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Monday 20 August 2001




The high price of road disasters
The heavy price the country continues to pay for road indiscipline and negligent driving was brought home to us on Thursday when a bus ploughed into a train at an unprotected railway crossing at Ja-Ela, killing ten bus commuters and injuring over twenty others. It was the fourth highway tragedy in the past fortnight, involving a significant number of casualties most of them deaths. Just two weeks ago, seven commuters drowned when the bus they were travelling in ran off the road and plunged into the Loggal Oya in Badulla.

It could be seen that there is a progressive worsening of road indiscipline, incurring staggering costs, particularly in human terms. Colombo, as is evident, is the scene of some of the most horrific road accidents, despite the Traffic Police apparently going all out to enforce road rules and discipline. We are perceptive of the present pressures on the law enforcement authorities and wouldn’t rush to conclusions about their effectiveness in curbing road indiscipline but would urge the stringent and impartial enforcement of the law.

Driving on our highways today has degenerated into a hair-raising nightmare. The drivers of private coaches and buses are the worst offenders but they are not the only ones. A considerable number of drivers of private vehicles, many of them cars, do not seem to care a rap for road rules. Quite a number of road accidents could still be attributed to the “nut behind the wheel” and most of them are dangerous and uncaring.

The “gay abandon” with which some of our motorists violate road rules gives rise to the suspicion that quite a number of them do not possess the basic competence to drive. How come then that they are provided the licences to drive? These problems have been investigated in the past and all that we could say is that the highest standards in skills and competence should be maintained in issuing driving licences to applicants. If the procedures and rules regulating the issue of licences are stringently observed, less “nuts” would be given the licence to terrorise our highways.

A mood of panic and arrogance also tends to seize some of our motorists when they get behind the wheel. This is not peculiar only to private bus drivers. Even “respectable” private car drivers tend to bulldoze their way through our highways with hardly a care for other road users. This mental malaise has its roots in an individualistic culture where individual interests take precedence over the collective interests of society. Such problems should be dealt with in the value-formation process of individuals, initially at home and at school.

We also urge that the toughest punishments be meted out to bus drivers who violate road rules. Those found guilty of drunken and hazardous driving, for instance, should be required to forego their driving licenses. The installation of spy cameras on major highways will enable the authorities to nab all violators of road rules, thus making motorists more law-abiding.





Murder on the tracks
Transport Minister Mr. Dinesh Gunawardena need not search far and wide for the causes of the train disaster that took place near Alawwa on Saturday when the Colombo bound Uda Rata Menike ran off the track killing fourteen people and injuring more than 50 people. He should read the regular articles written by a German national, Dr. Frank Wingler, to The Island on the state of the tracks and the rolling stock of the Railways.

The Island will be happy to present Mr Gunawardena with some of these articles because the Public Relations Department of the Railways (if there is one) appears to be deaf and dumb to the constructive criticism offered by Dr. Wingler. The railway officials have not cared to reply to even one of the articles written by this engineer, who predicted that disasters, such as that which occurred at Alawwa, were inevitable. Under prevailing conditions, he had provided pictures showing the glaring defects and the dangers that lurk ahead for rail commuters. But the railway authorities do not seem to give a damn to this well-meaning advice. Probably they too are aware of the lurking dangers, but the inefficiency, corruption and gross negligence that have taken over the railways since the departure of legendary railway men, such as the former General Manager, the late Mr. B.D. Rampala, predominate.

In an article headlined: ‘Around and around the rail track’, published in The Island of February 28, 2001, Dr. Wingler wrote: Despite the high investment and the recent overseas-assisted rehabilitation programmes, there is not a single mile of stable long-lasting and nearly maintenance-free and hump-free track in Sri Lanka that can compete with thousands of miles of rehabilitated rail tracks in other developing countries like India, China, Mongolia, Morocco.... etc.

