Saturday, March 22, 2008

Coming into land from Colombo to Bangalore was a little disconcerting. The new Airbus that Air Sri Lanka are flying has the usual inflight map displaying where you are and when you'll arrive, but it also has a camera mounted on the nose cone, just above the front landing flood lights. So, you literally get to watch the plane come into land. This includes the drop through the clouds, the appearance in the distance of the minute, illuminated runway far ahead in the distance and also the tiny, constant adjustments to course that the pilot is making to keep this thing in a straight line. The fact that the aircon had played up on the plane, not really working and causing a delay in takeoff of an hour or so meant that, despite 2 months acclimatisation in Sri Lanka to high humidity and steamy temperatures, I was already sweating before my eyes strayed to the screen and noticed how the white lines shooting underneath the plane were doing a bit of weaving as well as shooting. And of course it's all happening pretty fast. Reality check. Getting those things onto the ground safely is a bit of a struggle. The reminder of impending arrival in India had begun some minutes earlier though, above the imperfect cloud cover. Whole blocks of the city seemed at one point to be flashing on and off in the darkness - power cuts rippling across this hub of hi-tech commerce. Where the power was on the shimmer of streetlights combined with the passing invisible clouds to resemble the skin of a cuttlefish, pulsing dots of light, fading and growing patches of colour, light and dark, some kind of magical bio-luminescent trick to distract and confuse.

It's only a 1 hour flight and such a short trajectory allows easy appreciation of the contrasts between these two countries. Sri Lanka with, for the tourist at any rate, its veneer of normality, beauty and ease provided by lush tropical countryside, cute colourful beach side fishing villages, golden sand and shyly smiling, somewhat moribund locals and India with the squalor, energy, purpose, drabness and crush of hundreds of millions of souls tripping over each others' airport trolleys, talking on their mobile phones to get the price of BSE Sensex shares or the price of milk that the local dairy co-op is paying and trying to push in front of you. Both democracies, badly flawed at that as most seem to be, these two countries present to the world two very different versions of themselves. India really is an open book - even if someone wanted to try and control what comes out of this country, whatever committees and boards, authorities and panels, institutions and departments, rules, laws and regulations might be put in place wouldn't stand a hope of containing, shaping, controlling or stopping anything that originates from within these borders. With Sri Lanka on the other hand the tourist veneer mostly conceals the detail of a tragic and viciously conflicted island nation. Sinhala nationalism (ie racism) has reduced essentially the whole country to a state of desperate poverty of hope. Except for the few at the top of course. While the Gini co-efficient for the two countries might show that India has (somewhat) greater income distribution inequality (0.4 vs 0.45 - 1 is perfect income distribution), what Sri Lanka loses in unequal distribution it more than makes up for in the proportion of people stuck forever in the lower, though not extreme, reaches of income poverty. This is partially mitigated by the fact that almost everyone in Sri Lanka can read and write, something that only about 50% of Indians can do after the education system is finished with them (if it ever gets started). But it is the war, the elephant in the corner on holiday with you in Sri Lanka, which most clearly illustrates both the callousness of the Sri Lankan ruling elite and the indifference of the international community to this country where no material resources are on offer. An expatriot in the country of some 10 years or so recently told me a story of happenings just 2 hours north of the capital, events witnessed by the inhabitants of a muslim fishing village. These locals have begun to mount their own patrols in the jungle around their village because Sri Lankan Army soldiers from the base nearby have repeatedly come to the village at night while on patrol and abducted young women and girls. In the nearby jungle they are raped and then left to wander in the night. The villagers patrol with machetes. When they catch a soldier he is hacked to death.

Towards the end of one of their night patrols, meeting my dinner companion on the beach, these villagers told a story which explained why all schools on the island had been unexpectedly closed down a few days earlier. Being Muslim, and therefore Tamil, these people have connections to communities within the territory controlled by the LTTE. Last week the villagers were disturbed during their morning routines by Sri Lankan Air Force jets and gunships flying in low overhead from the sea. In pairs, over a period of about 4 hours these aircraft on bombing and strafing runs were apparently responding to information that the leader of the LTTE, Velupillai Pirapaharan, was hiding underneath a school somewhere. These jets were dropping bombs on schools and the helicopters were coming in to clean up after them. Obviously no advance warning was given. The next day, perhaps wisely as a precaution, the government ordered all schools on the island to close in case an angry LTTE cadre decided to strap on one of those special vests and go to work.

All this is neither to portray the government in a bad light versus the LTTE - who are equally poisonous, to put it bluntly - nor to suggest that this conflict is any worse than others in many places around the world. Indeed the whole story could be apocryphal. However the bottom line is that even if it is wrong or simply a rumour something identical could happen there and no-one would ever hear about it. That is how tight the vacuum of control is in Sri Lanka over information and access, freedom of speech and international scrutiny. The same thing would be reported and examined from every quarter in India - even if it could happen in the first place.