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Facing the music

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Tuesday, 31 December 2019 00:54

The Government will distribute a playlist comprising a thousand songs to bus drivers today and also restrict the sound level of music on buses with a hotline launched to gather public complaints. The move, which was announced recently, gathered pace swiftly and has been implemented in about a week. 

For a public long used to the Government taking ages to implement a policy, this change of pace will come as a pleasant surprise. Views by the public on regulating bus music has been varied but overall it has been received with a good level of acceptance, partly because it does not really restrict individual freedoms in any way. People are free to listen to whatever music they want in the comfort of their homes and if they do not like the playlist they can bring their own music with them on journeys. 

What is more important is a start that has been made on changing Sri Lanka’s outdated and uncomfortable public transport system and whether it can be upgraded to include more serious issues. The most important being harassment faced by women on all forms of public transport. Many are the times that the statistics have been quoted, but little if anything has been done to tackle this issue meaningfully. 

Over 90% of women have been harassed on public transport, particularly buses and trains, but despite more awareness the issue has remained stubbornly elusive, largely because the response has been to create segregated “Women Only” spaces that are impractical and do not address larger social issues that drive and provide impunity to harassment. 

Currently, sexual harassment does not significantly influence the safety design of public transport environments. Instead, safety measures are generalised and gender-blind. But if Sri Lanka is to properly address this widespread issue, there is a need to include diverse voices in the conversation and conduct more research into how sexual harassment can be eliminated. With no concentrated effort that involves stakeholders, more and more women are choosing to opt out of using public transport. But this doesn’t solve the problem. It merely becomes yet another issue that is coloured by shades of class and gender. 

Recommendations for making public transport safer include introducing a helpline for complaints, train transport workers on how to identify and stop harassment, empower women and girls to speak out, encourage bystander intervention and actually implement Sri Lanka’s harassment laws. 

Perhaps the most important point is to increase involvement of police. In the South American city of Bogota, public transport harassment dropped sharply after female police officers started riding buses and trains in civilian garb. The number of persecutions also shot up. Simple solutions do not have to be originals. 

Interconnected to this is safety and comfort issues that have to be looked at. Regulating buses in Sri Lanka is a knotty issue because it is a subject devolved to the provinces and the complex route permit system has meant that introducing technology, putting buses on a time table and reducing pollution are incredibly difficult. This is also why the app-driven tuk tuk market has taken off while public transport is stuck in the dark ages. 

In July, schedules for buses and trains started being made available on Google Maps. The initiative, which is currently limited to major cities, comes after five years of gathering data and attempts to improve access and thereby user experience. Such measures need to also be taken forward so that using public transport is a comfort to all one’s senses.   

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