On 22/9/2000, The Island published a letter written by Dr. Wingler to the General Manager, Railways, Mr. B.K.W. Weragama. In this letter, which The Island headlined as : ‘Trains with ‘blanked brakes’ on ‘warped tracks’, Mr. Wingler had told the General Manager, ‘I want to bring to your notice that this morning (September 16) while I was waiting at the Ambalangoda station to go to Wadduwa... I saw the train entering the station at 6. 35 a.m with no brake power at all. Although the train was running at a snail’s pace, the driver still could not bring it to a complete halt in time and the train went beyond the platform and entered the signal circuit for outgoing trains thus turning the red lights on... The train thereafter had to resort to engine retardation either to slow down or stop at stations. At the Kalutara railway station, I noticed the down express at 6.30 am with, ‘blanked brakes’— one brake shoe had turned the other way around and one compartment was completely without any brakes or blocks. The 9.25 am Maradana-bound slow train also had ‘blanked brakes’ and on three bogies the distance-holders for the suspension springs and axle bearing were missing.’

Following the collision of the Vavuniya-bound express from Matara with a vibration roller at an unprotected level crossing at Ambalangoda on April 25 this year, Dr. Wingler wrote to the Deputy Minister of Transport, Mr. Kumara Welgama, saying: ‘Awareness as regards accidents is woefully inadequate in the Railway Department. I learn that the safety standards are far below those expected of a modern railway service. Hence, the need for you to shoulder the responsibility to have required safety standards adopted by the department and to heighten awareness among railway workers.’ As proof of plummeting safety standards, he says that he found that in a rail car: ‘The driver had to manually connect two 24-volt cables to sound the horn!’

Trains without brake power, dangling brake shoes and the driver manually connecting high voltage cables to sound horns etc., were stuff for Charlie Chaplin movies of yore, but the Sri Lankan Railways seem to be carrying on regardless despite frequent derailments. A disaster like what happened on Saturday, it is apparent, was very much on the cards and it is fortunate that they did not take place more often.

The Island in an editorial on April 28, this year titled: ‘Whither Sri Lankan Railways?, called upon the government and the railway authorities to take note of the constructive criticism offered by Dr. Wingler and pay sufficient attention for the development of the railways. But who in the government heeds to advice, least of all from The Island! But whether the advice comes from us, the well meaning German engineer or anyone else, the government and the railway department should realise that they are dealing with the lives of thousands of commuters each day. There is enough and more murder and mayhem going on the land, sea and air. We don’t want murder on the rail tracks.





Another dubious first for Lanka
Has Sri Lanka added yet another dubious title to the string of such notoriety it has collected in recent times? Have we now become the accident capital of the world? Going by the nauseating regularity with which grave accidents are reported daily, it appears so.

According to our own rough account last week alone accounted for no less than 22 serious accidents from around the country resulting in deaths of more than three dozen people and maiming several dozens more. Most are victims of speed maniacs and drunkards.

Why we fail to learn from such never ending callous loss of life and limb or take any remedial measures as in everything else in this country is that no one is held accountable. For example according to reports the Railway Department had been informed about the broken rail gate at Seeduwa over two months ago and yet it remained unprepared. The two days prior to Thursday’s bus tragedy there, which claimed ten lives and injured 25 others, a train had ploughed into a three-wheeler trying to creep through the same broken gate killing two occupants of the vehicle on the spot. We would like to ask the Department how many more deaths would it take for it to repair the gate.

At the same time it must also be noted that it is not only through broken rail gates that motorists creep through. This is a common practice at most rail crossings and police and other responsible authorities seem quite oblivious to such happenings. We ourselves have seen on countless occasions this happening near the crossing at Castle Street Maternity Hospital.

Some of the other notable accidents in recent weeks were four killed and sixteen injured when a bowser rammed into a passenger van at Dematagoda Junction, 14 killed 39 injured in a train derailment off Alawwa and 25 injured in a crash involving a lorry and two buses at Gansabha Junction Nugegoda.

