Colombo metropolitan region and the larger towns countrywide are flooded with all sorts of motor vehicles today. On the one hand, the SUVs and other luxury vehicles are taking the rich and the powerful around. On the other, thousands of motor bikes try to sneak through heavy traffic, often whole families riding on them. Trishaw drivers in their thousands behave as if road rules don’t apply to them. The few over-crowded buses compete with each other to find their way through traffic that often moves very slowly due to congestion.
Meanwhile, the government has been issuing vehicle permits to all and sundry including Buddhist monks who, according to what we know of Buddhism, have admittedly renounced the world. Many of those who obtain vehicle permits sell them to the highest bidder because the government has removed the earlier restrictions on these permits.
Many prominent permit holders such as leading Buddhist monks, university professors and politicians freely admit that they sell these permits, with absolutely no shame or guilt. In other words, the vehicle permit scheme almost amounts to an executive action that promotes corruption, while making a significant contribution to increasing traffic congestion at least in the Colombo metropolitan region.
In other words, the vehicle permit scheme almost amounts to an executive action that promotes corruption, while making a significant contribution to increasing traffic congestion
Continuing importation of hundreds of thousands of vehicles into the country year after year has resulted in an increasing demand for more road space in all parts of the country. As a result, road development has become the most visible aspect of development today. Wider roads have not eased road congestion as more and more vehicles are added to the existing fleet. Meanwhile, traffic-related problems such as environmental pollution and accidents continue to have an increasingly adverse impact on hundreds of thousands of people in terms of morbidity, injuries and sudden and slow deaths.
Globally, many developed countries depend a great deal on vehicle- manufacturing for their export earnings and domestic employment creation. This is true for most industrially advanced countries as well as emerging economies like India, China and Brazil. In spite of growing environmental concerns at home, leading vehicle manufacturing countries tend to produce more and more vehicles for the rest of the world that naturally includes Sri Lanka as well. The country uses much of its export earnings to pay for oil and vehicle imports. The development of public transportation in the country is not a priority for the government or any of the leading donors. So, the above pattern of development is set to continue for many years to come with its attendant adverse consequences.
It is strange that not a single leading political leader has publicly spoken of the need to revisit the transport policy of the country. This may be partly due to the fact that they continue to enjoy the smooth ride in their luxury vehicles at public expense
It is strange that not a single leading political leader has publicly spoken of the need to revisit the transport policy of the country. This may be partly due to the fact that they continue to enjoy the smooth ride in their luxury vehicles at public expense and partly because of their callous disregard for the increasing negative impact of traffic congestion on the lives of ordinary people.
Today, hundreds of thousands of trishaws are running on our roads in all parts of the country. These vehicles no doubt have made life easier for many people due to easy access to them everywhere. But, there are too many of them in most towns leading to unhealthy competition and shared poverty among their owners and drivers.
There has been no attempt by the authorities to estimate the optimum number of three-wheelers for the country’s population and rationally distribute permits to operate them in each local government area. Today, these vehicles run all over the place including pavements, threatening the lives of even pedestrians. They are the least concerned with traffic rules. The traffic police often turn a blind eye.
Then the private bus operators; they beat everybody on our roads with the speed and recklessness. Many people die or get injured on roads as a result. Those who drive or are driven around in SUVs like Prados and Pajeros can also be a menace due to their speed and the lack of respect for traffic rules. When powerful politicians are in them, drivers often get into frenzy and want everybody to get out of their way. The British built railways more than a hundred and fifty years ago, connecting much of the country together. How many miles of railway line our patriotic nationalist leaders have added to the railway network after independence? Even a small part of the money we spend on road development could help revamp the railway services connecting all parts of the country facilitating more comfortable, speedy and environmentally friendly transport of people and goods. Tourists will naturally enjoy rail journeys around the country, as much as our local tourists and school kids, but who wants to invest in the railways? Who wants to protect the environment? Certainly not car manufacturers, who want to sell more and more cars. Certainly not most of our political leaders who already travel in luxury in the most expensive cars imported from Germany. I recollect the situation that prevailed until the early 1970s when leading politicians used to get into long distance buses from the bus halt near the old parliament after parliamentary sessions. Now, not even an ordinary MP would travel by bus or train.
There has been no attempt by the authorities to estimate the optimum number of three-wheelers for the country’s population
It is obvious that the present transport policy that encourages private transport is neither socially and economically sustainable nor good for the health of the people. Under the present implicit state policy, traffic congestion can only get worse leading to loss of productivity and increasing fuel costs, both of which are economically unsustainable. Private transport costs more and more money, forcing people to earn more in whatever way possible.
Injuries and deaths due to traffic accidents and all sorts of illnesses caused by environmental pollution can only increase with more vehicles on our roads. Allocation of hard earned foreign exchange to import more and more oil, many more motor vehicles and equipment for building more and better roads is not the most desirable thing to do when the need of the hour is to develop social and economic infrastructure vitally important for employment-intensive development.
In other words, we need to seriously consider the cost of the present policy of directly and indirectly promoting private transport in the country. Maintaining the status quo might be convenient and profitable for some but a significant change in the right direction can benefit the general public in numerous ways.