Does the end justify the means? | Sunday Observer

Does the end justify the means?

Risking life and limb
Risking life and limb

Hanging on to the railings by one hand, she held her handbag in the other. A passenger, sitting nearby was kind enough to hold the bagful of goods she was carrying. It was past seven in the evening. The subject of discussion among commuters made her visibly upset. Let’s call her Visaka. She is a young mother who works at a government department in Colombo.

The young family had settled down in a village about 15 miles from the city of Matara. Visaka commutes daily by train leaving her firstborn, still an infant in the care of her own mother in the city.

“I have to relieve my mother of caring for my baby. My husband is on the late shift today, so I need to get some food ready for us before he comes home.

This train is already late, and they want to terminate it now at Aluthgama?,” Her voice shook as she spoke, and tears welled up in her eyes. “How inhuman could the people at the Railway Department become?” she questioned. This was the plight the rail commuters were in, on September 26, when railway trade unions launched an unannounced strike.

Sri Lanka Railways, once an institution of high repute has now become the bane due to its frequent strikes and work- to- rule campaigns causing much hardship to railway commuters.

The recent strike lead by the trade unions (TUs) of engine drivers, railway guards, controllers, and stationmasters lasted for 12 days making it one of the longest railway strikes in the recent past. The strikers defied the Gazette notification issued by the President on October 3, continuing the strike till Monday, October 7.

Speaking to the Sunday Observer, at the Fort Railway station, commuters gave vent to their anger and frustration in no uncertain terms.

It was unjust as it was conducted by a category of government employees who get some of the highest salaries, they stated. The TUs were accused of making hay while the sun shines, using the forthcoming elections for personal gain. They expressed the view that it was politically motivated, to put the present government into disrepute, an allegation refuted by TU heads.

Many were vociferous about their hardship. It was travellers such as Visaka, who daily commutes from distant areas who had been most inconvenienced.

A.G. Gunaratne commutes from Gampaha to Fort daily and catches a Kandy-Colombo train both ways. From Fort he buses it to Wellawatte where he is employed as a welder. Speaking of the strike he said that it was a terrible time full of hardship. “I had to travel in overcrowded buses and spend extra as I travel on a season ticket in the train. To return home I had to bus it to Divulapitiya and catch a bus going to Kurunegala.”

H.M. Ranjani, employed in a private establishment as a cleaner, said that she was stranded at the Fort Railway station on September 26, as they started the strike. Using a season ticket for travel and not having enough money to take a bus to Kurunegala, she and her friend spent the night at the station, going back to work early next morning. A few kind officers in her workplace helped them with money to go home by bus the next day, she said. A single mother, who has to take care of a daughter getting ready for the O/L examination this year and a son preparing for the A/L examination the next, her concerns are many, explained Ranjani. “I cannot waste even one rupee. All the money I had saved was gone in just 10 days like a flash.” What she cannot understand is why the strikers want to put the poor man in peril she said.

Sherini Ekanayake had the same question. A resident of Veyangoda, she takes the train to Fort about two or three times a week to worship at St. Anthony’s Church, Kochchikade. “I heard that some of these Railway employees earn as much as two or three lakhs of rupees a month. So, why can’t they be a little patient ?

It is not only the higher rate of the bus fare, but the time one had to waste due to traffic congestion on the main arteries in and out of Colombo said Isanka who travels daily from Kalutara. “During the strike I was late every day. When I travel by train I get to Kalutara in an hour or so, but during the strike when I travelled by bus it took me around two and a half hours one way.”

Anushika, Visharani, Sakuni, Anusha and Lakshika , all colleagues at work travel to and from Kochchikade. They were greatly inconvenienced during the strike as most often the connecting buses to their homes had left by the time they reached journey’s end , they stated. Had they managed to get a train at all, it used to be about 8.30 or 9 pm when they reached Kochchikade. Often the station was dark with the lights put out as the stationmasters were on strike, making it unsafe for young women.

Meanwhile, Janaka Fernando from the Station Masters’ Union speaking to the Sunday Observer, said that they feel sorry for the commuters. However, strike action is all they could resort to, as theirs is not a nine to five job, clocking 40 hours a week.

“Ours is a practical job,” he said explaining that railways operate 24 hours of the day and that to provide proper services for example, in the position of Station Master, either there need to be three people carrying out eight hour duty on a roster or one person has to work 24 hours. The 12-day strike achieved its purpose, he stated.

The 15-member Salary Review Commission headed by retired public officer S. R. Ranugge, had accepted that there had been a discrepancy in salary revisions and had agreed to review and increase the minimum Railway Technical Grade salaries to that of Rs. 39,000 with the correct calculation removing the salary anomaly which existed beforehand.