After stewing about it for more than two days ‘Team Mobitel’ appears to have finally come up with a response.

Mobitel response

It’s actually quite ridiculous. They apologize for any ‘inconvenience or pain of mind’ caused but reiterate that the racist ringtone will remain on their site on a ‘revenue share basis’. Apparently they still care about upholding the ‘true values of unity and ethnic harmony’ by allowing an organization that stands for just the opposite to make money off its site, and on a revenue sharing basis too.

The image is accompanied by an expanding thread of comments of largely unimpressed people. Mobitel’s social media team and at least one fake account is also feebly attempting to respond, but are only succeeding in digging itself deeper into this hole.

Many are asking if Mobitel would allow an LTTE song to be put up to fund the terrorist group on a ‘revenue sharing’ basis too. The answer, even though it has not been articulated yet, is obviously no. Why in the world would Mobitel do that? Therefore Mobitel definitely does NOT consider the Bodu Bala Sena to be a hate group or a group with any negative social connotations at all.

The utter chutzpah of this response is rather hard to digest, I will say that at my next tea party. The lyrics of the BBS song call for a “Holy War” to destroy the “rallying cry of the unrighteous” and “the heathens” “who have all united into one camp”. Yup, practically dripping with peace and harmony there.

Actually if this song came from any other group, or was just a song released by an individual artist. Its message could have been construed as one meant purely to inspire and provoke steadfastness on a personal level or whatever (the lyrics are actually quite well written). But the BBS has made its intentions clear through its actions, they possibly really do want a holy war. In denouncing imaginary Islamic terrorism in Sri Lanka and countless other made up threats, the BBS is fast mirroring its non-existent worst enemy.

Therefore by allowing the BBS to make money from its ring back tone services (and sharing in the moolah no less) Mobitel is sending a strong message that they support, or at least are indifferent, to its extremist standpoint.

Here’s a poster being shared around on Facebook, which carries the full lyrics of the song and calls for a boycott of all Mobitel products.

image from JDS Lanka

image from JDS Lanka

The Pax Rajapakse is almost four years old. In that time I’ve gone from being a relative tortoise in my own country to having a degree of freedom that I never imagined possible. I’ve traveled now to virtually every place formerly torn up by the war. And can travel anywhere else I please should I wish to do so.

But the Pax Rajapakse is just that, peace. It has no moral identity. It has no moral pretensions even though it likes to pretend otherwise. Dreadful things are done to preserve the peace. But in all objectivity some might say that the end justifies the means. Peace is its own reason.

But a once universal peace is now fragmenting into varying degrees of peace; different categories of peace now exist. There is a lesser peace and a greater peace. The greater peace is being able to move around your country with freedom, the lesser peace is demarcated by invisible lines drawn through society with labels saying things like ‘Do Not Cross’, ‘Trespassers Will Be Shot’ and  ‘Sycophants Only’.

The country, as it strains under the forces of development, churns society like the roiling Indian Ocean and casts up new oppressed classes and facilitates the surge of new elite. Apparently there is ‘good’ corruption and ‘bad’ corruption. So say some, justifying the regime’s steamroller approach to progress with a substantial personal cut. But where is the line, I say?

While people leave on boats, and put up with heavy abuse for want of jobs and are kicked out of their homes to make way for high rises in the midst of Colombo; a whole new class of wealthy and powerful Sri Lankan is emerging. Closely connected to the country’s powerbrokers, they wield high influence that cuts through social and legal infrastructure like butter. Any justice is we have here is highly skewed in the favor of these elites.

All this has not gone unnoticed. The people are restless and feeling the brunt of ever increasing cost of livingn. Straight talking journalists are still in danger. And the briefly stable peace is now crumbling at the edges with this latest drive of racism. The people are hungry for something to blame. A few decades ago it was the Tamils, and now it is the Muslims. 

But peace is profitable, war is not. And the last thing the government needs is another conflict. And therein lies the problem. Sri Lanka is a corrupt animal. This corruption is like a cancer, but it can still grow within it. Most forecasts still place our economy with prospects of around 6-7% of GDP growth per annum. On a global scale this is huge. This means we double every ten years or so. And if we’re patient enough and do not over reach, we can still become a rich country in our own time.

There are however, serious glitches that can ruin everything. Since Sri Lanka stopped being a low income country, it has stopped receiving aid which basically allowed us to spend more than we earned without worry. And over the years a strong parasitic class developed that benefited and prospered from this surplus, the result; a bloated state sector, crazy inefficiency and high levels of corruption. And now it is this transition from being aid dependent that is really killing us.

Finding itself forced to cover up its various deficits (budget and current account) by taking loans, Sri Lanka is realizing (I hope) that it is mixing a recipe for disaster. We need solid foreign investments to replace these loans and they will not come in until the political, and by extension business, environment is made investor friendly; until budget gaps are sorted out sustainably;  until capital expenditure is focused on projects with long term benefits like education, infrastructure and health.

