26 September, 2023


Anarchy On The Roads In Colombo & Kandy: Lack Of Order & Leadership?

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

Last week I wrote about the traffic and diesel fume problem in Kandy. This week I was in Colombo taking public transport and driven by car by a relative. From Homagama to Colombo city, it took more than two hours. There is anarchy on the roads.  This is actually an understatement. As commuters know very well, there is no rule on the roads.  Instead, the jungle rule prevails. Three wheel drivers (TWDs) criss-cross everywhere without notice. They seem to rule the roads. If not careful, their behaviour can cause accidents. In fact, it is reported that the accidents in Colombo roads have increased recently. 

Traffic cannot move smoothly even when there is green light as vehicles cut you in front and on both sides. Buses and other large vehicles do the same if you travel by car. At round about the story is the same. If rules are followed, vehicles coming from the right side should be given way by others entering the roundabout.  However, in this anarchical time, all try to poke into the available space – however small it is – trying to move ahead. No care is given for the other. What is at display is me, me, me mentality. At junctions with colour lights also traffic blocks build up preventing smooth flow. This is really the story of our time in paradise Lanka!

What I experienced in Colombo this week is similar to what I witnessed in Bangkok roads about 15-20 years ago. Also, it is similar to what one finds in Manila roads today; the congestion, slow movement, large volume, diesel fume, anarchy and lack of order. Even those with cars cannot escape the agony. In Thailand, the government has built overhead highways and driver-less sky trains to address the problem quite effectively. The situation in Colombo and Kandy is nowhere near that exists in Singapore though it is adopted by the leaders as an ideal for development here. For some mysterious reason, development seems to be elsewhere excluding the roads and railways that are the key avenues of travel? Traffic police cannot be seen on the roads directing traffic or if they are in main junctions, the volume is heavy requiring motorists to wait inconsiderate amounts of time. 

This situation in Colombo and Kandy has created a lot of frustration and anger among the travelling public. Yet those in authority seems to have abandoned the roads to the TWDs with no order at play.  A simple and straight forward solution is to impose fines on those violating traffic rules.  Particularly TWDs should be tamed for cutting across even solid lines to find a quicker way to reach destinations. Other drivers should be encouraged not to hinder the flow of traffic from sideways by imposing similar fines. They should be fined if they come from the opposite side and turn on to the moving traffic cutting across in the middle.  In a society where we preach about the value of tourism, natural beauty etc., the existing situation on our roads in major cities is a national disgrace. The question the public asking is who is in charge?

Why can’t the government deploy some mobile traffic controllers on motor bikes to bring some order to the roads? Is it the lack of resources or the political will?  I cannot understand the level of abandonment prevailing on Colombo roads and for that matter in Kandy roads. This seems a reflection of the misplaced priorities this government has at the moment? Instead of looking after the wellbeing of motorists and commuters by adopting simple measures such as imposing fines for traffic rule violators, the political leadership is focusing on other matters. 

Long Term vs Short Term Solutions

Earlier, there was an expectation that when the highway was extended to Kadawatha and circular road was completed, motorists who want to go in the direction of Kandy and elsewhere will bypass the city and reduce traffic on Colombo roads. However, this seems to have not happened? Otherwise the congestion should have been reduced.  Is someone in authority looking into this situation with the aim of giving some relief to the public?

I could see the construction of a station of some sort apparently for the motorists coming from outskirts to park their vehicles and take a shuttle bus to Colombo or in anticipation of the construction of a light rail above ground.  However commendable such action may be, what the people need is an urgent solution to the traffic problem existing today.  As stated earlier, imposing of rules without succumbing to pressure from various stakeholders such as private bus operators and TWDs can be a start.

In Kandy, I am told that the police experimented with a one-way traffic option for the city quite successfully.  However, due to the pressure from stakeholders e.g. bus operators, this was abandoned. If it was a successful, why abandon it for the greater good?  Was it due to political expediency?

