by Ravi Gee
I was in Srilanka a fortnight ago for the first time. I travelled to Southern towns Kandy, Bentota and Colombo by road. I would like to share my observations, a mix of positives and negatives as below. It has become such a length piece and I hope people would not think I am hijacking the landscape provided to them by DBSJ.
1. As this my first visit to SL, when I came out of the Colombo Airport, President Rajapakse welcomed me at the entrance with his broad larger than life-size smile! Being an unknown commoner from India, I was more than happy with this protocol at the airport! I also saw MR’s brothers and a few unknown (to me) faces with smaller smile and less grin welcoming me. Where are Chandrika or Ranil? Have I missed them? I could not see them enroute in the whole week I was there. Perhaps MR Brothers wanted to monopolize the entire protocol.
It would be entirely different in India for any visitor. A conspicuous absentee would be the Indian PM or President. However, in Chennai, a big battalion would be there waiting for you in hot sun or heavy rain, Sonia, Kalaingar, Jayalalitha, Stallin, even Mayavati all the way from North, local Dalit Chief Thiruma and other sundry VIPs leaning on every available wall . They would make their presence felt always waving hands. Thy hand, Great monarch! By any chance if you miss them, there will be a team from Kollywood (rarely Bollowood) actors out in all roads and junctions with varying emotions.
But, to the credit of Srilanka, I have seen your great heroes in very few places only. Perhaps, busy elsewhere! Keep it up Sri lanka! My first impression is the best impression!
2. I saw Lord Buddha smiling in all places. To be honest, I had not expected this.
In TN, it used to be Pillayar (God Ganesha) statues under every tree. As India’s GDP started going upwards 9%, trees were sacrificed for big roads and buildings which disturbed even Lord Ganesha leave alone the birds, animals and vegetation! But the icons of the great iconoclast EVR Periyar’s statues were installed along with the Dalit and Buddhist-convert Ambedkar usually in steel enclosures in every nook and corner! The devotees of EVR & Ambedkar unlike the resilient Ganesha devotees would often be angry even if a scratch is done to the statues of their icons!
Somewhere I read, please correct me if I am wrong, Lord Buddha is an iconoclast! Please take care as Buddha loves all – whether you are Buddhist or Hindu or Christian or Muslim or even an agnostic irrespective of his/her nationality.
3. The main roads connecting towns -approx 600 kms I travelled in the Southern SL were neat and clean unlike in India, Though main thoroughfares were smooth and neat, the inner city roads in Colombo and Kandy, were bumpy and riddled with traffic snarls. In Colombo, the drainage canals in most parts of the streets I walked in the mornings were choked with plastic bags and muck. No wonder you were flooded in the recent rains.
4. On the roads of the South, there were more ladies and children. Mostly men are middle aged or old. Is the sex ratio tilted towards women or more young men were lost in the south too?
5. We could not see any one peeing on the road! Have we missed the scene? If this is really the practice all along your land, “Jeya Veva” and “Vettri Vettri” to Srilanka! In India, we all know, it will be a different. We have more freedom than anyone in this aspect. However, let me reserve my comment as I had not seen the public toilets inside your Bus stands and railway stations. Hope it is as clean as in Colombo airport. (Let me not talk about the condition of IDP, the very existence of which is a shame to all good Srilankans!)
6. More cars and mini vans were on the road than buses. Public transport buses and trains were overcrowded as In India. Trains are too old to transport even circus animals. (In India trains are better in terms of age but the crowds make you feel you are in a circus!)
I doubt whether Colombo and Kandy have more cars than their human population. In its focus towards building tourism based economy, isn’t the small country losing the ecological balance? There was frequent traffic jam in the road junctions. It is better you switch to cycles as in Europe. You have an excuse now that yours is a battle-scar economy and the swanky, gas guzzlers are not affordable. They are not sustainable for the fragile ecology too. Once the selfish-middleclass is used to the comfort of the cars, it is very difficult to change their mindset.
In India, the novo-rich middle class is hell bent saving its own skin and give no hoot of concern over the pathetic condition of the poor in villages and towns. Please do not learn bad things from India. I am sure E.F. Schumacher (“Small is Beautiful”) would guide SL more than anybody.
7. In spite of so many vehicles on the road, there was traffic discipline. All vehicles stopped on the road whenever someone was found crossing. Pedestrians could walk on the path. (In India, especially in Chennai, pedestrians are expected to have wings!) All two-wheeler drivers and pillion-riders were wearing helmets. Oh, even traffic constables standing on the mid road were wearing helmet! Autos (mostly Bajaj make) were less noisy and smoky. By and large, I noticed an excellent civic sense. As someone who is now living in Chennai, I find the traffic discipline in SL is really worth emulating.
