End this Child Abuse Now
This article was published in Ceylon Today on Wednesday February 26 2014
I have enjoyed a generally friendly relationship with the Sri Lankan police. I shared the platform with one local OIC at a school prize-giving ceremony and entertained another in my home. I used to get on well with the local Inspector in charge of traffic but they transferred him. Cynics might say the Sri Lankan police treat me with respect because I have a pink skin and am relatively affluent. I do not really blame those police officers who recently confiscated our licence on two occasions within a couple of weeks. The first time was because were parked on a pavement. Three-wheelers took up every available space in town – but more about that in another article. The second time was because our motor insurance certificate was not in the car. It was at home because I had renewed it that very day. I renew it on time every year. I renew my tax disc on time every year after taking the annual emission test. I am pathologically law-abiding.
The third time they stopped us, they did not impose a spot fine or impound the licence. On all three occasions, there was no prior cause for stopping us. We were not driving erratically or fast. The car was in good condition and had no characteristics that would attract attention. The vehicle was not belching out black fumes. While the police officers were detaining us, many vehicles passed that were emitting horrendous fumes. The officers did not appear to notice this.
I commend the Government for introducing a vehicle emission testing system in 2008. It started in the Western Province and is now a fully-fledged system covering the whole country.
Why is it not working?
Back in 2011, I was late for a meeting in Colombo at the Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) because a police officer stopped the hired van in which I was travelling. The officer was quite correct to do this because the driver was talking on his mobile phone while driving. Again this could be the subject for another article – why is talking while driving so prevalent? I left the vehicle to walk hurriedly to my appointment. While walking, I noticed a number of officers whose uniform bore the legend “Environmental Police”.
Apparently, the government established Environmental Police Units in 2011 to cover every police division of the island. They are staffed 24 hours a day to handle public complaints related to environmental issues and “provide a valuable service to speedily resolve such matters”. Officers are trained on various aspects connected to the environment, including the National Environmental Act, the Mines and Mineral Act, biodiversity, noise and air pollution, waste management, the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance, and the Urban Development Authority Act.
If this is so, why are there so many vehicles emitting noxious fumes?
When we first arrived in Sri Lanka from Ireland, where air pollution in the sparsely populated rural area in which we lived was mainly methane from eructating cows and sheep, we were struck by how bad the emissions were on Sri Lankan roads. After a couple of years, there was a marked and mysterious improvement but now it is very bad again. It actually seems to have worsened since emission testing was introduced.
When I arrived, coughing and breathless, at my meeting at EFL, I shared my observation that emissions were worse. The EFL people doubted that what I said was true. They said the statistics showed that emissions had reduced. I remained dogged in my scepticism as my senses gave the lie to their assertion. I noted that one of the companies conducting emission testing sponsored the EFL calendar.
Just before our vehicle was due to take its first emission test, I was concerned when a routine check showed an oil leak. The manager of the garage doing the check told me not to worry as I could just give the tester Rs 300 and all would be well. The Island reported on October 14 2011 that “sources “ said centres run by one particular company often violated rules and passed vehicles in bad condition. The DMT (Department of Motor Transport) closed over 300 centres for not meeting standards, for issuing false certificates, or for soliciting bribes.
There are 1.9 million vehicles in Sri Lanka. A WHO report shows pollution levels to be three times the accepted safe norm. Heart attacks and respiratory disease have become the main causes of death in Sri Lanka. Toxic chemicals stimulate the immune system to attack the body’s own tissues. Nitrogen dioxide can lead to immunosuppression. Carbon monoxide poisoning is like suffocation, binding to the haemoglobin contained in red blood cells, reducing the ability of the cells to transport and release oxygen to bodily tissues. Benzene suppresses bone marrow and impairs development of red blood cells leading to cytopenia, bone marrow loss and leukaemia. Polycyclic hydrocarbons cause skin and lung cancers. Increasing levels of air pollution are associated with rising mortality rates among diabetics.
The government promised roadside tests in January 2011. I have not noticed them yet. They are clearly not working. DMT Commissioner General S H Harishchandra said detecting teams are operating daily to apprehend errant drivers. He claimed that these teams select random areas and conduct checks using state of the art equipment. The vehicles that have excessive emission levels are given a concessionary period to fix their engines and reduce the emission levels before ia fine is imposed. If this is really happening, why are emissions getting worse?
Sri Lanka imported 45 gas analyser machines from Germany, at a cost of nearly Rs. 50 million, to conduct comprehensive roadside inspections independent of the two private companies Cleanco and Laugfs Ecosri that carry out mandatory annual emission tests on vehicles. The Island reported that AW Dissanayake, Project Director for emission testing at the DMT, “maintained that they were catching belching vehicles, but when asked to give details of the vehicles they had detected, he was evasive and requested us to meet the Commissioner General of Motor Traffic.”
Expensive equipment should not be necessary. Nothing more state-of-the-art than a police officer’s nose and eyes is required. The black smoke should be obvious to anyone. One sees many police officers on the roads, stopping three-wheelers and motorcycles to check licences. My experience suggests that targets have been set to encourage police to issue more tickets and collect more spot fines. Could their performance indicators not focus on emissions? Perhaps there could be financial incentives.
Many of the major polluters are vehicles whose owners are in a position to be strongly influenced by government. On Friday 27 January 2012, I was enveloped in the worst black cloud I have ever experienced. The guilty vehicle was a police jeep. Police should be stopping buses, SLT vans, CEB lorries, ambulances that are spouting diesel fumes. If the police are not up to the job, perhaps the Army could do it.
The Commissioner of Motor Traffic has announced that from March 2014, vehicle owners will have pass two emission tests every year rather than one. This seems to be directed at increasing revenue rather than decreasing emissions. It is a pointless and expensive inconvenience to subject the owners of relatively new vehicles to two tests a year, while buses, the main polluters, are exempt from testing altogether.
Your taxes are funding the emissions testing programme. It needs to be effective. Young lives are at risk. Children are especially susceptible to air pollution because they have high inhalation rates, greater lung surface area per body weight, and narrow lung airways. Their immune systems are not fully developed. The main source of air pollution that is causing significant harm to children is vehicle emissions. Most schools are alongside roads and around five million of the 20-odd million population of Sri Lanka are schoolchildren. Do the traffic police, the environmental police, Commissioner of Motor Traffic, the bus operators, not have any anxiety about this persistent child abuse?