Consequences of Traffic Congestion and Delay

When the learning and working population of a city is subjected to the kind of congestion and delay, the negative emotions created can be counterproductive in the learning and work places. People come to these venues already tired and angry. This can have spill over outcomes in work places etc. Furthermore, the wasted time on roads is an economic loss both to the commuter and the nation.

Fort Railway Station and the Trains

In a country that attracts large number of tourists, this station should be on par with the airport with modern facilities, shops, lifts etc.   Yet it is dirty, old looking with asbestos roofing, and lack lift facilities for travellers with physical disabilities. The latter have to climb steps to get to various platforms. If one comes in a wheelchair, good luck to them! In my previous article, I explained the situation at Peradeniya railway station.

The trains also look aged and in a state of disrepair.  Commuters have to wait another century, it seems, before they can expect air conditioned trains at least on main lines.  There don’t seem to be any concerted approach by the government to develop public transport such as the railways.  Instead, the priority seems to be to construct highways. It shouldn’t be one or the other.  Both should be priorities.

In a country where many mega projects are undertaken with borrowed money, why can’t the re-development of fort railway station (and Peradeniya station for that matter) can be made a priority?

Intercity Train (the Old Horse from the 70s)

I took this train to come to Colombo and return. On my way to Colombo, I was fortunate enough to get a seat in the first class (observation saloon). On the return journey, I had to settle with a second-class seat. In the compartment, three high speed fans were operating irrespective of the weather condition. All windows were open as well. Until midway of the journey, the train was bumping from side to side giving my body a shock massage.  By the time I passed through tunnels and reaching Peradeniya, I had developed a sinus headache requiring me to sleep all night and half a day to recover. I will not ravel by this train again to avoid getting sick.  Ticket officers are only concerned about whether the travellers have paid for the ticket. Not the comfort of travellers.

As in the case of key railway stations that should be the pride of our nation, the story of the train is also not an admirable one.  Why is it not possible for the railway authorities to introduce air conditioned trains between Kandy and Colombo?  Replace the old intercity train with a new and comfortable one?

Lack of Leadership

There must be any number of ministers, deputy ministers and state ministers in charge of our public roads and the railway system. Nonetheless, no one seems to be taking action to resolve the issues facing the public on a short-term basis at least? Instead, people who try to go to work, take kids to school, attend medical appointments and other business in the cities, go to university classes etc. have been abandoned in the wilderness leaving TWDs to take control of our roads.  Travelling public are left in the wilderness. This is highly unacceptable. The social and economic cost of this dire situation could be enormous to the country.  At least the President needs to intervene and find those responsible for lack of action to task.

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Latest comments

  • 10

    President has no time now. He is very busy having discussions with every crook, how to remain in power???????? Apita Deviyange pihitai!!!!!

    • 2

      Gota will solve all these problems, and Native’s problems too.

      • 2

        Gota is no super man… He is just another power hungry crook #TheyAllAre #RipSriLanka

    • 6

      If traffic problems could be solved by astrology, or by exhibiting the Tooth Relic , we should have the best traffic system in the world.
      The problem is that the country is run by incompetents for the incompetents . Things will change only when jackasses like ASP Liyanage or Pujith Jayasundera are no longer appointed as Ambassadors or IGP’s. The IGP is a great believer in Bodhi poojas.

      • 4

        “Exhibiting the Tooth Relic”?

        Are you talking about the canine tooth surreptitiously installed by Sinhala kings after the real one was destroyed by Portuguese?

        In following Leonard Woolf’s reference tooth relic in his autobiography “Growing” (page 144) I further went to find its true story in Sir James Emerson Tenant’s “Ceylon -Volume 2″.(pages 199 203). There the story goes on ” The fate of this renowned relic is so remarkable … its destruction ..with so much particularity by the Portuguese annalists of the period and their contemporaries .. that no historical doubt can be entertained. that the tooth now exhibited at Kandy is a spurious and modern substitute for the original, destroyed in 1560″


        • 3

          Who cares about the tooth relic in Kandy that is a big money making racket where some people are privileged while the humble taxpayers like us to endure heavy pollution and traffic jams created by the closure of the main road by the Maligawa.Previlged few could have night races or unlimited access with a unfair divide and rule policy. This has nothing to do with Buddhism.
          If people are true Buddhists will not use the roads in an inconsiderate manner.

