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(Pic by Chamila Karunarathne)

Malini is a person who works at the Labour Secretariat, Narahenpita, travelling from Maho daily by train. Immediately after clocking out at her office at Narahenpita, she rushes by bus to the Fort Railway Station, to board the Maho Express. This is the time schedule of most office workers in the evening who rush home after work within a limited space of time, either to board a long distance train or bus.

These people reach home well after eight or 8.30pm and have to attend to preparing a quick dinner, iron children’s clothes, help with tutorials and homework, catch some sleep, and rush again at dawn to work. A few minutes waiting on the road between office and the long distance bus or train is total havoc in their lives and they could be pardoned for uttering curses upon those who have been the causes for such delays caused by protestors who throng the roads just bang on the office-closing hours wantonly bent on disrupting peaceful social life.

With protests and demonstrations plaguing the economic hubs of the nation, primarily the City of Colombo almost every week resulting in an adverse impact on economic, environmental and social aspects of life, irate private bus owners in the country confirmed that for the past one and a half years they had incurred a loss of approximately Rs.2 billion.

The loss was solely on fuel which had been consumed during long periods of engine idling when traffic comes to a standstill due to the organized chaos of ‘asking what the country can do for you’ in the name of causes perceived as legitimate.

It must be noted that the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka has guaranteed the freedom and right to expression via protests and demonstrations. The Lanka Private Bus Owners’ Association said that they had lodged complaints before the Police and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, regarding the matter and would in the near future be filing an application before the Supreme Court requesting the establishment of a separate lane for buses.

President of the Association, Gemunu Wijeratne said that if a bus makes five trips a day on routes such as Moratuwa-Colombo, Homagama-Colombo or Maharagama-Colombo, on a day a protest takes place, the number of trips dwindle to three a day. He observed that in certain other countries separate spaces were provided for engaging in protests.

“These protests on public roads have impacted us severely, so much so that on such days certain buses refrain from operating. Public roads should not be obstructed,” Wijeratne said. The Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation too acknowledged that there were losses due to the resultant traffic congestion. Media Secretary, Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, Viraj Abeysinghe pointed out that trade unions in the transport sector had also raised concerns.

Meanwhile, lecturer at the Department of Tourism Management of the Faculty of Management Studies of the Sabaragamuwa University, Dr. WMP Sampath B Wahala, who has worked on cost related analyses, pointed out that 70 percent of the fuel wasted took place during periods when vehicle engines were idling. According to Dr. Wahala, while one could quantify the economic and environmental aspects relating to protests, the social aspects concerning it were difficult to do.

He said that factors such as where the protest took place (example being at the Colombo Fort Railway Station), the number of individuals involved (undergraduates from State Universities across the island) and the duration of the protest too had to be derived in order to arrive at and figure out a value of estimated cost.

In worse case scenarios, police personnel are deployed along with barriers, water cannons and teargas to quell protests and disperse protestors. Causes for protests are exemplified by protests held against the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine, the Colombo Port City project and the Norochcholai coal power plant.

“There are questions regarding the effectiveness of protests, too, that have been raised. Have decisions resulting in changes been taken as a result of protests”, Dr Wahala queried. “Due to fuel burning, there is an impact on climate change owing to the greenhouse gas emissions (sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide)”.

“There is a loss of time. The financial loss to the country from the unnessary wastage of fuel is enormous. Economic and social factors are complex, especially when taking into account people’s emotions. In the morning, when they are on the way to work and they encounter a traffic block due to protests, they take time to adapt once they get to work. Their plans for the day may also have undergone changes as a result. Directly and indirectly, there is an impact on the entire economic system, particularly in Colombo.
“Emotion wise, there are those who oppose the protest and those who support it. For the former, they may have a negative attitude, the consequences of which could last for up to two weeks. For the latter it would act as a motivation factor. Regardless of this there is a loss to the national economy and development,” Dr. Wahala stressed.

In this regard, the National Council for Road Safety proposed that the solution was easing the problem of traffic congestion. It is learnt that approximately 560,000 vehicles come to Colombo every day between 6 am and 8 am.

Chairman of the Council, Dr. Sisira Kodagoda added that a programme for 2017 and 2018, to introduce a new system was currently in place with the Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development acting as the main focal point.  He said that the number of people who use the railways was low (six per cent) and as such should be increased. He added that the 560,000 vehicles entering the city must be reduced by 30 per cent.

Although the proposal to introduce a separate lane for buses and another for three-wheelers is a questionable one particularly because Sri Lanka presently has a system of two lanes and therefore may not be a suitable solution to the problem, it is currently being discussed by the Ministry of Megapolis and the Road Development Authority according to Dr Kodagoda. He said discussions have and are being held concerning the electric railway system or monorail that was an alternative to control traffic jams.

“People have a view that the railway system does not work properly and do not operate on a scheduled time and the facilities provided are not enough. We plan to have air conditioning and other facilities in the compartments and a scheduled timetable targetting office and school hours. There are bare lands sans development belonging to the Department of Railways in Homagama, Kelaniya and Gampaha. These lands can be used to park vehicles and all that needs to be done is to provide security to the vehicles.

A better  system regarding vehicles is needed. We have a situation where sometimes only one person travels in a vehicle. If we can have facilities such as luxury buses then the person can stop their vehicle in a parking space and take the bus. Nothing is finalized yet in this regard,” Dr. Kodagoda pointed out.