| by Dr. Lakshman Abeyagunawardene
Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home!- John Howard Payne, 1823
(October 16, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In the sixties and early seventies, hordes of professionals left the shores of Sri Lanka in search of greener pastures. The majority left for economic reasons and lack of opportunities for professional growth. A significant number of medical doctors who were disillusioned with the way they were treated by high-ups in the Health Ministry Head Office left in disgust. The failed insurrection of 1971 and the state of unrest that followed seemed to justify their decision at least at that time. The “braver” lot weathered the storm and stayed put, come what may.
|Boosa, 1986: Young prisoners stare out from behind a barbed wire fence at a government detention camp for suspected Tamil separatist rebels – Photograph: Sandro Tucci/Time & Life Pictures/Getty|
In the years that followed, the Black July of 1983 accounted for the exodus of most of our Tamil friends who had opted to remain in the country. The long protracted war and violence in all parts of the country including the anarchic situation that prevailed in the South in the late eighties, made sure that others who stayed back too decided to take the plunge from time to time. Although I had never entertained the idea of emigration before, that was the time that I too decided to make use of an opportunity that came my way. The decision was taken purely for personal and family reasons and was not prompted by the incidence of violence in the country.
After all, having had a ring-side view of action in the 1971 insurgency when I was stationed in Matara, and in Colombo to witness first hand, the havoc of July ‘83, the devastation caused by bomb explosions in Fort, Pettah, Maradana and elsewhere, and total chaos when the country came to a virtual standstill in the 1988-89 period, I had got used to such unpleasant episodes. When the decision to emigrate to the US was finally made, I did so with the firm resolve of returning home for good some day. The fact that I did just that two years ago proved yet again, my ability to work according to a simple plan that I had drawn up and goals that I had set for myself. Contrary to what others think, it had nothing to do with the end of the war and terrorism in May 2009. The return to what I always considered to be home was planned long before that. That it happened as terrorism ended and a new era dawned in this country was a mere coincidence.
It is indeed a pleasant task to write about the remarkable turnaround since that important day in the country’s history and the many changes for the better that we are now witnessing in this thrice blessed land. I am not referring only to the all too visible beautification of the City of Colombo and its environs. It is just one integral part of a larger picture that is not so eye-catching. However, let me also emphasize here that I am in no way implying that “everything is fine” in this country and all our problems have been solved. We still have a long way to go if ever we reach that elusive condition. For example, national reconciliation has to be achieved, bribery and corruption have to be eliminated and deterioration of the law and order has to be arrested. I am only trying to say that at least some of the common day to day problems and obstacles that irked the migrants of yesteryear have now been solved or removed.
A common grouse of those who once proudly claimed that they deserted a sinking ship at the right time was: “It’s so difficult to get any business attended to in government offices or state institutions in Sri Lanka”. When meeting relatives and friends during their brief visits to their home country, these individuals spoke highly of their experiences abroad, particularly about their dealings with the efficient state machinery in those western countries. They lamented that Sri Lankan government employees, especially in the lower rungs, were never in their seats. Even if they were, they were either engrossed in a newspaper, sipping tea, gossiping or simply doing nothing. If you were fortunate enough to get some attention, the so called “public servant” was always rude and displayed that all too well known “couldn’t care less” attitude.
While we agree to some extent with these complaining types on all counts, the question I ask is whether such “indictments” are applicable to those behind work desks and manning counters in government offices and institutions today. These poorly paid employees may not have the efficiency and finesse of their western counterparts. But except for isolated cases, there is nothing much to complain about now. This has been my experience during the last couple of years. If proof is needed, just observe what happens when you walk into a Divisional Secretariat office to get the new revenue license for your car. I am reminded of the long hours we spent in winding queues at the Motor Traffic Department in Narahenpita some years ago
A good number who were supposedly leading luxurious lives abroad and who were visiting relatives and friends in Sri Lanka in the late seventies, were those who had left the country in an era of bread queues and extreme scarcities of essential goods. I remember my relatives and friends “on holiday” who were very upset if they had failed to pack a toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste or their favourite brand of soap! Now that conditions here seem to have turned for the better, it is interesting to see the way they act, and hear what they say, during holiday time in Sri Lanka now. The expression on their faces when they walk into a local supermarket now, tells the story. They finally admit that anything and everything is available now in good old Sri Lanka!