      • 4

        Sri Lankans are experts at short-cut solutions. Nobody takes the time to think. Instant satisfaction is the key.
        No war? For “development”, build highways! With loans, naturally.
        Where do all these highways go? To Colombo, where else? What happens when all these guys from Matara or Puttalam get to Colombo? They spend hours in bottlenecks, and prevent others getting in. What happens to people from Kadawata going to Colombo? They spend 2 hours to go 6 KM.Same situation between Kottawa and Colombo. Before the highways were built , it was possible to reach Colombo and even park there.
        There are still people who think that highways signify development. But theyare not the ones who have to drive on the highways.

  • 6

    What can we expect from a bloated cabinet of Ministers who travel in luxury with no regard for the general public. The traffic situation gets worse day by day by the addition of new vehicles. The public transport system is in chaos. Three wheelers do provide a service to those who do not have an alternative mode of transport. Development money is spent on areas that offer the highest kickbacks and not for the good of the people. Our modayas will elect these same bunch of crooks and garbage come the next elections.

  • 5

    So many issues on this subject ..
    We have a few roads in Sri Lanka but millions of vehicles…
    Some houses have more three or four vehicles ..
    We have no plan how to control and manage traffic..
    We do not have road manners ..
    Thugs run fast or over take.
    No traffic law followed ..
    Police take bribes .
    It is said some traffic police make more money than solicitors in Sri Lanka ..
    Some buy licence in Sri Lanka with bribes ..
    It’s heart breaking to see accidents take place each day in Sri Lanka…
    3000 people die each years..
    What.does M&S do about it? What does Ranil do.about it?
    Remind me who is the transport minister these days ?
    Any one take responsibilities for this mess?
    Do not expect that ..
    It is Sri Lanka
    Not Singapore yet ;
    But we could beat Singapore if all act like that police man who went to the home of rubbish thrower in Kandy..

  • 3

    wait till port city starts building…colombo will come to a grinding halt

  • 4

    A good public transport system is a must for any country. It will ease congestion & reduce pollution, not to mention the savings on importation of fossil fuels. Unfortunately in SL, thanks to short sighted policies of uneducated yob Ministers, the transport system is chaotic, to say the least. The genii which is the private bus owners, was released from the bottle by Minister in JR’s govt who was no better than a ‘mudalali’ & today, controls the public bus service, the CTB existing only by name. Unregulated 3 wheel taxis take up where the private buses have left off. The average commuter has no choice, its either a dangerously driven, clapped out bus (which would never be allowed on the roads of any decent country that has concerns over the safety of the passengers) or equally dangerously driven flimsy 3 wheeler that would crumple on any impact. Therefore, those who have & don’t have, strive for a set of wheels of their own. Very few can afford the luxury of a new or nearly new car or maintaining such a vehicle, so we have clapped out vehicles well past their useful life & motor cycles creeping all over the place. The day we can expect a Minister to come out with a comprehensive transport system is not going to happen, at least in my life time.

    Ministers have luxury vehicles paid for by the tax payers. so who cares about the pollution, deaths on the road caused by kamikaze bus drivers, 3 wheel drivers & the rich who don’t give a toss about road manners? As for public inconvenience, what the hell is that?

  • 2

    “I was fortunate enough to get a seat in the first class (observation saloon)”

    This guy Siri is a super rich

    • 2

      It costs Rs 800. You can afford it once in lifetime as I did.

