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3rd January 1999
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Destination dead end

Public transport system stuck at every point

By Ayesha R. Rafiq and Nilika de Silva
If the growing demand for public transport is to be met over the next few years, an average of 2000 buses a year will have to be introduced.

Besides the heavy cost, heavy loses and other factors the proposal seems to be like one of those New Year resolutions that cannot be kept, a transport official said as daily commuters complained that public transport was becoming increasingly difficult and dangerous.

For the millions of Sri Lankans who use public transport daily the very thought of travelling now seems to be a nightmare.

Traffic congestion is at a point where things can't get any worse. 

With such a situation it is no surprise seeing people hanging out of trains and buses. Some buses are so packed that they tip precariously to one side.

Overcrowding also poses a serious safety hazard, with a large number of accidents being caused due to people falling off overcrowded buses and trains.

Even though the government is taking steps to provide more buses in an attempt to deal with the ever growing demand, these measures are hampered because of the inability of the roads to carry more vehicles.

The National Transport Commission Operations Director Tissa Abeysinghe says that at present there are about 18000 CTB and private buses in operation islandwide.

Mr. Abeysinghe is of the view that if this fleet is used efficiently, it would be more than enough.

Citing one of the reasons for the under utilisation, he said that the traffic-day of a private bus is shorter than that of a CTB bus. This is because the private buses operate with just one crew, whereas the CTB buses operate on a roster system, which enables it to run buses late into the night.

To meet the demand each bus should do about 300 Km a day.

But many private buses run only about 200 km. This is because the private operators, instead of running according to a time table, wait until the buses are full, and so lose out on running time, Mr. Abeysinghe said.

A Central Transport Board (CTB) official said that in the 1999 budget, the government had allocated Rs. 1500 million for the import of new buses and for repair of broken down buses.

These funds will go to import approximately 1000 buses, and repair about 500 immobilised buses.

The official said that from this number, about 500 small buses will be sent to the rural areas, which have been starved of adequate public transport.

The CTB and its 11 cluster companies as of November 1998 owned a fleet of about 7890 buses, compared to 8014 in November 1997. Although the November time table required 6410 buses, only 4648 buses were actually in operation. This means an under utilisation of almost 2000 buses.

The spokesman said that if these additional 2000 buses are used to their optimum capacity, the problem would be solved to a great extent. This would be especially helpful, as an average of 200 to 300 buses are pulled out of operation monthly.

However the utilisation of these additional buses is hampered by the congestion on the roads.

An addition of 2000 buses would greatly increase the congestion problem, which in turn sets off a vicious circle. 

With a 45 minute journey from Pettah to Kadawata now taking double the time due to the congestion, the buses lose out on running time as well as revenue.

The CTB official said that the average cost per kilometre of operating a bus is about Rs. 16. 

But the bus fare charged is about Rs. 14 to 15 per kilometre. As CTB buses operate about a million kilometres a day, this amounts to a loss of about Rs.2 million daily.

As such, the introduction of new buses though essential, will result in additional expenditure to the government, in the form of subsidies.

'The Sunday Times' visited the Central Bus Stand at Pettah to see what was happening and speak to commuters.

Kanthi Wijetilake, a passenger waiting to board a bus to Nonagama, said she had come at 11 am and was waiting for two hours.

Anuradha Perera travelling to Galle said he had to wait at least an hour to board a bus. 

Though semi-luxury buses are available, commuters wait for the ordinary ones because most commuters cannot afford the higher rate.

Another commuter, B. Ariyasena waiting to board a bus to Kelaniya says the transport service is disgusting. 

"We have been waiting here for over half an hour. They should put more buses on the road," he said. 

We also visited the Fort Railway Station which as usual was all agog.

Most passengers there acknowledged that train services were a little more punctual than buses, but much more needed to be done in terms of efficiency and public comfort

This premier station handles about 75,000 passengers each morning, about 90,000 each evening and another 20,000 transit passengers.

The 120 departures and the same number of arrivals ensure that the station is a hive of activity throughout the day. The revenue per day is between Rs. 3 to 4 lakhs, a station official said..

Rama runs into trouble in Sita Eliya

By Shelani de Silva
Proposals to set up a tourist site in Sita Eliya on the basis of the town's significance in the epic Ramayana have run into opposition following protests from environmentalist and some Buddhist groups.

