The increase in fines for seven traffic offences created much hullabaloo last month which resulted in an islandwide public transport strike. Although numerous fines are being charged, disciplined driving and road safety still remain unheard of and unattended resulting in numerous fatal road accidents every day. In a candid interview with the Daily Mirror , Deputy Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation, Ashok Abeysinghe spoke about how the increase in fines would be implemented, losses that occurred during the previous regime and how the present government is battling with loans and covering other expenses.
"Many of these offences are intentional. People do not just drink, they think before consuming hard liquor. It is the same when you overtake from the left side without a licence. "
"Many three-wheeler drivers are very young and they are made to feel it as a potential career. Because of this, there is a dearth in skilled labour and it would be an added national issue in future."
"the Hambantota port was built with a staggering Rs. 144 billion. But its daily income is Rs.18 million while the expenditure rounds up to Rs. 26 million. Making matters worse, the monthly debt instalment is Rs. 85 million."
Q There was much speculation regarding the increase in fines. Do you think they would reduce accidents as expected?
There are 30 types of fines and offences in Sri Lanka. Drunk driving, driving without a licence, driving without insurance, allowing a a person to drive without a driving licence, high speed, overtaking from the left and driving through closed rail gates were identified as serious offences which had to be heavily fined. Those who attended the discussion said it was right to fine people at least Rs.50,000 for such offences, excluding high speed and overtaking from the left side. We do not intend to reduce this limit since we hope to see a reduction in motor accidents in the coming year. As of last year, 2900 people have been killed as a result of accidents that had happened in Sri Lanka. At a conference which I participated last year addressing motor traffic regulations, it was said that close to 1.3 million people die every year due to motor accidents while another 50 million become disabled. In Sri Lanka, 7 people are killed in a day and close to 20-25 people become disabled. In most countries, fines have been increased to minimise accidents and they have been successful in their attempts.
There was a request to revise the fine for high speed and overtaking from the left side and which are still at discussion level. To begin with, we don’t have specified speed limits on the roads and therefore it’s not practical to impose a fine for high speed. On the other hand, if vehicles travel on the right side they all should travel on the right. But in our case, there is no space for vehicles to ply from the left. Therefore we are looking into this matter as well. But it would take another 6 months for these fines to be implemented.
Q What about the less grave or minor offences such as parking at unauthorized parking lots or making U-turns? How would fines be imposed on them?
For these offences, normal fines will be charged but there again the fine which was once Rs.20 would now be Rs.100 and so on. Many of these offences are intentional. People do not just drink, they think before consuming hard liquor. It is the same when you overtake from the left side or drive without a licence. We are trying to convert Sri Lanka into disciplined nation by imposing these fines.
Q Shouldn’t motorcyclists and three-wheeler drivers be given adequate education or training when using the roads?
There are close to 3.4 million motorcycles and 1.2 million trishaws in Sri Lanka. It had reached such a level that we could not bear this capacity any more. Therefore, when a person buys a new three-wheeler, only 25% of the lease will be allowed, and for a second hand one 75% will be given. Many three-wheeler drivers are very young and they are made to feel it as a potential career. Because of this, there is a dearth in skilled labour and it would be an added national issue in future. We have informed the National Council for Road Safety to implement a programme where every three-wheeler should have the driver’s identification details such as the driver’s photo and other details. In addition to that it should also be mentioned whether it is a metered taxi or a normal one. Then the passengers would know everything about the three-wheeler and its driver. Another problem is, there are approximately 45,000 registered school vans roaming around the streets in the country. Another 25,000 unregistered vans are also in the business. We have informed the Council regarding these school vans as well.
Q USD 300 million has been allocated for the electric train project. Isn’t it better if the existing railway service is given a revamp first, increase salaries of its staff, give an ear to their grievances etc.?
When looking at the debt burden we have, how could we increase salaries? We are a small country and we cannot operate bullet trains. Still we are at a developing stage and we don’t earn enough money to spend. From the 196 countries in the world, every one person among 350 people is a government servant. In Sri Lanka the ratio is 15 : 1. This is why we still do not see any progress. In order to pay their salaries, we need Rs.700 billion. There are approximately 565,000 pensioners and another Rs.150 billion should be allocated for their benefits. In addition to that, we also have to cover Samurdhi and fertilizer subsidies which require another Rs. 400 billion. Our debt interest is Rs. 666 billion and the instalment is Rs. 800 billion which sums up to approximately Rs. 2,000 billion. But we earn only Rs. 1,600 billion which makes it a difficult task to cover up these expenses.