Currently the government is trying to cover its behind by putting the burden on the public. It should be cutting dead weight and increasing its efficiency by turning state corporations (like the cash bleeding CPC and CEB) profitable, instead it is reducing much needed public expenditure and increasing prices of essential goods and utilities. This burden on the public, ever increasing with the latest round of fuel price hikes, is what is contributing to unrest. There is a continuing laxity in addressing post war issues, and fiascos like the Expropriation Bill and the impeachment of the Chief Justice are poorly handled and reflect very badly internationally.

The Rajapakse regime still has my support. Most East Asian giants grew up under pseudo democracies; Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. And the fact that we lack a better alternative has never been more obvious in the light of the UNP’s recent feeble opportunism in attempting to capitalize on racist propaganda. The Rajapakse’s have huge potential to bring something the country has not had for a long time; political stability and long term growth. But they cannot do this by cultivating a parasitic social sub-strata of sycophants and dependents.

Hidden agenda lurks behind this fresh wave of racism, trying to distract from pressing issues at hand. What we should be doing is figuring out the real problems and then campaign for reform, especially with the limitations of our reality in mind. This is undoubtedly hard to do in the current context; the corruption is the cancer and it is within all of us, if you will permit me a bit of drama. If the Rajapakse regime had a big role to play in creating the pax, average Sri Lankans have an even bigger role to play in keeping it.


This post was originally published in The Platform

I dislike the label ‘activist’, armchair or otherwise. To be defined as an activist is to be defined by the inactivity of others. Armchair activism, as I see it, is a constant struggle against (to paraphrase Milton Freidman) ‘the tyranny of the status quo’; that dread inertia that prevents people at large from forming the critical mass required to propel decisive solutions to social issues that affect them all.

Armchair activism is different in nature from ‘on-the-ground’ activists who have a gamut of other responsibilities, like standing in front of tanks and bulldozers should the need arise. (Raashid Riza has an excellent post on contemporary activism, armchair activism and cynics of all forms in the light of recent events here.) Armchair activists are more specifically involved in spreading the word in the domain of public opinion – they are in the fight against ignorance, cynicism and apathy.

The goal of the armchair activist, conscious or otherwise, is to convince OTHER people of the need for altruism and moral consideration. Theirs is a sustained effort at tipping the balance of this inertia, at creating that critical mass. Social media has contributed to a phenomenal rise in armchair activism. The ability to influence public opinion is now at our very fingertips.

But armchair activists are rendered outcasts in an environment still dominated by  the primary tyrannical force, materialism. Materialism breeds selfishness, and selfishness is protected by cynicism. Cynicism denies responsibility for the actions of others, even individuals the cynics themselves have elected into power. Cynics deny that one can make a difference, but know that many can. However they doubt that enough will overcome their own cynicism in order to join together convincingly, thus building a self fulfilling philosophy that makes selfishness always comfortably right.

This is played out in social networks, both real and virtual, everyday. People cannot understand why other people get all up in arms about things that happen thousands of miles away. These others can’t understand how some can idly sit by and look at pictures of kittens when not only kittens but children are being slaughtered indiscriminately ONLY a few thousand miles away. Vocal cynics resent being reminded of the latter. And say so. Scoffing at idealists is a popular pastime when idealists get active.

And then there is the silent majority, too caught up with its own affairs to even bother with vocalising its cynicism. To all of them, the ‘voice of the people’ is a myth. Or if it exists, it only exists in order to elect the next American Idol, or president.

This disillusionment with the power of the ‘voice of the people’ is the primary source of conscious or unconscious ire for the armchair activist. Forever trying to influence and educate, shock and engage the public at large, armchair activists capitalise on critical events they see as having the ability to finally tip the majority in their favor. These are the times when they get really active, because to them it is all about critical mass.

And they help. Public outrage in the wake of Israel’s illegal Operation Pillar of Cloud helped accelerate the ceasefire agreement; public outrage at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill sparked investigations debating BP’s drilling practices, the risks of oil spills and key environmental issues in general. But have they done enough? I’d say no. The underlying causes of these issues remain, ready to burst forth in some new form of violence in the future. Change more radical than this would need to happen for a permanent solution, the kind of solutions that all activists, everywhere, ardently hope for.

But, unfortunate as it may be, this kind of critical mass manifests only when a major crisis is imminent. Only when the disease spreads to the very foundations of the materialism that breeds the cynicism, that breeds the apathy of public opinion, will the majority awaken from its inertia. But when this does happen, to paraphrase Friedman again, their actions will depend on the ideas that are ‘lying around’, the discourses, social infrastructure, alternative policies and theories of change that have been kept alive by activists of all kinds, waiting until the ‘impossible’ becomes the ‘inevitable’.

