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Traveling on Colombo Roads – Cycles, Trams, Trolleys, Rickshaws and Double Deckers



Remembered Yesterdays

by J. Godwin Perera

‘Babi Achchi’ immortalized  the humble bicycle with that  baila classic still heard and sung when drinks, ‘bites’ and men get mixed together on a late evening . As to how and why an “Achchi’ got a bicycle may need a special Commission of Inquiry. But leaving the said ‘Babi Achchi’ aside there was a time when cycles  were the most popular mode of transport for teen-aged schoolboys. Roads were much less busy. No hustle, bustle, tussle and jostle. Hence loving parents who would have preferred their sons travelling to school in the family car did not fret nor fuss. What the parents did not know was that their obedient sons would  daily cycle past  girl’s schools even though it meant a longer trip. Opening time and closing time were the same. Most convenient. More fun. For both the school girls and school boys. Also attending net-ball matches was quite easy. A family car with driver attached made this simple enjoyment impossible. Worse, if a father drove the car. ‘Extra classes Ammi’  was the excuse for  getting late. And Ammi would nod her head understandingly and think that the teachers were a very dedicated lot. Also attending inter –school cricket matches was so much more convenient. One rode to the venue and sat on the cycle with one leg planted on the ground. Hands were free to clap or wave  a clenched fist and shout ‘Hora Umpire’     

Now to tramcars. Operating on two main routes, Fort – Grandpass  and Fort – Borella ( don’t worry about route details – just enjoy the ride) they were  slow and noisy. This noise was because of a foot pedal. In a one footed tap dance the driver kept tap, tapping on the pedal and it would go ‘Clang, Clang.’  And the ‘Clang, Clang’ was loud. Very Loud. This was a warning for other road users – Look out ! there’s a tram coming. The slowness helped  passengers ( most often ticketless ) to jump in and off  when convenient. These trams moved along rails, embedded into the road, and were electrically operated through overhead cables. Connecting these cables to the tram was through a castor fixed at the end of a long conduit attached  to the hood and set at 45 degrees in the direction in which the tram has to move. On reaching a terminal the conductor, using a long bamboo pole, would swing the conduit  into  the opposite  direction. The tram was now ready for the return trip. Making things simple was a driver’s control panel at both ends. But often while on the move the conduit  would swing out of alignment disconnecting the electricity supply and stalling the tram. Other road users waited. No hurry. No worry. The conductor, also in no hurry used the  bamboo pole and put the offending tube in place. And then the ‘Clang, Clang’ would resume. Traffic moved on.  

In 1953 the Colombo Municipality which had been running the tramcars substituted trolley buses. These did not run on rails but used the overhead power cables. There were single decker trolleys and double decker trolleys. The latter were the favorite for young couples. They would  climb up the winding stairs and occupy the very front seats.  Absolute privacy. The conductor too enjoyed this. Looking up at the female, invariably wearing a flared skirt, he had a ‘worm’s  eye view.’ It was a privileged sight which compensated for the poor salary he received. The trolleys were much more silent and doors closed and opened automatically at the discretion of the driver.  In 1964 due to a strike the Colombo Municipality took the opportunity to withdraw the unprofitable trolley buses. And  thereby  also withdrawing  the  travelling delight of young couples. Enter the motor buses. Actually while trams  and trolleys operated only in certain sections of the city as mentioned earlier, motor buses operated elsewhere. 

But let’s stall for a while and consider another popular mode of transport. The rickshaw. It consisted of a high, open, chair- like body with a hood and two wheels attached on either side. These were  very much like but larger in diameter, than those on a bullock cart. The rickshaw was drawn by an energetic, turbaned man of Tamil descent – the rickshaw ‘wallah,’ by means of  two shafts, again very much like those in a bullock cart. He trotted whenever he had a hire, because the fare was calculated on the time spent with the passenger. Not on the distance run. Rickshaws were used mainly by young school children and those who could not afford a car but disdained the use of public transport. However the big bonus for rickshaw ‘wallahs’ were the tourists who arriving by ship and landing at the  Jetty were delighted to be taken by rickshaws on a city tour. 

But not all tourists were pleased. One such was Albert Einstein, who was perhaps the greatest scientist in the world. On 28th October 1922, he and his wife Elsa while on a trip to Japan by ship, stopped over in Colombo. At the jetty they were immediately put into two rickshaws by the tour guide and taken on a city tour. Einstein referred to it as ‘abominable  treatment of a fellow human being.’ Elsa being more practical responded ‘For these men to earn a living they need our patronage.’  So there you are – same coin, two sides. 

