Building bridges, breaking barriers

Long ago, in a land far, far away, when one wanted to cross over from the North Central to the Eastern Province, one had to do so at the famous Manampitiya Bridge. If one was travelling by road and a train was en route, too, one would have to wait while right of way was given to the locomotive and its bogeys. For the bridge over the then-troubled waters was unique in that it accommodated both highway and railway across the same metal and mortar span…

Today, things have come to a prettier pass. The old dual-carriageway bridge is still there: an iron butterfly with its wings clipped, and passage over it reserved for trains only. Automotive traffic is treated to a monster slab of concrete on equally solid columns that heaves itself over the Mahaweli with a cheerful grunt. And for those who take the age-old advice to "go East, young man" - if one wants to progress, or to see progress - there is no greater proof that prosperity has come (or is soon to come) to that far-flung Province than the multiplicity of new-in-town infrastructural additions to the landscape.

Wait a minute. Wasn't it development of an altogether, entirely different, sort that the once-beleaguered people of the East wanted? Wasn't it peace, and peace with justice at that? Wasn't it safety, security, stability; human rights and human dignity; the opportunity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

Don't get me wrong. Many of these are soon to come (or already have) to the East. I, like many farmers and traders and average citizens going about their business, was only too happy and not a little grateful that the new bridge was there. That there was no impediment to progress (in the sense of movement forward) in the shape and form of armed personnel opposed to the state. That the road between Polonnaruwa and Batticaloa (or, to be precise: between Kaduruwela and Valaichchenai) was straight as an arrow and wonderfully carpeted. But there was a haunting sense that certain impediments to progress (in the sense of genuine development) were still very much a part of the ground reality - although the barriers in the guise of roadblocks had all but come down…

Singing fish strangely muted?

So much for hard infrastructure! Because whatever the sentiments prevailing at the centre may be, there is some truth in the observation that the centre cannot hold for too long, and too hard, without things eventually falling apart. Call it a hunch, call it a gut feeling, call it learning the lessons of history. While statisticians, election-result analysts, and other politically oriented creatures may pontificate about the voice of the people having called for development - not devolution - there is no gainsaying the still small sound of a people seeking to be truly liberated. No amount of bridges and air bridges and castles in the air can accomplish that…

Even as far as hard infrastructure is concerned, all is not rosy in the Land of the Rising Sun. A few kilometres into the interior of the Eastern Province lies a waste land of shattered hopes and broken dreams. And yes: broken roads, too. The A5 - the trunk road connecting Batti with Bibile and Badulla (and Nuwara Eliya and Kandy beyond) - is a minefield of potholes. The straw people of forgotten hamlets such as Tumpalancholai and Karadiyanaru, in-between, are a people in-between all right. Caught between development, here and now, on the one hand; and devolution, now or never, on the other. Let's not make a mistake about this… Development - at least, for the present - appears to have passed them by. And one is not at all certain that devolution (if and when it does take place) will do these shadow folks in the valley of death any favours.

This is the East in microcosm: the hard life… A hand-to-mouth existence until the great post-war payoff comes by post. Skittish girls on bicycles busy doing nothing very much in evidence, while their male counterparts are mostly missing in action - literally. Children and schoolchildren hungering for knowledge and thirsting for righteousness. Parents with bodily pains in their eyes having the gospel of peace and prosperity preached to their sceptical souls. The macro picture is more encouraging. Bridges, A-class roads where B roads once were, tourism poised to take a flying leap… (But please, if at all possible, don't spoil the pristine beauty of places like Passekudah by building politically motivated pleasure parks there).

The message from the centre is clear. It's my way or the highway. And if you don't like it, you can always start another war to prove your point.

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