Bus Drivers, Doctors and Strikes

The bus strike

The vast majority of the people of this country condemned – we use the word deliberately – to use our public transport system would have surely heaved a massive sight of relief that Friday’s bus strike is over. It is ironical that strikers, be they doctors or bus drivers, hold to ransom ordinary people who depend on their services to win their various demands whether they are reasonable or not. There is no word other than ‘abominable’ to describe this country’s public transport system. Buses are too few and infrequent. They are overcrowded during peak hours with hapless passengers packed like sardines into the proverbial tin. 

Cartoon is from Sunday Observer 

The bus drivers are a law unto themselves, careering down the roads with their hands almost permanently on their deafening air horns to bully other road users out of their way as they race each other to the next bus stop to pick up passengers. Crowded road conditions are of little concern to these madmen; overtaking on the wrong side is not uncommon and other road rules are paid scant attention. Making a buck is the name of the game and to hell with the safety of other road users.Cartoon from Ceylon Today

The railway does take some pressure off the buses as far as public transport is concerned. But the train service cannot be described as adequate or satisfactory. Overcrowded commuter trains amply testify to this. Let us also not forget that when the bus strike loomed, railway men too tried to extract the last possible ounce of advantage by threatening a strike of their own. The less said about three-wheeler drivers the better. While they do provide an essential service to those who do not own vehicles as well as a convenience for many who do who’d rather not wrestle with traffic and parking, they too are a menace on the road weaving in and out of traffic, darting across the path of other vehicles with inches to spare and engaging in all manner of devilry that we are all familiar with. Many of the meters they are supposed to be equipped with are rigged or too often claimed to be not working. Ripping off passengers on fares is far too common. It is a never-ending struggle for those who must use public transport to get to work with the ever-present road congestion adding to their travails. There is very little prospect of light at the end of the tunnel in the short or even medium term. The only solace is that motorbikes have become options for many more people today than they were a couple of decades ago.

At the time of writing we do not know on what terms the bus strike had been settled but it looks as though the concerned authorities have back-pedaled at least to some degree. If the bus drivers conform to road rules, they have no reason to fear enhanced fines. But we must say in fairness that bus owners often demand so many trips a day or some minimum collection and drivers cannot crawl in traffic and meet rapacious revenue targets. Also, it is not only they and three-wheeler drivers who are undisciplined road users. There are many other motorists including some swanking about in high-end Benzes, BMWs and SUVs of sundry makes, who also break road rules and call various police high-ups of their cell phones when they are detected. How many motorists can, cross their hearts, and swear that they have never taken the wheel after a drink, crashed a red light, not stopped for a pedestrian at a zebra crossing or been guilty of some offence not conducive to road discipline? Very few in any at all we would wager. The reality is that whether we drive a bus or three-wheeler or not, we are far from a disciplined society.

Thankful as we are that the strike is over, it is appropriate to raise the question why the concerned authorities, if they were willing to give way on at least some of the demands of the arm twisting by strikers, did not do so before the strike began? That at least would have saved public transport users of Friday’s inconvenience. It must of course be granted that give and take will always be part of any negotiating process and various compulsions would have applied on both sides. The wellbeing of ordinary people must necessarily dominate the government’s approach while the bus operators will have the money they are losing foremost on their minds. Let us hope that that the safety aspects of the enhanced fines have not been compromised. Questions have been asked why these were part of the budget proposals if they were not imposed for revenue reasons. Traffic fines, we would think, should be part of amendments to the Motor Traffic Ordinance rather than the budget. Also, as cogently argued by Dr. A.C. Visvalingam, President of the Citizens Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) last Sunday, there is no sense in slapping huge fines/penalties on technical offences but serious offences like drunken or dangerous driving etc. cannot be countenanced.

Getting a decent public transport system for this country is long overdue. Obviously this cannot be achieved in the short term and is unlikely even in the medium term. So the suffering public will have to make do with what is on offer, wrinkles and all. The buccaneers driving buses and three-wheelers dangerously will continue to be in business come hell or high water with three-wheeler drivers, particularly, commanding political influence commensurate with their large number. We suspect that private bus drivers draw more attention from traffic police than their counterparts in the SLTB who get their salaries paid without collection targets and have no compulsion to get to the next bus stop first. That is perhaps why state-employed bus drivers didn’t seem overly worried about enhanced traffic fines. Or is it that they don’t get copped? We are aware that a lot of lenience is shown to traffic offenders who are government servants! What happened on Friday endorses the growing perception in the country that the government caves in easily to muscle flexing. That can only mean that there will be more of that as we go into the future.