Colombo, Development, Elections

Challenges of Development: The Next Phase

It is over. We have a winner, and we have a loser. The margin of victory has many messages. In mature democracies, play leading up to the climax is performed in a slightly different way, and it is customary for the loser to telephone and congratulate the winner on the morning after. We saw none of that here. The night before we saw the rise of a special tribe, whose characteristics were identified by their motto declared the morning after, if you met any of them at breakfast: “I don’t particularly like the guy who won, but I like even less the guy who lost”. That declaration is usually followed by the obligatory joke about “military intelligence” being an oxymoron. What a fool-proof way in which our countrymen demonstrated the truth in it?

Permit me to give you a break and entertain you with stories about my travels and childhood memories. After doing a lot of travel in Sri Lanka over a month recently, sampling public opinion about the elections and of the general future of my country, I not only found it easy to predict the 60/40, but also converged on a three-point plan for its accelerated development and reconstruction. You will find, if you follow me carefully to the end of this page – and stretch your imagination a wee bit — development is not just about harbours, airports and carpeted roads. We need more. Our responsibility is to win the winner by power of persuasion, working with him in covering a much wider space, recognizing the multi-dimensional nature of our urgent developmental needs. We cannot afford to shy away from that paramount need of the moment with the excuse: “we don’t like the guy, do we?” So, here is my plan: (a) build a by-pass around Kegalle; (b) admit Sinhala students to the University of Jaffna; and (c) build decent toilets in public places!

The first two of the above are fairly uncontroversial, you will agree. Kegalle is a busy town which has grown monotonically over the years and adds 20 minutes delay to traffic on A1. A by-pass will cut down the travel time between Colombo and Kandy, with consequential economic benefits, and also improve the quality of life of the inhabitants of the town, by reducing pollution levels and making it safer for kids to cross the road. On the second, it is known that universities worldwide are bending over backwards to “internationalize” themselves. A university is about broadening the educational awareness of its junior members (it is usually too late to do anything about senior members, I can tell you with authority), as much as it is about giving specialist training in a subject that students are enrolled in. So it is not right that Jaffna has a monolithic university community with just one ethnic group from one small island – unfair to the students enrolled, and quite contrary to the vision of those who worked hard to establish that good institution, working in close cooperation with those then in power, debating, persuading and cajoling them into releasing the necessary resources. There is much to learn from others. Sinhala-Tamil boundary is as good a place to start as any other.

We now turn to the more controversial proposals of maintaining clean public toilets. In my travels last month, this is what I found most difficult to cope with. Wet floors and foul smell in male toilets trigger the suspicious mind: is it just water, or were the previous guys poor in their aims? I had actually adapted my metabolic equilibrium to a reduced intake several hours before embarking on local journeys. This is torture, when surrounded by so much nice food and drink in Sri Lanka. Imagine we set targets so that the quality of toilets in any public building should be of the same standard as the one at the home of the chief officer in charge of that building! How wonderful will our country be, should we develop to such standards — anyone disagree?

My obsession with toilets has some history, too. I once wrote to the Great North Eastern Railway (GNER) company in the UK, complaining about the state of toilets in the Doncaster station. I did it in style, by offering to take its CEO on a tour of the toilets at the Polgahawela station in Sri Lanka, where he may appreciate the asymptotic lower limits of where his quality was heading. I think it did the trick. Six months after my generous offer, the gents’ toilets in every station between Peterborough and Doncaster got upgraded. There were dry floors, mixer taps, new toilet seats, flushes and soap dispersers that worked, and hand driers of a modern design made by a vacuum cleaner company – a dream come true for a train-travelling mathematician who consumes excessive beer and coffee.

That brings me to my childhood memories of toilets and a related episode of the state of our country then. At the St. Thomas’ Prep School in Bandarawela, at the age of 11, we little boys had invented the subject of Operations Research. Between lessons we get short breaks of a few minutes and we have to run to the toilet, relieve ourselves and return before the bell went again. The capacity of the little boy’s toilets being low, we had to queue. We had optimized the steps in the process: go in, shorts down, retrieve your little boys, do the business, shorts up and return to class. Optimization is possible by exploiting parallelism, as anyone who knows about the operating system inside a computer would tell you – so those of us in the queue behind the guy doing it will already have our shorts down and little boys taken out, ready for action. Little boys aren’t ashamed of their little boys being seen by other little boys, you know. The first time we did that, we did exchange notes on shapes and sizes, I confess, but then the novelty decayed and it was just well-rehearsed optimal practice.

When the Headmaster, Mr Rathnayake, found this out one day, the whole class got a sound thrashing with his cane. That was how Mr Rathnayake fixed our urchin behaviour then.

An evening some days after getting a taste of the HM’s cane, I had spread my mat and pillow and gone to bed in my corner of the hallway at home, when I overheard a conversation that has relevance to what the little boys did in the Prep School toilet. Those were days just after the first JVP rebellion, and an army officer who had studied at my dad’s school had come to visit him. He was talking to my dad and the uncle from whom we had rented our apartment. My dad had a stress-absorbing role in the community. People, mostly his students, often visited him to download their stresses. My sixth sense had told me this army chap’s visit belonged to that category. So I pretended to be asleep and eavesdropped on their conversation.

“mE uncle-la dath vayasaka PC-laa,” (police constables older than this uncle) he said pointing to the uncle, with his voice shaking. I did some quick calculations. I was 11. My dad, 30 years older would have been 41. Add another 10 to get the uncle’s age: 51.

“mE uncle-la dath vayasaka PC-laa, Sir, kalisama galavagena dora langa pOlimE hitiya” (police constables older than this uncle, Sir, had removed their trousers and waited in a queue at the door).

So that little boys’ toilet game was not bad after all, for middle-aged men — and guardians of our law — were also playing some similar game.  “If only Mr Rathnayake knew this,” I remember thinking in my childhood innocence, before dozing off. Will our winner have the ability and willingness to fix it like Mr Rathnayake, I now wonder, wide awake this morning after.