by Anura Gunasekera
In the decade that I have been living in Hokandara there has been an exponential growth in the number of residences and vehicles using the Hokandara – Talawatugoda road, particularly in the morning and evening. The recent move of an international school to the area , from Nawala , has further compounded the existing problem.
This narrow three km stretch of road, sections of which resemble a dried up river bed, is totally inadequate to meet the traffic flow and slows progress to a crawl.
Routinely used by vehicles from Aturugiriya, Kaduwela and Malabe to access points in Etulkotte, Nugegoda, Maharagama and other destinations in between and beyond, there are instances at peak traffic time, when it takes up to an hour to traverse.
Apart from this, the condition of the connecting roads between Koswatte, Malabe and Kelaniya, traversing Angoda and Kelanimulle, are simply abominable. I speak from first hand knowledge as I use those roads daily, to my workplace at Peliyagoda.
But, In close proximity to these vexing problems, along the Talwatugoda- Pelawatte road, we see massive development taking place, involving the creation of lakes, new roadways and the overall beautification of the surrounding area; aesthetically very satisfying but does nothing to alleviate the practical problems of the citizens of the area. That these activities have closely followed the translocation of the armed forces headquarters to Pelawatte , is perhaps a mere coincidence.
Every possible vantage point along these roads is festooned with environmentally damaging posters and huge cutouts of political aspirants, seeking office in city and town bodies. The accompanying slogans are a nauseating collection of noble intentions, sanctimonious platitudes and embarrassing statements of self aggrandizement.
The personal virtues that each candidate has ascribed to himself , despite the well known sordid personal histories of some of them, depict them as composites of Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa. Many of these people have come and gone, perhaps the richer for having occupied positions of power and influence, but very few have made tangible contributions towards making life better for the ordinary citizen.
I shall use this opportunity to speak on other matters as well , lest this be seen as a selfishly personal grumble. It is only one small example of the real problems that exist right across the country and with the government, which has been overtaken by a malady of frightening proportions ; and that is a clearly cynical disregard for the critical issues that the country faces today, combined with an imperviousness to criticisms of state sponsored lawlessness , supported by the bland denial of unpleasant truths.
Instead, it has set itself on a course of high profile profligacy in the name of national development, in blatant denial of simmering social and ethnic issues, barbaric human rights violations and other unpleasant realities which ,unfortunately, demand honest self-examination as a pre-requisite for resolution.
In the North and the East there is the distressing problem of the dispossessed and disenfranchised Tamils and Muslims, many of whom have lost jobs, homes and kith and kin. Large tracts of land in these areas , previously owned either by the mainly Tamil residents ,or unoccupied as they were natural reservations of environmental importance, have been appropriated by the government, with much of it being administered by the armed forces.
In yet other parts of the country , in areas of natural and historical significance, thousands of acres of dry-zone jungle have been cleared for the cultivation of mono-crops by foreign companies, with total disregard for the clearly destructive impact on a fragile environment. Despite the cessation of conflict and the decimation of the LTTE, and the frequent assurances from the presidential podium that the country is at last secure, permanent armed forces bases are being set up in areas where none existed earlier.
Inexplicably, the country’s peace-time defence budget is several billion rupees more than its wartime budget .
Superhighways traversing the length and breadth of the country, international airports in remote mudflats where ,earlier , only migrant flamingoes used to land, the millions of dollars spent on a harbour which will never permit the berthing of a deep draft vessel, none of these massive initiatives will raise the quality of everyday life of the average citizen.
They are high profile projects which are photogenic, easy to boast of and ,largely, benefit construction companies and those who award such contracts. Whilst they will , eventually , have an impact on commerce , they cannot match the benefit of improved national medical services and the assured availability of essential drugs , the easy access to well managed state schools for children, a strife-free university education system geared to meet actual employment needs , and the comfort of trouble free travel from home to school or to work, will have on the collective psyche of the populace. Perhaps
eighty percent of citizens rely on the national health service for their medical needs whilst a similar proportion of parents look to the national education system , to ensure a decent education for their children.
The focus of the present government is on development projects and other initiatives designed for international visibility and immediate income generation for a narrow segment . They also involve the burden of financially crippling debt servicing and, wittingly or unwittingly, the political capitulation to oppressive regimes in return for funding assistance for the realisation of grandiose personal dreams.
The bid for the Commonwealth Games in Hambantota , a case in point, at a proposed cost of 1.1Bn USD , will be of absolutely zero benefit to the country and the population in its entirety, whilst introducing specialized installations to a location which will have little further use for them.
