Colombo is looking increasingly shabby and derelict. It also looks like a city under military occupation, which adds to the general aura of hopelessness.
Entire roads have been commandeered and turned into an instant and troublesome one-way system. Parking is prohibited in many commercial areas, and policemen whose services are direly needed elsewhere are employed mainly to ensure that no body can park in the newly created no parking zones.
Military patrols are everywhere. Only the tanks, parked at strategic intersections, are missing to complete the usual picture of a military coup. Despite this seemingly air-tight security, however, over 400 people have been kidnapped in the city and suburbs over the past year.
The sewers are blocked, gutters filled up and overflowing, pavements (whenever they exist) dangerous, and principal streets impassable when it rains hard for half an hour. Badly maintained electrical installations kill people, and some of the best-known roads, in posh residential and commercial areas, have gone to ruin.
Having elected a barely literate, politically inexperienced man with no ideas or personality of his own as the city's mayor, the Municipality is dysfunctional. Not that it was ever highly functional and the mayor answerable to anything, but the municipality has never before been in this state of anarchy. Despite this, municipal taxes have been raised exhorbitantly, making it nearly impossible for small businesses to survive in Colombo.
This depressing picture is made worse if you happen to visit Independence Square, which has been a focal point for strollers, walkers and joggers in the evenings since a long time.
The traffic is now one-way, but this doesn't deter the crowds. In the evenings, the stark monument and its surroundings are as crowded as ever. It's usually a posh crowd - Colombo's elite, the diplomatic crowd and expatriates, plus Colombo's beautiful people and yuppies doing the rounds with grim determination.
Don't they notice how shabby Independence square has become over the past few years and, if they do, why don't they protest?
I don't mean they should picket (that's too much to ask), but why don't they write about it and, better still, use their clout to send the right signals up the grapevine? Instead, they walk their rounds like insomniacs, and watch their children play in the broad concrete expanse that forms a terrace in front of the large, colonnaded hall where the ceremonies of our independence from Britain took place in 1948. Or they chat to each other - old friends, both men and women, and it's a safe bet that the rundown state of the surroundings is left out of the conversation as much as possible.
Looking like a metaphor of the times, a number of military men in white t-shirts and shorts are seen shouting and running past, carrying a flag. I can't see what flag it is from this distance but it's the runners' escort that astonishes me. They are preceded, flanked and followed by a dozen or more vehicles carrying armed men, blowing their horns and adding to the noise.
Mean-looking, low-slung cars and high-revving sports bikes boom past now and then, making the row of parked, gleaming cars look sedate and ineffectual. There's no oncoming traffic now to slow them down - so much the better. All the ingredients for personal fulfillment, one feels, are here on a warm Sunday evening - except that that the place has gone to the dogs. Independence Square looks forlorn at dusk without its lights and water fountains.
Everywhere you look, there are half-hearted attempts at repairs. In a way, it's absurd that people should still congregate here - the place looks completely abandoned.
I suppose people will come here and do their socializing and get their exercise till the place falls apart - for where else can they go? Apart from Galle Face, which is another High Security Zone, there is only Vihara Maha Devi park. You can still park along its main entrance, but sections may be unsuitable to families and walkers because of necking couples. Besides, the park closes at six p.m., when many people begin their walking or jogging.
Looking at Colombo's garbage-strewn streets and once elegant avenues, now flooded ankle-deep if it rains a bit, I long for a park bench, where one may sit, read a book or watch a sunset. Do our urban planners know that such facilities exist for citizens in other countries?
Or do they belong to those defeatists who say that all benches will be invaded by beggars the moment they are installed? Beggars exist everywhere in the world, but that doesn't prevent municipalities from installing benches for public use. That's what the police can do - drive away vagrants instead of blowing their whistles every time a car slows down by the kerb.
It's no use asking the government for help. I wonder if it can help itself now, leave alone us. Besides, it has no sympathy for urban dilemmas. It's run by a rural hierarchy with a fixed goal of developing rural areas. This is not far from the Khmer Rouge philosophy, which neglected the cities at the expense of rural communes, ultimately destroying both. By the time these people are through, I wonder if we'll have a capital city worth talking about.
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