Such blindness is nothing compared to the blindness of cops over drug dealers and boot-leggers in most areas. This has resulted in many minor employees like drivers being constantly intoxicated day or night. The driver of the ill-fated bus at Seeduwa had been so drunk; the tests had allegedly revealed that his body’s alcohol content was way above the legal limit. When legal and illegal taverns bloom at every street corner, what more can we say. And in many areas these hooch and drug barons are the ‘leading’ citizens organising political rallies, New Year festivals and what not with their ill-gotten wealth. Of course the stock reply of the Police Department will be it is badly short of men, but it cannot argue that its is short of women. Go to any police station and you will know the Department is certainly not short of women. So why can’t these WPCs be more widely deployed for street patrolling or just to be present at busy pedestrian crossings and even at railway crossings. It is mail chauvinism in the Department that prevents these women from being put to greater use.

If the argument is that their presence is not imposing enough to draw respect from the public, then dress them in combat gear, for what we have is a war. Female can be more lethal than the male. If you don’t believe us ask the Tigers.

Of course periodically politicos sing hosannas about cleaning up the country of such menaces and this Government too made a similar announcement about cutting down the number of liquor licences as recently as a few months back and it was duly given mass coverage in the media as for so many previous promises. Yes they all remain promises, for we are a nation always living on promises and short memories.

After causing a grave crime or an accident, the justice part of it is even more hilarious. Ask seasoned wrongdoers how to beat or even make a mockery of the system. They say first get advise from the prosecuting police officer and he will willingly give which lawyer to retain. The rest is plain sailing. How is it that virtually in all cases prosecuted by police in Magistrate Courts only one or two lawyers are retained repeatedly by accused after accused?

And in case of a serious accident, they say always surrender by palming at least Rs. 500 to officer involved in the investigation. As one wag sarcastically commented, then they can even make you the victim of the accident! Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva who is taking great pains to clean up the judicial system may fall far short of his expectations unless the above practices are tackled. For having improved infrastructure, trained staff etc. undoubtedly would be of immense help, but this cancer may eat into all that if not dealt with radical measures.





Relief essential to drought victims
On top of the political crisis, economic crisis and terrorist attacks, the country is in the vicious grip of a severe drought. Hambantota, Moneragala, Ratnapura, Badulla, Kurunegala and Puttalam are the Districts worst affected by this.

People are left without drinking water as wells, tanks, ponds and rivers have dried up with the scorched earth breaking up into moribund fragments. All cultivations have ground to a halt as starvation stares in the faces of these helpless people. Even their cattle are threatened with disease and death. Lunugamvehera and Siyambalagaswewa have dried to their beds without even a trace of water. Relevant authorities are not doing enough to bring relief to these unfortunate people who are left without food and water. The amount of water supplied through browsers is not adequate. Officials connected with relief work should make correct assessment of each area and provide sufficient redress.




Monkey tricks in government
Last week we heard of 28 Deputy Ministers handing over their letters of resignation from their posts to President Chandrika Kumaratunga to give strength to her to free the country of UNP led reactionary forces, which conspire to bring the country and its people to a crisis. One of these Deputy Ministers claimed this was done to show their protest against MPs being involved in horse deals for mercenary reasons. In a similar situation, former President J.R. Jayawardene too got letters of resignations from his MPs. But, he kept them without making a song and dance of it. But, the recent resignation of PA Deputy Ministers was ceremonially done in public, thereby rendering it a fully legal bearing.

Consequently and according to Article 47 of the Constitution, unless (a) removed by President by letter or (b) by sending to President self-signed letter of resignation, the Prime Minister or Minister of Cabinet or any other Minister or Deputy Minister shall hold office until such time. Does not this indicate that these deputies who resigned cease to hold office? As such, they have obviously lost their portfolios and rights to perform any official function. Obviously they have not been mindful of Article 47. This reminds us of the legendary monkey that was so dedicated to his king that slashed with a sword a mosquito who settled on the King's chest while he was asleep, causing disaster.




