We are a nation with some peculiar traits. Our habit of busting systems according to our whims and fancies and taking great pains to revive them thereafter is monumental. We did away with the parliamentary system of government in 1978 and introduced the Executive Presidential system. We have suddenly realised that the Head of State must be accountable to Parliament and are striving to revert to the former system of government. The same goes for the electoral system. We scrapped the first-past-the-post system and adopted proportional representation. Now, we are fed up with the PR system and want either to return to the old system or adopt a cross between the two systems. We have meddled with our education system umpteen times and it is in an unholy mess as a result! We busted the Paddy Marketing Board, which benefited the rice growers and consumers alike. We throttled the CWE or Sathosa, which marketed essential commodities at reasonable prices to the general public. Today, we are striving to resurrect those key institutions. The CTB went the same way. It was debilitated to pave the way for private sector involvement in public transport. And, years later, we are making a desperate effort to resuscitate the CTB to keep the private bus Mafia at bay.
Transport Minister Dallas Alahapperuma is reported to have boasted that for the first time in 28 years, the Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) has adopted merit as the criterion for promotions. The bane of the SLTB has been unbridled political intervention under all the governments since the United Front regime of 1970-77, which introduced the chit system of recruiting state employees.
The CTB, as the SLTB was then called, became a refuge for political henchmen who were not qualified to be employed anywhere else and by the time the UF government was voted out, there were said to be as many as 15 workers to a bus! The UNP put the ailing institution on the procrustean bed of economic liberalisation. Buses in running condition were fraudulently condemned and sold to the private sector for a song. The buses which could have been put back on the road after repairs were dismantled and sold as scrap metal. All this was done to help the private bus mudalalis to capture the market without competition. However, recruitment to the CTB continued even after it became a confirmed White Elephant. Workers were paid their salaries, whether they worked or not. Central depots like Werahera, which were shining examples of efficiency, were turned into empty shells and later given to private individuals on a platter.
The late President Ranasinghe Premadasa `peoplised` the bus depots, which then became companies. It was like the members of a poor family being separated from one another and ordered to exist on their own! Peoplisation went the wrong way and finally the CTB had to be re-established as the SLTB.
This process of political experiments and politicisation have left the SLTB with a work force of 41,000 dependent on 8,000 buses, of which only 4,200 are operating at present. Most workers are not paid monthly for want of funds. The state owned bus service, which catered to over 90 per cent of commuters in days of yore, has come to serve only 20 per cent of them. Over sixty-five per cent of commuters are dependent on private buses, while as few as six per cent of them travel by train. No wonder the bus mudalalis are in a position to resort to muscle flexing at the drop of a hat!
Minister Alahapperuma has embarked on a campaign to inspire the SLTB workers to revitalise their institution through measures such as shramadana campaigns. He also functions as a one-man flying squad conducting as he does raids on bus depots and bus stations. He has taken up the challenge of cleaning the Augean stables aka the Central Bus Stand. We hope it is not a case of new brooms sweeping well and that the minister`s enthusiasm won`t fizzle out in time to come!
Politics and gimmicks are synonymous and the new minister may be pardoned for resorting to gimmicks initially as a politician. But, he should remember that he will be judged not by his gimmicks but by delivery. He obviously has more than enough on his ministerial plate. The SLTB is a den of thieves, to say the least. It is corrupt to the core and the ticket machines that were considered foolproof the world over came to be tampered with by SLTB conductors! Some mechanics and supervisors are said to be capable of `swallowing engines and gear boxes to boot`! The workers are divided along petty political lines. Trade unionism has become a curse with unionists being controlled by outside political forces.
Thus, it should be seen Mr. Alahapperuma has his work cut out. The hydra he is girding up his loins to take on has heads of corruption, lethargy, irresponsible trade unionism, party politics etc. Most of all, he has to effect urgent repairs to the buses that have been relegated to the junkyard and augment the ailing fleet. Having done that, he ought to ensure that they will be properly maintained and no funds will be misappropriated and politicians won`t meddle with the SLTB.
However, we need not be overly pessimistic. Nor should we be overly optimistic either. The SLTB is still not devoid of good experienced workers capable of making a difference. They must be made to put their shoulders to the wheel and help expand the SLTB`s market share through the provision of a better service to the harried public now at the mercy of the private bus Mafia. Is Minister Alahapperuma equal to the task?
Good luck to him!