By Rajan Philips –
More than a century after Jaffna was first connected by rail to the south it was reconnected again last week. For twenty five years Jaffna did not have a rail connection. It was first disconnected by service stoppage, and then totally severed by the wanton removal of nearly 100 miles of railway – iron, timber and footing. The planned connection by the British, its removal at the start of the war by juvenile delinquents, and the postwar reconnection by India – are indicative of Sri Lanka’s history of nation making and unmaking over hundred years, as well as the present government’s pathetic efforts at nation-remaking after 2009. The railroad from Colombo to Jaffna, or more longitudinally from Matara to Kankesanthurai, was the physical spine of the unified political and administrative template that the British invested and imposed on the island. The British started the railroad system in 1867 as the mainstay of the plantation economy, but in less than fifty years it became the mainstay of a fleeting island nation. Alas, what the railway provided physically for nation making could not be supplemented politically. The reasons for the failure are too many and too well known.
The story of the Sri Lankan railway is a part-narrative, albeit an important part, of how Lanka’s modern history went off track in mid journey, not only on the national question but also in the economic domain. Last week, a beaming President Rajapaksa took his train-long entourage on a mid-day train ride from Pallai to Jaffna, to mark the return of Yal (Yazh, phonetically) Devi after twenty five years. Mr. Rajapaksa, who is a good raconteur of historical anecdotes of the ancient type, came up wanting in giving the historical context to Yal Devi’s return. Of course, he took his political mileage, all 250 of them, by reminding everyone that he had brought back the train of peace to the peninsula, but forgetting that the peninsula is still recovering from the war that he won. He also seemed to have been unaware of the country’s political circumstances when Yal Devi first journeyed into Jaffna. He is not the only one. Until now, I took it for granted that the Yal Devi train service began sometime in the 1960s. Apparently, it was inaugurated on April 23, 1956 – 13 days after the watershed elections of that year, and 43 days ahead of the passage of Sinhala Only, on June 5. Historical coincidences could not be more embarrassingly enlightening.
On its opening day, unlike last week, Yal Devi came and went quietly, politically speaking. No one noticed it in the political tumult of the moment. But politics undid by the stroke of the legislative pen, what rail technology was able to do in creating a new physical connection through time and space between north and south. The trains kept running, keeping the country physically connected, but the insistence on one language broke it psychologically into two. It would take another thirty years of failed rapprochements before even the physical rail connection was severed. Now the rail connection has been restored, thanks to India’s credit generosity, but the political disconnection continues notwithstanding the President’s train ride into Jaffna. Yal Devi’s initiation, disruption and resumption speak to many aspects of our history and our politics.
That a new train service could be successfully launched in 1956, in isolation of the surrounding political tumult, tells us many things about the happy state of the Sri Lankan railway at that time. It was then known as the Ceylon Government Railway (CGR), and it was also known very popularly because of its General Manager, Engineer B.D. Rampala, and the huge railway team that made railway work like clockwork. The railway was one of the two, the other being the Irrigation Department, coveted places for technical training and employment. It was more than a place of employment. The railway was a way of life for the thousands who organized, operated and maintained the far flung right-of-way, the landmark stations, impressive rolling stock, and the massive yards and workshops. No military was needed to run it. It was run by ordinary civilians, trained and competent and drawn from all the island’s ethnic co-existences – Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers. There was a time, when the engine drivers were mostly Burghers, the skilled technical hands were mostly Sinhalese, and the pen pushing station masters were mostly Tamils. But no one cared to count ethnic numbers, for what counted was that the railway was not merely breaking even but it was running on surplus revenue. Even more important, with overnight mail trains carrying mail and people and goods between Colombo and the Provinces, the railway was state and nation in motion. This was so throughout the British period and the first two decades after independence. The expansion of the railway network stopped well before independence, but its successful operation continued even after independence.
By all accounts, B.D. Rampala was a natural engineer, an engineer’s engineer, who doggedly kept his focus on the technical job and left politicking and canvassing to others in his impressive team. It was he who presided over the transition from steam to diesel and the installation of colour light signals. His greatest achievement was the introduction of faster day-service to supplement the slower mail trains. The Yal Devi, Udarata Menike, Ruhunu Kumari and several other named trains were justifiably Rampala’s iconic inventions. It is said that in October, 1955, Rampala himself drove the inaugural Ruhunu Kumari train all the way from Colombo to Matara. Certainly the Governor General was not on that train, and I doubt if any government Minister was on any of the inaugural runs to get political mileage. They were all home-grown trains, so to speak, but they ran with little political baggage. Last week’s Yal Devi was not home-grown like its original, but in its inaugural run the new avatar carried mostly presidential cargo. There were crowds, curious to see and hear the new train break the silence of twenty five years. But there was no one to cheer in 1956, when Rampala started the service; and no one cried when pigmies pulled apart 100 miles of linear infrastructure for nothing. Passions over language and sovereignty took hold of politics and left no place in it for the concept and appreciation of public assets. It did not take long before society lost all qualms about the destruction of anything and everything in the name of national liberation or national security.
Blessing in Disguise
To take a different line of argument, all over the world, rail was the dominant mode of transportation for the first half of the twentieth century, and the decline of the railway and the rise of the automobile after the Second World War was an equally global phenomenon. Sri Lanka was not immune to these changes but per usual handled them rather disastrously. Like in most developing countries, only a minority of Sri Lanka’s people own or have access to private vehicles. This is not going to change regardless of what per capita income figure the present Central Bank Governor will manage to pull out of his hat of statistical tricks before he is done for good. Put another away, the vast majority of Sri Lankans will always depend on public transport for their travel. Public transport was placed on firm footing when Prime Minister Bandaranaike nationalized the bus service on January 1, 1957, within one year of his electoral victory. Although it was done for political reasons, which themselves were perfectly defensible, the decision also made much economic sense. With the railway literally burgeoning along and the buses nationalized, the nation had the perfect opportunity to plan and develop a two-pronged – rail and road, and mutually reinforcing public transport system. But it turned out to be another missed opportunity.
