By Somapala Gunadheera –
It is my belief that one of the main reasons for the frictions between the North and the South is limited chances for the two sides to meet face to face. As the first Chairman of the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Authority of the North, I organized tours for groups from the North to come down South and meet their countrymen in 1998. The first to come was a group of school children who had come on top at the AL exam. When the participants arrived by boat at Trincomalee, they looked tense and scared. Little wonder, as they were not sure what the reaction of the LTTE to their tour would be and as they were about to meet a people painted to them as a ‘nasty lot’.
But the children relaxed as they were taken round right down to Kataragama, meeting the President and their counterparts and visiting Parliament, civil society institutions, sites of historical interest, places of worship and courts of law. They were followed by a group of leading farmers nominated by the Divisions. The reception the children received was so warm that at the end of the tour, they had confided to a Tamil assistant of mine that they were surprised to find that the Sinhalese were such a friendly and hospitable people. Such was the opinion of the farmers as well. Both groups were echoing my own impression after I had spent some time in Jaffna as a public servant in 1956.
Those whose duty it is to integrate the nation after its recent turmoil should lose no opportunity to create fora, wherever possible, for the communities to come together to discover one another. The ‘Yarldevi’s much advertised run appears to be such a valuable opportunity. The train has bridged a gap imposed between the people for over two decades and made it possible for them to come face to face literally. Thousands of commuters now travel up and down daily to and from Jaffna, sitting together for more than seven hours. They kill that time incognito and incommunicado, anxiously waiting for the end of the journey. The time they waste yawning, is a massive opportunity for integration. Purposeful action to utilize this coming together should be taken fast so that the prospect created by the expensive investment on the rail track to Jaffna, is not wasted.
The Railway Department which appears to be overjoyed by the massive income it is earning from ‘Yarldevi’ can make the run gainful to the entire nation by devising ways of making the travellers to communicate with one another on the run. This process can start by initially identifying one bogie as the ‘Chat Compartment’. A compartment consists of about 10 rows of double seats separated by a passageway.
Normally these seats face the same direction. This was the arrangement of seats when I went to Jaffna recently. The seat arrangement limited my contact to the lady sitting next to me. She had been born and bred in Jaffna but now she was settled in Colombo. The lady was going up to attend a funeral service for one of her relatives. I found that the double seats could be adjusted to face each other easily by turning a knob, thereby making cubicles of four seats each. On my return, I got the double seats so arranged and enjoyed the company of three Tamil travellers throughout the journey.
All that the Railway Department has to do is to make cubicles of four seats in the ‘Chat Compartment’ and allocate each cubicle to a mixed set of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims who wish to travel together. That arrangement will give about 40 persons of the three communities a rare chance of communicating with one another. This arrangement will make acquaintances of at least 40 passengers of the respective communities on each trip.
As the train makes two trips up and down a day, the possible introductions add up to 160 per day. More ‘Chat Compartments’ can be allocated as the demand increases, with the result that over a period, millions of citizens would be routinely put in touch with their countrymen whom they would not have met otherwise. This would undoubtedly start an imperceptible linkage between communities that would have a tremendous impact on integration in the long run, next to learning one another’s language.
It is unfortunate that the restaurant van of ‘Yarldevi’ is not yet functional. Availability of refreshments on the run should make more and more people come across others and make friends with them. Resourceful civil society organizations like lion clubs, religious associations and NGOs that are committed to national integration, particularly those operating beside the track, can make a contribution to this venture by taking turns to supply refreshments to the ‘Chat Compartment’ through a Caterer. That would certainly lengthen the queue for reservations for travel together and if the operation is imaginatively handled, very soon the entire Yarldevi would be transformed into a Train of Friendship.