Is there no method in our madness?


by Shanie

"Much madness is divinest Sense –

To a discerning Eye –

Much Sense – the starkest Madness –

‘Tis the Majority

In this, as All, prevail -

Assent – and you are sane –

Demur – you’re straightaway dangerous –

And handled with a chain."

Emily Dickinson (1830-86)

Sri Lanka’s bid to host the Commonwealth Games in 2018 was lost at the vote taken at the Commonwealth Games Federation General Assembly held in St Kitts and Nevis lasr week by a margin of 16 votes. Going by the correspondence columns in our newspapers, many Sri Lankans appear to have heaved a sigh of relief that we lost the bid. Some months ago, hundreds of Sri Lankan environmentalists sent a petition to President Mahinda Rajapaksa pointing out the irreparable harm that would be caused to the environment if the Games were to be held as proposed in Hambantota. The site was to encroach on the Yala National Park. Even otherwise, an amendment to the Fauna and Flora Ordinance would be required to develop the Games site, which prohibited the construction of buildings in or near nature reserves. The petitioners further pointed out that this development would drive away the endangered Ceylon Leopard, Sloth Bear and Elephant and countless other endangered fauna and flora from their natural habitat. In fact, Minister for Wild Life Conservation had talked of a plan to drive 200 elephants away from the area, which the Director of Wild Life later denied.

Besides, the cost of holding the Games was to be close to a staggering Rs. 3 billion. At a time when the government claims that we cannot afford to pay a living wage to public servants, university teachers and non-academic staff and others, the cost of staging the Games could only come from borrowings, adding to the already huge debt burden the country has to bear. This is certainly the major reason that many Sri Lankans were not unhappy at, or even welcomed, the loss of our bid to host the Games. It was indeed amusing to hear the Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, who headed a 150-strong delegation that went to St. Kitts and Nevis, state on the eve of the voting that he had done his numbers and was confident of winning the vote. One can only hope that this is not the basis on which he does his numbers to project the future of Sri Lanka’s economic health.

Now comes the disturbing report that the government is planning, despite losing the bid, to still go ahead with building a new International Sports Complex at Hambantota. We already have the Sugathadasa Sports Complex in Colombo, despite more attention being necessary for its maintenance, with adequate facilities to hold any Games up to international standards. In fact, the South Asian Games have been held at this venue on two previous occasions. Sri Lanka is again hosting 2016 South Asian Games and there is no need to waste scarce resources to build yet another Sports Complex at this stage. Refurbished facilities at the Sugathadasa Complex will be good enough to host the South Asian Games, and both participants and spectators will find this venue far more convenient.

A second international sports facility was built and opened at Homagama last year. As with most ill-planned and hastily completed projects, it is reported that the tracks at the Homagama site are already not up to standard. Even so, it is possible to bring this President Mahinda Rajapaksa International Sports Complex up to standard to host an event like the South Asian Games, in case an alternate venue to the Sugathadasa Sports Complex is preferred. To the discerning eye, it is the starkest madness to build a third international complex, given our resources and the priorities for public expenditure.

Following on our Commonwealth Games bid fiasco, it is to be hoped that the government would used independent professional expertise in development planning. We lost the bid because we did not have the required infra-structure in place to stage the Games. Assurances that they would be put in place well before 2018 did not impress 43 of the delegates to the Games Federation’s General Assembly. If we were serious about wanting to stage the Games in Sri Lanka, independent professional advice should have been sought to select the best venue in terms of basic facilities already available, ease of access and accommodation for participants, officials, spectators, journalists, etc, Professionalism means using professional standards in evaluating the different venues, not employing political standards to cultivate or boost the ego of politicians. Sadly, the country is losing out by the unwillingness of professionals in all areas of public life to use professional standards and opting for political standards.