Driving on Local Roads
Those who had got used to the disciplined driving on the smoothly paved highways in developed countries always complained of lack of discipline of Sri Lankan drivers and the numerous potholes on our local roads. They keep vowing that they will never ever sit in the driver’s seat and touch the steering wheel of a car here. Why should they, when it is so easy and cheap to get a car with driver on hire or a taxi for their transport needs? But as a person who still drives my own car, I find that there is not only some improvement of our roadways which nobody can deny, but that our drivers are learning to be more disciplined and courteous. It will not happen overnight. So, we have got to be patient. The enforcement of the seat belt law is a step in the right direction to make Sri Lankan roads safer. We remember how reluctant motor cyclists were to wear crash helmets when they were first introduced. But there is much better compliance now. With the opening of the much awaited Southern Expressway, it is expected that road users will get used to proper use of lanes and more disciplined driving. Compared to what we saw two decades ago, it is indeed a healthy sign that there are so many lady drivers in a variety of small cars making their presence felt on our roads today. The expat men who refuse to drive here will no doubt be embarrassed, if not impressed.
Positives and Negatives
The many pluses are too numerous to discuss here in detail. But I must say that telephone breakdowns, power failures, power and water cuts which were so frequent some years ago, are very much less frequent now. It is difficult to find a beggar on the streets even when we want to give away a food parcel. Not so long ago, the poor souls not only begged on the streets but slept on city pavements and went begging from house to house. We hardly see street children rummaging garbage bins in search of food. Even if there are hungry children still around, they don’t visit the garbage bins any longer. Moreover, with an efficient collection system in place, garbage is not allowed to accumulate and pile up either.
As further evidence of improvements all round, I wish to refer here to what a reader of the Sunday Island had said recently about his experience as a patient in the dermatology ward in the National Hospital. He was pleasantly surprised to find the ward clean and well kept and then goes on to pay a glowing tribute to its doctors and other staff. The past reputation of Colombo’s premier government hospital was not that great.
We have just seen the relatively incident free campaigns of all contesting political parties in the run-up to Phase III of Local Government elections in 2011. Walls and lamp posts that used to be covered with posters during election time, have been spared that insult this time. That the otherwise clean campaign was marred by an isolated shooting incident at the tail end is most unfortunate. The unnecessary deaths resulting from intra-party rivalry directly associated with the present electoral system is even more unfortunate. It’s a pity that such sporadic violence had to spoil the peaceful atmosphere prevailing in the country at present.
Despite the few remaining unsolved problems and new emerging problems such as outbreaks of dengue fever, there is an increasing trend for those professionals who left the country in the sixties and seventies to come back home with the return of peace. Notwithstanding the mosquito menace and Dengue, some Sri Lankans who have settled down abroad have returned on a permanent basis while others make periodic visits at more frequent intervals. I personally know of many who are now making such visits to their homeland for the first time in decades. Returning on a permanent basis is not an option for some, because of children and grandchildren who are well settled and rooted abroad.
Visa on Arrival
It is true that the government decision to do away with the visa on arrival scheme has not gone down well with some emigrants. Sadly, they were never interested in retaining their Sri Lankan citizenship when they qualified to get citizenship from their country of adoption. I can well understand their feelings when they are compelled to apply for a visa and pay a fee to visit the country of their birth.
Except for a very few who have all but severed connections with their country of birth, the great majority of such expatriates still find that life in Sri Lanka is so very comfortable particularly in their retirement. Having seen and experienced life in arguably the richest country in the world over an extended period, it has been my experience as well. No wonder then that “Home Sweet Home” can be sweeter when one has been away for so long.
( The writer can be reached at E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org )