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Enough Helping Hambantota

[The Sunday Leader.lk, Sunday, 18 September 2011 08:25 No Comment]

With all the hulabaloo about Colombo’s next Mayor, it is easy to forget where the President’s heart lies. Home, in Hambantota. Ancient Kings (and modern Burmese dictators) would simply pick up populations and shift their capitals wherever whim and astrology dictated.

Different feudal capitals variously ebbed north and south depending on prevailing warfare. In modern times, people have simply migrated up the coast to Colombo, making it the hub of commerce and government.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, however, seems intent on reversing the flow of history and pushing development back down the coast to his home town. This includes the proudly opened (but not open) Mahinda Rajapaksa Port, the Mahinda Rajapaksa Tele-Cinema Village, the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium, tomorrow a 4-Star, 200-Roomed Mattala Airport Hotel, later the airport itself  and the bid for the Commonwealth Games.

All of this to build infrastructure in sparsely populated areas while infrastructure in Colombo crumbles and growing cities like Matara and Anuradhapura go neglected. In the same way, the natural harbour of Trincomalee is not invested in, and the Commonwealth Games are not pitched as a way to improve the infrastructure of Colombo or even better to show that the war is truly over – Jaffna.

Instead they are planning grand conference centers and mass transit in an area more known for its wildlife and national parks. As the naming of various places indicates, these investments are largely in self-interest and not the national.

The clamor over the upcoming Colombo Municipal Council election is mainly because this is the last stand of the UNP, Ranil’s Tripoli. It is also because people truly do have local issues. It is striking that it only comes up at election time, but the population of Colombo is actually majority minority, majority poor, and not especially big fans of Gotabhaya’s ‘clean-up’ campaigns.

These are not the people promenading in Independence Square or cheered at the speed that the one way system gets in and out of Colombo. These are families who go home to crowded, flooding quarters after spending hours on the bus and hours walking because the roads and government privilege the privileged.

While this paper does support the UPFA candidate Milinda Moragoda (shocking), it is with qualification and some reservation. While Gotabhaya’s clean-up has been admirable, it needs civilian oversight lest it goes over the rails. An intelligent and trusted (by the government) Mayor could actually bring the people of Colombo online with the development of their own city.

But have no illusions. This government develops on its whims and the winds could blow from favorable to incomprehensible in a moment. It is vital at this time to reassert civilian control over the city before capricious, Hambantota style development becomes the way of the land.

Enough helping Hambantota. The people of Colombo need help themselves. As do the people of Anuradhapura, Kandy, Jaffna and Batticaloa. Ministers treat their electorates as fiefdoms to be farmed for votes. They then come and take portfolios they have no comprehension of. The hope, however, is that government could rebuild itself from the ground up, beginning with Colombo.

But have no illusions. As the numerous monuments to Mahinda Rajapaksa testify, his focus can be effective or effectively useless. This disconnect from the needs and demands of common people must end for Sri Lanka to truly develop into a model nation. At the same time, however, the political culture of the people encourages this behavior, and that too must be checked.

The same people who seek to tear Milinda down still have nothing to offer in his stead. The UNPers who proclaim that Colombo is UNP have no view outside their own party. We should be wary of Mahinda’s biases, but also our own. We should endeavour to be people that judge based on even a vague rationality and not based on the color we are used to voting, is what our aunts or uncles habitually do. Until this culture changes, divisions will persist, political muck will grow in the cracks and the culture of the strong helping themselves will continue throughout this land.

The Sunday Leader remains critical of this government’s denial of the bloody reality of war, making us seem fools to the rest of the world. But we must also remain vigilant of denials of reality on our own soil. The laws which no one follows. The petty corruption that keeps people in jail, or out of work, or out of schools. The prejudices that keep lovers apart or break families into pieces.

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