Opportunity for government to showcase its strength

The government, in its infinite political wisdom has dissolved the provincial councils of the North Central and Sabaragamuwa provinces. Nominations have been called and the polls for these councils are expected in August.

Sri Lanka prides itself in being a vibrant and dynamic democracy. The country has undergone much suffering in its six decades of independence. Yet, democracy has survived despite an attempted coup in the sixties, two southern insurrections in early seventies and late eighties and the ongoing war in the North and East.

In this context, and amidst a picture of doom and gloom painted by the collective opposition which complains of rising prices, alleged human rights violations and the lack of freedom of expression, elections of any kind should have been welcomed by the forces opposing the government.

But, in a curious paradox, this has not been so. When the dissolution of the two councils were announced, there were howls of protest from the opposition ranks, claiming that the decision by the two governors-who would have acted on presidential advice no doubt-was arbitrary and unconstitutional.

That issue is now being canvassed in court and it is not the issue we wish to reflect upon. But, when an opposition which is claiming that the government is at the nadir of its popularity, is presented with the opportunity of an election and is then hesitant to face the hustings, that is a significant reflection on the state of the collective opposition of this country.

Is the opposition sensing defeat, even before a vote has been cast? Does it fear that another defeat would seriously erode their chances at future elections? Or is it due to a fear that it would be unable to meet the governmentís strong arm tactics, just as it couldnít in the Eastern province elections?

Obviously, elections in the North Central and Sabaragamuwa provinces follow the governmentís success in the Eastern province. The ruling party no doubt wants an encore of its performance in the East, to convince the country that it is well and truly in the saddle.

What the country would not like to see though, is a repetition of the polls in the East. That matter too is now being canvassed in court by the opposition through an election petition. The ruling party may have won the elections anyway, but the manner in which the polls were conducted left much to be desired.

The North Central and Sabaragamuwa provinces have been traditional strongholds for the ruling party. Therefore, if the government is confident of its record so far, it should dare to conduct free and fair elections in the two provinces and allow for a level playing field.

During the Eastern provincial council elections and its unsavoury aftermath, much was said about the sudden police transfers, the removal of the Special Task Force camps, the allowances made for one armed group, the lack of an independent Elections Commission and the Elections Commissionerís impotence in dealing with alleged election malpractices.

All this does not reflect well on the government or the President. It smacks of a regime that is running scared in the face of an opposition fighting for a just cause. And if that is indeed not the case, then the upcoming polls in the North Central and Sabaragamuwa provinces provide the government with a window of opportunity to showcase its strength.

And that should be done not by the Mervyn Silvas or the other macho men of this government. It can only be done by ensuring fair elections for all and winning an even challenge. If the ruling party has the courage to allow for such a contest, that alone will be enough to give strength to the governmentís credibility. More responsible transport network needed

More responsible transport network needed

Public transport has been the cynosure of all eyes in recent weeks, after several bombs exploded in buses and trains killing dozens of civilians. And, caught in the glare of this spotlight, several lapses especially in private buses have come in to focus.

Given the security situation in the country, the operators of private buses-the drivers and conductors-need to be men with a sense of responsibility and a knack for vigilance. They need to know that their job is not merely to transport passengers from point A to point B; they need to ensure their security as well.

Most members of the general public would agree that a significant proportion of staff operating private buses do not satisfy these criteria. They merely collect the coins and maneuver the steering wheel and do not think beyond the next halt. And this callous and careless attitude has now cost many a life, both through reckless driving and through terrorist bombs.

Maybe the time has now come to tackle the issue in a meaningful manner. Bus crews could be trained and such training could be mandatory for issuing a route permit. Staff operating private buses could be required to adhere to safety standards and this could be monitored with random checks. Even cluster bus companies may be a means of ensuring standards in the transport service

Transporting the public in buses has now become risky business because it has cost so many lives. And that is why it should be a responsible business as well. What is required now is not only an efficient private bus network but also a network that is responsible and accountable for the services it provides.
Over to you, Mr. Minister of Transport.