No public transport on A9 yesterday

by Namini Wijedasa

No commercial traffic plied the newly "opened" Jaffna-Kandy A9 highway yesterday as both private bus operators and state-owned buses did not receive the official go-ahead from the government, spokespersons for the two sectors told The Island yesterday.

The Defence Ministry yesterday asked private bus operators not to send their buses on the A9 because certain issues had not been settled and "problems" may arise, said Gemunu Wijerathne, head of the Private Bus Operators’ Association (PBOA). "The private secretary to Defence Minister Tilak Marapone telephoned me and asked me not to send buses because there may be problems," he said.

Earlier, the PBOA accused Rehabilitation Minister Dr. Jayalath Jayawardene of blocking the issue of route permits. Wijerathne said that 143 applications for route permits had been submitted to the National Transport Commission although only 10 permits were to be issued. "Dr. Jayawardene took this file on Monday, last week, saying he would choose the ten people," he claimed. "Till now, we haven’t got the permits."

Jayawardene, when contacted, claimed that the NTC had "sent" him the file for his "concurrence." Asked, then, why he had not released the file for the issue of permits, Jayawardene said he had written to the government’s Peace Secretariat for its observations but had not received a reply. Bernard Goonetilleke, head of the Peace Secretariat, could not be contacted for comment.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lanka Central Transport Board (SLCTB) also said yesterday it was awaiting written authorisation from the Defence and Transport Ministries.

"The CTB is ready with both air-conditioned and normal buses," said U.L.M. Farook, SLCTB chairman. "We are geared to go but we need written assurance from the Defence Ministry as well as authority from the Transport Ministry." Farook said that the board had even received bookings to Jaffna from the public and had planned to send the first buses from Colombo at 4 am yesterday.

There was continuing uncertainty yesterday about the LTTE’s stand on public transport on the part of the road controlled by them. While it is permitted by the MoU, reports emerging from the LTTE indicated that it was against it. A newspaper yesterday quoted an LTTE leader in Vavuniya as saying that public buses could travel up to Tandikulam, just beyond Vavuniya, after which commuters would have to disembark and board buses run by the "Tamil Eelam Transport Service."

The government has not made an official statement on the issue.

In the absence of public transport on the A9, it was not possible to say what action the LTTE would have taken had buses tried to enter areas under its control. Earlier, a senior government official told The Island that bus operators could complain to the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) if they were prevented from proceeding past Tandikulam or Omanthai as the MoU clearly permits free movement on the road. Even this option was not exercised yesterday because buses — private or public — were asked not to use the road.

"We were ready to go," said Wijerathne. "And we wanted to complain to the SLMM if we were impeded. But we had to ultimately respect the Defence Minister’s wishes."

Marapone was to be chief guest today at a function organised by Wijerathne’s organisation to mark the resumption of public transport on the A9. The function has been cancelled.

Meanwhile, Wijerathne said the LTTE had invited his association to Kilinochchi for a discussion after the PBOA requested permission to run a service. He said a delegation is likely to leave this week.