During colonial times, Sri Lanka was said to have the most modern transportation system in the region. Today, it is rapidly decaying. Will the country be able to reclaim its lost glory?
An under-developed and poorly designed infrastructure can have adverse effects on the lives of any country’s citizens. The problem is particularly magnified in developing countries where inefficient design is combined with corruption and malpractices. Sri Lanka, a country where Rs200 billion are lost annually due to corruption in the public transport system, is a case in point.
A number of reasons explain why the Sri Lankan government has failed to modernize its transport infrastructure. Governments of developed countries have unabashedly invested in ‘Intelligent Transport Systems’ that while soaking up millions of dollars, offer advanced technology, making life easier for their citizens. Developing countries like Sri Lanka are shy of undertaking large-scale projects because of financial shortcomings as well as the fear that greater investment might perpetuate an existing inefficient system by offering a greater margin for corruption. Perhaps the most pertinent critique of the Sri Lankan public transport system is the lack of a holistic vision in its creation.
For many Sri Lankans, coping with an inefficient transport system has become an ordinary way of life. Most of the country’s highways are routinely clogged due to traffic jams; poor roads mean that vehicles must compromise on speed; buses do not meet international safety regulations; many of the streets in the main cities do not have a proper drainage system and apart from the inconvenience they cause to travelers, they also pose a serious health hazard. A large number of Sri Lanka’s population is concentrated in rural areas and the lack of invest- ment in roads means that these areas are increasingly alienated from city centers where most schools, hospitals and offices are located. Thus, the imbalance in the economic development of various parts of the country is perhaps the worst result of poor infrastructure. According to Amal Kumarage, chairman of the National Transport Commission, Sri Lanka loses 1.5 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product annually due to the transport system. The number of vehicles in the country is expanding at the rate of 10 per cent while the capacity to carry them is increasing only at the rate of 3 per cent, he added.
Apart from dilapidated road conditions, the country’s ports and railways have also considerably declined in quality due to the two decade long civil war. Although the Sri Lankan Railways was a very popular means of transport till the late 1920s, its share in the country’s transport fell due to increasing competition from roads. India, which is also grappling with high population growth and an inefficient transport system, has been increasingly expanding its railways.
In addition to launching new rail lines, Sri Lanka’s two main railways: the Northern Line and the Talaimannar Line should be expanded. The country’s ports, including Colombo, Galle, Trincomalee, and Kankasanthurai, should also be expanded to reduce the pressure on the roads. Additionally, upgrading the country’s local and international airports to meet international standards could not only reduce the country’s infrastructural woes but also transform it into a major air traffic hub between Dubai and Singapore.
With regards to Sri Lanka’s public transport system, side lanes should be added to the main highways so that heavy vehicles can adhere to one area and not disrupt other flowing traffic. More locomotives need to be attached to the railways and the existing ones need to be upgraded. If buses are made more comfortable for travelers, the use of private vehicles can be decreased. Parking, ticketing regulations and the maintenance of roads needs to be delegated to private companies so that it can be done more efficiently. The government should also collaborate with private companies in designing and constructing new roads and railways.
Creating and implementing a unified program to uplift the country’s transport system is the only way forward. The country’s population has already crossed 20 million with 300 people per square km and there couldn’t be a better time to modernize the infrastructure. During the colonial era, Sri Lankan tramcars and railroads were known to be the best in the region. With some major changes, the transport system will be able to return to its former glory.
While speaking about the future of Sri Lanka’s public transport, Kumarage added, “We are attempting to put right something that has been neglected probably for well over 30-40 years, giving public passenger transport its due place in the economy.” This is an onerous burden to bear and the coming decade will show to what extent the Sri Lankan government succeeds.