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SLTB: Bill passed, act now!
Thursday, 1 September 2005 - 2:30 AM SL Time

We are wary of praising politicians. However, we cannot but offer a bouquet to all those who helped ratify the SLTB bill on Tuesday. It was, indeed, a show of unity in preserving and developing a national asset. The UPFA, the UNP, the JVP and the JHU all deserve plaudits for rising to the occasion.

The re-establishment of the SLTB is tantamount to an admission by politicians of all hues that they have blundered badly in their experiments with that vital institution. All remedies they tried including the panacea prescribed by the international lenders'privatisation'have failed to cure its ills. The giant still remains sick. Why' They didn`t or didn`t care to diagnose the real disease that afflicts it'politics.

The CTB in the eyes of politicians has hitherto remained a source of employment for their henchmen. Every Dick, Tom and Harry who didn`t know the clutch pedal from the accelerator was forced on the CTB and towards the end of the United Front regime (1970-77), it was intolerably overstaffed. Its survival was due to the absence of competition in a closed economy. Successive governments have continued to burden it with their party supporters.

The advent of the UNP regime in 1977 saw unbridled economic liberalisation and the plundering that ensued in the name of privatisation taking a heavy toll on the CTB. How buses in running condition were fraudulently condemned and sold to mudalalis has been described in these columns previously. The process of cannibalization of the CTB went on for decades, while the private buses mushroomed sans regulation. Bus depots and workshops were dismantled gradually and the CTB was rendered hollow. Then came the `peoplisation` programme under President Premadasa, who abused the term `people` as no other politician had. This bitter pill obviously went the wrong way and the CTB choked on it. The formation of cluster bus companies was among the other remedies that were tried in vain.

The PA government unashamedly reneged on its promise to revive the CTB. In 1994, even before the final results of the general election were announced, the trade unions in euphoria had painted the CTB logo on `peoplised` buses. They were disappointed and disillusioned in no time. The down the hill journey of the state bus service continued and now it is at the foot of the hill, in shambles.

Putting it back on its feet is an uphill task which cannot be accomplished through a mere name change. Much more has to go into the effort. First of all, what remains of the state run bus service has to be depoliticised. A team of professionals need to be appointed to manage it without interference from trade unions or the government. Its survival depends on its ability to be ruthlessly efficient vis-`E0-vis the highly competitive environment it has to operate in. Painful decisions are inevitable in a process of reform, which is often met with resistance from unionists. The government must be prepared for such an eventuality.

At the helm of the SLTB to be re-established, there should be a man of the late Mr. Anil Moonesinghe`s calibre'honest and efficient. He must be capable of rendering selfless service like Anil, who ploughed everything that he was offered by way of commissions etc. back into the institution. Without such leadership to inspire the workers and rekindle their sense of pride, no amount of effort is going to salvage the service.

Retraining the workforce is a sine qua non. They should be trained to overcome the so-called government servant mentality which plagues the state sector. The emphasis in their training ought to be on the need for them to be different from the private bus crews who treat commuters worse than cattle.

Without proper maintenance, the new buses to be imported, too, will go the same way as the kota uda buses. Rebuilding the workshops and the allocation of sufficient funds for spares and repairs are essential for this purpose. There are disturbing reports of recently recruited drivers being helped by senior conductors to steer buses out of bottlenecks or negotiate sharp bends. Care must be taken to prevent new buses going to the wrong hands lest most of them should end up in garages in no time. This is a matter for the CTB Driving School to look into.

The mudalalis who stand to lose from the re-establishment of the SLTB must be hatching various plots to debilitate it with inside help. The Cluster Bus Companies are not short of unscrupulous personnel who are colluding with private bus operators for a few hundred rupees or a bottle of arrack. These elements must be weeded out first of all to prevent the SLTB being destroyed from within.

Now that the bill is passed, let all those concerned get their act together!

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