This is probably why activism and armchair activism appear futile in the short term and only superficially effective in the medium term. For long lasting change to occur, whatever that may mean, the efforts of activists are not enough.  It takes the efforts of non-activists as well, in the process converting everyone into someone who acts, removing the need to define what an ‘activist’ is altogether.

Image from the BBC: Hajj 2011

It’s Hajj season again. From all over Sri Lanka, a few thousand fortunate Muslims have already left to perform the actual pilgrimage, a once in a lifetime obligation for those who can afford it, to join hundreds of thousands more in Mecca. The Hajj is the pilgrimage of Abraham and has been followed by the ‘people of the book’ ever since the time of that illustrious prophet, may peace and blessings be upon him.

But the time of Hajj is also especially significant to those who remain at their homes. According to Muslim belief; good deeds carried out in the first ten days of the month of Hajj bear great merit in the eyes of Allah.  Aside from fasting, charity and reflecting on the Quran; a special good deed carried out by Muslims is the Uduhiyyah or the Hajj sacrifice.

Racial tensions

In Sri Lanka where Muslims are a minority, the sudden influx of animal slaughter during Hajj has sometimes drawn the ire of Buddhists and attracted a lot of bad publicity over the years. This is especially significant now in a climate where certain political opportunists are spurring ethnic rivalrybetween Muslims and Sinhalese.

Here in Sri Lanka animals are killed on a daily basis for meat, and this goes largely uncontested. The majority of Buddhists also eat meat, though many abhor beef. The beef industry is largely monopolized by Muslims and has always been a target for elements seeking political gain.

Lately Sri Lanka has seen a range of anti Muslim activity. The Dambulla mosque attack is the most illustrative. And this has been followed up by pockets of unrest in various parts of the country evidently carried out under the leadership of certain members of the Buddhist clergy. Leading to speculation of a rise in ‘Buddhist extremism’ in Sri Lanka.

But to paraphrase Indi, the ‘beef with beef’ has long been an endearing locus of political opportunism. Notorious thug/politician Mervyn Silva for instance, famously demanded the closure of all beef stalls in his district last year, claiming they offended his Buddhist sensibilities (the same minister has no objection to liquor shops being open. In this case his religious sensibilities are overshadowed by the need to sustain a lucrative source of income). In the same year Silva was warned about creating trouble during the Hajj sacrifice.

Furor also rose in recent times in Sri Lanka over ritual sacrifice of animals in the Hindu Kovil of Munneswar, again led by the same minister, but backed by a faction of Buddhist clergy. The sacrifice was allowed to go ahead despite protests as the penal code in no way prevents the slaughter of animals in the country.

The issue to my mind is not the slaughter of animals per se, since by and large this seems to be OK. But the high sensitivity of the majority of Buddhists to graphic display of slaughter that can sometimes take place during Hajj, or other religious festivals that can be used by opportunistic forces to stir up trouble in the name of religion. And when Muslims themselves neglect to follow proper Islamic protocol in carrying out the sacrifice, the issue is only exacerbated.

Openly displaying the animal to be slaughtered, letting its dying cries be heard by neighbors and unhygienic disposal of waste matter is guaranteed to rub people up the wrong way. These practices are frowned upon in Islam in accordance with the Prophet Muhammad (May peace and blessings be upon him)’s example of respect for the faith and sentiments of non-Muslims. And of course hygiene is a central tenet of Islam (the Prophet said ‘cleanliness is one half of faith’). The above was highlighted in Friday sermons throughout the country on the Friday preceding Hajj, the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), the country’s collective of Islamic scholars has a nose for this sort of thing.

To conclusively sort out the issue once and for all and immunize ourselves to forces trying to sabotage peace both Muslims and Sinhalese must try and understand where the other is coming from. Muslims must understand that religious obligations can still be fulfilled without hurting the feelings of non-Muslims, actually they are probably better fulfilled that way, and non-Muslims must understand the significance of the act and the importance Islam gives to animal rights. And not be led astray by misconceptions and political opportunists.

Animals in Islam

The Quran explicitly states that animals can be used for human benefit (Qur’an 40:79-80)* and it stresses equally that animals have their own lives and existences that must be respected and honored by man (Qur’an 6:38, 24:41). This may appear contradictory, but Islam teaches that all objects, from plants to stars, exist in submission to the will of Allah. And on Earth, man is the ‘vice-regent’ of Allah and can use the planet’s resources in accordance with Islamic law. This law is strict on preventing abuse however, and when it comes to animals prohibits overworking, overburdening and the infliction of cruelty on them and allows hunting only for the sake of food.

An animal that is to be killed for meat must be treated in kindness and given food and water; it is prohibited for instance, to sharpen a knife or to slaughter another animal in front of it. The knife must be as sharp as possible so as to make the death as quick and painless as possible. The meat sacrficed by Muslims does not go to waste, all of it is either given away or consumed.

