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

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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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BRICS emerging as strong rival to G7

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It was in the fitness of things for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold a special telephonic conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently for the purpose of enlightening the latter on the need for a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Russian-initiated blood-letting in Ukraine. Hopefully, wise counsel and humanity would prevail and the world would soon witness the initial steps at least to a complete withdrawal of invading Russian troops from Ukraine.

The urgency for an early end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which revoltingly testifies afresh to the barbaric cruelty man could inflict on his fellows, is underscored, among other things, by the declaration which came at the end of the 14th BRICS Summit, which was held virtually in Beijing recently. Among other things, the declaration said: ‘BRICS reaffirms commitment to ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all with the aim to build a brighter shared future for the international community based on mutually beneficial cooperation.’

It is anybody’s guess as to what meanings President Putin read into pledges of the above kind, but it does not require exceptional brilliance to perceive that the barbaric actions being carried out by his regime against Ukrainian civilians make a shocking mockery of these enlightened pronouncements. It is plain to see that the Russian President is being brazenly cynical by affixing his signature to the declaration. The credibility of BRICS is at risk on account of such perplexing contradictory conduct on the part of its members. BRICS is obliged to rectify these glaring irregularities sooner rather than later.

At this juncture the important clarification must be made that it is the conduct of the Putin regime, and the Putin regime only, that is being subjected to censure here. Such strictures are in no way intended to project in a negative light, the Russian people, who are heirs to a rich, humanistic civilization that produced the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, among a host of other eminent spirits, who have done humanity proud and over the decades guided humans in the direction of purposeful living. May their priceless heritage live long, is this columnist’s wish.

However, the invaluable civilization which the Russian people have inherited makes it obligatory on their part to bring constant pressure on the Putin regime to end its barbarism against the Ukrainian civilians who are not at all party to the big power politics of Eastern Europe. They need to point out to their rulers that in this day and age there are civilized, diplomatic and cost-effective means of resolving a state’s perceived differences with its neighbours. The spilling of civilian blood, on the scale witnessed in Ukraine, is a phenomenon of the hoary past.

The BRICS grouping, which encompasses some of the world’s predominant economic and political powers, if not for the irregular conduct of the Putin regime, could be said to have struck on a policy framework that is farsighted and proactive on the issue of global equity.

There is the following extract from a report on its recent summit declaration that needs to be focused on. It reads: BRICS notes the need to ensure “Meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries, especially in Africa, in global decision-making processes and structures and make it better attuned to contemporary realities.”

The above are worthy goals that need to be pursued vigorously by global actors that have taken upon themselves the challenge of easing the lot of the world’s powerless countries. The urgency of resuming the North-South Dialogue, among other questions of importance to the South, has time and again been mentioned in this column. This is on account of the fact that the most underdeveloped regions of the South have been today orphaned in the world system.

Given that the Non-aligned Movement and like organizations, that have espoused the resolution of Southern problems over the decades, are today seemingly ineffective and lacking in political and economic clout, indications that the BRICS grouping is in an effort to fill this breach is heartening news for the powerless of the world. Indeed, the crying need is for the poor and powerless to be brought into international decision-making processes that affect their wellbeing and it is hoped that BRICS’s efforts in this regard would bear fruit.

What could help in increasing the confidence of the underdeveloped countries in BRICS, is the latter’s rising economic and political power. While in terms of economic strength, the US remains foremost in the world with a GDP of $ 20.89 trillion, China is not very far behind with a GDP of $ 14.72 trillion. The relevant readings for some other key BRICS countries are as follows: India – $ 2.66 trillion, Russia – $ 1.48 trillion and Brazil $ 1.44 trillion. Of note is also the fact that except for South Africa, the rest of the BRICS are among the first 15 predominant economies, assessed in GDP terms. In a global situation where economics drives politics, these figures speak volumes for the growing power of the BRICS countries.

In other words, the BRICS are very much abreast of the G7 countries in terms of a number of power indices. The fact that many of the BRICS possess a nuclear capability indicates that in military terms too they are almost on par with the G7.

However, what is crucial is that the BRICS, besides helping in modifying the world economic order to serve the best interests of the powerless as well, contribute towards changing the power balances within the vital organs of the UN system, such as the UN Security Council, to render them more widely representative of changing global power realities.

Thus, India and Brazil, for example, need to be in the UNSC because they are major economic powers in their own right. Since they are of a democratic orientation, besides pushing for a further democratization of the UN’s vital organs, they would be in a position to consistently work towards the wellbeing of the underprivileged in their respective regions, which have tremendous development potential.

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Queen of Hearts

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She has certainly won the hearts of many with the charity work she is engaged in, on a regular basis, helping the poor, and the needy.

Pushpika de Silva was crowned Mrs. Sri Lanka for Mrs. World 2021 and she immediately went into action, with her very own charity project – ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

When launching this project, she said: “Lend a Helping Hand is dear to me. With the very meaning of the title, I am extending my helping hand to my fellow brothers and sisters in need; in a time where our very existence has become a huge question and people battling for daily survival.”

Since ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ became a reality, last year, Pushpika has embarked on many major charity projects, including building a home for a family, and renovating homes of the poor, as well.

The month of June (2022) saw Pushpika very much in action with ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

She made International Father’s Day a very special occasion by distributing food items to 100 poor families.

