Sri Lanka experience

"Mr. Premadasa was busy in erecting clock towers all over the country, but our President is busy adjusting the time", whispered the passenger seated next to me on my Air Lanka flight recently to Sri Lanka. Although I attributed his comments, made on lighter vain, after few free shots of Shivas Regal on our National Carrier, the significance of his statement hit me only when I landed in Colombo. The clocks had been put forward by one hour, and people seemed to be confused; some used to deduct one hour and go by the old time.

One morning in Colombo as the sun was fighting to break through the dark clouds, even though it was 6.30 am, I rushed out of bed to get some fresh air in the front garden, before the whole atmosphere got polluted with Carbon Monoxide emissions from clogged up Galle Road. As Indrani Senanayakeıs voice reverberated on the Commercial Service of the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation ( I was still used to the old Radio although there are many varieties today), her voice was suddenly drowned by the echoes of screaming sirens emanating from the Galle Road. Even though Peterson Lane was a few hundred yards away from the Galle Road, yet the ear-piercing noises of the ambulances took me back momentarily to London. " A bit like London isnıt it? Screaming noises of sirens. These are the ambulances carrying our wounded soldiers. Mala, my hostess in Colombo attempted to update me with the Sri Lanka situation.

It was apparent that the military operation Sath Jaya Phase III had turned into a bloody affair within eight days of battle. This was confirmed further by the headlines of an English daily newspaper that morning which read, " Operation postponed due to lack of blood - stocks down from 2500 pints to 450." Also a Presidential appeal in the newspapers that day for blood donors to come forward projected a grim picture and reminded me of the human cost due to the on going war in the North-East

As much as I would have loved to travel by public transport to get a real feel of what the people thought about the present situation in Sri Lanka, it was still unimaginable to travel by bus or private coach in Colombo. Despite promises on new fleets on the road there seemed to be no dignity or respect for commuters who make desperate attempts to travel from their homes to work places & back, day after day. Driving was an impossibility, and to my amazement the traffic jams had become worse and chaotic. I made conversations with taxi drivers, inside their cabs, to test their pulse in general, about a government people elected two years ago looking forward to a better Sri Lanka.

One taxi driver whom I spoke to was obviously despondent. He quipped: " Sir, when the UNP was in power we bought a loaf of bread for Rs.4 and got 400 grams. We were over the moon when the PA promised to bring down the price to Rs.3.50." Apparently his first doubts had been raised when the price of bread came down to Rs. 3.50 along with the weight of a loaf to 200 grams! He was moaning undoubtedly : " Sir, today we have to pay Rs. 7.50 and the loaf is still 200 grams in weight, and one is not enough for me , I need about three loaves to satisfy my hunger" !

Few days later a major shock wave rang through the spines of all motorists up to their motor car accelerators when fuel prices were jacked up by 25% overnight, pushing a litre of petrol by Rs. 10 to Rs. 50. There was pandemonium setting-in everywhere & many were making desperate contingency plans to share motor vehicles and vans to go to work. Some took instant decisions to park their cars in garages, till at least their frustrated feelings died down! This, remarkably, was the middle class folk.

Then followed a change of routine to many Sri Lankans in their day to day affairs. The chauffeurs could not do 2-3 trips a day any more to School and offices, to bring the kids home, bring the lady & master from their respective offices at different intervals, nor could the lady drive up to the Gym to work out or send the kids for swimming after school. Instead, everyone was looking desperately for diesel vans to send children to International schools. Many feared that the already soaring cost of living would escalate to unprecedented levels that very soon even the well-off would feel the pinch. When one thousand rupee notes vanished from my wallet in seconds ( which gave Rs.89 to my Sterling Pound) without being able to account for the expenses, I wondered, how on earth the ordinary wage earner with a family in Sri Lanka was coping !

The Government seemed to attribute the sudden increase of fuel due to world price increases in crude oil, yet many whom I spoke to, from Colombo to Mihintale and across to Ratnapura, seemed to think that it was due to mismanagement of the Petroleum Corporation where so many square pegs have been put into round holes due to political patronage. The words " Dhushanaya" which was capitalised two years ago during the election campaign came to my mind once more! Will Sri Lankan politics ever change ? I began to think. Whilst almost everyone moans, out of frustration, about the recent price increase in fuel, and some of the trishaw drivers have called it suicidal, some taking the term very literally, others were expecting a statement from the Government as to whether and when the prices of fuel would come down if the Œ so-calledı price increase of crude oil were to come down in the world market.

