It is a nightmare to drive on the roads in Colombo or its suburbs with little or no assurance that the motorist will reach his or her destination at the expected time because of the traffic snarls. Occasional protests and demonstrations by university students and trade unions make the situation worse, holding up hundreds of thousands of commuters and motorists for hours. The worst-affected by these traffic jams are commuters who are also taken hostage by the bus crew even at normal times.
Despite the fact that the country has more than ten transport ministers, including those at provincial level, the bus service in the country is in total disarray. Given the lack of concern by these ministers and the relevant officials it seems they are blind to what’s happening on the ground.
The time taken for a bus to travel 10 kilometres should be an hour, according to many of their operational rosters on their particular routes, whereas it would be only a fifteen minute drive for any other vehicle. However, there are occasions where certain buses had prolonged their stay at certain halting places for more than ten minutes. A satirical columnist of a Sinhala newspaper had some years back written that the private buses at times run fast as if to kill the passengers, while another runs so slow that one would feel to kill himself after killing the driver. It is not mere satire indeed, but the reality.
The bus service in the country is wasting the invaluable time of millions of people every day, taking them hostage. The irony is that the hostage has to pay for it. The accumulated man-hours wasted by the Sri Lankan bus service on any particular day would run into millions. Never a minister or a policy making official who is paid from the public coffers would have paid his attention to this national crime.
One reason for the traffic snarls is the ever increasing number of vehicles in the country. The number of vehicles before the open economy was introduced in the country in 1978 was a mere two hundred thousand whereas now it has risen to more than five million, three fourths of which ply on the roads of the Western Province. The pace of modernization of roads has not been able to catch up with this vehicular growth.
Apart from the massive waste of time, the condition of many buses and the treatment meted out to the passengers by the crew members of the buses, especially of the private buses is horrendous and outrageous. Only the buses plying on main roads are in somewhat good condition, many others are not roadworthy. On the other hand, most of the drivers and conductors are a lot hell bent to harass the passengers in one way or the other. What a fate it would be if a man who leaves home with a tranquil mind after offering prayers to God or the Buddha and lovingly bidding farewell to his wife and children is to meet a rough-looking conductor with dirty clothes, incessantly shouting to the passengers in a dilapidated bus crowded to the hilt and dragging at snail-pace!
There was a time before the mid-eighties when only the Ceylon Transport Board (CTB) conducted the bus service throughout the country. Considered a service rather than a money-making business, the bus service then was very much more decent than what it is now. Drivers and conductors were recruited from those with GCE O/L qualification which was then a relatively higher qualification. If a bus from the Matara depot travelling to Kankesanthurai broke down at Medawachchiya, the Medawachchiya depot was bound to supply a bus for the passengers to continue their journey. Passengers were issued with tickets with which the authorities were able to find out all the details of the passenger’s journey, in case of payment of compensation after an accident or any other complaint either by the passenger or the conductor.
After thirty years, while all other sectors have leapt forward, the transport service is lagging behind, while the number of transport ministers in the country has increased ten-fold.