GOING PLACES. LMD
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2009). Going Places. LMD. January 2010. Page 153. Volume 16, Issue 6. ISSN 1391-135X.
Why there is hope for a corruption-free Sri Lanka.
In a previous article in LMD, I gave an account of a typical day in dealing with the frustration that arises from the red tape and inefficiency encountered in urban Sri Lanka. An English writer friend, Faye Ruck-Nightingale, who had worked in Sri Lanka, charmingly described it as ‘local colour’. She meant it as a compliment and an interesting contrast to the almost dull and dreary mechanistic efficiency of Europe where there is no local drama, no local colour.
Unfortunately, conditioned by many years of working in the Square Mile in London I preferred dull and dreary, to ‘local colour’. But would Sri Lanka ever get there? Well I had thought not and I had been postponing the pain of re-visiting the local authorities in the area who had some control over my affairs in the Talangama Wetland. My eccentric experiment with a private nature reserve in Talangama had left me acquiring an acre of land bought in a series of nine lots of land. Buying them was the easy part. Over the years I had my broker working his way through the paperwork. It was more tedious than watching paint dry on the wall. Although I pretended and preferred not to know, I was sure the fee I gave my broker entailed him greasing a few palms to expedite the paperwork.
But I was still left with a few things to finish off and I had been postponing the pain of another experience with local colour which I was sure would be the colour of mud or sludge, not tropical green or sky blue or something else which was uplifting. I awoke on a Friday in mid September to some heavy showers. In office we had switched on the lights as dark brooding rain clouds had ushered in darkness. No one in their right mind would venture out on such a terrible day where it seemed likely to pour with rain. I seized my chance to attend to my paper work confident that the queues would be down to a third of the usual size.
First on the list was to visit the Electricity Board to have the two meters on my property disconnected. According to the bills which were stuffed into a letterbox and used by ants as a warm comfortable nest, there should have been three. Well, I had only inherited two meters although I did rip down three houses down to create the nature reserve. The neighbours were aghast. What! Rip down houses to create more habitat for butterflies!
My heart sank as I approached the Electricity Board. There were two queues. One was sensibly for general enquiries and the other was for paying bills. Like Batman in the Marvel Comics I had taken a partner along. Local villager Chaminda Panagoda who looks after the land. Knowing that many hands make light work in these situations I joined one queue and dispatched him to a dim and deep corner of the building to find someone else who could advise me if I was in the right queue. The strategy paid off and before long I left the queue to find someone who deals with disconnections, a rare event. Everyone wants to be connected to the national grid and I had come to be disconnected. I could almost sense a hush and imagined everyone had turned to look at me and were pointing their fingers at me, and were all giggling at the mad man who had come to be disconnected. No. I exaggerate, sadly there was none of this ‘local colour’ story. It was all very business like, I was ushered to a smart sari clad lady, who checked out a few details. Chaminda was dispatched to another queue to pay the ‘break down bill’ which had come off the computer system. I remained at another desk, back in play school days, drawing a sketch map of how to get there for the technicians who to be sent the next day. Ermmmm… the system did not fill out the amount to be paid and Chaminda was back. With his ears cuffed, he was sent back to rejoin the queue to pay the whole amount, written in by hand. But before long we were out with everything having gone fairly smoothly.
Next, with my heart sinking I visited the Kaduwella Pradeshiya Sabha. It was lunch time and I expected to see empty seats, desks with stale tea and no people. On the contrary, it was humming with activity. I was sent off to have my application for a certificate of ownership to be examined by a sari clad senior person. She scribbled a few things, I was off to another counter, back to the same lady who scribbled a few more things. The next person I had to meet was off for lunch. Oh I thought, will it after all be another tale of public service indifference. It was not. Another young lady spotted me and covered for her absent colleague and attended to my request. I asked her whether I should give it another two weeks before returning for collection. She said it will be ready the same day. It was too far for me to return to the office and back again. So I said I will pick it up sometime during the next two weeks. She said it will be ready in seven minutes!
Seven minutes later I walked out amazed by the difference. I had heard that the previous mafia who controlled the place and took weeks and months to attend to this sort of thing had been moved out. As far as I could see the people here did their job simply and efficiently without any greasing of palms. I certainly had not encountered anyone at either of the two institutions who dragged out a few minutes of work by weeks and months to ensure that a corrupt chain of bureaucrats had their palms greased.
Is there a quiet revolution underway? Is Sri Lanka on its way to becoming another Singapore? Today I had been impressed by the Electricity Board and the Local Council and previously with the Water Board. Well, I am certainly convinced that more than one authority has streamlined its activities to work in an honest and efficient manner. If all of Sri Lanka could become so, the island’s economic progress will be unstoppable. Dull and dreary, here we come.