However , more significantly, it will showcase an upwardly mobile presidential offspring and is certain to provide a useful vehicle for the projection of his political ambitions . Perhaps the colossal cost to the country will eventually be justified by the realisation of the relentless Rajapaksa quest for perennial power and dynastic succession.
There is now another spectre which looms over our country, posing a greater threat to social stability than the combined effect of corruption, galloping inflation, bad roads, an ill-designed educational system and a poorly managed national health service; and that is the rampant lawlessness that has enveloped every aspect of our society; this is reflected in the total impunity to punitive action and the freedom from public accountability enjoyed by the rulers; it is evident in the everyday conduct of a criminalized police force , answerable neither to the public nor to the law but to its political masters; it is mirrored in the decrees of a subservient judiciary, clearly prepared to abide by the ruler’s will; it is demonstrated in violent confrontations between ruling party politicians, when an election campaign is reduced to the level of drug gang warfare, with rival groups battling for turf; it goes unheeded by a fragmented and supine opposition, which is diverting all its energies and resources for personal survival; it is tacitly condoned by an apathetic public, which includes you and I, who are prepared to accept anything as long as it does not affect us personally.
The MP for Keleniya , from time to time, issues personal edicts on what is permissible and what is not in his kingdom; he releases animals consigned for ritual slaughter- a meritorious act in itself- by invading a kovil with his private army. The fact that the issue is the subject of ongoing litigation is of no consequence , obviously. He has also forbidden the sale of beef in his area although, from all accounts, the trafficking in narcotics ,a much greater menace, continues to flourish in his satrapy along with the serial killing of destitute people, eight of whom have been murdered recently , within the space of three months.
A group of people, allegedly led by the “Sinhala Ravaya Organisation” , demolish a mosque in Anuradhapura because it is in close proximity to a stupa , said to be the burial spot of king Dutugemunu. That an unauthorized structure can be removed only by court order, under fiscal and police supervision, is obviously an irritating technicality , safely ignored as the building belonged to a minority religious group ,whilst the assailants were part of a well known Sinhala Buddhist organization and therefore, by definition, “patriotic”.
Beware, that patriotism is no longer what ordinary citizens believe in but a matter defined by presidential decree. In a country which has descended in to unacknowledged totalitarianism, the ruler invents, and re-invents, both the country and the rules as he goes along.
The, ” he died whilst trying to escape” explanation, attributed to the death of suspects in police custody , has become a grotesque assault on public perception , on account of the regularity of its occurrence. Nobody believes it anymore and the Police do not care that it is well known to be a preposterous untruth. Even the recent death sentences handed out to perpetrators of a similar crime have failed to act as a deterrent .
Over time the forces responsible for law and order have become emboldened by the tacit endorsement by successive regimes , of the extra-judicial elimination of political opponents, critics and other similar irritants on their political skins. Given a slow-moving judicial system and an obviously inept criminal investigative process, which enables the major proportion of criminal suspects to go free, the delivery of summary justice is more convenient than proper law enforcement. Killing , it is said, is habit forming.
The elimination , the permanent disappearance and the incarceration of journalists critical of the actions of the rulers has ceased to be serious news. Perhaps journalists are no longer at serious risk as most seem to practice a discreet self-censorship, consequent to the yet unresolved elimination of many of them. The suppression of truth and the prevention of the public dissemination of facts critical of the rulers , are cornerstones of despotic administrations and the essential first steps on the road to tyranny. The crumbling regimes of Libya, Syria and Egypt are perfect examples , although the worms have finally turned after decades of oppression and suppression.
Our society is now teetering at the edge of a moral precipice. Normally, the greater majority of people are law-abiding and are frankly critical of those who break the law .The human rights violations, such as illegal arrest , eviction from personal property and summary execution, which accompanied the conduct of the war in the North and the East, largely affected the subject Tamils and Muslims and did not touch many of us in the South . Now the same violations of personal liberties and rights and other iniquities, which were clearly very much part of the war in the North ,notwithstanding vociferous denials by successive governments, have become part of our lives in the South.
As decent human beings and responsible citizens we do not have a choice but to condemn such acts, individually and collectively and compel our unprincipled rulers to acknowledge the disapproval of the society of the ruled. Otherwise we will, eventually, be consumed by our own indifference as our society degenerates in to a jungle , unbearable for us and our children to live in. We will surely suffer the consequences of our own apathy, when we personally become victim to such persecution.