Some accuse that the Islamic method of slaughtering animals is cruel. Actually, you’d be hard pressed to find a method of killing anything, even a tree, that someone somewhere will not call cruel. But that aside, the Islamic way is proven to be a humane and hygienic method of killing a beast. The cutting of the throat, windpipe and the blood vessels in the neck (the spinal cord is kept intact) prevents the flow of blood to the nerves that cause the sensation of pain in the brain (the animal struggles and writhes due to muscular contraction). All the blood is drained before the head is removed, blood being a medium for germs and bacteria. This ensures that the meat is clean and stays fresh far longer.

The significance of the Hajj sacrifice

The significance of the Hajj sacrifice is the commemoration and remembrance of the devotion of Abraham (may peace be upon him). In a divinely inspired dream, Abraham saw himself sacrificing his oldest son Ismail to Allah. When he told this to Ismail, Ismail asked him to obey the command and said that he would be patient with the will of God. But when the blade descended upon Ismail’s neck, it failed to cut; Allah did not take the life of Ismail, providing a ram to be sacrificed in his stead.

This act of complete submission on the part of Abraham is remembered by Muslims worldwide by sacrificing a lamb, cow or another suitable animal. They keep one third of the meat for themselves, give one third to neighbors and friends and the final third to the poor, ensuring that no one goes hungry during the feast of Eid-Ul-Adha, the Hajj festival.

The day starts with a congregational prayer in the mosque. Muslims celebrate by visiting family and friends, exchanging gifts and remembering and thanking Allah for His blessings. The sacrifice of an animal is purely a measure of faith, as the Qur’an says “it is not their meat nor their blood, that reaches Allah: it is your piety that reaches Him..”(22:37).

*Refer for the translation of verses

A version of this post was originally published in The Platform blog

Another crime scene, another time and place

At around nine last Thursday I was sitting on the balcony of my friend’s suite at the Cinnamon Lakeside, the hotel’s floating restaurant was doing the rounds on the Beira lake; it’s basket-like structure lit up with lights, competing with the neon lamps of the new Bally’s casino across the water. Colombo seems on the cusp of a bright future.

At around 1030 that night I was discovering the body of Kanapadipillai Udayakanthan, 38. What i mistook for a drunkard lying in a pool of urine turned out to be a muscular young man lying on his side in a pool of blood, quite still. We told the cops. A dark, mustachioed sergeant stared me in the eye a little too closely and told me he’ll ‘check it out’.

The genesis of a Colombo Crime Scene investigation is interesting to watch. When i came back after dropping my friend, there were two bemused looking traffic policemen, and one grave looking bystander. A closer look reveals multiple stab woulds on the victims’ arm and face, there were probably deeper cuts on his neck and torso but he was lying on his front and side so i couldn’t see. Tinny Sinhala music was playing from somewhere, a phone in the dead man’s pocket.

Fifteen minutes later, there are more bemused cops, and more curious bystanders. Some are taking pictures. Strangely, the cops are letting two of the seedier ones get awfully close to the corpse, not that they were particularly restricting any of the others. These two turn out to be inspectors from the crime squad, as do a few other plainclothesmen in the crowd. Word gets around that I was the one that reported the body, and a few of the cops nod at me in appreciation.

Soon the Inspector is pulling out a wallet from the victim’s shorts, the name, race and address of the victim, as yet unknown, is now confirmed. The realization that he is Tamil creates a barely perceptible change in the atmosphere, slight relief, this is now a routine job.

Meanwhile more cops are digging through the late Mr. Udayakanthan’s backpack. They’re finding some documents, among which are four passports, three are in the victim’s name. None of the cops wear rubber gloves. People are all over the scene, walking on what must be evidence. The cops, mildly annoyed, tell them to keep away, but they keep slinking back and the police just give up. The yellow cordon only goes on some two hours later, when everyone’s basically gotten bored and gone home.

Now the phone is ringing again, muffled Sinhala music (why would a Tamil man listen to Sinhala music?), his front pockets are caked with blood, still wet. The inspector digs in with gusto, rummages for a while, and manages to pull out the phone from the left pocket. It’s a fake iphone. The person on the other end is a woman. Their conversation goes something like this:

“Who are you” says the IP, “why is so and so in Bambalapitiya?” she is obviously very confused at this stranger barking questions at her. “We are the cops..he’s been stabbed (meyawa kapala kotala dalla thiyanawa)” the cop doesn’t believe in easing into things, and i react like i was slapped, she reacts like the cop is barking mad. “No i’m not joking” says the IP, “call the police station if you don’t believe me” she hangs up.

