Living beyond my Outstation

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

A version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday September 24 2014



Colman's Column3

Most capital cities of centralised nations draw life from the provinces. What shocked me was that Colombans call any area that is not Colombo “outstation”.

Here in Uva we have been getting some unusual attention because of the Provincial Council election. Colombo journalists ventured out of their comfort zone to blink at the Uva natives like anthropologists discovering strange indigenous tribes previously hidden from civilisation.

I upset a few people on Facebook recently. I was responding to an article about the takeover of Odels by Softlogic. I wondered if the elderly ladies queuing up for water during our prolonged drought would be spending much time thinking about Otara as a model entrepreneur and philanthropist. Surveys conducted by the Department of Census and Statistics show that poverty has increased in Uva Province despite poverty in Sri Lanka as a whole having significantly declined. According to those statistics, Moneragala is the poorest district and Siyambalanduwa in Moneragala is the poorest DS Division.

I commented on Facebook: “So much about Sri Lanka is Colombo only. There is a whole different universe out here that you Colombians have no conception of. Colombo is a different country entirely from the rest of Sri Lanka.” One commenter accused me of “latent anger and simmering animosity”. “Try not to let your ‘anti-Colombo’ sentiment blind you to the positive energies that abound, yes, even here in Colombo! Otara and Odel are iconic not because of their business value or cash count – but because they proved that a dream, with hard work and acumen, can become more than just a reality.”

Well- good luck with that!

Metropole versus Province

There is a tendency in most nations for the capital city to drain life and people from the rest of the country. South Korea has a population of 50 million. The capital Seoul has a population of 9.8 million. The Seoul National Capital Area, which is smaller than London, has 24.5 million inhabitants making it the world’s second largest metropolitan area and easily the most densely populated city in the OECD. Metropolitan Tokyo is large enough be a G20 economy if it were an independent country. Cities like Paris and Istanbul dominate the economies of their respective countries as well. All capital cities in Europe countries with centralised government are growing similarly. London started from a larger base.

The Great Wen

William Cobbett (1763 – 1835) was an English pamphleteer, farmer and journalist. He called London “the great wen”. A wen is a benign encysted tumour of the skin containing sebaceous matter. “BUT, what is to be the fate of the great wen of all? The monster, called, by the silly coxcombs of the press, the metropolis of the empire?” The view that London, far from being a glittering metropolis, is in fact the source of provincial Britain’s woes persists today. Today, even a government minister, Vince Cable, the UK Business Secretary, warns that London is “becoming a giant suction machine, draining the life out of the rest of the country”.

In its annual “health check” of British cities, the think-tank The Centre for Cities shows that the gap is widening between the capital and other major centres of population. Eighty-thousand people in the 22- to 30- age group moved to London between 2009 and 2013, compared with 31,600 who left London – a net inflow to the capital of 48,400.

Between 1997 and 2012, London’s share of Britain’s economic output grew from around 19% to around 22%. The capital’s economy sucks in workers from all over Britain—indeed, from all over the world causing great pressure on housing.

I recently published an article about London being voted the top crap town in Britain. Rich financiers and Russian kleptocrats have made London unaffordable for the working class. One reader, who lives in Derbyshire, commented: “For most British people, London is foreign; your piece highlights some of the reasons. Since London is the seat of central government, this entails the feeling among many of us that we’re being governed by a foreign power, remote from our concerns. This intuition is relevant to the support for Scottish independence and, on a ‘lower’ level, for the rising dissatisfaction with Westminster in northern England”.

Uva must be a foreign country to Colombans. Colombo is like a different planet for we yokels.


Dublin is the nerve centre and the control focus of nearly every aspect of Irish life. Because the country is small, not mountainous and has good straight roads, many people commute daily to the capital from all over Ireland to work in Dublin.

The poet Kevin Higgins, who is from Galway, which has distinctive character of its own and a fine arts and culture scene, paints a picture of Dublin somewhat similar to my view of Colombo. This Dublin is epitomised by celebrity philanthropists and self-publicists Bono and Bob Geldof. Kevin resented Geldof’s intervention in the Scottish independence debate. “Apologies to the people of Scotland for Bob Geldof’s jaded ramblings. He represents no one in Ireland. When you vote on Thursday, as my mother used to say, ‘don’t mind that fella’”.

Kevin suggests creating a new republic: “Perhaps the Republic of Ireland should give enforced independence to South County Dublin. … No more Bono or Sir Bob… They could live in their own little country of South County Dublin, with a permanent Fine Gael majority government and fly the Union Jack all they want”.

Is Otara the Bono or bob Geldof of Sri Lanka? Rock musician Julian Cope said: “One of the problems with Bono and Bob Geldof’s view of the world is that they are ultimately Dublin Irish. The Dublin Irish are a kind of Viking landed gentry who can’t stand the rest of Ireland. I think one of the reasons those two charge around trying to save Africa is so that they don’t have to hang around in Ireland.”


In the UK, towns that thrived because of heavy industry now have no jobs at all or precariat jobs like call centres. There have been attempts to transfer government departments out of London. Radical suggestions have been made that the capital should me moved to Manchester or Middlesbrough. Those in the commentariat who like living in London and do not want to be transferred out to the wilderness suggest that people in distressed areas should come to London for work. People may be willing to do the shortish trip from Peterborough to Kings Cross every morning even though it is very expensive. Doing a three-hour journey from Middlesbrough to London every morning would be impossible and train fares are prohibitive.

The majority of people in Scotland may have voted to stay in the UK but 44.7% voted for independence. Talk to anyone in towns and cities in the north of England and you will not hear much affection for London or Londoners. Come to Uva province and you will not hear much affection for Colombo.

In its report, Cities Outlook 2014, it says there are “green shoots” of recovery in places other than London. It names Edinburgh as the second most successful city in generating private-sector jobs, followed by Birmingham and Manchester. It calls for major cities to have more power and funding devolved to them. The Centre argues that Greater Manchester and Greater Leeds each produce more than the entire Welsh economy, but have none of the powers enjoyed by the Cardiff Assembly. Devolution of power in Sri Lanka is a contentious issue.

Like other capital cities across the world, Colombo, gets its strength from many diverse and talented people being located together. The infrastructure throughout the country has improved greatly but it would not be possible, because of the terrain, to commute daily from “outstation” to Colombo. Travelling by train in Sri Lanka is still an endurance test. The answer must be continuing infrastructure improvements in the rest of the country and devolving power and resources. The biggest hurdle is to change the mindset of Colombo dwellers so that they remember that there is a whole country out there containing 18,170,191 fellow Sri Lankans.

I used to love Odels and I admire Otara. I love Colombo and will probably end up living happily there when I am too old to cope with the rigours of “outstation” life. I have lived in Ireland and England and in those countries too there is a huge divide between the metropolis and the rest of the country. Not as strong as in Sri Lanka. London is a foreign country to someone living in Yorkshire. London is a country on its own dominated by financiers.

I hear there will be a presidential election next January. Despite the drop in UPFA support in the Uva Provincial Council election, the insular mind set of Colombans will prevent Ranil Wickremasinghe standing a chance against Mahinda Rajapaksa.