An efficient transport system is at the core of economic development. The more time and energy spent on travel or stuck in traffic, the less productive a country becomes. Therefore, there is great need to increase the quality of the public transport system.
According to Private Bus Owners’ Association (PBOA) President Gemunu Wijeratne, the annual loss to Sri Lanka’s economy has been estimated to be around Rs. 200 billion. These include Rs. 15 billion in traffic congestion, Rs. 360 million in sulphurous diesel usage, Rs. 720 million in EPF payments to bus crews, Rs. 36.5 million in damage to the environment and Rs. 4.5 billion due to commuter delays. In his view, unprofessionalism, regulatory lapses and politicisation is responsible for these losses.
It is apparent that incompetent regulatory systems are one of the main reasons for the inefficient public transport system. Sri Lanka has the National Transport Commission (NTC) and Provincial Councils as regulatory authorities. This means that there is constant friction between the two parties. There are 11 transport ministers in Sri Lanka – eight provincial and three central government ministers. This complicated regulatory system is one reason for the lack of timetables in public transport.
Often issues end up at the Supreme Court seeking redress. Deep politicisation of the transport industry is a significant constraint. Blatant political appointees rather than professionally qualified people have filtered into the system. Politicians abuse the State transport system by using buses for political meeting, the recently-concluded May Day celebrations being a case in point. The excuse that providing rural services is the reason behind the Ceylon Transport Board’s chronic inability to breakeven will not hold up even to cursory analysis.
It is questionable how the public buses can make profit under these circumstances. The Government spends around Rs. 8.4 billion as subsidy on public buses, which is Rs. 5,500 a day, but can operate only 4,000 odd vehicles. On the other hand, 18,000 private buses operate without any subsidies and manage to make profits. To the credit of the Private Bus Owners’ Association, they have been working to timetables and have actually managed to be successful for long distance buses for over a year.
However, with the change of ministries, these have lapsed. The National Transport Policy (NTP) that was formulated and approved by Cabinet two years ago has been sidelined to gather cobwebs with no interest from State parties to implement it. Even though the Government has committed to building highways and upgrading railways, there is a grave need to increase quality of transport in parallel.
Stamping out corruption in the infrastructure projects has been highlighted enough times, but its importance does not diminish. Involving the private sector in infrastructure will not only reduce the burden on the Government, but will also provide a more professional and sustainable service. By connecting economic centres countrywide, an efficient transport system will also assist to transport goods to reduce wastage and bring down the cost of living. These are all essential components of transport development.
Is it possible to focus on service without depending solely on mass-scale development projects to be completed? The answer is in the affirmative. Focusing on quality increase in the short term will leave less to be done and more economic gains in real time.