When I was but a pipsqueak of a person and yay-high with wide-eyed wonderment at how wonderful Ashok Leyland buses were, my pater would patiently take me down to a halting-place in Havelock Town to see the spanking new Route 108 and 138 CTB buses plying the High Level Road. On occasion, we would board a green-and-yellow-circled No. 7 bus and ride in it like princes down to Nugegoda, and return home via the special No. 4 route that operated through Narahenpita to the round-trip terminus at Colombo Fort. Later in life, as a young prep-schoolboy, I’d flag down a 177 halfway down Horton Place and bundle him aboard – and father and son would grin like sainted apes all the way to Kaduwela (not that there was anything special there, except a pola, but it was where the buses on that route terminated).
Unlike the 138s, the 4s and 7s and 177s were Isuzus – but in that dreamland of boyhood, they were in a league not unlike my beloved Leylands.
Now I know you must be wondering, gentle reader, what all of this has to do with the price of eggs? Be patient, and perhaps these chicken scrawls may help interpret a reality that touches upon today, too. It’s just that reading recently about the newly introduced round-trip 138s brought a fleet of memories revving and roaring back. And while I rejoiced at the nominated price of a ticket between any two points on the 138 circuit – a nominal Rs. 10 – I could not help lament that while the state is evidently concerned about the rising cost of transport, the cost of living continues to be bound for a more distant destination with no end in sight. Bread at fifty bucks a pop tastes pretty dear to a man and his son who have just got off the bus these days… even if it cost them a mere twenty – they can’t say paang.
The experimental tariff (for I have no doubt that it will be ‘revised’ soon enough) also reminded me that several projects related to transportation in the capital and its suburbs have yet to see the light of day. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I for one am eagerly awaiting the time when the airport expressway will finally be done with and declared open… if only to ease the awful jam on the Negombo Road at any given hour, and salvage a smidgen of our reputation vis-à-vis the hordes of tourists the ministry assures us are pouring into the country.
Because almost a million travellers make the trip in and out of the metropolis (please, whom am I kidding?) every day, the inner ring road and the outer circular railway are two other development projects that I, we, and they all dearly wish to see completed. Could the authorities, while they are about it, please also take a stripe out of the navy’s T-shirt and dredge up more canals and watery byways in and around the Beira-Bolgoda system, to expedite the smoother flow of traffic and provide much-needed connectivity between the least-served routes. These are but three examples: A, B, C, of must-dos for city road and rail transport hard infrastructure.
This leaves the soft side untouched – and with some justification. Because if we want to ensure that drivers and other users of the system (one uses the term lightly) are as disciplined as, say, the law-enforcement officers assigned to patrol it, and if we want the streets to be clean and the trains to run on time, we’ll need the proverbial dictatorship that it supposedly takes to make the trains run on time… wait, I had a idea – no, it’s gone…
The point that I was trying to make before I was jolted out of my reverie by unwelcome thoughts of tin-pot tyrannies, benevolent or otherwise, is that it is not enough to build bridges and lay carpets where only dirt-tracks existed before. If we are ever to get close to where we need to be as a newly industrialized country or where we want to be as an oasis of welcome for international investors and travellers alike, we are going to need more than money, manpower, and the make-it-all-happen-while-we-rule philosophy.
We are going to need vision that sees beyond this time and place, a new determination to create a society that is both clever and civilized, and courage to realize that we aren’t going to make it under the present dispensation if our best shot at it is a round-trip in the suburbs for ten rupees. No matter how many memories it brings back… of a milieu when parents were demigods, buses were chariots of fire, and bread was a staple not a luxury.