Sri Lanka: Public transport in good governance

In Sri Lanka, most public transport workers behave arrogantly towards the passengers, making it appear as if they think that they ferry them around for free! This is due to ignorance. Passengers, on the other hand, seem ready to put up with the untold travails of daily travel with such uncultured drivers and conductors. Generally, public transport in Sri Lanka is in a shambles due to the lack of a proper understanding of the mutual responsibilities and rights among our people.


by Rohana R. Wasala

( February 23, 2017, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) A couple of days ago, a pitiful story circulated in the social media about a young pregnant woman and her old mother having been subjected to some inhuman treatment by the conductor of a private bus and its driver. The pregnant woman and her mother, as reported, got on a private bus at Katana to go to a maternity clinic at a place called Halpe. The bus was running from Katana to Mirigama. The young woman had felt sick suddenly in the overcrowded bus; unable to have any control over it, she vomited on the floor of the bus (something not surprising, given that the poor woman was in a delicate state of health as a result of her pregnancy). This made the conductor very angry, and he blamed the women for dirtying the bus and making it stink. He ordered the bus driver to drive on without stopping at Halpe for the two women to get down. They took them straight to Mirigama, 10 km away, and the conductor forced them to clean the soiled carpets.

Apparently, there was no one among the passengers to tell the men not to treat the helpless mother and daughter in that manner. When they arrived at Halpe after their ordeal on the bus, the clinic had closed and the young woman missed her consultation. The women made a complaint at the Western Province Public Transport Authority. Later, the police in the area took the conductor and the driver into custody, the report added. It was revealed at the police station that the conductor was the owner of the bus. So that’s why he was showing his teeth to the poor women. Let’s hope that soon the two offenders get fitting legal punishment, and the harassed women just compensation.

The many reader comments made on that website about the incident unanimously condemn the bestiality of the bus crew, in this instance. Private bus conductors in Sri Lanka are notorious for indiscipline and boorish behavior. When we were schoolchildren, the bus service was totally run by the public sector; there were no privately run buses, because public transport had been nationalized as the CTB (Ceylon Transport Board) and I don’t remember any bus-conductor shouting or using bad language at the passengers, or being rude in any other way. It is now unimaginable that those avuncular men wearing a uniform ‘coat’ over their sarongs , incessantly scribbling away on a ticket-book with a pencil or a ‘ball-point pen’, while dexterously balancing themselves in a moving bus, could be anything but quiet and polite gentle adults. But those halcyon days of public transport ended with the re-introduction of private bus transport to share in the business in the latter ‘70s.

Managing the public transport system is a huge responsibility for any government that holds power at any time. It should be run more as a public service than as a profit seeking business, almost on the same level as health, education, and postal and telecommunications, which are indispensable infrastructural bases on which a modern society operates. How well or ill public transport is managed, inevitably reflects on the quality of governance at the centre. The state authorities must ensure that those who work in the public transport domain, whether in the state or private sector, must have a good understanding of their responsibilities towards the commuters on whose patronage they invariably depend. The commuters must be aware of their rights and they need to assert them. The onus of providing a decent service to the public for the fare they charge falls on the owners and workers.

In Sri Lanka, most public transport workers behave arrogantly towards the passengers, making it appear as if they think that they ferry them around for free! This is due to ignorance. Passengers, on the other hand, seem ready to put up with the untold travails of daily travel with such uncultured drivers and conductors. Generally, public transport in Sri Lanka is in a shambles due to the lack of a proper understanding of the mutual responsibilities and rights among our people.

It would be immoral for the media to let the story be forgotten after using it as good copy for newspaper articles. The Fourth Estate, after all, is an initiator of change in the life of the community wherever change is needed. Public transport is a huge responsibility that any government must handle. Having read the above story, I involuntarily thought about the impossibility of such a thing happening in Australia. A contrasting situation here is that there is greater public awareness of rights and responsibilities shared between transport service providers and users. If, for instance, a passenger on a train suddenly takes ill, the driver would ensure that they are taken care of until they are delivered to an ambulance or to the care of some healthcare authority who is informed, or at least to the security personnel at the nearest station pending hospitalization. The train will not leave until the patient‘s safety is fully secured. It is possible that the train gets delayed, causing delays even to the other trains on the same line. The other passengers willingly put up with inconveniences caused by such exigencies, because they know and accept them as an essential sacrifice they have to make for the good of all. Such disciplined conduct on the part of railway workers and commuters indicates enlightened citizen participation in good governance.

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