Now to bus  transport. This was operated as an owner operated service without any government restrictions. It virtually meant that the owner operated his bus or buses just as he pleased. Profit was the only objective. But it meant that this type of profit had many seekers.  The number of owners operating on the same route increased. Inevitably this meant trouble. It came in the form of rivalry to get more passengers or the bigger load. Waiting in a queue to pick up passengers was dismissed as being impractical.  Hence, more practical  methods were adopted. Arguments, fights, stabbings. In plenty.  The British Government decided that this just won’t do. They introduced a Regulated Private Monopoly System. And so came into being bus companies with regulated routes. The better known were Colombo Omnibus Company, Ebert Silva Bus Company and South Western Bus Company. The latter owned by Sir Cyril de Zoysa, operated on Galle Road and was the first to introduce double decker buses. 

These red double deckers  were reconditioned ones from London Transport and were extremely popular because they carried more passengers. The Colombo Omnibus Company  with the cockerel symbol plying along Baseline Road soon followed with double deckers.  The Ebert Siva Bus Company  plied mainly between  Maradana and Kollupitiya. Where the other bus companies operated is beyond the scope of this article. But operate they did and certainly at a profit.

However, all good things must come to an end. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike leading an M.E.P coalition had been swept into power in 1956. On January 1, 1958 the private bus companies were nationalised and the Ceylon Transport Board set up. The innaugural trip of the newly formed CTB conveyed the Prime Minister, the Minister of Transport, Maithripala Senanayake and some other hangers-on, in a maroon,  luxury, Mercedes Benz bus. Did someone say ‘Ape Aanduwa.’ One type of bus for the political elite another type of bus for the common people. ‘Jayawewa,’ ‘Jayawewa.’ 

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Sinharaja world heritage



Conservation Outlook Assessment: Significant Concern

By Professor Emeritus Nimal Gunatilleke

Continued from Yesterday


Water diverted from Ampanagala reservoir to Muruthawela will be used to meet the irrigation deficit of Muruthawela and Kirama Oya systems and the balance will be transferred to Chandrika Wewa, through existing LB canal of Muruthawela scheme up to 13.8 km and a new canal of 17.0 km. After that, the water requirement of Hambantota harbour is to be transferred to Ridiyagama tank through the Walawe river and Liyangasthota anicuit. However, due to the extreme length of the diversion through the three-river basins of Nilwala, Kirama Ara and Urubokka Oya, it will lead to a massive conveyance losses of the diverted water while on the way to the Walawe basin. Furthermore, enormous costs associated with its construction, a failure to fully realise the intended outcomes due to a shortage of water budget will simply be a burden that Sri Lanka cannot afford with her current economic condition, according to Eng. Prema Hettiarachchi. It may be worth recording that the water ingress into the grouted tunnel of the Uma Oya near Ella has still not been fully repaired, even though the Uma Oya project is nearing completion. An expensive lesson to be learnt on the nature of the weathered geological structure, lineaments and implementing its unexpected and costly mitigatory measures which will eventually to be paid back by this and future generations of tax payers of this country.

According to the Irrigation Department web site postings, Mahaweli Consultancy Bureau has initiated the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), but due to the unavailability of concurrence of the Forest Department, revised TOR has not been issued by the CEA. Therefore, due to the unavailability of updated TOR, the EIA study has been delayed.

Environmentally, the most contentious issue highlighted in the news media is the proposed construction of a RCC dam at Madugeta to build a reservoir for which around 79 ha of forested (and some agricultural) lands in Sinharaja and a portion of prisine riverine forest in Dellawa would be inundated. On the Sinharaja side of the proposed Madugeta reservoir (right abutment) at present there are home gardens and small-scale tea plantations in addition to good riverine forests. In contrast however, proportionately a larger area of luxuriant forest of Dellawa, which is a part of the new ‘Sinharaja Rain Forest Complex’ would go under the chain saw for this reservoir construction (left abutment). The Geo-engineering report of May 2019 on GNDP has revised the siting of the dam to a more favourable location with supposedly reduced impacts but they forewarn that the three core-drilling along the proposed dam axis that had to be temporarily abandoned due to protests made by the villagers, need to be completed to confirm the geological suitability for the dam site.


Are there any Environment-Friendly Alternative Options?

As an alternative site for a dam on Gin Ganga, Eng. Nandasoma Atukorale (Specialist Engineer [Hydropower]) has proposed a location at the confluence of Mahadola with Gin Ganga at the village of Mederipitiya, way back in 2006. According to him, the riverbed at this site is 261 masl and have a catchment area of 132 km2. He proposes the construction of a 35 m high concrete gravity type dam that would form a reservoir with a storage capacity of 65 million cu.m and a potential discharge of 320 million cu.m of water annually which could divert 293 million cu. m of water to the SE Dry Zone. Most importantly, this region passes through a relatively narrow section of the river which is ideally suited for a dam according to him. However, geological suitability and socio-economic impacts of local communities need to be investigated, beforehand.

