The private bus operators are in a mighty hurry to jack up bus fares. They say they cannot wait any longer as fuel prices and the cost of living have gone up. Given the increasing dependence of the commuting pubic on private buses and the attendant bargaining power of the operators, the Minister will have to give in sooner or later, as has always been the experience of his predecessors. However, the Minister need not lose heart. There is more than one way to skin a cat, they say.
Private bus owners and their workers don`t give a tinker`s damn about the law and the obligations on their part. Most of the metal contraptions that pass for buses on our roads are not roadworthy. Their tyres are as bald as a cue ball; brake systems don`t function properly; seats are rickety; there is hardly any ventilation due to overloading and bus crews behave like Neanderthals.
Bus owners must be made to maintain their vehicles properly and pay dearly for overloading. Cattle in this country get a better deal than bipeds where transport is concerned. Cramming cattle into trucks is a punishable offence but the private bus operators get away with torturing humans. Commuters are also a peculiar lot. The people of this country usually protest against anything but they take everything lying down inside private buses. Human rights groups are a dime a dozen but there is none to champion the rights of commuters.
How children suffer in school vans has also gone unnoticed. They are being transported like chickens, in most cases, in delivery vans sans adequate ventilation. Operators of those contraptions are also a law unto themselves. They have to be paid even during school vacations! Parents have no alternative but to allow themselves to be fleeced.
Bus mudalalis have created a shortage of buses by preventing the issuance of new route permits so as to obviate competition (which usually benefits the public) and to ensure overloading. Millions of people have to suffer so that a handful of businessmen could thrive in this `democratic socialist republic`!
Intercity bus service is perhaps the biggest racket in the transport sector. Those buses charge as much as double the normal fare, if not more, but commuters hardly get their money`s worth. They are as crowded as ordinary buses and, more often than not, their air-conditioners are out of order. No one dares utter a word of protest lest they should be ordered out of the bus. Those buses despite their name stop at each and every bus halt on the way. Even if someone happens to lift an arm to scratch his head by the roadside, it is said, a private bus screeches to a halt, mistaking that for a signal to stop!
The exploitation of the public doesn`t end there. Wayside eateries where squalid kitchens and filthy toilets sit cheek by jowl have a captive clientele thanks to long distance bus crews, whose palms are oiled for stopping at those hellholes. People who die for a stretch and some refreshments after prolonged rollercoaster rides in boneshakers have only Hobson`s choice at those isolated joints. They have to consume unhygienic food and pay double the price for it. They must be dishing out germs by the ton?on the house, of course. Where have all the Public Health Inspectors gone?
Thus, it should be seen that Minister Alahapperuma has more than one screw to tighten on the private bus Mafia. He must get the police to give full cry to the law. The Mafiosi must be made to realise that the sky is not the limit in exploiting the public. The government is duty bound to turn the private bus business into a people friendly service, which will be beneficial to both commuters and operators.
Meanwhile, it behoves the government to have a long term strategy for the transport sector with emphasis on the development of the Railway Department, which is a sick giant. If its full potential is tapped with the tracks and the rolling stock being developed, most of the country`s transport ills will be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, today it doesn`t cater to more than five per cent of the commuting public. That will also be a solution to the problem of rampant traffic congestion, which robs the national economy of billions of rupees annually in terms of fuel wasted, wear and tear of vehicles and loss of man hours.
The government is reported to have taken some steps to reinvigorate the ailing SLTB by augmenting its depleted fleet among other things. Purchase of more and more buses is of little use unless the existing fleet is maintained. There are hundreds of buses abandoned in all depots and they need to be repaired and put back on the roads. The key SLTB workshops lying supine, due to years of plunder and neglect, must be revived.
The day the Sri Lanka Railway and the SLTB bounce back from their chronic illnesses, the State will be able to keep the private bus Mafia at bay. That is the uphill task before Minister Alahapperuma. We only hope he will make it there with us on board?in one piece.