Transport terror!

Saturday, 3 December 2016 01:10 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}



By Chamodhi Gunawardane

The first day of a massive private transportation strike caused major roadblocks and train delays due to demonstrations and reports of violence against state-owned buses carrying commuters across the island amid threats from the Government that it would revoke private bus permits if the strike continued for more than three days.

Sri Lanka Transport Board drivers braved attacks from striking private bus unions throughout the island, showing considerable discipline as they plied major routes in the capital even as the Inter Provincial Private Bus Association (IPPBA) launched its strike against Government proposals to impose heavy fines of up to Rs 25,000 for traffic offences. 

Police obtained a court order to disperse a three-wheeler protest that blocked the Colombo-Negombo railway in Galkanda, Negombo, and ultimately using tear-gas to drive away the demonstrators.untitled-7

The trade union action launched at midnight on 1 December is likely to continue throughout the weekend if the Government was unable to provide a solution, IPPBA Chairman Sarath Vijitha Kumara told Weekend FT.

The union, in association with 27 other transport trade unions withdrew their 21,000 buses from transport services yesterday protesting against the proposed increase in fines.  

“We were totally opposed to the Finance Ministry’s decision to increase the fine of several traffic offences to Rs.25, 000. Bus owners and bus drivers and conductors from all provinces are against this move, and have joined the strike,” Kumara said.

As day 1 of the strike proceeded, Government Spokesman Minister Rajitha Senaratne announced that the Government was considering revoking private bus permits if the strike continued for more than three days.

Initial protests against the budget proposal to increase the minimum fine to Rs. 25,000 were met with much resistance by many transport trade unions including the Lanka Private Bus Owners’ Association (LPBOA). However, subsequent discussions resulted in the Government appointing a three-member committee to revise the particular proposal while also deciding to increase the fine for seven serious offences to Rs.25,000. The move received mixed reactions; however, a majority of bus association except for the LPBOA led by Gemunu Wijeratne were against the move.

“We requested a meeting from the Secretary of Transport Ministry last Monday and they promised to arrange a discussion with the Secretary of Ministry of Finance, but that meeting did not materialise. Until such a discussion happens we will continue our trade union action,” Kumara told Weekend FT.

He claimed that if the ministry failed to respond, the rest of the bus drivers who did not take part in yesterday’s strike will also join the action. Alleging that the Government is consulting only a select group of unions on the matter, Kumara said that his union had the largest membership comprising bus owners, drivers and conductors.

A number of three-wheeler drivers’ associations island-wide supported the strike. 

According to National Joint Three-wheeler Drivers’ Association Secretary Rohana Perera, close to 5,000 three-wheeler drivers gathered in Town Hall Colombo to mark their protest the proposed hike. According to Perera who led the protest, the three-wheeler drivers will not join the strike tomorrow.

However, Transport Ministry Secretary Nihal Somaweera said that the trade union action is too premature.

“The fines will not be implemented immediately. The act has to be amended. This is a budget proposal, and not a proposal by the Transport Ministry either. The proposed amendment to the act has to go through the Attorney General as well. Then it has to be passed in Parliament before being implemented,” Somaweera told Weekend FT.

He expected the situation would ease, however, during the weekend with decreased demand for public transportation services, although the ministry has not taken any initiative to discuss with the associations engaged in trade union action.

Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, meanwhile, was unmoved by the trade union action of the private bus owners and drivers. The Minister will not give into trade union demands to revise the fines, he told Weekend FT. 

“Even the President didn’t want to meet the unions,” he claimed. “There is no reason to change the decision to increase the fines,” the Minister said. 

 Social media was flooded with comments, updates and observations about the major transport strike, with most users, including regular bus commuters strongly supportive of deterrents being imposed to curb traffic violations. Several users also commented on the discipline of Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) drivers who stuck to the bus lane on Galle Road, in marked contrast to the haphazard lane crossing by private buses.


Protesters get violent


Incidents of SLTB buses being attacked with stones were reported from several areas of the country while the Colombo-Negombo main road and Negombo railway line were blocked by protesters yesterday evening. At least two people were reportedly injured in the attacks. Later in the evening, police used tear-gas to disperse the protestors on the Colombo-Negombo main road. 

At least six separate incidents of CTB buses being attacked with stones have been reported from different areas of the country, including Mount Lavinia, Gampaha, Kuliyapitiya, Negombo, Batticaloa and Trincomalee.

Issuing a statement on the incidents, the Government Information Department said that the police has been instructed to take action against those responsible for inconveniencing the public and vandalising public property.

Following the violent incidents, all units of the Police have been put on standby to beef-up security if needed, Traffic DIG Palitha Fernando told Weekend FT.