Another call, again a woman. She cant speak Sinhala, and the IP asks the crowd who can speak Tamil, I volunteer, but soon regret it. You ever seen those cop shows where the short straw always goes to the guy who has to tell the dead man’s wife? well it’s not a fun job. My Tamil is broken, and after the cop’s attitude to the previous caller, i feel strangely desensitized and out of sync.

To my credit, or lack of it, i first thought it was the same caller, and that she already got the brunt of the bad news. So when she asked where Udayakanthan was i replied that he was dead. She asked me what the hell i was talking about, and then i asked her who she was, his wife, she said. I tried to sound as sensitive as i could. But my Tamil was just warming up, and the correct words and tone just wouldn’t come. I think i ended up shocking her very badly, she started screaming and bawling. She only managed to tell me that she didn’t know what her late husband was doing in bamba and that she was in London, and worse, that she was without family there.

I subsequently spoke to several of her neighbors, and then her sister called from Batticaloa. i told them to send someone to the Bambalapitiya Police, since the Police seemed a little clueless as to what i should say. None of them knew what Udayakanthan was really upto in Colombo, only that he worked for a ‘studio’ and that he had many Sinhala friends. He had a big red motorbike, but it was nowhere to be seen. Mysteriously, his helmet was nearby and his keys were next to him soaking in a rivulet of his own blood. Police say that tire tracks nearby indicated that he was killed somewhere else, and dumped here.

About two hours pass before they ask me for a statement, but i could have left at any time before that. While giving my statement by the side of the road, I look through the passports, and only one of them has been used. Once on a trip to India in 2006, and then for work to Saudi in 2007. The other two are brand new. The cops are chatty and open about everything, me looking through evidence doesn’t seem to bother them. My phone is dead or there might even have been pictures.

I think the Island picked up the story the next day. But it has more or less gotten buried. Probably got billed as gang violence, petty crime or something else. Murders are commonplace in Colombo and everywhere else, a cop tells me abot a particularly bloody case in Anuradhapura where the killer foolishly returned to the scene of the crime in his car, which was also the murder weapon.

Most people like to pretend dark stuff like this doesn’t happen. Judging by the cars that must have passed by the corpse before i reported it, most Colombians like to pretend stuff like this happens in a different dimension, but also the perception that ‘getting involved’ will be a major personal hassle plays a large and relevant role.

Me though, i was just morbidly curious.

image from the brilliant Wisdom on Wheels

Democracy is too nice. Everyone has a say and everyone has a in on how to handle things. This, generally, is a very good thing. But when things hit a rut, and quick decisions are needed, democracy can fail spectacularly. Just take whats going on in the Euro zone right now. No one can foresee a proper decision coming out of the region in time to avoid an economic crisis of massive proportions. Cronyism in Europe was helped along by the state. The imbalances created by the Euro zone’s formation coupled with a free spending, free borrowing approach has landed some of its less well off countries like Italy and Greece in hot water.

If they (the Euro officials) had acted fast they could have maybe stemmed everything at the start. They had several options on what to do and arguably any one of them would have worked, the climate at the time just required any action, just something to bring back investor confidence, but instead its powers started bickering. And the Euro-bickering is still going on, with no end in sight. This has led Paul Krugman to predict a massive scale bank run and plenty of other apocalyptic financial predictions from virtually every corner of economic thought.

Or, if you think the Euro example does not quite relate, think back a few months to when people were on pins about the US debt ceiling. From the beginning it was obvious that the ceiling was going to be raised. The US could take no other possible route. But parliamentary opposition from the Republicans created a heavy battle over tax cuts and entitlement reductions. The conditions were ultimately agreed to and the debt ceiling was raised. But the political opportunism probably didn’t help the US one bit when it comes to planning out a viable future strategy to recover its economy from the doldrums.

Poor, third world, developing (you pick the name) countries on the other hand, are always in a rut. They continuously face challenges and opportunities that require quick and intelligent action to mitigate or make use of. They are mostly desperate for hand holds to grow and if properly motivated and managed can become powerhouses very fast. Cases in point are Singapore and Malaysia who rose to stratospheric success in a very short time. Both of the above had intelligent, strategic but autocratic regimes. China is currently a pseudo autocracy (meaning it’s an autocracy but you can’t say it out loud) and it has so far managed its economy remarkably well.

What Do The People Want?

Democracy encourages countries to do what the people want. but in countries urgently in need of development, what the people want and what the country needs can be entirely different. Take Sri Lanka for instance. What do people want? Ideally they want free education, easy subjects and a guaranteed government job. Oh and free food stamps, low transport costs and cheap fuel. They also want no taxes, more subsidies and higher pensions. All this of course cannot happen at the same time.

For the country to develop, conversely, everyone must work hard, and everyone must sacrifice a few things. French-style decadence can come later. When your parent’s generations have become fat on economic riches and you can afford to work just 30 hours a week if you feel like it, or spend your time in roadside cafe’s smoking and drinking coffee on a government dole if you don’t.