Browsing through an English daily in Colombo, I read some statistical news which revealed how during 1995, Rs. 2292 million had been earned through Excise Duty of Rs. 22.50 on a gallon of petrol and Rs.4.50 on a gallon of diesel, imposed by the PA Government. Amazingly enough though, it had been done at a time when the price of crude oil was low !

At various quarters, over few bottles of Lionıs larger or Pol Arrack, people were trying to reason out the current 25% increase on fuel price jack up. One of the striking news items which appeared in the English daily newspaper article pointing a finger at the Petroleum Corporation for being in the brink of bankruptcy went on to say that under the PA 2800 political stooges had been employed during the past two years , completely ignoring the exigencies of service and consequently it had become an impossible task for the Corporation to pay Rs.10million every month as salaries and over-time alone to this Œ excessı staff. If this newspaper article was true, then the Petroleum Corporation had been unable to pay even the salaries to its staff in August 1996 and the commitment had been met with the help of a bank overdraft!

While the situation at the Petroleum Corporation was projected as very grim and the overall increase of cost of living would worsen the already unbearable heavy burden of millions of Sri Lankans, I found some in complete sympathy with the Government because of the on going war in the North and East. It was crystal clear that everyone wanted to see an end to this waste of human life, destruction to property and to get back to a normal life.

One thing that I saw clearly in Sri Lanka was that one need not be an intellectual or an economist to fathom the prevailing situation in the country. It was unfortunate that there was no proper transport system for the public to commute and the price increase in fuel was a direct hit on the poor as it is the poor who use even a trishaw to take their sick to a hospital. Similarly, it was sad to note that Ministers and the Chairman of the Corporation who took decisions to increase the prices of fuel do not spend a singe cent out of their pockets on fuel, while they are being chauffeur driven in air-conditioned limousines and pushing the middle class, lower middle class ,the ordinary wage earner, the self employed three-wheel taxi drivers, or even the motor cyclists towards untold financial misery due to the latest fuel tax.

I made friends with Sonny at the Colts cricket club cafe in Colombo while queuing up to get a take-away mixed grill. This cafe appears to be one of the most popular places now among the locals for a wide range of food at reasonable prices. Sonny talked about the wrong decision made by Arjuna Ranatunge in the Four Nation Cricket tournament at Nairobi where World Champions lost by one run. Sonnyıs reasoning was that if Sri Lanka captain used his brains, he should have opted to bat first and secured 290 runs to push Pakistan out of the final. Arjunaıs comments on television after the match, " this is how we play cricket" sounded very much arrogant, he lamented.

Many entrepreneurs seemed half hearted about the depressed economy and were worried to a certain extent. Although we have read in newspapers about many BOI projects being signed and foreigners were going to pour in millions of dollars and create new jobs, there were no signs of any material progress. Sonny, being a staunch SLFP supporter, was also disillusioned about the prevailed situation in the country . "At least with all the Dhusanaya and Bihishanaya during the old regime, people had money, projects were coming up like mush rooms, and living conditions were much easier than today . Even though I am a supporter of the PA I must speak out if we are in the wrong. It is no point in engaging in verbal diarrhoea in condemning the previous government, but we must do some productive work and make life easy for everybody living in Sri Lanka", Sonny went on ventilating his frustrations and anger.

One evening, I was seated at the Hotel Taj Samudra lounge , waiting for a friend to arrive. What do I witness? I see the Chairman of a prominent group of companies (one of which is newspapers - boasting about their stand on press freedom and independence of journalists) standing near the lift area. Seconds later, a lift comes to ground level and a London based Sri Lankan - a close buddy of the Chairman, walks out of the lift with a Colombo based entrepreneur, who once wanted to bring Wall Street to Sri Lanka. Soon the Chairman rushes forward and gives the ŒLondonerı a welcome hug. Minutes later, after the departure of the Chairman, ŒLondonerı and the Colombo entrepreneur sit close to me, I keep my foxy ears open. The ŒLondonerı who has earned a reputation as a Œboasterı & a Œdestructive elementı among many who are known to him in London as well as in Sri Lanka, whispers to his business colleague about the Chairman who hugged and greeted him minutes ago: " You know, he is Š.. so and so......, He ruined that Group after taking over as Chairman". In complete amazement, I pretend not to hear. Œ Will some of our Sri Lankans ever change, even if they live hundred years abroad" ? I began to whisper to myself.

The conversations that took place subsequently cannot be published for its confidential nature. But will this lead to another melo-drama within the Government dragging the Minister of Shipping! In a climate of environmental issues taking a prominent place in Sri Lanka what transpired during that hotel foyer is bound to come up in time, sooner or later. In my mind I wondered when the bubble bursts in the near future, will it be a SAD affair?