri-shaws by a junior officer and coaches and buses by top brass in the Police are telltale signs of bribery and corruption that have seeped almost beyond redemption into the Police. Not for nothing did the Police Department receive the dubious distinction of being the most corrupt Government department in the country.

How can this rot the JVP leader thundered about, be stemmed when Members of Parliament, including Ministers and Deputies provide the worst possible example in leadership. Yesterday they voted for themselves more allowances. The ‘killing’ some MPs have made by selling their Duty Free permit of a vehicle is shameless. It’s a legal bribe, if there is such a thing, that the Government has permitted to MPs – only the JVP as a party has not availed itself of it. The Prime Minister too has not taken this permit and made a valiant, but unconvincing effort at defending the MPs, saying their salaries are so low, and they have to serve their constituencies from their own pocket.

But an MP who sold his duty free permit defrauds the state to the tune of about Rs. 30 million and pockets a sum close to that by selling his car overnight. Is this then the modus operandi of Governments to raise the wages of policemen, public servants and politicians by giving them a side-track to make an extra buck?

Today, the traffic policeman turns a ‘Nelsonian eye’ to what the Media Minister correctly referred to this week as “road terrorism”. These policemen are usually sympathetic to speeding buses; their ostensible argument is that the drivers have ‘targets’ to keep as the owner has loans to pay to the hire-purchase company. That may be why you see young drivers wearing baseball caps and skinnies driving like mad-hatters tooting their horns as if the roads belong to them. The real reason, however, is that the policeman’s palm is oiled with a note inside the driver’s insurance papers. Some private bus companies have a separate desk to handle payments to OICs of stations on their routes. So, the ‘target’ can be other law abiding motorists or innocent pedestrians as long as the driver meets his ‘target’. Just this week an eight-year-old Grade 2 girl on a school tour in Colombo was knocked down on the road by a speeding bus and never went back home.

The Private Bus Owners Association sometimes acts like a terrorist organisation. It has regional unions competing with it for the honour like the buses competing with each other on the highway. Why the Government must buckle under such pressure is a moot point when the public began pelting stones at buses when they struck work on Friday. Is it that they provide buses to the ruling party for their May Day rallies at concessionary rates; or do they fund politicians? No one really knows. This is similar to the previous Government that once proposed to ban two-stroke three-wheelers because of the pollution they caused. Inhabitants of main cities were choking under the fumes and hospitals were recording increasing numbers of those with respiratory problems and asthma patients, particularly children.

Given the voter base of the galloping number of three-wheel owners in the country (never mind the vote base of the ‘silent majority’), that Government hesitated to implement it. It eventually did, but the RMV (Registrar of Motor Vehicles) continues to register them up-to-date. That is the ‘corruption ring’ the JVP leader spoke of.

The fault is not with having privatised the bus service, but in allowing it to run amok. The powers of the regulatory body, the National Transport Commission (NTC), are limited, but while it still has the muscle to curb reckless drivers, the main objective of the NTC seems to be Passenger Rights, not the rights of those on the road. The “flying squads’ that are supposed to keep an eye on errant drivers have their wings clipped unlike in the days of the CTB.

Is then the problem going into the root cause of ‘home economics’; the driver having to meet ‘targets’; the owner meets his ‘targets’, and the policeman purchase his private bike? From the Minister to the bus driver, to the owner to the cop – is that what it is all about? Each for himself and the Devas and God for all?

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