The parallel problems of transport and energy policy.
Sri Lanka’s private buses are on strike against an increase in fuel prices. This is a major problem. Contrary to popular belief, what ignites protests more than democracy or human rights is petrol and food prices, as in Burma, Tunisia, et cetera. Since petrol went up by Rs. 12 per litre and diesel by Rs. 31, there’s been a lot of complaints, with the breakdown of public/private transport being the most obvious and loud.
To a degree this had to happen, the government had to depreciate the Rupee (making foreign stuff, like oil, more expensive) because that is its natural value, and spending to artificially prop it up was a waste. Oil prices have also risen, and the government lacks the infrastructure to store it to give much of a buffer. Making things worse, we actually burn oil to generate electricity, and we import most of that oil from Iran, which exposes us to sanctions from the US. Basically, Sri Lankan energy policy is a mess, the product of failures by multiple governments.
But, to return to the private bus strike, this particular pressure point could have been mitigated if public transport policy wasn’t so calcified and dumb. The bus service was partially privatized, but in a rather crippling way. Private buses can run if they get the license, but they can’t set fares. The government sets fares, so all they can compete on is, essentially, speed and madness and the amount of Yaba they give their drivers. The result is a rather shitty private bus service where no one can take initiative to offer something better or different (because they can’t change prices).
The current protests have come because the government has increased petrol prices without increasing the fares that private bus operators can charge. The bus operators say that this now leaves them running at a loss. I think the whole system is unscrupulous, but they seem to have an obvious point, and this is a chance to reform the whole damn system.
I think it would be good to lift the fare restrictions completely and let the private sector, you know, compete and set prices. Either that or just nationalize the damn bus service and do it properly. The government has no issues using better buses and charging more for it (like on the Southern Expressway), but that’s a freedom the private sector doesn’t have. This half-assed privatization has just given us rent-seeking private bus operators and bad service for everyone that takes the bus, pushing people to adopt so much personal transport that the average speed in Colombo is like 22 kmph, potentially reducing to 15.
It’s a damn mess and it’s a policy mess, one that affects everything from class to food prices to the economy to the stability of the government. I don’t think it’s come to that, but you never know with this stuff, if really pisses people off when they can’t get to work, take the kids to school, and when the price of bread and food goes up while they’re losing wages. Thing is that the government has already meddled so deep with energy and transport policy (via huge taxes on cars, fare ceilings, et cetera) that they actually have a lot of ability to move. They just need to move in the right direction.