Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Saving people from bus owners

Dhanesh Wisumperuma

The Nation, (Gain section), 21-07-2013


The private bus strike held on July 11 demanding a bus fare hike was another failed bus strike of the recent times. It didn’t affect passenger transport at all and ultimately called off within few hours. There were sufficient number of buses on the roads – both private and Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) – in many of the main routes with the timely intervention. Many of the active private bus owners’ organizations didn’t get involved in this strike too. Government and groups loyal to the government claimed a victory over this, while the problem seems to be not yet solved.

Lanka Private Bus Owners’ Association (LPBOA) was the association that organized this strike demanding a bus fare hike. According to them, they were demanding the annual bus fare hike due in the middle of the year which has been provided annually. The recent fuel price hike triggered their claim and the dispute between the bus owners and the state authorities was the amount of bus fare hike. Some of the bus owners demanded a 10% increase of the bus fare while the National Transport Commission offered a 6.2% increase.

Meanwhile the government has been considering of providing subsidies and relief measures for the bus owners, instead of a fare hike. A monetary subsidy or concessions in purchasing tyres, spare parts, etc and low rates in leasing issues were among the relief measures tabled. According to government sources, some of the bus owners had requested both. A fare hike as well as relief, a fact the government couldn’t agree with. Strike was the result of this situation. One should remember that the non-striking bus owner associations are also waiting for an increase of the bus fare. Only difference is that they follow another way to gain their needs – discussions.

Bus fare hike – Is it a solution?

It is worth to question whether an increase of the bus fare is the solution to the crisis. In simple terms, the global fuel price fluctuations affect the retail price of fuel in the country, decided by the government. When the fuel price is increased, this burden is then passed to the people or the consumers in a variety of means – bus fare, train fare, electricity bill, prices of goods, etc. The authorities can bear the burden alternatively to avoid the people from suffering, by providing subsidies.

Most of the people who use road passenger transport are of the middle and low income people. An increase of the bus fares can directly affect them and their living conditions. Hence providing subsidies to the bus owners can directly benefit the needy passengers. Although the subsidy will eventually be somehow passed to the people, this can be named as a commendable action as it could benefit the ordinary passengers. There are subsidies provided for similar sectors in many countries.

Many of the fare hike seekers willfully neglect the fact that the bus fares were increased from 20%, which is more than the required rates in February 2012, with the increase of fuel prices.

Challenges and solutions

The private bus industry is a profit making industry and it is widely considered as a good business to invest in. The addition of new buses to the fleet is proof for this factor. Most of these are bought using leasing facilities. The target of the bus owners to recover the investment they have made with, while part of their income is looted by their servants who work mostly for a daily wage and without any welfare or job security. A saying among the public goes as: bus owner digs the well, the driver fetches water and the bus conductor takes the bath!

That’s bus owners own problem. The entire bus industry has been facing certain challenges. One is the increase number of private vehicles, including bicycles, three-wheelers and small cars. A considerable number of middle and low income passengers have moved to their own transport systems, thus reducing the passenger base. A fact pointed by bus owners is that the numbers of buses are more than the required number, but this cannot be accepted as the passengers have the right for a comfortable journey. There are certain limits to the number of passengers that can be taken in a bus, which is not adhered or checked.
The bottom line of all these facts is that private sector passenger transport is not a service like the state-owned SLTB at present. It is merely a business, and this has caused the deterioration of the quality of passenger transport. History of road passenger transport service of Sri Lanka says the same story.

Commenced in 1907 with the first omnibus service between Colombo and Chilaw, it was solely operated by various bus companies and few individuals for about fifty years. However, the growing passenger complaints of these privately owned bus services led the nationalization of bus services. It was an election promise of the 1956 government and the Ceylon Transport Board or the ‘Langama’ was born on January 1, 1958. Since then, the state-owned bus services had the responsibility of passenger transport for more than twenty years. It was able to provide a creditable service although the lack of sufficient number of buses hindered the service.

The private sector was allowed to run bus services in 1979, when the country’s economy was opened. This took place in parallel to the decentralizing of the state-owned transport board and later peoplising of the depots which caused a deterioration of the state-owned agency paving the way to the domination of private bus industry. Meanwhile, the continuous recruitment with the political backing over staffed the transport board making the annual loss to increase more. Finally, the present government established the Sri Lanka Transport Board in 2005. By now the share of the state-owned buses on roads is about 4,400, while there are nearly 20,000 private buses. (Although the total fleet of SLTB exceeds 7,700 buses by the end of 2012, the average number operated daily is less than 4,400).

One of the solutions proposed as a relief includes the introduction of joint timetables for private and SLTB buses. This is debatable as the SLTB share of transport at present is about 20% and which will further deteriorate the state agency. Many of the trade unions oppose such a move, until the SLTB is able to deploy sufficient buses for their stake in the transport sector, 40%. Although the lack of joint timetables is sometimes pointed as the cause for the accidents caused by the competition, it has many other issues. The SLTB provides a far better service than the private sector, specially on uneconomical rural bus routes where the passengers are low and during the night and early morning.

Passenger welfare
Each time the bus fare is increased the government mentions that more facilities should be provided for the passengers. These include the issue of tickets, adhering to the timetables, passenger care and passenger capacity, etc. Private bus owners seem to be agreeing on this, or they pretend to show so until the bus fare is increased. For a week or merely for few days, we can see the officials of the government checking the service of buses. However, the system continues as usual soon and passengers do not care about their rights.

Non-issuance of tickets and rude behavior of the bus staff of private busses is a common fact. There are such reports published in newspapers occasionally. Lack of law implementation on this is partly due to passenger inaction of complaining the authorities. The other main issue is the lack of interest of bus staff to adhere to the timetable, which makes the passengers to waste their valuable time on roads. This is also a common issue in the profit-oriented private bus sector sometimes with political support.
The comfort in these buses is an aspect that should be addressed. Some buses are designed to accommodate more standing passengers by altering seat size and space between seats, making it uncomfortable for the passengers. There are standards for this, but it seems that none are interested on those.

The semi-luxury bus services operating in some of the long distance routes are one of the worst of the passenger transport services. Although these buses should take seated passengers only, the target of the owners and the staff is to accommodate more and more standee passengers. The situation is worse in the routes that are almost solely comprise of these semi-luxury buses.

Authorities are neglecting the rights of the consumers and the consumers do not care about. There is no strong consumer movement or action in the transportation sector. It is not much different in other sectors in the country too. Hence public interest as well as the SLTB’s role is vital to keep the transport sector a safe and comfortable journey for the passengers. The state sector plays a key role in transport in many developing and developed countries.


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