A temporary setback 
Whether it is for individuals or commonly for the public or for a country, troubles come never in singles but in scores. Such is the way of disasters and calamities that come in multiples. Crashing of a SLAF MIG in Kurana and the train derailment at Alawwa have come at a time when the country has already been shocked by the Katunayake terrorist attack. It is well known that the LTTE is hell bent on destroying the economy of the country.

There are also power-seeking groups eagerly waiting to incite the public against the PA government. A national disaster by way of a severe drought is also causing grave problems to a large section of our society. All these natural and man-made disasters like the intractable war result in untold misery and suffering to the general public. But we should realize that all such disasters are only temporary setbacks. Just as Japan rose to great heights following the tragedy of World War II and Russia too overcame cruel attacks of Hitler's Nazi forces we should be determined to emerge victorious from current disasters.




Alahapperuma's courage
The recent handing over of letters of resignation by Deputy Ministers to President Chandrika Kumaratunga is only an attempt to improve their own standing with her. It was a ridiculous act of Tom Foolery serving no sane purpose. Meanwhile, Deputy Minister Dallas Alahapperuma has said that these political nincompoops and comedians are only trying to mislead President Chandrika Kumaratunga and conspiring to destroy the PA government. As such, he has vehemently refused to join their bandwagon. We believe that these political henchmen were only attempting to shamefully hang on to President Chandrika Kumaratunga by pledging their servile support and save their own positions.

They are like the sailors of a sinking ship, hanging on to its captain without having the nerve to work out a common plan to prevent the disaster. In this connection, we greatly value the courage and conviction demonstrated by Deputy Minister Dallas Alahapperuma by defying the request of his spineless and servile colleagues.





Condemning the purchase of chemical weapons
The Sri Lankan government has purchased chemical weapons to be used in the North East war. This is a Russian production and was used by Russia against the people of Chechnya who are fighting for separatism.

Sri Lanka has purchased a thousand rocket launchers from a Ukrainian Company through a British arms dealer.

If these weapons are used in the North-East war, its ill effects will be felt more by the North-East Tamils and Muslims than by the Tigers, Tamil MPs have said. Even though the government has denied the purchase of such weapons, the Tamil and Muslim people are not prepared to believe it. The Tamil and Muslim representatives have unanimously condemned this act of the government last Saturday. They have also decided to bring this to the notice of the UN and other international organisations and get this weapon banned completely.




Freedom of the press and its effective use
The government has completely rejected the news that it has purchased chemical weapons for use in the North-East war. In a communique released by the Presidential Secretariat it has been categorically stated that the government has not purchased any banned weapons already nor does it propose to do so in the future.

An English weekly newspaper whose sole aim is to bring discredit to the government has published this news in a feature article without observing accepted norms regarding defence news. This shows once again the need for journalists to act with caution and restraint. The freedom of the press has been abused in a manner that affects the security of the country.

Some journalists are aiding and abetting the Tigers overtly and covertly. Freedom of opinion and the freedom of the press should be used in a responsible manner.




How can the people escape?
The country is facing its worst political and economic crisis and the government is facing instability by the day. A concerted attempt has to be made to decide whether we have to continue with this war. Major parties are talking of democracy and doing nothing. In this context, the Tamil speaking people are facing the brunt of the ills that are being created in this country without proper governance.

While the fact that the Sinhalese people are living in a majority in this country has to be granted, it has also to be accepted that the other two communities have to live in this country with dignity, enjoying separate identities, if they have to be made to feel they are also fully fledged citizens of this country. It is not surprising that the Tamil-speaking people are suspicious. Several rounds of talks held and treaties and pacts reached to grant them relief ended up in naught. The PA government has followed more than ever, the attacking of highly residential areas, thereby causing untold hardships to the people.

The two major parties are not interested in solving the ethnic issue, or even in the welfare of the people as a whole. They are worried about capturing and retaining power. The people are caught up in the midst of political antics for capturing power, by these parties. How can the people escape under these circumstances?




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