  • 0

    Colombo city management is not big issue if policy makers has got brains to disperse population ..
    Why should all need to come to small things such as I’D and passport ..
    Why can we have many ministerial office out side Colombo ..
    Such as examination department: passport office and more

  • 4

    Sri Lanka is an ungovernable country and its people are undisciplined, impatient and have little or no regard for others. The bad qualities have been amplified by politicians. The spate of accidents is just another aspect of these bad qualities. Most of the drivers have no idea at all about vehicle dynamics. They drive under the influence of liquor and narcotics. They do not expect the unexpected to happen and when faced with the unexpected, react wrongly. Some of them are so overworked that they fall asleep at the wheel. With better roads and more powerful vehicles, higher speeds are possible. But the driver skills and knowledge have not increased in proportion.
    1- The drivers, especially those like 3 wheeler drivers, who serve the public, have to be educated in the technical side of driving in an effective manner.
    2- Offenders should be punished with the maximum penalties.
    3- If the above measures fail, revert to bullock and donkey carts. There is a seemingly superior brain involved in these, forming a backup.
    4- If this too fails you can swap the animal and the human.

    • 3

      Edwin, you should not jump to such conclusion without studying the problem. You imply that, donkeys and cows are better than Sri Lankan drivers. I invite you to watch the CCTV recording of a cow-motor bike accident shown on Hiru TV today (12/10/18).
      In this accident, a cow crossing a busy road is hit by a motor cycle. Here, the cow is surely at fault. All road users are supposed to follow the Highway Code. The fact that you happen to be a sacred animal, or even a bull for that matter, is not an excuse. The Highway Code leaves no doubts about how the maneuver should be executed. The pedestrian should look for a Zebra crossing and then use it if one is available. He or She should then look to the right, then to the left and then to the right again before starting to cross the road if it is clear only. In this case, clearly the rule was violated.
      The cow is hit by the motor cycle and then the Newton’s Laws of motion take over. The animal falls as if it had been guillotined, with all four legs sticking up, and then gets up with surprising agility and runs away. By that act it breaks another rule, (i.e.) the one which states that if you are involved in an accident, you must report it to the authorities. In this case the cow blatantly violates that rule.
      Having run away a few tens of yards, the cow tuns it back and stays on the road as if nothing happened. This is callous behavior by any standard and compounds the seriousness of the action. Anyway, this shows that even cows and donkeys can exhibit human behavior.

  • 2

    Surely Siri Gamage, you know that Anarchy not only rules the roads In Colombo & Kandy but everywhere. In fact Anarchy rules every facets of our life. Have you followed how SriLankan Airlines was run (and is being run) since the infamous chase of Emirates?

  • 0

    Traffic in Colombo. What can be done.
    It is not a magic to deal with it. Town planners and policy makers must think about it.. We have good academics and engineers in Sri Lanka. They could come up with some good plans to deal with it. ..
    politicians must seek their advice but in Sri Lanka politicians make decisions not experts on these issues.
    why not disperse some governmental departments in other cities.
    why not we have regional ID office or driving licence office ? why not we move some government departments to other cities such as Kandy and other cities, why should all flock into Colombo for all public and governmental matters. I think most people come to Colombo for matters such as passport, ID, and other ticket purchasing or for some educational, medical and political matters…of course, the majority of people work in Colombo. They must commute to work each day… yet, we disperse many government department into other cities. Sri Lanka can reduce traffic into Colombo by 10% if they disperse many private and public department into other cities.
    This will make other regions more developed and people other cities too need jobs and employments, business.

  • 1

    As long as these nuts are in the political driving seat, dont expect any magic. Their path is always cleared in any kind of traffic.

  • 1

    Hi What a very useful writing indeed. Edwin’s comments spot on and very fun too. Salute.

    Is to possible we can have local resident associations in respective areas can come and do some awareness campaign with their children. I an thinking t-shirts and banners highlighting the dangers of reckless driving. not for confrontational purposes but for community spirit and perhaps even the schools/colleges/universities can take up this issue for a educational campaign. Road safety is the paramount for the future generations well being and they will also learn in the process too as they will be the ones behind the wheels too in the future. By doing this we can also encourage the officials in a positive way to lookout/support/uphold the traffic laws? Government can not take care of everything in our life at this moment and am sure future will do so until then we can fill in the vacuum?

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