27 May, 2022


Valley Of Death In Passara, Vicious Circle In Geneva: Learning Nothing, Forgetting Everything

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

Passara was a tragedy caught live on camera. Geneva is where Sri Lanka’s postwar vicious circle makes its annual appearance. It did appear this year and it will be back again come September, then March, and so on. There will be more Passaras and valleys of death unless the government stops building new roads to profit some people and starts making old roads safe for all people. Equally, Geneva will be an annual ritual unless the government stops continuing the old war by other means and starts building a new society for everyone to feel equally included.

I am not saying anything new here regarding Geneva and UNHRC, other than paraphrasing the recommendations of the LLRC Commission that Rajapaksa the Elder received with aplomb, and which Rajapaksa the Younger has rejected with disdain. As for Passara, no government worth its name can allow the current situation to go on making road-kills out of sovereign citizens.

Fifteen innocent bus passengers plunged to their death in Passara. Road fatality in Sri Lanka is apparently the worst in South Asia according to media commentaries all of which have cited a 2020 World Bank report for authority. There is nothing wrong in citing the WB report, but isn’t it somewhat odd that international reports are acceptable for road fatalities but they are not for other fatalities that figure in Geneva?

According to the World Bank report about 38,000 road accidents occur every year in Sri Lanka, taking away 3,000 lives and seriously injuring another 8,000. Add them up over 10 to 12 years and the death toll and injury score would be in the same order of magnitude as the number of deaths and injuries during the controversial last stages of the GOSL-LTTE war. Hairs are split about these latter numbers – from Colombo to Geneva to London to New York, pitting Lord Naseby’s numbers against Darusman’s numbers of the dead. The debate is endless and fruitless, because those who swear by one set of numbers will never even consider the other set of numbers. This haggling is over deaths from the past, but there isn’t as much exercising about deaths here and now, that keep occurring and will go on occurring on Sri Lanka’s roads.

Criminal Negligence

Going by reports in the Sri Lankan English media, there were no statements of sympathy or support by senior political or religious leaders after the Passara tragedy. No one of political importance visited the site. Plenty of others have filled in for the missing VIPs. Police spokesperson DIG Ajith Rohana is quoted as blaming that “faulty conditions of vehicles are the root cause for fatal accidents.” So, punish the owner/driver with hefty fines, and fatalities will be reduced. State Minister of Transport Dilum Amunugama has reportedly found a new cause for fatalities – that is allowing lorry drivers with heavy vehicle licences to drive passenger transport vehicles. Now he is about to start a new licensing scheme for passenger bus drivers and make it safe for bus passengers.

There are other theories and remedies that have come afloat after Passara. They include – posting and enforcing speed limits on roads, equipping buses with GPS monitors, to implementing realistic timetables which at present seem to be pressuring drivers to go at reckless speeds. Not enough commentary seems to have transpired over the state of the existing roads and their geometry and capacity to safely accommodate rapidly increasing number of vehicles of different types and different speeds. Speed is not the lone culprit, goes the old traffic wisdom, it is the speed differential between moving vehicles. And poor road conditions create speed differentials and cause collisions.     

The road condition on the Lunugala-Passara road would appear to have been the “root cause” of the Passara accident. A boulder and pile of earth that had slid from the slope above were partially blocking the roadway. In the constricted road section on a dual-curve, the ill-fated bus veered off the road while trying to avoid a tipper-truck coming at it in the opposite direction. The Highways Ministry is reportedly trying to determine if there was negligence on the part of a private contractor who had been hired to clear the debris and restore the road. It is negligence alright, and one that should be charged not just to the contractor but to the whole RDA and the area Police. This is what the Daily Mirror said in its March 23 editorial:

“Before the Passara accident a huge boulder had fallen on the road blocking part of it. The lethargy of the officials of the RDA was such that they have not taken steps to remove the boulder for six months despite the road running above a steep precipice. They have not put up road signs either to warn the drivers of the danger. One can find hundreds of such dangerous places in the country, especially in the up-country. The majority of roads in the country are poorly maintained.”

Six Months! Isn’t this criminal negligence?

Six months of criminal negligence have led to the worst accident after the bus-train crash in April 2005 when one of two buses racing each other on the Colombo-Kurunegala road, in Yangalmodara, crashed into a train killing 40 bus passengers and injuring 35 others. 16 years earlier in January 1989, a school bus was dragged by a train at another unattended level crossing in Ahungalla, south of Colombo. 41 children and nine others were killed, and 72 people were injured. It was after Ahungala that President Premadasa gave railway officials four days to build gates at 752 unattended level crossings in the country. We do not know how many of the 752 level crossings have been gated since, and we haven’t seen any presidential ultimatums in the wake of Passara. 

