Public transport - people’s priority | Sunday Observer

Public transport - people’s priority

4 October, 2020

Transportation, dress code and nationality — the matrix of emotive issues that have a greater hold on the public image than the shape and worth of the Constitution of the country. This may sound outlandish, but while the media is preoccupied with concerns of constitutional transformation, the people’s vote has rarely been cast based on matters that deal with what’s called the Supreme Law of the land.

People vote on the basis of symbolism and quality of life. Often the former more than the latter. Public transportation is one of the key areas which have a bearing on people’s mindset in deciding who they choose to lead a country.

Sri Lanka’s indices on literacy, access to healthcare, etc. have been excellent in the post independence era, but the story on public transportation has been entirely different. Almost no government had hitherto been able to make any substantial and effective changes in that regard. But the symbolism of public transportation politics has had a considerable impact on voter behaviour.

When bus services were nationalised under a Bandaranaike government, the symbolism of nationalised transportation was made all the more emotive with the national costume clad Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and the national costume clad Minister of Transport Maithripala Senanayake, taking the first bus ride on the nationalised services.

But what happened since then does not constitute a great uplifting narrative. The nationalised bus service on the other hand offered a cheap commute for the general public, but that early promise symbolised by that first bus ride by the national minded Prime Minister and his Minister, faded quickly. The primary reasons for the public transportation debacle are rooted in inefficiency and a lack of imagination and drive in policy making and implementation concerning the public transport sector.


The State relied too much on the goodwill generated by the takeover of the big bus companies such as the Panadura Bus Company owned by Leo Fernando, and the South Western Bus Company owned by Sir Cyril de Zoysa. But, post-nationalisation, the issues of travel comfort and safety which are the key elements of public transportation were non-existent in the minds of the policy making mandarins. The boast of course was that Sri Lanka has the least expensive public bus transportation tickets in the entire world. That’s now a thing of the past. Public transportation after privatisation in 1979 is neither affordable nor efficient and for most public servants and private sector workers, the daily commute is a nightmare.

It’s fair to say that there was an overt reliance on symbolism more than in the reality of tackling vexed transportation issues. Successive leaders were focused on parochial matters of constitutional symbolism over the real issues that faced the voters.


That’s why the deliberate attempt in this article is to focus on the real issues that face the people, rather than the trumped up media narratives about constitutional transformation and the 20th Amendment, which are almost the only issues that are focused on by the media and the intelligentsia these days in the public space.

That’s a surfeit of lotus-eating symbolism, essentially. In the past, the powerful elite have laid a premium on constitutional provisions to vie for power, but that has hardly impacted on the standard of living of the masses. But stating this will also be a red flag to activists and the breed of self-anointed intellectuals who tell us that it’s the constitution that decides the way we live. It doesn’t. The President knows that it’s not constitutional change that will bring about transformation— his manifesto did not lay emphasis on legal changes, but showed a pragmatic way forward.

The commuter issue is not an easy one to address in a country that has for long neglected public transportation. In terms of infrastructure, there were cars but not roads. Progressives such as Anil Moonesinghe were dedicated to showing results, and it is said that this public servant personally was on the prowl with his blue Volkswagen in an attempt to get at errant bus crews that were fleecing commuters.

Bus bodies were turned out locally during his tenure. But the system itself was far from satisfactory even though it has its positive elements such as buses running at the oddest of hours in the most inaccessible nooks and crannies of the island, because the CTB as it was then known was service oriented.

But the JR Jayewardene government broke the CTB into smithereens and replaced the old behemoth with Regional Transport Boards and what were later called cluster regional Transport Boards.

This assault on the CTB was out of spite for the unions, that supported the cause of a people’s transportation sector, whatever its inadequacies. The Jayewardene government reintroduced private bus transport which is something commuters are still struggling with, no matter what Jayewardene’s intentions were.

In many ways the CTB monopoly had to be broken too, no matter how romanticised Anil Moonesinghe’s worker oriented bus transportation sector was, in terms of progressive politics.

However, the privatization that followed may have increased the number of buses on the roads but was a complete nightmare in terms of passenger security and comfort, and the impact on road discipline. The scattered debris of the old CTB was dug up and resurrected in 2005 and the SLTB was re-born once more, but by that time the transportation sector was beyond redemption, even though the resurrection of the CTB in a new incarnation at least addressed some of the worst aspects of public transportation, such as the total abandonment of the service concept. But be it left-wing progressive or right-wing pragmatic, none from either side of the political aisle were able to do anything meaningful to improve public transportation, and the ordinary commuter has been putting up with ridiculously bad road transport solutions so called for far too long now that for the people, all this opposition talk about the ill effects of constitutionalism and the politics of ideology sounds utterly meaningless when they are harassed on the buses.

The lane discipline initiatives are a step in the right direction and shows early promise that the Gotabaya government has its eye on solving vexed commuter issues. The UNP was crowing about the Light Rail that was a plan they say was path breaking as plans go — but the UNP and now, it’s imagined, any of its offshoots, can never deliver.


The Rajapaksas delivered the highways and that was down to pragmatic decision making and resoluteness. The UNP, or SJB are now lamenting that the Light Rail project was abandoned by the new government — it wasn’t — but what was there to abandon when after five years, nothing had been delivered?

It’s easy to carry out development on paper, period. The UNP’s monument to the Katunayake Highway has been a sepulcher to ineptitude that existed for some four decades— and for those who are unaware, there was a symbolic structure unveiled for the construction of an airport highway, that stood for decades without a finger being lifted for the cause of making that highway dream a reality.

But we have a surfeit of political scientists that wax eloquent about constitutions and alleged authoritarian takeovers, but if they are asked about public transport they are bound to toss their heads up in the air and say that hoi polloi stuff is not a part of the science of politics.

Now, with the Covid stricken economy, is a difficult time to put in the money and effort to find transportation solutions, but back to basics doesn’t necessarily work in this sector. Roads and rail systems have to be improved and the only way to do that is to infuse funds, and work to targets.

There can be no pipe dreams such as a Light Rail that was still pie in the sky as far as the people were concerned, after five years of UNP governance. A measure of development is not when poor people buy cars, but when rich people use public transport. So said a wise man, and if we don’t get there in the next five years, we will probably have no more chances.