Private bus crews of today seem to have borrowed a leaf out of the book of the highwaymen of yore in dealing with passengers, who are asked to stand and deliver. The only difference between their modi operandi may be the absence of firearms in the case of the former. However, it was recently reported that a commuter had died in hospital after being brutally assaulted by a bus conductor.
The writ of the State has ceased to run not only in some areas of the Wanni but also inside those monstrous contraptions which pass for private buses. A commuter who boards a private bus steps into a legal void where his or her rights cease to exist. So much so that it is popularly said that one has to leave self-respect at home before taking a private bus ride.
Minister of Transport Dulles Alahapperuma has told our sister paper, the Divaina, that he will make the issuance of tickets in all buses mandatory. We thought a law to that effect was already there! Anyway, it is good that the Minister has woken up to that legal requirement at long last.
More than the Minister, it is the bus owners who must insist that tickets be issued to each and every passenger. For, the non-issuance of tickets has helped conductors and drivers to line their pockets at the expense of their paymasters who often lament about a decline in revenue and always demand fare hikes. (Bus crews liken their industry to a well. The mudalali, they say, sinks the well, the driver draws water from it and the conductor bathes in glee! ) A ticket, for a passenger, is not only a receipt for payment of fare but also proof of travel in case of an emergency, as no insurance claim can be made without it.
Besides tickets, other entitlements of passengers, too, should receive the attention of Minister Alahapperuma, who is believed to be making a determined effort to clean up the mess that the transport sector.
Not a single bus, one may say with confidence, sticks to a time table. Buses may leave on time but when they reach their destinations depends on whims and fancies of bus crews. Commuters will vouch for the fact that on some routes buses take more than one hour to do a few kilometres. People have to suffer in congested buses in sweltering heat in silence. Resistance is often met with threats or even assault.
The so-called intercity bus service is a racket. Those buses take as long as their ordinary counterparts to complete journey. Their air-conditioners are out of order more often than not but fares remain twice as high. Most of them are boneshakers with a new coat of paint. The government must seriously consider scrapping this service unless it improves.
Overloading is a problem that no government has dared deal with for fear of bus strikes. Bus crews have frightened even the police into submission. From time to time, we hear orders being issued to prevent overloading but after a few days the problem resurfaces. The only solution is to increase the number of buses on roads but bus operators effectively block any move to do so by waving the strike bludgeon. Therefore, when the population increases, there is no corresponding increase in the number of buses. As a result the ordinary law abiding people, as we have argued in these columns previously, are in a worse predicament than criminals carried in Black Marias or cattle illicitly transported in trucks.
An effective way of overcoming the transport problem in the urban areas is to develop the CGR. There has been some discernible improvement in the railway transport of late, where locomotives and rolling stock are concerned. But, there is much to be desired from the development of tracks. An efficient railway system will not only ease congestion on roads but also help save billions of rupees the country loses due to waste of fuel and man hours.
If some of the grandiose political projects like the new airport are shelved and the government s focus is shifted to railway transport, within a few years the full potential of the CGR may be tapped. That will pay the government better political dividends in that one main problem of the urban populace will be over.
The Minister of Transport seems to have turned a blind eye to a segment of public transport in spite of its crucial importance to society. That is the so-called school van system, which has turned out to be a law unto itself. In the urban and semi-urban areas, there is hardly a household that is not dependent on this mode of transport which, despite all its flaws, has become a necessity. All that the government has to do is to regulate this system. Some school vans are not roadworthy and overloaded. Delivery vans are being used to transport children without proper ventilation in blatant violation of the law.
The police have meetings with school van drivers from time to time in a bid to discipline them. But, it is doubtful whether the police have succeeded in their endeavour, if those drivers rashness is any indication. Worse, parents are made to pay them even during school vacations! It is high time the government intervened to prevent the situation from getting out of hand.
Problems commuters are faced with are numerous and we venture to suggest that Minister Alahapperuma conduct regular public hearings so that he will know where he really stands.