|Tuesday, 2 December 2003|
By Chamikara Weerasinghe
The sudden islandwide strike by private bus operators was called off yesterday following a meeting between Transport Minister Tilak Marapana and bus owners of the Southern Province who triggered off the strike.
The Southern Province Private Bus Investors Company Federation agreed to call off the strike following the discussion held yesterday morning between its office-bearers and the Minister at the latter's residence in Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Siripala Kahandugoda, Private Secretary to the Minister, told the Daily News.
The strike crippled public transport leaving thousands of commuters stranded. The worst hit were students sitting their GCE O/L examination which commenced yesterday.
Many students were left stranded at bus-stands despite a pledge made by the striking busmen to operate exclusive school services for O/L candidates. Work in the Courts was also brought to a standstill as a result early departure of court staff in the wake of the private bus strike. According to Hulftsdorp sources several Court cases had to be postponed due to the absence of stenographers and other staff.
The strike was scheduled to commence at 2 p.m. but there were no private buses on the road from morning. Highways Minister Upali Piyasoma, Public Administration Minister Vajira Abeywardena, the Chairman of National Transport Commission A. B. Thalagune, and the Bus Federation's President Nishantha Muthuhettigama were present at the discussion.
National Transport Commission Chairman Thalagune said, the strike was settled after the authorities agreed to meet nine of the ten demands made by the strikers.
Pursuant to the discussion the Minister had with the private bus representatives it was agreed for the Government to consult the Treasury and consider the removal of the VAT levy in respect of bus owners who have operated private bus services at least for the last five years.This was to be resolved within a month.
In turn the private bus owners representatives undertook to call off their strike from last evening itself.
Their other grievances relating to driver and conductor training, transfer of route permits, imposition of fines for traffic offences and running timetables etc. had already been sorted out prior to the launching of the strike yesterday.
Their demand to reduce the transfer fee, when any bus had to be transferred to a new owner with the route permit, was brought down from the original Rs. 15,000 to only Rs. 1,000 to be recovered as administrative charges. In case of such a transfer the original owner will not be entitled to apply for another route permit in its place.
The strikers request for a discussion on the amendments of National Transport Commission Act, of 1996, action against harassment by police of private bus operators, a National Policy on bus fares, action against various forms of harassment by the NTC and Provincial Transport Authorities, presenting of the proposed bus driver-conductor training programme etc. have also been granted.
Meanwhile, the President of the Private Bus Operators Association Gemunu Wijeratne said that his announcement that they would join the Federation's strike action from 2 p.m. from Monday was a ruse. " I did that in order to ensure transport for children sitting the GCE Ordinary level exams," he said.
"I condemn this action by the Southern Province Private Bus Investors Company Federation." Wijeratne said they tried their best to run their private buses yesterday but they were attacked. " He said that one of their buses were attacked at Kirillawala and their buses plying on High Level Road and the Kandy Road had been blocked by force," he said.
Federation's Chairman Nishantha Muthuhettigama was not available for comment at the time this edition went to press.
Meanwhile, Secretary of Southern Province Private Bus Investors Company Federation, Chandana De Soyza confirming their decision to call off the country-wide bus strike, yesterday said that private bus operation fully resumed by 5 pm yesterday evening.
Soyza said, the Federation ended the strike after the transport authorities agreed to grant all their demands at a discussion held between them and Transport and Civil Aviation Minister Tilak Marapana.
He said Minister Marapana promised them to discuss with the Finance Ministry and the Treasury their demand to remove the Value Added Tax (VAT) from being imposed on private buses when imported, insured or leased out for purposes of public transport.
"The minister said he will take necessary action in this regard within a month or two," he said.
Asked to comment why they launched the strike at a crucial time with the students needing transport to sit their ordinary level exams, Soyza said, "We did not inconvenience them, we had our buses in operations during the morning to fetch the children and school teachers. We transported them free of charge on a decision of the Federation."
Produced by Lake House