According to the World Bank report, 10% of annual road fatalities are at level crossings, and, not surprisingly, 70% of road accidents involve low-income passengers and drivers. And the Bank has provided an estimate of USD 2 billion for changes and improvements that would be required to reduce Sri Lanka’s annual road fatalities by 50%. Behavioural (drunk driving, sleeplessness, and speeding), mechanical (failing brakes and bursting tyres), and social (jaywalking, meandering domestic animals) factors play a key role in accidents. But Sri Lanka’s old roads are the primary cause for its high accident toll. And poor road conditions give rise to bad driver behaviour and driving decisions. The estimated USD 2 billion to reduce fatalities is a measure of the physical road improvements that will be required. Not for building new super-highways, but for making old roads safe for the majority of the people who are constrained to travel precariously.

The government should realize from the World Bank estimate of USD 2 billion that upgrading old roads is not only needed to make roads safe and reduce accidents, but it could also be used as a huge economic stimulus – creating opportunities for investment and productive employment. And it would be a far better and socially beneficial stimulus to embark on a programme of upgrading old roads, than throwing money on building super-highways – the need for which is never technically established, whose environmental impacts are never properly assessed and mitigated, and whose costs are never rigorously estimated and adhered to. Is one Passara enough to change the government’s highway-to-highlife approach? How many more Passaras are needed before it can change direction from building new highways to upgrading old roadways? 

Resolution and Rejection

There is no road from Passara to Geneva except the pathway through the government of Sri Lanka – from criminal negligence at one end, to diplomatic bungling at the other. The eighth UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka was passed last week in Geneva. Out of 47 Member Countries, 22 voted in favour, 11 voted against and 14 abstained. The Sri Lankan government  officially rejected the resolution first, then interpreted the vote as an implicit victory for its position, and has finally called the resolution “illegal and unwarranted.” What happens between now and next September, and then March 2022 again?

To the extent there have been as many interpretations of the resolution as there have been commentaries on it, it is fair to add one more interpretation and call the resolution as a resolution on the government of Sri Lanka and not on its people. For five years from 2015 to 2019, the previous government of Sri Lanka co-sponsored three UNHRC resolutions, aligning itself with those calling for credible investigations into human rights violations. The present government withdrew from co-sponsorship and is now having resolutions passed against it. What will the government do now? What will the UN Commissioner for Human Rights do? The claim in India is that the Indian government got the wording of the resolution “tweaked … to say the implementation assistance the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights will provide must be with Sri Lanka’s “concurrence”.”  How will the two – the government of Sri Lanka and the Commissioner, find the elusive concurrence?

Obviously, there is nothing conclusive about either the resolution or the many commentaries about it. At the same time, the resolution and its persistent formulation also indicate that the two extreme desiderata in current Sri Lankan politics are neither sustainable nor achievable. The two extreme desires are, on the one hand, the government’s desire to rescind the resolution and make it disappear for ever and, on the other, the desire among sections of the Tamil diaspora to subject the Sri Lankan government to a form of Nuremberg trial. Neither is going to happen. The real resolution lies somewhere in the middle, and the principal agency for finding it is the government of Sri Lanka. The search for that middle ground is the government’s moral duty, even as saving its people from future Passaras is its prime responsibility. And neither is likely to happen as well.    

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Latest comments

  • 5

    Dear Mr Philips,
    Media also stays as if they dont recoganize any wrong doing. SiraSA is being attacked, while Derana TV has been making every effort to be on the good books of bitch s sons in that family. All in all, those media men have been in a struglle not being able to score their rates.
    I have no doubt, to Gota will have to face showers of ASUCHI MUTTI from those villagers he is constantly visiting on the costs of the tax payers funds. There are truth ful information, the bugger has been visiting to those place where deforenstration is seen at its heights, ironically, alone for his Helicopter landing, he is said to have ordered to remove lot of trees. How can the PEOPLE tolerate such issues which are totally the opposite of his preachings ?

  • 6

    Most of us have forgotten about the Meeriyabadde earth slip of October 2014.
    It had a much longer history of warning and inaction by the company owning the estate and successive governments.

    • 1

      Meeriyabadde – more or less the same area for people in Colombo, although I’d differentiate.
      SJ, in many senses you are great! You remember, and do know these places to be all in the same range, but separated by the Ella Gap.
      It was “only” Tamils who perished there; this may be taken more seriously by Eagle Eye and his ilk!