“Many are going without a proper meal, so I was very keen, in my own way, to see that these people had something to keep the hunger pangs away.”

A few days later, the Queen of Hearts made sure that 50 more people enjoyed a delicious and nutritious meal.

“In these trying times, we need to help those who are in dire straits and, I believe, if each one of us could satisfy the hunger, and thirst, of at least one person, per day, that would be a blessing from above.”

Pushpika is also concerned about the mothers, with kids, she sees on the roads, begging.

“How helpless is a mother, carrying a small child, to come to the street and ask for something.

“I see this often and I made a special effort to help some of them out, with food and other necessities.”

What makes Pushpika extra special is her love for animals, as well, and she never forgets the street dogs that are having a tough time, these days, scavenging for food.

“These animals, too, need food, and are voiceless, so we need to think of them, as well. Let’s have mercy on them, too. Let’s love them, as well.”

The former beauty queen served a delicious meal for the poor animals, just recently, and will continue with all her charity projects, on a regular basis, she said.

Through her charity project, ‘Lend a Helping Hand,” she believes she can make a change, though small.

And, she says, she plans to be even more active, with her charity work, during these troubled times.

We wish Pushpika de Silva all the very best, and look forward to seeing more of her great deeds, through her ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ campaign.

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Hope and political change:No more Appachis to the rescue

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KUPPI on the current economic and political crisis: intervention 1

by Harshana Rambukwella

In Buddhist literature, there is the Parable of the Burning House where the children of a wealthy man, trapped inside a burning house, refuse to leave it, fearful of leaving its comfort – because the flames are yet to reach them. Ultimately, they do leave because the father promises them wonderful gifts and are saved from the fire. Sri Lankans have long awaited such father figures – in fact, our political culture is built on the belief that such ‘fathers’ will rescue us. But this time around no fathers are coming. As Sri Lankans stare into an uncertain future, and a multitude of daily sufferings, and indignities continue to pile upon us, there is possibly one political and emotional currency that we all need – hope. Hope is a slippery term. One can hope ‘in-vain’ or place one’s faith in some unachievable goal and be lulled into a sense of complacency. But, at the same time, hope can be critically empowering – when insurmountable obstacles threaten to engulf you, it is the one thing that can carry you forward. We have innumerable examples of such ‘hope’ from history – both religious and secular. When Moses led the Israelites to the promised land, ‘hope’ of a new beginning sustained them, as did faith in God. When Queen Viharamahadevi set off on a perilous voyage, she carried hope, within her, along with the hope of an entire people. When Martin Luther King Jr made his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech, hope of an America where Black people could live in dignity, struck a resonant chord and this historical sense of hope also provided inspiration for the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.

This particular moment, in Sri Lanka, feels a moment of ‘hopelessness’. In March and April, this year, before the cowardly attack on the Gota Go Gama site, in Galle Face, there was a palpable sense of hope in the aragalaya movement as it spread across the country. While people were struggling with many privations, the aragalaya channeled this collective frustration into a form of political and social action, we have rarely seen in this country. There were moments when the aragalaya managed to transcend many divisions – ethnic, religious and class – that had long defined Sri Lanka. It was also largely a youth led movement which probably added to the ‘hope’ that characterized the aragalaya. However, following the May 09th attack something of this ‘hope’ was lost. People began to resign themselves to the fact that the literally and metaphorically ‘old’ politics, and the corrupt culture it represents had returned. A Prime Minister with no electoral base, and a President in hiding, cobbled together a shaky and illegitimate alliance to stay in power. The fuel lines became longer, the gas queues grew, food prices soared and Sri Lanka began to run out of medicines. But, despite sporadic protests and the untiring commitment of a few committed activists, it appeared that the aragalaya was fizzling out and hope was stagnant and dying, like vehicles virtually abandoned on kilometers-long fuel queues.

However, we now have a moment where ‘hope’ is being rekindled. A national movement is gathering pace. As the prospect of the next shipment of fuel appears to recede into the ever-distant future, people’s anger and frustration are once again being channeled towards political change. This is a do-or-die moment for all Sri Lankans. Regardless of our political beliefs, our ideological orientation, our religion or class, the need for political change has never been clearer. Whether you believe that an IMF bailout will save us, or whether you believe that we need a fundamental change in our economic system, and a socially and economically more just society, neither of these scenarios will come to pass without an immediate political change. The political class that now clings to power, in this country, is like a cancer – poisoning and corrupting the entire body politic, even as it destroys itself. The Prime Minister who was supposed to be the messiah channeling international goodwill and finances to the country has failed miserably and we have a President who seems to be in love with the idea of ‘playing president’. The Sri Lankan people have a single existential choice to make in this moment – to rise as one to expel this rotten political order. In Sri Lanka, we are now in that burning house that the Buddha spoke of and we all seem to be waiting for that father to appear and save us. But now we need to change the plot of this parable. No father will come for us. Our fathers (or appachis) have led us to this sorry state. They have lied, deceived and abandoned us. It is now up to us to rediscover the ‘hope’ that will deliver us from the misery of this economic and political crisis. If we do not act now the house will burn down and we will be consumed in its flames.

Initiated by the Kuppi Collective, a group of academics and activists attached to the university system and other educational institutes and actions.

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