In Sri Lanka political parties basically do what people want and skim off the top. At least, this is what they’ve been doing for a while now. If they’re not reducing bread/fuel/fertilizer prices before the election they’re promising more government jobs or cutting taxes. In fact it can be argued that our model of democracy has actually held back progress, by people getting the politicians they deserve. If the people have no long term vision for growth, then it is hardly likely that politicians with a long term vision for growth will arise out of a democracy consisting of these people.

A more centrally powerful government can ignore the short term wants and needs of people and give them what is really needed for long term growth. It can cut government jobs, privatize, cut taxes and increase investment. It can invest more in education, training, transport infrastructure and gross domestic capital.

A strong state is a strong state whatever model it uses to get there. Going by the above hypothesis, stronger states in lesser developed countries are generally autocratic, meaning there is a trade-off between development and liberty. But this doesn’t mean people are necessarily oppressed. All states, even autocratic states, desperately need majority corporation to actually develop, provided development is a strong objective and so will try to please as many people as they can while they work around the ones they can’t please. To paraphrase Bob Marley ‘you can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all of the time.’

Democracy is an ideal. It is never really completely achieved, always remaining in its purest form unreachable. But the world remains fascinated by its appeal and the very word is taken to be synonymous with freedom and development. But history has shown that not to be the case and a careful look at past experiences and current events tells us that maybe it’s time we started looking at and accepting the presence of more mixed forms of government that are geared for development, inclusive in their own way but constantly changing and adapting to conditions on the ground.

I have a friend who wants to join the police. He is about 22 and holds a high office in the student council of a local university. He is good in sports and has great leadership qualities. More importantly for him, he has a degree and that is something you definitely need if you, like him, are going to apply for the post of ASP. Assistant Superintendent of Police. He’ll have a 50k plus salary, house and car with driver and other significant perks that come with the job. Not bad.

But you might say hold on, can a twenty two year old actually aspire to such a high post in law enforcement fresh out of university? Apparently yes. You need no on the job experience or previous training. Any fresh faced graduate with a 34 inch chest and above average in height can make it in, theoretically. What happens to the police force here? Incentive structures get skewed. You’re average ralahami will not be inclined to stop taking bribes and clean up his act because he basically has nothing to look forward to, the maximum the majority of them can expect to rise up to will probably be the rank of sergeant.

OK, say the system works. Maybe the police need to make sure that their top echelons are qualified and refined. Intelligence and leadership skills guaranteed from a young age so that they can be groomed early to provide a refreshing effect. But selections here are again not based on merit but on political favor. My friend for instance considers his number one asset to be his political connections. All of the rest are basically secondary. Only around twenty to thirty get picked every three years, so you can imagine the level of wrangling involved. The politicians pick the cops, no going around that one.

Stick it to the uncle (Reuters)

Will i though? That’s highly doubtful. yes i know all you democracy wonks love to vote. You think voting is the highest calling of citizenship. But taking pills is not the epitome of good health, staying fit is, when the body is sick, medicines dont matter, thats not the way to solve a problem. Medicine is for people in denial.

Its funny, i can’t seem to attach so much importance to voting anymore. The medicine i think will no longer work. The body has decided where to go, its sick and the doctors can say whatever the hell they want, its gonna go on doing what its doing. It refuses to take exercise. If democracy is the darling of the modern political aesthetic, then our system is the middle aged uncle dancing the baila in microscopic strokes to a beat hidden deep in the music that only few can hear. He’s obese and happy about it, he is a fat model in a world full of anorexic teenage girls.

This system might work. Old, fat uncles are probably good at many things that teenage girls aren’t. But you can’t put the same moves on both of them. That is assuming you want to put the moves on an uncle in the first place. Right now our system is more old fat uncle than teenage girl. Are you getting this? Am i coming through here? i suppose that’s too much to ask.

But yes, it is crunch time. I was anyway planning on being out of Colombo tomorrow but that might not happen. So there is a very real possibility that i will be within the city but still missing a purple stinky pinky. Oh yes, i’m real bad.

None of the candidates have impressed me really. there’s Moragoda with all his fancy marketing, but he’s tried that before, and Colombo fell into his lap. But then all he turned out to have is good PR. How will that be different this time around? I guess we can wait and see. The UNP, what the UNP is still around?, is barely around.

Instead there are flocks and heaps and herds and masses of career politicians emerging everywhere. They’re crawling out of the wet works. Every Lani, Pani, Ravi and his sister’s estranged husband wants a piece of the cake. You can see the gleam in their eyes. The polished speeches, the rote promises. They’re playing it safe, using the same old methods to dupe the poor people, why fix something that aint broke?