8. I smelt the air was filled with an over-supply of patriotism. Whether it is the guides we had or the lone Buddhist monk I met in Kandy or someone at the Hotel lobby, newspapers or TV – wherever I see/hear, there was always a reference to patriotism mixed with a dose of religion! The guides we had would have told at least half a dozen times that “Singhalese are of Aryan race and there were so many invasions from Tamil Kings Pandyas and Cholas and we defeated them; ours is Theravada Buddhism, the purest form of Buddhism; The holy tooth was shifted whenever the Hindu kings attacked us. Our kings fought victoriously to save our race and religion…..” I was scared.
A book I browsed in a bookshop in Colombo titled “Patriots of Srilanka” which contains brief profiles of Engineers, Bureaucrats, Urban Planners etc. Similar books in India or elsewhere might have been secularly titled “visionaries” or “Nation or community Builders”. In SL, they are patriots! Somehow, I think consumption of too much patriotism in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious environment is injurious to common health because calibrating the scales of patriotism is difficult.
9. Whenever our vehicle stopped intermittently for tea/snacks in the interior predominantly Singhalese towns/villages, the commoners I met were only warm and friendly with usual shy smile. Mostly people were curious to know where we were from and once they were told India. Tamil Nadu, it was spontaneous smile and a gentle nod. They would try to communicate with smattering English and preferred to stop with a warm smile. Common man, like all common man, has no agenda. Simple another human being.
10. We were discussing that there was no beggar on the streets. Somebody commented sarcastically they might be sent to IDP camps in the north. But when we reached our Hotel, there was a news item that the beggars were driven out of Colombo and there was a murder of a beggar. I remember reading a report recently about Delhi’s poor and beggars. They were being evicted out of the capital forcibly as the Delhi Government wanted to show a spic and span modern shining India ahead of Asian Games in Nov ‘10! Is there any Colombo- Delhi collaboration on this cosmetic facial?
11. At the airport, my bags and body were checked by young men and women of the air force. (SLAF). In India, it is done by Police (CRPF). I guess the excess recruitment in the forces is rightly deployed. What is their career plan? Will they be checking the same even after, say for 10 years? No wonder, our guide, a young Sinhala man in his mid 20’s would like to go abroad asap. Our another guide, also Sinhala in his 60’s whose children are already in UK also want to go out. There is already a huge queue among Tamils to go out whether by boat or plane or even on crow! Who will be left in SL? Too big a question for this short duration traveler.
12. Important for vegetarians like me. I thought a Buddhist land will give me decent vegetarian food. I am aware that Tibetian Buddhists are meat eaters. We stayed in very decent hotels. Food, in one word, is nightmare (except in Colombo). Not only food, a lot of training is needed for the staff in most of the places. No doubt People are hard working. Those who come in the morning were staying till late night. Tired. Smiling. Impatient.
Tourists are suckers all over the world. They may be beggars in their home. Once in another land- in their home or other country- they demand a kingdom at a bargain price. Decision makers who thrust tourism should ensure balancing take place in-house in terms of people work hours, training etc. Once the in-house is in order, it is a cake walk to face competition - from Maldives to Malaysia.
13. We visited a grocery shop and mall in Colombo to check the food prices. A packet of 450 ml milk costing Rs 60/- Mineral Water Rs 40/ liter. Potato Rs 120/ kg. Rice Rs 100/ kg. We converted all into Indian Rupee and made a back of the envelope comparison. All food items are costing more than twice the price in India where food inflation was as all time high. I understood that Petrol in Srilanka costing roughly the same as milk! Not a good sign for a developing nation! A case of misplaced priorities. India was also notorious for its milk shortage.
There was a co-operative movement started in Gujarat and an organization was found (AMUL) by Dr.V.Kurien . Now, in India, there is no shortage of milk and is costing less than petrol. In SL, a similar cooperative movement can be started both in NE and the entire south. Similarly, vegetables can be grown in the surplus land. South India is an easy accessible market both for milk and vegetables.
14. In India, some places, the situation may be much worse than that is Srilanka. I would say, as a good commoner, both the countries have got their own strengths and weaknesses. It is better we leverage each others’ strengths and work in a mutually beneficial way. There is light at both the ends of Palk Strait! - Ravi Gee - Chennai