Policymaking and then enforcing those decisions is the whole point of Government. Therefore it is disappointing when governments have to roll back decisions, especially when they are progressive, because they are not made with consistent stakeholder involvement and have to be adjusted post-announcement.
Policymaking is never easy. This is why Governments are expected to consider all points of view, consult at least the major stakeholders and put together a way to deal with the consequences of their decisions. The previous Government under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was often criticised for its closed door decision-making, which only had space for concerned parties to air their views post- announcement. This resulted in a lacuna where the President had to intervene to find an acceptable middle-ground portraying a king-like system.
When President Maithripala Sirisena came to power the expectations was that the relevant Government departments and ministries would do their homework on policies before they were announced, along with a comprehensive implementation framework that would deal with justified concerns. But, as demonstrated by the latest Rs. 25,000 fine debacle, even when the majority of people are behind the Government, the sentiment is one of uncertainty or worse giving into an unreasonable demand.
Why is it that this policy was not discussed with stakeholders before it was announced? And why was their no preparation from officials for the backlash that would undoubtedly follow?
From the bus owners’ point of view a Rs. 25,000 fine would mean higher bribes payable to police. This is a valid concern as bribes are normal in Sri Lanka and most countries that have high fines for traffic violations also have police who don’t take bribes, use technology and other resources liberally and tickets can be contest in court if the driver wishes. In Sri Lanka these systems are mostly dead and at least some of them have to be fixed to ensure transparency and accountability from all sides.
This is not to say that the proposal to increase fines is a bad one. Out of the seven that have been listed drunk driving, driving without a license, driving without insurance, underage driving and speeding can all be avoided without major issues and would make Sri Lankan roads infinitely safer. In fact there is already proof of this in the short 24 hours when buses were on strike. Officials at the National Hospital reported fewer accident victims and more people applied for licenses.
Even the laggard public bus service managed to rake in 66% more profits, showing that if the Government in sincere about reforming a State enterprise it can be done. If the Government gave resources to repair broken buses, service existing ones on time, paid overdue EPF and ETF dues and gave a retirement scheme to trim decades of political appointees the State-run bus service can provide a balance to the private sector, which gleefully holds the public to ransom every time it wants something from the Government.
People are sick and tired of being held to ransom by doctors, by railway workers, by bus operators. It is unfair and unjustifiable. The Government badly needs to do its due diligence before announcing policies and once they are announced top officials need to stick to their guns and stand for the public’s interest because that is why the public voted for them in the first place.