So I’m inclined to suspend judgement. I won’t participate in the process because i am ambivalent. I’m the guy who will go along with what everyone else decides because i plainly can’t see a difference between any of them, and there is no color it is all only gray. So I vote for gray, this better pay.

Something i saw today got me thinking of Colombo, and does Colombo even have a ‘counter culture’ movement? Does Colombo have meme’s? Do we get taken up with random shizz that don’t mean anything in particular? Of course we do, various teledrama phrases spring to mind like ‘I know the law putha’ anyone remember that? Could that chap be Colombo’s Giant?

I think there is mass scale sick to deathness with political BS. Its always been there sure, but with the war over poor people are expecting to get richer, this is clearly not happening. I think people need to be woken up, the economics of their situation be made aware to them. I’m not saying the government isn’t trying, but it isn’t trying hard enough. Corruption is there, cronyism is there, Hambantotism is also there.

Andre the Giant Has a Posse was a poster/street art campaign that was started by Shepard Fairy. Was watching Exit through the Gift Shop and finally found the bloody meaning behind the Andre the Giant posters. My earlier suspicions were confirmed, it doesn’t really mean anything.

But it doesn’t have to actually. The fat face with the look of a man trying to size you up for dinner with the word OBEY written in big think lettters is nothing short of Orweillian. The concept behind it is really interesting. Fairy (far as i know that IS his real, not figurative, name) borrowed the picture off some tabloid and stuck the OBEY motif to it and then stuck it on several walls in an around LA. This took for some inexplicaple reason and soon thousands of people were sticker bombing the US with Andre.

To quote Shepard Fairy from the movie

“Even though the Andre the Giant sticker was just an inside joke and i was just having fun, i liked the idea of.. the more stickers that are out there the more important it seems, the more important it seems, the more people wanna know what it is, the more they ask each other and it gains real power from perceived power’.

An A the G movement site has this to say

The Giant project isn’t a sales pitch, it’s an experiment in phenomenology, prodding the collective psyche with something inexplicable, creating an illusion of a secret society…What Fairey hoped to get across was that Giant uses the same propaganda techniques that try to sell you cigarettes, movies and presidents.

Funnily enough, Fairy did use the same skill set to sell a president. And people bought it too. The Obama posters were probably some of the coolest pieces of election campaigning i’d ever seen, but like a lot of people now i think Obama was just same same, with marginally different skin tone.

So why get worked up over nothing? Its a psychological blip. Something constantly in your face that you don’t know the meaning of, that you’re driven by curiosity to get to the bottom of it sort of like one of those itches under the skin your nails can’t get at. Hopefully in the process you end up becoming a little more aware of your surroundings.

“Once you examine it, there’s nothing left but the aesthetics of a process. If people realize, ‘I was manipulated by that,’ then maybe, like the domino effect, they’ll say, ‘What else am I being manipulated by, that I’m not questioning?’”

The message is in the medium. All this is a very novel, surrealistic approach to social activism. You don’t point and shoot, you just sort of create a jarring affect and hope it leads to something.

…say, ‘Question Authority,’ or ‘Stop Racism.’ You just get a pat on the back from the people who agree with you already, and the people who don’t agree with you don’t even think about it. So for me it’s just about creating an individual dialogue process that can expand into people trying to interpret it, and asking someone else, and then there’s two people talking about it. Something just going on that people can’t pigeonhole along with everything else.”

Obey the Giant is a meme that came out of a counter culture movement. The anti corporate, anti commercial, anti paid advertising one. It slowly morphed into a subset of corporate culture anyway vis a vis the Obama posters and Fairy’s ‘Black Market’ graphic design firm.

There may be something there in Colombo for a potential sticker bombing campaign. But i’m thought bouncing I suppose. As the three wheel dudes know; Life is rainbow.

A Beijing subway map

Traffic in Colombo is not pleasant. Leaving home at the wrong time can ruin your whole day. Do this for a while, and soon cursing behind the wheel everyday will likely give you grey hairs and a prematurely weak heart.

Blame The Cars

Tax reform, low interest rates and possibly increasing middle class incomes have multiplied vehicle imports faster than road networks can expand. The UDA has been trying to keep up, they’ve extended Marine Drive to Colpetty, opened up Bullers Road and have generally tried to fix things like perennially bad maintenance. Traffic lights and police presence has been increased, but still cars pile up faster than hungry people at a dansala.

I drive down Galle Rd often and it used to be that i’d invariably try to take Marine Drive to avoid evening traffic, but now i steer clear because of the massive wait at the turn off back into Galle rd. Similar situations are playing out along all of the major exit-entryways to the city. Baseline Road, Negombo Road and Kandy Road are veritable nightmares in rush hour. Let’s not even go near Rajagiriya, literally, you want to stay away from there when other people exit their offices. There are just too many. freakin. cars bob.

