Re­viv­ing Trans­porta­tion

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?

Southasia - - Sri lanka - By Mashal Us­man

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.

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