Quite interestingly, Eng. Athukorale claims that ‘although it is not economically very attractive, another 200 million cu.m of water could be diverted to the Nilwala basin by constructing a dam across Gin Ganga at the downstream of the confluence with Dellawa Dola at the village of Madugeta, with an 8000 m long tunnel which could be considered at a later stage provided further water shortages are experienced in the area’.


Now that the proposed Madugeta reservoir is receiving heavy criticisms from the environmental front, wonder whether Mederipitiya option proposed by Eng. Athukorale could be revisited for the diversion of Gin-Nilwala river water to the SE Dry Zone.

In a research paper titled ‘Comparison of Alternative Proposals for Domestic and Industrial Water Supply for Hambantota Industrial Development Zone’ Eng. Prema Hettiarachchi makes a comparison among three irrigation projects Kukule Ganga, Gin-Nilwala and Wey Ganga to convey water from the SW wet zone to SE dry zone.

She proposes yet another option that is probably still on the drawing boards to be considered which is the Wey Ganga diversion in Ratnapura District. According to her, this could meet the industrial and drinking water requirement (154 MCM + drinking water) of Hambantota metropolitan area at a significantly lower cost and with less damage to the environment. Further, there is a possibility of augmenting this scheme by diverting a part of Kalu Ganga catchment at a later stage.

Eng. Hettiarachchi further states that ‘by comparing the workload, it could be estimated to be nearly one third that of the Gin-Nilwala diversion. The Wey Ganga diversion can be carried out at a significantly lower cost by local agencies. That can also address the water scarcity of Hambantota metropolitan area including the requirements of international harbour and proposed industrial development zone with the relatively less environmental damage which is a major issue with respect to large scale projects. Construction period will also be less since the workload is less and can be carried out by the local agencies’.

What I have strived to show with this detailed irrigation engineering information available on public domain in the form of research publications, is that the Madugeta reservoir option is not the only one available for taking water from the wet zone rivers to the SE Dry Zone which is indeed a legitimate requirement for agricultural and industrial development of that region.

Pre-feasibility studies have been conducted on these options since 1968 and a considerable wealth of technical information is already available with the Irrigation Department. Apparently, according to knowledgeable irrigation engineers, there are more environmentally friendly, and cost-effective options with greater assurance of water conveyance to the SE Dry Zone available for consideration. It is often the case that during pre-feasibility studies of these large engineering projects, environmental concerns are given the least priority. Steady supply of water during extreme drought events which are becoming more frequent depends very much on the nature of the vegetation cover of the watershed area. These environmental aspects need to be critically evaluated before such costly projects are designed. As an example, although, the major engineering work of the Uma Oya project has been almost completed, its cost-effectiveness is yet to be seen with a denuded watershed, a potential of heavy soil erosion on top of the unexpected heavy expenditure on tunnel boring and other engineering works.

Biologically speaking, the Dellawa Forest Reserve is an integral part of Sinharaja Rain Forest Complex representing the pristine climax forest vegetation of SE wet lowlands and provide a vital connectivity link to adjoining Diyadawa forest of equal significance via the remains of Dombagoda forest. Therefore, clearing a riverine strip of this forest for the construction of Madugeta Reservoir would lead to an irreparable and irreplaceable damage to its characteristic riverine/flood plain forest vegetation.

On the other hand, pledging a reforestation initiative of a much larger area with Hevea rubber as a compensatory measure proposed by the political administration is totally unacceptable. Preserving intact forests in protected areas has no substitutes or replacements. Furthermore, the Natural Heritage Wilderness Area act and the binding articles of the UNESCO Convention on Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage to which Sri Lanka is a signatory, clearly state that causing direct or indirect damage to a natural heritage is legally not permissible.

In summary, the Sinharaja World Heritage Site is already in a state whose biological values are threatened and/or are showing signs of deterioration and significant additional conservation measures have been recommended to restore these values over the medium and long term. Adding more threats like the construction of reservoirs inside protected areas at this stage would inevitably downgrade the values further to a ‘critical conservation outlook’ which is not what the citizenry of Sri Lanka and the world at large would acknowledge as ‘sustainable development’.

The author of this article is a member of the National Sustainable Development Council of Sri Lanka and he thanks Dr Jagath Gunathilaka of Peradeniya University for providing the geotechnical information described herein. The author can be contacted at .)


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US seeking way out of Afghan killing field



As the Biden administration makes its initial moves to extricate the US’ remaining security forces personnel from Afghanistan, it would do well to ponder on former US President John F. Kennedy’s insightful comment on foreign policy: ‘Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.’ This is a rare nugget on the nature of foreign policy.

Considering the high costs, human and economic, a country could incur as a result of blundering on its foreign policy front, Kennedy could be said to have spoken for all countries. However, there is no denying that the comment is particularly applicable to expansionist powers or ‘hegemonic’ states.