"In Sri Lanka, 7 people are killed in a day and close to 20-25 people become disabled. In most countries, fines have been increased to minimise accidents and they have been successful in their attempts"
Q Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa blames the incumbent government for calling the Mattala Airport a ‘white elephant’. After the yahapalana government came in to power, how are the Mattala airport and the Hambantota port being handled?
The best example is that during the recent flight cancellation schedule due to the on-going construction, we requested flights to use the Mattala airport. But no airline was willing to do so due its limited facilities except for four SriLankan flights that land four days a week. The present income that the Mattala airport generates is Rs. 3 million while the expenditure is Rs. 250 million. For a month, the repayment of loan is Rs. 300 million, which is Rs. 3.6 billion a year, which is covered by the revenue generated by the Katunayake Airport. As of now, there is only one flight that lands there and that too had some issues recently. We are trying to include the airport as a Private Public Partnership (PPP) in order to develop its business. On the other hand, the Hambantota port was built with a staggering Rs. 144 billion. But its daily income is Rs.18 million while the expenditure rounds up to Rs. 26 million. Making matters worse, the monthly debt instalment is Rs. 85 million. So we don’t have money for its development purposes. If the previous regime wanted a port, they could have brought down an investor, explained the system and allowed them to do the needful. Since there is no way that we could cover up its expenses, we will be forging ahead as a Public-Private Partnership for Rs. 1.2 billion, so that the profits would be shared at 80: 20 ratio. When we are trying to make progress, there are many obstacles but we will move forward.
Q The COPE report took the Central Bank Bond issue on a serious note. What is the current status of this so-called scam?
During the previous regime, nobody knew about Bond. But today we see many people talking about it. When we make an announcement about the issuance of Bonds, the 16 primary dealers in the country would discuss what the interest could be. During that particular week we needed Rs. 20 billion but they only announced Rs. 1 billion at the auction. Yet, they have also asked the dealers how much they would claim if the figure is about Rs. 20 billion and this was proved with evidence in the COPE report. Perpetual Treasuries was established in 2012 and the former CB governor’s sister was a member of its Board of Directors. It was run by Arjuna Aloysius and his family. But during this time, Arjuna Mahendran was not in the country and nobody knew he would be the next CB governor. Then in 2013, Arjuna Aloysius became Mahendran’s son-in-law, and till then no one knew whether Mahendran would be on the Governor’s chair. The problem here was, that during that particular week, when Mahendran had inquired about the figure he was aware that Rs. 20 billion was collected but the Monetary Board had said that if they had taken it as a bulk, the interest rate would increase. When they have requested to take only Rs. 2.6 billion and he wanted to know the last 30 years’ Bond and its status. In turn he had requested the Monetary Board to take Rs.10 billion and Perpetual Treasuries Ltd. and required Rs. 5 billion out of that. So the suspicion arose in his request to have Rs. 10 billion and Rs. 5 billion could be given to Perpetual Treasuries. The COPE Committee had identified the scam and the report was submitted to the Auditor General for his approval and then it was sent to Parliament.
"MR has also served this country but with a lot of corruption. Nobody wants him back and if he is brought back in to power, it’s like giving a licence to do something illegal"
Q But this committee which should be working independently is known as a highly politicized one. What are your views on this?
Nobody can influence the COPE committee. During the previous regime the COPE committee chairman was one of their supporters but we have a member from the JVP. There is a mixed representation of members from different parties in its committee. We have to change the standing orders because there is no point in just discussing matters. We have requested the Speaker to allow us to take decisions and move in to a more practical way of solving issues that are in hand.
Q Is the Yahapalana government moving in the right direction?
The yahapalana government will definitely be in power till 2020. Two parties with different principles have gotten together to make a difference. We wanted to get together as one in order to take this country forward. MR has mentioned somewhere that he was going to topple the government in 2017 but he cannot make another comeback without an election. We have given a promise to the people. MR has also served this country but with a lot of corruption. Nobody wants him back and if he is brought back in to power, it’s like giving a licence to do something illegal.