The proposed site, to be named as Rampura, is to contain several temples of Rama, Sita and Hanuman on a 30-acre land in Sita Eliya which some believe as the place where Sita was detained by Ravana.

However some Sinhala groups claim that 'Sita' means cold in Sinhala and thus the area has nothing to do with the Ramayana.

Environmentalists claim the 30-acre land set aside for the project forms part of a hundred acre forest reserve. 

Following protests, Tourism Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake held talks with Tourist Board officials in this regard and assured the proposal would be reviewed. 

The meeting held in Nuwara Eliya was attended by several Tamil MPs and representatives from the National Joint Committee, All Ceylon Buddhist Congress, NGOs and village representatives.

Piyasena Dissanayake, secretary of the National Joint Committee told The Sunday Times that they object to the project because it was nothing but a politicially motivated move.

"We put forward our views to the minister and the officials. There were no objections from the Tamil MPs of the area. The MPs however said they would not cause any strife between the Buddhists and the Hindus who are living peacefully," Dr. Dissanayake said.

He also said there was little historical evidence that Sita was brought to Sri Lanka.

Nuwara Eliya Government Agent Dhanasena Hettiarachi told The Sunday Times the Government would take a decision after Minister Senanayake discussed the issue with the President.

Health sector undergoes amputation

In a major administrative change intended to bust through the bureaucracy in health administration, the Health Department from January 1 is functioning independently from the Ministry of Health, an official said.

Prior to 1966 the Ministry and the Department of Health Services functioned separately. 

But thereafter the two were amalgamated. Since then many of the responsibilities with the Director General of Health had been taken over by the Ministry.

The ministry will be responsible for the formulation and implementation of all policy matters for the entire health sector. 

All administrative matters and implementation of policies formulated by the ministry, developing human resources for the health sector and ensuring necessary infrastructure facilities for delivery of health care services will be handled by the Health Department.

According to a Health Ministry statement the Health Department functions as an 'A' class department under Director General Dr. V. Jeganathan.

The ministry will be under Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva.

The health sector is being revamped on recommendations made by the Presidential Task Force on Health Policy Reforms.

Air Lanka to resume flights to SA?

AirLanka's service to South Africa, suspended in 1997 is likely to be resumed in October this year, or in year 2000. 

Emirates' management, AirLanka is doing a feasibility study of the South Africa route, though it is generally agreed that there is a lucrative market for AirLanka in South Africa, past experience notwithstanding.

The target is the Indian ethnic community, which is one point five million strong, prosperous, and in search of its Indian roots. AirLanka could exploit this community's interest in Indian destinations by offering entry through Chennai and Trivandrum via Colombo. The relatively hassle free entry into India through Chennai and Trivandrum airports could be used to popularise Colombo as a transit point, sources said. Almost 600.000 of the Indians in South Africa are of Tamil or Telugu origin and it might not be difficult to motivate them to discover their cultural roots in South India, an hour away from Colombo.

An air service to South Africa was launched with tourism minister Dharmasiri Senanayake on board with an entourage two years ago, but within months, it had to be called off due to mounting losses. The devaluation of the South African Rand, the absence of the expected traffic, and failures on the promotional front are cited as reasons for the debacle.

But with Emirates now in the driver's seat, AirLanka is now looking at routes afresh . While managerial flaws are being corrected by the new bosses, there is also a national interest in reviving active political economic and commercial links with South Africa. The phase in which Colombo deeply suspected that Pretoria had tilted towards the LTTE is now over. It is now felt that the 'tilt' may not have been as real as it was imagined. Certain fissures in South Africa's ethnic structure had been overestimated. The role of ex-apartheid supporters in creating divisions among the Indians is also being seen enabling a better understanding of the nature of the problem. 

It is now apparent that the ruling African National Congress {ANC} is predominantly a nonracial party committed to the promotion of multi-ethnicism both at home and abroad. Other, minor political parties, especially those dominated by the whites, may try to play the communal card, but not the establishment as such. 

Packed ball rooms despite poya and war

By Nilika de Silva and Faraza Farook
Though they could not roll out the barrel and buy any whoppers after midnight because of Poya restrictions, thousands of revellers saw the New Year in star-studded settings with all the gaiety and extravagance.

Plush hotels in Colombo and other towns reported packed ball rooms for their high-priced 31st night dinner dances despite the continuing war with attendant suffering for millions and a downturn in the economy. 

A Lanka Oberoi official said the crowd which saw in the New Year was about the same as last year. 