Sensible opinion is likely to be of the view that the US decision on quitting Afghanistan should have come very much earlier; may be a couple of years after its bloody misadventure in the conflict and war-ridden country. Considering the terribly high human costs in particular the US’ 20 long years in Afghanistan have incurred, the US could be said to have committed one of its worst foreign policy blunders, overshadowing in severity the blood-letting incurred by the super power in Vietnam. However, in both theatres, the consequences for the US have been of unbearable magnitude.

The US death toll speaks for itself. At the time of writing more than 2,300 US security forces personnel have been killed and over 20,000 injured in Afghanistan. Reports indicate that over 450 Britons have died in the same quagmire along with hundreds of similar personnel from numerous other nationalities. Apparently, it took an exceptionally long period of time for the US to realize that Afghanistan for it was a lost cause.

The lesson that the US and other expansionist powers ought to come to grips with is that it would not be an ‘easy ride’ for them in the complex conflict and war zones of the South. The ground realities in these theatres are of mind-boggling complexity and Afghanistan drives this point home with notable harshness. Power projection in South-west Asia and persistence with its ‘war on terror’ were among the apparent prime objectives of the US in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq but what the US did not evidently take into consideration before these military involvements were the internal political realities of these countries that are not at all amenable to simplistic analyses and policy prescriptions.

The Soviets ought to have come to grips with some features of the treacherous political terrain presented by Afghanistan in the late eighties but their principal preoccupations were related more to the compulsions of the Cold War. Simply put, the Soviets were bent on preserving the ‘satellite’ status of Afghanistan and their war effort was aimed at this in the main. Preparing Afghanistan for democracy was not even least among the Soviet Union’s concerns, of course.

However, the same does not apply to the US. The latter helped the Mujaheddin in the task of getting rid of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan but its aim was also to have a US-friendly regime in Kabul that would be a veritable bridgehead of US power and influence in the region on a continuous basis. In other words, the US expected the regime which replaced the Soviets to be pro-Western and essentially democracy-friendly. The US did not in any way bargain to have in Afghanistan Islamic fundamentalist regimes whose political philosophies were the anti-thesis of democracy as perceived in the US and practised by it.

However, the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime which eventually came to power in the mid-nineties in Afghanistan, once the Soviets withdrew, defied all Western expectations. As is known, the Taliban was not only repressive and undemocratic but was staunchly opposed to everything Western. There were no hopes of the Taliban working towards Western interests. Besides, the US did not expect to see in Afghanistan a country dangerously divided on ethnic, tribal and religious lines. The problems of Afghanistan have been compounded over the years by the coming together of the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda and these groups have world wide Islamic fundamentalist links.

It has been the aim of the US to have in Kabul religiously moderate, pro-democratic regimes but as developments have proved over the past few decades these administrations have not been in a position to hold out against the Taliban. In fact, it is the Taliban that is veritably at the helm of power in Afghanistan currently and years of futile attempts at trying to contain the Taliban have brought home to the US and its allies that they have no choice but to talk to the Taliban in order to secure some respite to effect ‘an honourable exit’ from the bloodied land. This is where matters stand at present.

However, as pointed out by commentators, it is the Afghan civilian population that has suffered most in the decades-long blood-letting in the country. Conservative estimates put the number of Afghan security forces personnel killed in Afghanistan at around 60,000 to date and the number of civilians killed at double that figure.

Accordingly, the Afghan people would be left to face an uncertain and highly risk-riddled future when the last of the US security forces personnel and their allies leave Afghanistan in September this year. The country would be left to its own devices and considering that the Taliban will likely be the dominant formation in the country and not its legitimate government, the lot of Afghan civilians is bound to be heart-rending.

There is plenty to ponder on for the US and other democratic countries in the agonies of Afghanistan. One lesson that offers itself is that not all countries of the South are ‘ready for democracy’. This applies to very many countries of the South that already claim to be democracies in the Western sense. Southern ‘democratic’ polities defy easy analysis and categorization in consideration of the multitude of identity markers they present along with the legitimacy that they have achieved in the eyes of their states and populations. What we have are dangerously volatile states riddled with contradictions. Relating to them will prove to be highly problematic for the rest of the world.

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The Soul



The Soul (also known as Ji hun) is based on the sci-fi novel ‘Soul Transfer’, written by Jiang Bo in 2012. The novel was widely popular and inspired director Cheng Wei-Hao to adapt the tale into a movie. The story is about a married couple who are determined to uncover the truth behind strange activities in their community. According to the official synopsis for the film from Netflix, while investigating the death of a businessman, a prosecutor and his wife uncover occult secrets as they face their own life-and-death dilemma. The film stars Chang Chen, Janine Chang and Christopher Lee among others.

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