A tale of two roads

Daily FT

There are two roads in Colombo, nay, there are hundreds, but for the purpose of this article I will just concentrate on the two. In different ways the story of these two roads tells us of our agony, a nation’s failure, why much talked of development is an illusory dream, only a tempting topic for seminars , never to be realised on the ground fully.

Both roads taken as examples here are from the heart of Colombo, zones 5 and 7, where we are told the educated, capable and the empowered of the country live. If the situation is such right in front of them, we can only surmise how bad it must be in the rest of the country.

Park Road

Park Road, Colombo 5, running from Havelock town to Polhengoda, is a principal road connecting the High Level and Baseline Roads, two main arteries of the city road network. Although a busy road now, until about 10 years ago this was an attractive residential area and the road is still relatively narrow with many large shady trees on either side. 

In the days gone by Park Road was considered upper middle class and up-market, claiming several eminent residents. Mervyn Silva of political fame is said to be a recent resident. Among other important institutions along the road is the Lanka Hospitals (former Apollo Hospital). Down the road there are several schools too. On a daily basis, thousands use this road; office and other workers, students, residents and those seeking treatment at the hospital predominating.

Approximately a year back, it could be more; some development work began on the road near the hospital. This included digging deep drains and culverts requiring one side of the road to be closed for vehicles. The narrow road became even narrower and allows for only one way traffic at a time. The hardships that the road users suffer as a result, especially at peak hours, can be imagined. Traffic is halted for one line to clear, and in this slow process the halted line of vehicles on the opposite side builds up to about half a mile. In the peak hours to clear the section of the road under repair takes well over half an hour (a distance of about 20 yards).

When it rains the water collects in the pot holes on the road and the entire area turns into a muddy field. In the narrow section of the road open for movement cars, buses, three wheelers and motor cycles scramble to clear the area, splashing slush all over. The vehicles coming from the opposite direction wait with obvious impatience only for an opportunity to seize the advantage in the struggle to inch forward. There is no attempt by the authorities whatsoever to guide or control the chaotic traffic here. 

In the early days of the road work the halted commuters took the inconvenience in their stride, after all the roads have to be improved and we must be patient. A month went by, another, and now more than a year has passed. Now there is no forgiving, it is more than enough time to have built a major high way. In this time period, China would have erected an entire city!

Going by what has been observed, there is no schedule for this road work and definitely no finish date. From issue to issue, from one work gang to another, from one pit to another they go with no idea when the commuters suffering would end.

Flower Road

The second road I wish to comment on is Flower Road Colombo 7 where we are told many new rich (generally, the source of money unknown!) have now found abode, mainly down the side lanes. Wide and relatively less busy, it is not as residential as Park Road, with many offices, schools, banks and other business establishments based there.

One end of Flower Road, which is very commercial, merges with Green Path. This section has developed into a fine shopping area with several attractive restaurants and shops. Those who are attempting to develop the tourist industry in this country often bemoan the paucity of such facilities in Colombo. For all our big talk about tourism, we still can only flog our crowded (and polluted) beaches and the heritage cities, a good days’ drive away on bad and overcrowded roads. If we want tourism money, there must be life style options available, places to eat, play, shop and chill, especially in the urban centres. It is no point directing the tourists to the over emphasised Odel or Torrington Arcade to the point of pathos; such facilities must be the general standard in a city with ambitions of becoming a South Asian hub.

Not only the tourists, the citizens too are entitled to decent restaurants, eateries and shops. These are not luxuries today, they are standard features of any city worth its’ name.

A few days back, at about 8 p.m., I dropped by at a cake shop located in this area. Parking was hard to find as one side of the road was completely closed for parking, while several segments of the other side too carried the yellow line. I inquired from a security guard standing nearby why at that late hour the area had such restricted parking. His explanation was that the Prime Minister’s office was located nearby.

If it is a concern that a bomb may be placed in a car parked on a side, then there is no logic in allowing parking on the other side of the road. I doubt very much that the Prime Minister is aware of the whimsical security arrangements that are made in his name on public roads. In the era when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the czar of security and everything to do with roads and movement, roads were closed and traffic diverted depending solely on the Rajapaksa family activities. While the loudest boast of the then Government was that terrorism was completely eradicated, massive operations were kept going indefinitely to thwart the non-existent terrorists! 

For all the good he did (it is not too difficult to show results when such power and a huge budget is bestowed on a person. But to be fair by him, we have had several in the past who have had the power and the budgets, but did nothing!), we cannot but notice the limitations of the Gotabaya vision and outlook. 

Spivs, rogues and rascals

Theme Cartoon is from Ceylon Today

Is the purpose of a given society to glorify its (elected!) leaders, fall prostrate before them and raise them so high in the public image that they appear near deities; and do all this with public money and common assets? On the roads, they are at the top of the food chain, the prime users; for their uninterrupted movement all other traffic stopped, roads cleared, parking denied for everybody else.

A brothers’ interest in building up the public “ persona” of his sibling with the “mystique” of frenetic security can be understood in this case, especially as the careers of the Rajapaksa brothers were interdependent. They also display a surer insight into the national psyche. But is such an attitude, backed with the unthinking military culture of obedience, necessarily in the long-term democratic interest of a people? With the passing of time, it has become apparent that not all their activities were in the national interest nor motivated by high ideals. Apart from being self-serving (like Constitutional amendments to extend presidential terms); many of their actions seem venal if not downright criminal. 

Even under this dispensation, is there a Gotabaya clone making arbitrary decisions on road closures and no parking zones purely to flatter his boss? If we are to go by the accusations made in the Parliament about each other, from wall to wall it is filled with spivs, rogues and rascals. The Oxford Dictionary defines a ‘spiv’ thus: “A person not in regular employment but who makes money by dubious business methods, and who goes about smartly dressed and having a good time.” That such persons command so much security, against a non-existent threat at that, insults our intelligence.

For the feudal mindset, it seems there is reflected glory in venerating the “boss”. Even for the right to venerate, or closer access to the political deity, there is intense competition. In this country, the average constable is more a security guard for the political bosses and less a protector of person and property of the citizen. The security detail of politicos behaves rather like streets toughs providing cover for a mafia boss than legitimate security provided by a recognised State. In their excitement they think nothing of shoving people off, breaking traffic rules and ignoring the law of the land. 

Rotten system

Recently, an MP found fault with one of her State provided security guards for the faulty fixing of a gas cylinder in her kitchen, an errant errand boy! There is a whole system of Government; offices, vehicles and personnel whose job is to only serve them. When at it, they run about in a crazed manner, waving their hands, flashing lights, stopping other traffic for the show of “guarding” these politicians.

I have also observed that chiefs of the forces, whose job is to guard us, also have similar “protection”. It is only a show; because remember, there are no bad guys since 2009. Adults made to pretend and pantomime like children by the system. They have no other skills to fall back on. To abolish this unthinking nonsense would be to abolish the whole system, that is how far the rot has spread. The “system” knows no other function.

Coming back to the basic situation, although businesses pay premium rates and taxes, they get very little from the State, not even parking for their customers, not even at 8 p.m. They operate under a high interest (bank) regime and often are victims of corrupt and inconsistent regulators and contradictory and unclear regulations. 

On the other hand, with projects like what is happening down Park Road, public money is applied in the most amateurish of ways, a road development with no end in sight. The country’s economy is growing at a below par rate, tourism is down and the spirit of discontent spreads. If it is so in these plush enclaves, we dread to think how it must be for most of our citizens; an anxious life, full of only hardships and burdens.

 

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