Colombo Telegraph

Mattala As A Metaphor For Sri Lanka’s Predicament

By Emil van der Poorten –

Emil van der Poorten

The ongoing saga of the newest white elephant of the Rajapaksa Regime shows no sign of ending.

The most recent scandal is about the monkeys being electrocuted by the high tension power lines serving the airport and the fact that, each time this happens, the power supply to the international airport is affected providing, as can easily be imagined, a significant safety hazard for planes coming into or leaving that facility.

Not so long ago, when the power lines serving our neck of the woods were installed, the electricity didn’t flow along the (un-insulated) cables for quite a while because the political-powers-that-be, while they weren’t waiting upon an astrologer’s prediction to throw the switch, had to try and milk some partisan political benefit from it by tying it in to an upcoming election.  In the interim, the monkeys in the neighbourhood discovered that, not only did this provide a highway for their peregrinations, it also lent itself to fun and frolic on “the high wire!”

Alas, the day did arrive when the power was turned on!  What ensued was random interruptions of electricity supply (fortunately during the daylight hours only), each time a macaque chose to commit (unwitting) suicide using what was meant to be our power supply!  Every occasion of such hara kiri was accompanied by a loud “pop” and the power going off until someone from the Ceylon Electricity Board arrived to turn the “breaker” back on.  Thankfully, this state of affairs has, to a large extent, abated as the monkeys wise up to their new existential reality!

I suppose that, sooner or later, the langurs of the Hambantota region will also recognize their new Rajapaksa-driven “fact of life.” They will then stop killing themselves and interrupting the supply of electricity to the newest addition to the list in the “Debacle of Asia.”

However, it is not this newsworthy tidbit that constitutes the entirety of the Mattala Airport being a metaphor for the political reality that we all have to suffer under.

To begin with, there was no economic imperative for the enormously expensive attempt at establishing an international airport in the most sparsely-populated part of Sri Lanka.  The possibility is that the facility, which was preceded by a harbor and cricket stadium among other initiatives in Sri Lanka’s arid zone, is that someone watched Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams” once too often and took his statement that “If you build it they will come.”  An unswerving belief in this proclamation is the only logical explanation for the Rajapaksa “development” extravagances in southern Sri Lanka, the airport included.

The fact that the pursuit of a similar (paraphrased) “If you name an airline after the President, everyone will clamber on board,” has proved to be little but a recipe for a haemorraging of Sri Lanka’s economy has not deterred an arrogant and monumentally stupid Rajapaksa Sycophancy bent on doing anything to maintain their courtier status.  A cricket stadium that very nearly totaled the finances of Sri Lanka Cricket and a harbor that, despite all the cajoling and blackmail, continues to be “underutilized” obviously meant nothing to a Royal Family and its courtiers intent on helping the former indulge its every whim and fancy.

Mattala, every step of the way, has been nothing short of a disaster.

For starters, the reports of no environmental impact study being done prior to this massive construction being started, gave a clear indication of yet another display of arrogance that was simply “in your face” for anyone having environmental or other concerns about this multi-billion dollar project.

At the first hint, if “hint” is the word, of a serious avian hazard to aircraft in an area famous for an unequalled wealth of migratory bird life, the suggestions of a retired Director General of Wildlife appeared, indicating that the “solution” to the problem of “too many birds” in the vicinity of the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) was to remove what attracted them – water.  A very interesting suggestion coming from an ornithologist who, literally, re-named many of Sri Lanka’s birds in a field guide which has their English names (many of them his re-named ones), the Sinhalese ones (many of which I could not have confirmed by local – Sinhalese – villagers), and without the Tamil name for even one of the birds in his otherwise-encyclopaedic tome!  One cannot but connect some philosophical dots between the tenor of that omission – which not even ornithologists in the days of “Empire” were guilty of – and the current regime’s policies.  Talk about “Birds of a feather….!”

And if the firestorm subsides to some extent in the coming months, it will have a rather simple explanation – migratory birds arrive, in their hundreds of thousands at the end of the year and return to their northern hemisphere spring nesting grounds in the first quarter of the next year.  They arrive with the North East Monsoon and depart with the South West Monsoon.  This means the bird population in the Hambantota area will drop enormously in the next few months.

However, the problems with terrestrial fauna will continue year round because they don’t have the luxury of departing the Rajapaksa Paradise for northern climes but are stuck with the herd of white elephants in and around the Rajapaksa fiefdom which they happened to populate long before that family came into residence!

Electric fences might deter elephants and the larger ungulates, but it will, inevitably, force them to seek other pastures for survival.  Possibly, the cultivated lands of southern farmers don’t you think?  As for the proliferating pea-fowl population that has exploded over the last few decades, short of some sort of netting, you are not going to be able to keep them away from the grassy areas that, without exception, border airport runways, with the electric fences already being built.  And they do fly high enough to be a hazard to a landing aircraft, particularly when they are significantly larger than the gulls that have been sucked into jet engines with disastrous results!

Not to labour the point, all it will take is one accident to have Sri Lanka labeled with yet another “first” – the land where passenger aircraft with tourists on board have to compete with elephants, ducks, gulls and pea-fowl for landing rights – a new experience for sure but a debatable one in the matter of how much of a tourist attraction it will prove to be even if our spin-doctors can turn such occurrences into mythic tales of “dhandu-monara–yantharayas competing with jet aircraft for landing rights!”

What has happened in and around Hambantota epitomizes Sri Lanka’s status quo where stupidity is coupled with highway robbery and laced with a large dollop of sycophancy to present a concoction typical of what has now become typical of the land that was once the Pearl of the Orient; all to provide the Rajapaksa Sycophancy with an excuse to shout “Ehei Hamduruwaney” as they wend their way to a banquet bankrolled by the misappropriated wealth of a citizenry that sweated blood to create it.

It has already been suggested that the name of the place where the MRIA is located should be modified to read “Mutt-ala” because that first syllable provides a very apt description of the kind of people responsible for this unfolding tragedy.  For my part, I would suggest that particular attention be paid to the second syllable when that happens because it will enshrine the memory of the staff of life (water) being sacrificed on the altar of monumental arrogance and vanity.

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