  • 3

    Whether the roads are in such bad condition, I don’t know. Now, most are carpeted, and there are fewer jolts.
    The more you improve the roads, the faster the drivers want to travel. Competition among the bus drivers, as in the April 2005 accident is certainly a factor. Lack of accountability, and the growing lack of respect for the corrupt Police mean that all citizens feel that the prime consideration is not “getting caught”.
    That there are so many huge vehicles also causes problems, but these vehicles are cost-effective for transporting goods. Tipper-trucks are much wider than most other vehicles. In the Passara accident, the bus was surprised by one of them. After the accident, we have woken up to many problems, but I don’t know whether anybody would have taken note if such conditions were reported before the catastrophe.

  • 3

    Rajan Philips,
    Sri Lanka may continue its run, but its defence is losing ground in the larger world community.
    The contention, ‘the desire among sections of the Tamil diaspora to subject the Sri Lankan government to a form of Nuremberg trial’, is far fetched. The most vociferous may wish to exact pound for a pound, but, a major section of the diaspora will be happy to see that justice emerges out of Geneva.

  • 4

    Sri Lankans keep repeating the same mistakes because they remember only what they want to, not what actually happened. So, lessons are never learned as in other countries. Ignorant voters are manipulated by conniving politicians, clergy, and media. Geneva could have been avoided if there was an honest and intelligent re- appraisal of our position. Instead we sent a boorish murderer and a corrupt judge to argue our case. Since 2009, we have been lying and making false promises to the international community. We have no credibility left.
    Currently there is a flap about poisonous imported coconut oil. The risk from this, even if true, is far less than from the road accidents Rajan mentions. But, looking deeper, I see a campaign to wean people off imported coconut oil, similar to the anti- milk powder campaign, simply because the govt can’t afford to import either oil or milk powder.

  • 4

    Passara: The truck driver is in custody. Case closed.

  • 4

    “There is no road from Passara to Geneva except the pathway through the government of Sri Lanka – from criminal negligence at one end, to diplomatic bungling at the other.”

    Sri Lanka spend on unproductive sectors such as ministry of defence (in the name of security), unproductive airports and unproductive Buddha Sasana. Gota is now invest on searching for Lord Buddha’s residues in North East Hindu Temples while Corona is eating human bodies and Rajapaksa is selling part of Sri Lanka to China and India.

  • 5

    If Dilum Amunugama State Minister is a “decent” politician, with 520 road deaths in 3 months he would have resigned by now. As we all know decency is not his cup of tea and he will not resign.

    Sarath Weerasekera who makes stupid statements, some of which he made just before the UN Resolution came up for voting, is another reason why we lost the resolution. Weerasekera rather than making stupid racist statements and appearing on TV, Print and Electronic media on a daily basis ensured that the Police did their duty of controlling speed on roads we would have not seen these deaths. He also should have resigned by now not only because of the number of road deaths but also because of his stupid statements which made us lose the UN Resolution.

    The major reason for rampant road accidents resulting in numerous deaths is due to “EXCESSIVE SPEED”. There is a simple solution. Vehicles imported into Sri Lanka are more powerful than the roads in SL could handle. Further, questionable driving license approving procedures have compounded the deaths. Hence, its easy for the Government to pass a rule that all Buses, Lorries, School Vans, and Three Wheels should have ” SPEED CONTROL” units installed.

  • 2

    “Valley Of Death In Passara,”
    come on Rajan Philips..wake up where have you been?
    Sri Lanka is an island of death!

  • 0

    Close to noon on Monday, the 29th:
    The ship is afloat again!

  • 2

    Deaths from road accidents in SL have never been taken seriously by successive govts. with even pedestrians being run over on crossings. Heavy fines only make corrupt policemen rich & inconvenience motorists by ‘over enthusiastic’ law enforcement officers. There are no accident investigations to find the root cause & provide preventative action.

    A few years ago, there was a collision between a lorry & a bus carrying mostly school children, where the bus over turned & caught fire as a result of the battery, which was inside the bus & not secured properly, short circuited. The bus was on its side & the doors were blocked, & the windows being bared, including the rear safety hatch, people inside were trapped & burnt alive. The basic safety precautions were not in place, yet, the bus was allowed to ply for passengers. Was this one off or are there similar busses on the road? Just proves the ‘fitness’ certifications, including emissions testing, is a joke.
    Now another tragedy but with the lorry driver in custody, everything is back to normal until next time. Who is to blame? The RDA for not having safety barriers & carrying out maintenance, speeding vehicles driven by kamikaze drivers or the regulatory authorities who are blind to unsafe vehicles on the road? Minister of Transport, do you need your duties & responsibilities spelt out?

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