The “military option” | Daily News


The “military option”

Railway commuters, no doubt, would have heaved a huge sigh of relief following the end to the strike called by the engine drivers, demanding that the government rectify their so called salary anomalies. The strike was called off following a meeting between President Maithripala Sirisena and leaders of the striking trade unions. It was reported that the President had promised the unions to find a solution to their grievances, which means revisiting the Cabinet paper over which a dispute arose between some ministers.

Trains began plying from Sunday evening with no signs of the state of anarchy that prevailed on Wednesday, when the engine drivers went on an unannounced strike over the alleged backtracking by Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera to implement the Cabinet paper. Commuters were left stranded and the entire Fort area was turned into a mass of chaos and pandemonium, with people running helter-skelter in confusion when even private buses shut their doors, unable, or, not willing to accommodate the stranded passengers who were permitted by the government to travel in alternative public transport with their railway season tickets.

The meagre SLTB buses that were available could not cope with the mass of humanity and the tri-shaw drivers, who, at other times, are only too eager to pick up fares, refused to do so, perhaps unwilling to get snarled up in the massive traffic jam. Needless to say, the buses deployed by the army was not equal to the task, all having the cumulative result of a large number of train passengers, who only had their train season tickets with them and no money, forced to spend the night in the city center, among them students sitting for their GCE(A/L) exams. The loss caused to the Railways by the three day strike was estimated at over Rs.70 million, ignoring other losses to the state such as fuel waste due to the massive traffic jams.

The striking unions were uncompromising that their salary anomalies be rectified before they resume duties while Minister Samaraweera was equally adamant that the strikers returned to work before any negotiations could be held. The President, it appears, had stepped into the breach to break the impasse which has now become an all too familiar scenario in the unity government.

It is not clear though if the railway unions decided to compromise on their stubborn refusal to return to work only after their demands were met, and meet the President instead, was due to a genuine concern for the commuters or it was occasioned by reports of the army being trained to take over train operations. According to media reports, the army had made a request from the Ministry of Defence that their men be trained as engine drivers and other aspects of train operations and the Ministry of Transport was due to take the matter up with the President and the Prime Minister. Deputy Minister of Transport Ashoka Abeysinghe stated that since periodic strikes by the railway trade unions were causing disruption to a host of government activities, not to mention the hardship caused to the travelling public, training soldiers to handle train operations would be given serious consideration.

This, no doubt, would have sent the jitters among the engine drivers whose take home pay is in the range of Rs. 175,000 to Rs. 230,000 per month. Any army takeover of their tasks, they know, would deny them such a windfall, and, what is more, could well be a permanent feature in the future, putting paid to their bargaining power to win demands. One recalls how the late President Premadasa dealt with the paralysis of the public transport during the 89/90 second JVP uprising. He resorted to the simple remedy of getting the army to remove all the private buses from the homes of their owners and operate them on their own. The owners had no option but to ply their buses, lest they be behind their lease installments and risk having the buses seized.

With reports of a private bus strike in the offing, the government should consider the option of bringing the army into the scene. We say this because the army had already demonstrated it was up to the task in handling any emergency, as was seen in the commendable job its men performed in clearance work in the wake of natural disasters and also victim rescue operations.

The government had been held to ransom by trade unions, backed by opposition political parties, for far too long. Besides, the public cannot be allowed to suffer hardship, as they did last Wednesday, to meet the demands of trade unions. The sooner the government decides on the army option the better it will be for its own health. We say this because, with major elections round the corner, strikes will be the norm, orchestrated by the pohottuwites to cause disaffection of the public towards the government.

The army being popular with the general public, its deployment would be only too welcome, and, what is more, make the government too popular for standing firm against the trade union mafia. 

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