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My vision for Sri Lanka in 2048

A guest must be careful about what he says of the host: contrary to popular perception, I am not a Sri Lankan citizen — only a resident guest. Yet, having lived here for 41 of my 80 years, I now regard this alone as home, and have visions and hopes for my adopted land.

Half of all Sri Lankans alive today were not even born when, in December 1954, I had my first glimpse of the then Ceylon — when the P&O liner Himalaya carrying me to the Great Barrier Reef paused at the Colombo harbour for half a day.


Space visionary Sir Arthur C Clarke

What I saw in a single afternoon tempted me to come back a year later to explore, and by the end of the 1950s, I had developed a life long love affair with the island.

My vision for Sri Lanka fifty years from now is inevitably shaped by what I have seen and experienced in the past four decades. I’m often asked why I live in Sri Lanka, and I’ve spent a good deal of time and printer’s ink in the past three decades answering this question. (The short answer, of course, is that I had had enough of 30 years of British winters!)

Although the scenic beauty, natural environment and the climate all made it attractive, these were not the only reasons why I settled down in Sri Lanka. There are islands in the Pacific perhaps more lovely and more temperate than this, but they have little culture, and no sense of the past - nothing to engage the intellect.

Sri Lanka offers far more than the empty mindless beauty that lured Gaugin to destruction. Its twenty-five hundred years of written history, and the abundant ruins and archaeological artifacts, are testimony to the great technological and philosophical civilization that once thrived on the island.

Perhaps it is the density of all these factors that make Sri Lanka unique: in almost half a century of travel, I have not come across another land which concentrates so much intensity and diversity into so little a land mass. Ironically, it is this very density and multiplicity that now threaten to tear apart the once idyllic nation.

During my 40 years of association with the island, the human population has almost doubled, and managing this expansion will continue to be one of Sri Lanka’s formidable challenges.

It might be argued that a country so rich in natural resources could support a large population, and to much higher standards of living, but the rate of increase in the past fifty years has been so rapid that it did not allow time for necessary planning and infrastructure.

Fortunately, sound population policies have now helped Sri Lanka achieve moderate rates of growth, but absolute numbers will continue to grow for decades before stabilizing.

It has been said that the biggest remaining challenge in terms of human health and welfare is not so much to add years to life, but to add life to years. For a country like Sri Lanka that has already achieved high levels of life expectancy and other impressive social indicators, this is indeed the next major challenge.

The vision for the next 50 years should be to develop ways of improving the quality of life of all Sri Lankans. Difficult though it certainly is, such development will have meaning only if it is socially and environmentally sound.

Two key areas where improvements will have wide ranging impacts are energy and communications. Sri Lanka’s energy options have so far been confined to a narrow base — we all remember the dark days of power cuts and shortages not too long ago. We need to achieve a judicious and balanced mix of conventional and alternative sources of energy.

Our goal should be to achieve clean and cheap sources of energy that is available to all those who need it where they need it. Options such as solar, wind and biomass have all been proven, while other methods such as Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion — OTEC, for which Trincomalee Harbour is well suited — are less widely known and tested.

Several years ago, I wrote that the age of cheap fuel was over, and the age of cheap, unlimited energy is 50 years in the future. Scientific research carried out by dozens of teams around the world during the past few years — much of it in secrecy and away from the sceptical eyes of the media — now indicate that the age of cheap and clean energy may be imminent: well ahead of my predicted timeframe. If commercial applications become feasible in the coming decade, nobody in 2048 needs not worry about a shortage of energy.

In the coming years, improved telecommunications will revolutionize the lifestyle of all Sri Lankans. The teledensity (number of phones per person) is set to increase as wired and wireless options proliferate. Well before 2048, every village in Sri Lanka should have at least one working telephone - it’s more likely that every village would have its own multi-purpose communications facility enabling voice, fax and data transmissions.

The Internet will no longer be a luxury; my fear, as I discussed in a recent article (Asiaweek, Oct. 4, 1996) is that some people may spend too much time hooked on to the Internet.

Of course, improved telecommunications will not necessarily create better communications; if it did, we would have solved the problem in Northern Ireland years ago. The biggest challenge for all Sri Lankans in the coming century would be achieving better communications and understanding among the different ethnic, religious and cultural groups and sub-groups all of whom call this their motherland. For material progress and economic growth would come to nothing if we allow the primitive forces of territoriality and aggression to rule our minds.

In my youth I lived through the worst and most devastating of all wars in history. This enables me to feel the anguish of this once peaceful nation caught in a terrible conflict from which it is struggling to extricate itself. I am optimistic that the land that has shown tremendous resilience over the centuries and practised a rare type of tolerance could still return to normality — although we should ensure that grounds for conflict are eliminated forever.

We who have spent all our lives in what I regard as the most savage century in known history have little moral right to tell our children how they should manage their affairs in the next century. But they can certainly benefit from our mistakes, and ensure that they live in a century far better than mine.

As told to Nalaka Gunawardene. This article was originally published in the Sunday Observer, Sri Lanka, on December 16, 1998. It has been reprinted unedited.

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