By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
In 2015, this writer wrote a piece titled ‘Election Bribes, Budget Reversals and Trade Unions’. It dealt with the threat of a ‘general strike’ called by Trade Unions who opposed certain budgetary proposals. The government caved in, objectionable budgetary proposals withdrawn and a general strike was averted. This writer argued ‘Prime Minister Wickremesinghe accommodating the demands of unions could be interpreted as a sign of weakness and encourage strike action for unjustifiable reasons in the future’. During the ensuing one year, what was cautioned has come to pass on several occasions.
On Friday, December 2, the whole nation was in shut down mode due to Private Bus & Trishaw drivers staying away from work. There was no threat of a general strike. However, the government, on the previous day had given GMOA members a firm assurance their Disturbance, Availability and Transport (DAT) allowance would be increased after doctors stopped work on Wednesday, November 30. Due to the assurance, the possibility of strike action by both groups at the same time was averted. Railway employees too who were threatening strike action based on their own set of demands called off the strike after a discussion with the President indicating they would have won, if not all, at least most of their demands.
The fall out as a result of the Private Bus & Trishaw Drivers strike action was numerous. Some school examinations in countrywide universities had to be postponed due to low attendance of students owing to the bus strike. Examinations scheduled for Friday at Sri Lanka Law College were postponed till next Wednesday. Twelve SLTB buses countrywide had been attacked with stones and some state drivers injured by the striking miscreants. Protest marches by striking Trishaw drivers caused chaos on the roads in Colombo. The Colombo-Negombo road as well as the railway line at the Galkanda area in Negombo were blocked resulting transportation coming to a standstill. Disruption of daily life was severe.
Usually, Private Bus & Trishaw Drivers unions stop work to protest against government action such as increase in diesel charges, taxes and rejection of their demands to increase bus and trishaw fares. However, on this occasion their reasons to stop work were quite unusual. They were demanding the cancellation of the proposed increase of the minimum fine to Rs. 25,000 for seven offences.
To debate if enhanced fines should have originated through budget proposal as a means of increasing state revenue or the amendment of the Traffic Ordinance is not important and irrelevant to the issue. Either way, it is a government decision.
What is important is the government of the day feels the need to sit and negotiate with a group of persons, on certain issues which in civilized countries and societies are non- negotiable. The government’s willingness to negotiate reducing the fines from proposed levels to lower levels is a clear sign of caving into demands of the most extreme nature.
Let us examine the seven contentious offences; driving without a valid driving license, driving without an insurance certificate, overtaking on the left-hand side, high speed driving, driving under the influence of alcohol, driving recklessly at railway crossings and allowing someone to drive without a valid driving license.
It must be pointed out at the outset, there is much for us to learn from western countries where motor vehicles, motor and high ways, highway codes, right of way etc. originated, never mind us Sri Lankans having had irrigation and hydraulic systems when those in western countries were running around in grass skirts as claimed by some local patriots. In those countries, the said seven offences are not acceptable and penalties for offences non-negotiable. Unlike in our Shangri-La, prosecution of offenders is swift.
In the case of driving without a valid driving license, such a person is obviously not a trained and qualified driver. Such an act could cause injury and death to others. What is the justice in imposing a paltry fine or even Rs 25,000 to a person who is responsible of making a cripple of another human being or worse, snuffing out a human life? The same argument applies to driving without a valid insurance certificate. In this instance, it involves public and private property besides compensation for injured or lost human lives. Likewise, the argument for allowing someone to drive without a valid driving license. It endangers both lives and public and private property. The consequences of high speed driving and driving under the influence of liquor are similar. They both endanger life and property. In civilized countries, penalties for these categories of offences increase progressively, depending on the speed and quantity of alcohol in the offender’s blood. When speed limits and permitted alcohol levels are exceeded by a wide margin, it results in a hefty fine, awarding of demerit points (12 points within a two year period results in revocation of driving license), withdrawal of driving license, driving ban for a specified period and the need to reapply and undergo the complete driving test once driving ban has expired. In the case of overtaking from the wrong side and driving recklessly at railway crossings, fines and demerit points awarded are such they act as a deterrent for offenders.
Lawlessness in our society is endemic. It is not only the politicians who disregard the law (traffic laws or otherwise). As seen from this episode, respect for traffic law by the down trodden Private Bus and Trishaw drivers is non-existent. Hence their demand for more leniency for offences they should not be committing in the first instance. Meanwhile, the law on our roads have been turned into the law of the jungle, thanks in no small measure to the Private Bus & Trishaw divers. It would be grossly unfair not to even passingly mention yet another group, the users of high end vehicles such as Mercs, BMWs, SUVs etc. who are equal contributors.
Therefore, this is an earnest appeal for the government to amend the traffic ordinance for the three traffic offences of driving without a valid license, without a valid insurance certificate and allowing someone to drive a vehicle without a valid driving license not to read as Rs 25,000 but to a one year jail sentence on hard labor, with no provision for reprieve under any circumstances.
Besides the issue of law and order, another very important factor is the manner in which groups of persons, may it be Private Bus & Trishaw Drivers, Doctors or any other, are able to hold the government and the entire nation to ransom. Trade Unions were formed in western countries by workers as a means to stay in work. What we see today is Trade Unions using every possible excuse to keep workers away from work. Strike action is a right bestowed upon trade unions as a means to negotiate and win reasonable demands. However, that right was meant to be used responsibly and not wantonly for unreasonable and irresponsible demands as was the case last Friday.
This government has been besieged with threats of trade union action from the day it assumed power in 2015. Every step forward has been followed with three backward steps due to threats of strike action as we experienced after the Budget Proposals in December 2015, with ETCA, first increase in VAT and several other occasions.
Worker demands need be listened to and not dismissed outright. On the other hand, workers too, including doctors need be reasonable. The government cannot continue for the remainder of their mandated period without taking a firm stand when necessary. It currently takes a stand when agitators meet the relevant subject Minister and change their stand either when agitators meet the next level, the Cabinet Sub-committee or the final stage of meeting the President. It also points out of a government incapable of making well thought out policies and decision and ability to sell such policies and decision to the stakeholders. By doing so, the government of the day is cornering itself to a position of impotency whilst the nation is threatened with anarchy.
The government should seriously consider the reintroduction of the ‘Essential Services Act’ through which strike actions as we saw last Friday could be nipped at the bud and prevented. As this writer recollects, the Essential Services Act has been successfully utilized at different times in the last five decades, the last as I remember being when President CBK used it to make striking CEB employees who had sabotaged the national grid return to work. The nation was subjected to a total power outage for a couple of days.
It need be clearly understood, such an Act should under no circumstances be utilized for political purposes. Demands of Private Bus & Trishaw Drivers were not political. Nor were they to defend their rights. Their demands, to state simply, was for leniency when found committing acts essentially endangering life and property.
Law and Order is a non-negotiable subject and must be handled accordingly by all governments. To do otherwise is to take the nation on the road to anarchy.