Don’t Blame The Cars

But blaming the vehicles is moot. There are good reasons why people feel they need cars. People are worried about getting to work on time, they also need to get there smelling good. So will drive if they can afford it, or paradoxically take a tuk tuk if they cant. As traffic increases, drivers get more and more frustrated and will wish for alternative ways to travel. But aside from moving closer to the city (an unthinkably expensive option for most) they have no other alternatives. This is absurd, but that’s just the way things stand now.

Public transport is unreliable, too congested, and completely ruins the attire of your average executive, discouraging most of them from opting for it. The lack of a cheap taxi network is also a problem. Tuk tuks, even metre tuks, are overpriced.

Building Our Way Out

The Defense Ministry/UDA (whats up with that? no one even talks about it anymore) has followed a strategy to expand capacity and increase efficiency by improving roads, building flyovers and increasing police presence. But it has only worked so well. In fact, capacity is so limited that everyone breaks road rules when the cops aren’t looking to get ahead. Our roads are ganglands, whatever you can get way with is legal, Gehan has a good post on driving and its malcontents.

The situation poses some interesting problems for urban policymakers. Things have come to a point where even the bureaucracy must realise that there is no building our way out of this, at least not in the conventional add-em-as-you-go fashion.

Trains have worked remarkably well in other cities. But Colombo’s existing train lines only circle the city and do not venture inside, making them just feed lines to hubs just outside the city centre and that too only from the North and along the coast.

The bus networks are mass market. And probably already transport double the amount of people travelling in cars. The recently launched Executive Bus service has failed to spark much interest. Again due to unreliability, irregularity, coverage gaps arising from the fact that they only traverse a single main route, and did I mention unreliability, the bus service can only do so much too. The much touted ferry service is also floating about aimlessly if you’ll excuse the bad pun.

Innovative work policies can help. Firms can rethink employment policy and offer the option of working from home. Or offer flexible hours to enable employees to beat traffic to and from work, like my new workplace. Individuals can also avoid traffic if they decide to leave early because not everyone will do it especially here where being fashionably late starts half an hour after an appointment.

Bring The Commonwealth Games to Colombo

A subway system would be ideal, as indi says, a good subway system can completely eliminate the need for cars. The Delhi Subway system cost somewhere around 700 million USD. Peanuts in comparison to how much we are borrowing for other projects of dubious worth. Maybe the Chinese can help us out with a loan and even expertise, the Beijing subway lines are superb; and are an excellent way of getting around in an otherwise smoky, congested city.

Both the Delhi and Beijing lines were conceptualised and hurried up because of the 2010 Commonwealth games and the Olympic Games respectively. The need to show off and provide seamless transport to attendees forced these cities to consider building what is probably the most efficient urban transport mechanism invented by man.

Colombo is the centre of the country still, the heart that pumps out all the country’s logistics. The main arteries of it are now getting clogged. If hosting big international games can bring a city a subway then Hambantota might end up getting one. But Hambantota doesn’t need a subway system, Colombo does. So bring the Commonwealth Games to Colombo, and build something useful to the economy in the process.

This is a policymaker standing on a minefield

But the relationship between expanding capacity and reduced traffic is not always direct. This study done by USCB shows that when capacity expands and some traffic is diverted through other channels, latent demand clogs up the free space. Meaning when more drivers take buses, people who took buses because the traffic was too much will start driving.

Colombo being a very decentralized city doesn’t help. Public transport is simply not capable of reaching all the crannies where people need to go, most of the inroads can’t accommodate buses anyway. I work on Thimbirigasyaya Road and it’s barely wide enough for two cars. There is an expansion program going on but it had been in the works for over two years now, no results.

There is also mispriced congestion. Drivers don’t pay for the time loss they cause to others, and so will make inefficient decisions on when and how to travel. These ‘negative externalities’ are the social cost of congestion, and can result in little or no reduction in traffic.

Expansion in trains might divert commuters away from the bus service, because the latter is crap, while not affecting the amount of cars on the road. Deteriorating the bus service even further while causing no improvement to traffic.

So wuttudoo? Maybe an expansion in overall capacity, trains, roads and buses, thereby taking levels of capacity beyond ‘latent demand’. Together with innovative alternatives like carpools, office vans and flexi hours and urban planning focusing on centralized corporate space, these policies might help. What is really needed before anything else is a comprehensive study of the city by specialists (its much more complicated than it looks) followed by bottom up policy making to prevent us from arbitrarily building roads that lead to nowhere worth going slowly.

But all this takes intelligent policy making followed by quick implementation. And so far the Defense Ministry/UDA has only been implementing like mad, where the intelligent planning?

Milinda Moragoda has set out a manifesto here, in it he gives some vague outlines of a transport policy that are a bit vague. Aside form promising clean pavements it promises circular bus routes but fails to describe how they will be different from existing bus routes, which cover the city’s main highways pretty well.

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