He said about 750 had gathered for dinner dances but liquor sales were down apparently because of Poya restrictions. 

Trans Asia had close upon 2000 guests on New Year's Eve, and an official said the numbers were the same as last year too though liquor sales had obviously dropped after midnight. 

At the bomb-hit Galadari, Food and Beverages Manager A. Warakawa said it was the most successful 31st Night in three years. 

He said guests had been constantly reminded there would be no liquor sales after midnight, so most of them got the stuff before the deadline.

Colombo Hilton Lobby Manager Shareez Samsudeen said the New Year's Eve dinner dances got a much better response than last year with more than 1500 revellers seeing the new year in there.

At the Taj Samudra the response was equally good. 

Away from Colombo city, a large number of revellers saw the New Year dawn in star studded settings. 

For instance, the Mahaweli Reach in Kandy and Taj Exotica Bentota reported full halls and loads of fun for the dawn of 1999. But they also reported a drop in liquor sales. 

The Sunday Times reporters on a tour of city hotels found that liquor was served in many after midnight, despite the Poya ban.

Earlier in the day, shops as usual had one of their biggest sales with thousands of New Year shoppers thronging shopping centres from Colombo City to Nugegoda and Dehiwela. 

But seasonal card sellers reported a significant drop in sales, largely because the postage rate had gone upto Rs. 3.50. 

Another reason was that more and more people are now using hi-tech e-mail to send New Year greetings.

Crackers and fireworks were generally a big buy for this season. 

Though some vendors reported a drop in sales, hospital officials said there was no drop in the number of annual cracker victims.

At the National Hospital, an official said some 500 patients were given treatment for injuries for New Year related accidents including crackers, drunken fights and road mishaps.

Cop vs journalist 

A senior journalist of The Sunday Times was threatened and insulted by a Police officer at the funeral of the popular young priest Fr. Sunanda Wanasinghe in Pamunugama last Monday.

The journalist who is visually handicapped had gone to St. Joseph's Church in Pamunugama to interview the parents of Fr. Sunanda and others, including priests to write a news feature on the event. 

But he ran into an abusive and ill mannered Police officer at the gate.

The journalist showed his media accreditation card issued by the Government Information Department and the Newspaper Identity Card. Both were photo identity cards but the police officer did not even look at them. 

Without any valid reason he accused the journalist of lying about his identity. The journalist again held out his identity cards. But the Police officer got angrier and more abusive.

Using ugly Sinhala words, he threatened he would get the journalist thrown out of the Church premises, if he did not leave immediately. 

At any occasion the boorish and dirty behaviour of the Police officer would have been a blatant violation of the rights of journalists to cover a public event. 

But such behaviour at a solemn Church ceremony was a slur and a disgrace to the Police service.

Right of reply

I refer to the lead article entitled 'Govt. dismisses British MP's mediation visit' in The Sunday Times of December 27. It reports that a British MP, Simon Hughes, whose constituency has 'a large number of Sri Lankan Tamils', 'has planned to visit Sri Lanka with a team of advisers, including Professor Thiru Kandiah.'

Firstly, the co-ordinator of the visiting team is Dayantha Liyanage, a local government councillor in Britain and Mayor-elect for Medway Towns.

Mr. Liyanage is chairman of a small informal group of expatriate Lankan professionals and academics, including Drs. L.D. Karalliyedde and A. Fernando.

They are deeply concerned about the sad plight that the ethnic conflict has plunged their country into and have been discussing what kind of initiative they might take to bring to it, the peace that all people who truly care for it are earnestly seeking. The visit arranged by Mr. Liyanage comes largely from this concern. The team Mr. Liyanage was going to bring across consisted of himself, Mr. Hughes and Mr. Simon Hunt, a member, I believe, of the Liberal Democratic Party. 

Secondly, I myself belong to no team which anybody is bringing across to Sri Lanka and am adviser to nobody on the ethnic issue. All I did was to respond to a request by Mr. Liyanage to help his visiting team with their initiative. 

This help included putting the team in touch with people in the island whom they might usefully meet. This was apart from the very important people whom they were in any event arranging to meet. 

Accordingly, I sent him a short list of names and telephone numbers of people, groups and institutions representative of all the major ethnic and religious groups in the island and drawn from across the spectrum of opinion on the ethnic issue in Colombo. And that, more or less, was it.

Thiru Kandiah

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