There was never an attempt at integrated (rail and road) planning. Without co-ordination, the two services became unnecessarily competitive with the rail service invariably losing out to the buses. Despite its monopoly, or because of it, the bus system became inefficient, and in urban settings, it also became inconvenient and unreliable. Re-privatization was not the answer, but that was what the Jayewardene (UNP) government adopted, cheered on by roving World Bank experts who touted Sri Lanka as a glowing example of privately run public transport. But Sri Lanka’s re-privatization, later “peopleization”, was implemented in the worst possible ways, and it did not take long for World Bank experts to stop talking about Sri Lanka’s privatization fiasco. No one bothered to check why Singapore, the model for everything else, is so adamant about keeping public transport in government hands. There is more, for Singapore is also one of the first countries in the world to start the practice of clawing back on the huge but hidden subsidy that all of society pays for private car drivers to take their vehicles on public roads.
To recall my earlier point, if rail was the dominant mode of transport in the first part of the twentieth century before yielding to motorized road transport for the remainder of that century, the world is now witnessing the beginning of the next wave of modal shift – a shift that could conveniently be defined as anything but the traditional car. Technology is already on full flight to produce electric cars and autonomous cars (driverless taxis) which will become indispensable in metropolitan areas, but it will be public transit – road and rail – that will be doing the heavy lifting in moving people. There is also growing emphasis on active transportation – walking and cycling as much as possible, and not just for recreation. Transportation, health, and the environmental are the new trendy triad. These changes should have special relevance to in Sri Lanka, and the unlikelihood of it becoming a predominantly car owning/using society should be considered a blessing in disguise. But the blessing will become a curse without disguise if the government continues with its boastful investments in freeways and interchanges to the exclusion of not equal but greater investments in public transport – both rail for inter-provincial travelers and buses for urban commuters, as well as infrastructure for the active modes. Already, Colombo is experiencing the choke of traffic that comes flying from Katunayake or Galle and goes into a crawl inside the City. The Hindu, in Chennai, recently carried some soul-searching discussion about building more interchanges within that City.
Yal Devi and Executive Presidency
In taking credit for bringing Yal Devi back to Jaffna, the President not only missed the opportunity to be enlightened by history but also failed to understand the broader significance of rail transport in Sri Lanka’s future. A more concrete evidence of that failure is the current state of the Sri Lankan Railway (SLR) in Colombo. While the Indians were giving final touches to put Yal Devi back on track in the north, the SLR was going off track in Colombo. A trade union strike alleging broken promises by government, or by its man-for-all-seasons Treasury Secretary, had to be stopped by a court order. Rather than dealing with their grievances, the government has now gone and transferred the General Manager apparently on suspicions that he may have been siding with the restive trade unions. The patient reader will appreciate why I went on at some length earlier in this article about the Ceylon Government Railway first under the British and later under Rampala.
To give where credit is due, President Rajapaksa is a shrewd politician and he demonstrated perfect understanding of the significance of Yal Devi to his presidential future – its potential to garner critical votes in the Jaffna Peninsula. He is a master at retail politics and he knows that he cannot rely on a grand sweep of the South for his t-repeat victory; he has to collect votes anywhere and everywhere he can, including Jaffna, and even Delft. As historical parallels go, the last Sri Lankan government leader to travel to Delft, in 1955, was Sir John Kotelawala. Coincidentally, Sir John went down to electoral defeat soon after, in April, 1956, and was mockingly reminded in parliament of being “crowned along with the donkeys of Delft” by G.G. Ponnambalam who wouldn’t miss an opportunity to take a sharp swipe at his old nemesis. In another coincidence, it was during Sir John’s premiership that B.D. Rampala started the named day trains including Yal Devi, although Sir John did not quite know how to take political mileage out of trains.
No one should begrudge Mahinda Rajapaksa garnering votes even in Jaffna if his past record is positive and his future intentions are transparently honest. However, it would be difficult for anyone to canvas votes in Jaffna for President Rajapaksa based not only on his past record, but also on his present record. And as Uva voters have shown, it is also becoming difficult to justify his future political intentions in the south. But the artful campaigner he is, Mahinda Rajapaksa is coming up with new slogans to do the old trick. In Polgahawela, en route to join Yal Devi in Pallai, Rajapaksa declared, “I am the real common candidate”, and made fun of the opposition’s still futile search for a different common candidate. In Kilinochchi, as he got closer to Jaffna, he went further and said that he was ready to abolish the Executive Presidency if the TNA and the Tamil Diaspora would confirm that they were giving up their demand for Eelam.
If the President thinks that the TNA is still after Eelam, why doesn’t he throw the Sixth Amendment at them for treason? And if he wants the Tamil Diaspora to have a say in his decision making, he should be open to allowing them to vote in Sri Lanka. That would mean taking a closer look at the JVP proposal to enfranchise all expatriate Sri Lankans to vote in Sri Lankan elections. In any event, President Rajapaksa has now tied Eelam and the Executive Presidency in his own negative way, and has set the Eelam trap for Ranil Wickremesinghe or any other opposition candidate if they were to promise to abolish the presidency. From this point, it will not be too much of a stretch to drop the other shoe and say that a Rajapaksa must remain as President so long as Eelam is not renounced, again, and again.