The strike by private buses and 21 threewheeler unions around the country left the public stranded at deserted bus stops and depots yesterday.
The protest against the increase in fine to Rs.25,000 for seven traffic offences includes driving without a license, drunk driving and speeding.
Railway Unions and the Sri Lanka Private Bus Owners’ Associations (SLPBOA) held discussions with President Maithripala Sirisena on Thursday night with both unions promising to call off the strike but the next day, the private buses defied SLPBOA Chairman Gemunu Wijerathna go ahead with the strike.
Wijerathna was not available for comment despite several attempts to contact him.
The government in response has increased the number of Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) buses operating on the roads.
SLTB Chairman Ramal Siriwardena speaking to the News said
“As soon as I heard of the possible strike, I released a circular cancelling all leave and calling back all to report to duty. We are constantly monitoring the situation and while we can’t guarantee that there is no inconvenience caused, we are trying to minimize disruptions,”he said.
According to him, the SLTB has increased the number of buses deployed from 5,300 to 6,100 by using some of the long distance buses for short distance transport.
Despite such efforts however, the SLTB was falling short of the demand as the majority of transport in the country is run by private buses,“Either way, we only run 1,000 buses while there are 4000 private buses,”the SLTB Chairman said.
The protest also took a violent turn yesterday as protestors started to pelt stones at SLTB buses which were operating during the strike.
According to news reports, close to 20 buses were damaged. “Two school children were injured due to the pelting of stones but we have asked for police protection at all bus depots,”Siriwardena said.
Transport Ministry Secretary Nihal Somaweera speaking to the News said the demands of the unions were ‘unjustifiable’.
“We have had several discussions with them up to Thursday but they will have to respect rules. The SLTB is operating in full swing and we have made arrangements to have them running so in the next couple of days too,”he said. He added that despite union warnings to continue the strike indefinitely, it was not likely to continue given the losses to their income they would face each day.
The Lotus Road Roundabout at Fort was closed off yesterday due to around 1,000 thre wheelers from 21 unions being parked on the road. They also blocked the main Colombo-Negombo main road causing severe congestion.
“They are now asking us to not overtake from the left, and then there is also a rule that we cannot overtake from the right. How will we overtake cars and get to our destination sooner? This is what our passengers expect from us,”Pradeep Kumara from the Thotalanga Threewheeler Drivers’
Association who had parked his vehicle at Lotus Road said.
He added that it was unfair to increase the fine for speeding as they had no option but to speed. Ajim who is also a three wheel driver from the Thotalanga stand said these problems were due to a lack of national policy with regard to the Three wheeler industry,
“We know that overtaking from the left is wrong but then at least let us overtake from the right. When buses were asked not to overtake from the right, Gemunu went on strike and got private buses exempted. This is unfair,”Ajim said.
The three wheel drivers were insistent that they would continue to strike until their demands are met.
Military Spokesperson, Brigadier Roshan Seneviratne said the Defence Ministry Secretary through the Office of Chief of Defence Staff, requested that the military remain on standby in the case where police would require any assistance to control the situation. The new fine system however will only come into effect once the necessary amendments to the Motor Traffic Act are made. In addition, the Attorney General and Parliament would need to approve of the new structure.
Meanwhile, employees in several government institutes were allowed to leave an hour and a half early yesterday due to the private bus and three wheel driver’s strike yesterday.
The courts, public administration, urban development authority and several other ministries followed suit.
It was also reported that attendance in schools and other private institutes were also greatly reduced due to the strike.
Meanwhile, two SLTB buses were damaged on Thursday and Wednesday as stones were pelted at them at two separate locations in the Trincomalee area, said the police.
The first attack was on the bus from Trincomalee to Tangalle on Wednesday night with the front most window on the left broken but no passengers were hurt, Police sources said.
The second attack was on a bus at the Trincomalee Marathadiya junction yesterday morning. A side mirror was broken. The attack was launched when the bus which had travelled from Colombo to Trincomalee was on its way back. The Trincomalee police believe that both attacks were carried out by the same group.