Professionals and Political Standards

This is why we are left with Hambantota being the site for the second international seaport. the second international airport, a third international sports complex, an international cricket stadium, and no doubt many more to come. The country already knows the colossal cost to the country by the lack of professionalism in the choice of the site for the Hambantota seaport. One year ago, a ship sailed into the new port on opening day amidst the booming sound of guns in salute. Since then, there has been a deafening silence. The cost to the country by the Hambantota airport will only be known if and when it becomes operational for international traffic – not merely in monetary terms but also by its effect on the environment, on the rich bio-diversity of the airport’s hinterland. Cricket will probably continue to be played at Hambantota, but also probably at the cost of spectator participation. We can only hope that saner counsel will prevail and the government will abandon the idea of building another President Mahinda Rajapakse International Sports Complex at Hambantota.

Another matter for concern is the naming of buildings and using the portrait of President Rajapakse at almost every turn. There is a convention among democracies that the portrait or the name of a living executive Head of State or Government will not be used on currency notes, postage stamps or on public buildings. This healthy convention was, by and large, followed in Sri Lanka as well until recent times. Now fawning officials who think they can earn the goodwill of the President by doing so, are using and abusing the name and portrait of the President. In his own interest, the President must instruct these sycophantic officials to desist from doing so. The President will no doubt be appropriately honoured and remembered for his leadership in the area of national development in due time. He deserves better than to be numbered in the company of political tyrants across the world, in Asia and Africa, in Europe and the Americas, who boosted their egos during their lifetime and are today only remembered with contempt. They were the Ozymandias of whom the poet Shelley wrote:

"I met a traveler from an ancient land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert..’Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal these words appear:

"My name is OZYMANDIAS, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!"

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away."

A significant achievement for which President Rajapakse will be remembered is the defeat of the northern insurgency. That was by far a greater accomplishment than the defeat of the two southern insurgencies decades earlier. But he must take that achievement forward by re-establishing the rule of law, by ensuring justice, equality and freedom for all citizens – justice before an independent and impartial judiciary, equality in access to education and employment, freedom of expression and speech – and that every citizen has the opportunity to earn a reasonable livelihood that will keep the family above the poverty level. These are all possible within the present resources and means of our country. All it requires is the political will, which President Rajapaksa undoubtedly possesses, given his long years as a political activist for these very rights and freedoms.

Nehru’s Legacy and a Lesson for us

Abe Rosenthal was a well-known and senior US journalists half-a-century ago. In the nineteen fifties he had been posted in New Delhi as the correspondent for the New York Times. In an essay on Nehru he wrote: "But the great irony of (Nehru’s) role in world affairs was that so many of the Asian and African leaders who fawned on him seemed to miss the point of his life. That point, most simply, was that it was possible for a country economically degraded to raise itself, give its people rice and a roof and a book, and still maintain political freedom at home." That was Nehru’s achievement, the lasting legacy he left for India. Ensure democratic freedoms for the people, while striving to provide for her millions food, shelter and learning. Those are the ideals that all political leaders should try to emulate.

There was one more legacy that Nehru left for India and for all people of South Asia. Not long before his death, Nehru walked into a meeting of the Indian Foreign Office diplomatic staff, senior and junior. M J Akbar reports that since the Prime Minister himself had come, they dispensed with the agenda and decided to ask him questions. The topic shifted to the professed neutrality of the Indian Civil Service. Y D Gundevia, who was then the Foreign Secretary, asked: ‘Well, sir, this being the case, what happens if tomorrow, shall we say, the Communists come into power? We have had a Communist government in Kerala. But what happens to the Services if the Communists are elected to power, tomorrow, at the Centre, here in Delhi?’

Nehru pondered before answering: ‘Communists, Communists, Communists! Why are all of you so obsessed with Communists and communism…..The danger to India, mark you, is not communism. It is Hindu right-wing communalism.’ Nehru, the liberal statesperson that he was, foresaw the dangers of linguistic and religious right-wing communalism and kept such elements firmly at bay. It is because of his legacy that all Indians, despite occasional violence based on casteistic, religious and linguistic differences, still remain committed to a united and democratic India.

We in Sri Lanka can indeed learn many lessons from Nehru’s vision and ideals and the legacy he left for India.

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