09/24/2014 01:41 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2014

When 'Development' Is Only Straightforward: The Untold Story of Mr. Mendis

A few months ago, I was traveling to Hambantota to attend the opening ceremony of the World Conference on Youth, a large youth conference, which was held with an aim to mainstream youth in the Post-2015 development agenda.

We took the Colombo-Matara expressway to reach Matara. From the expressway exit in Matara, the road leading to Hambantota was a narrow one, that went ever and on, until it joined some larger way.

That day, the sky carried the color of deadened stones, and hung above the bare lands along the road. The rain kept pelting down on the window screens of the bus we were traveling. I saw rain drops rocketing towards me, while the gray clouds churned above. Everything appeared grey in this rain, even the air.

And while I was traveling, I couldn't help but think of Mr. Mendis, an elderly gentleman I used to work with.


Mr. Mendis has been working for most of his life at an organization I used to intern at, a culmination of eight-to-five working hours, taking crowded buses back and forth, a quarter-a-day arrack habit, and serious temperamental issues. He proudly wears years of faithful service on his sleeve, and is part of Sri Lanka's growing elderly population. He will soon be asked to retire from his job.

With the squeeze of high cost of living becoming more and more overwhelming, Mr. Mendis awaits this transition in life, plagued by the simple realization that he has not saved a cent. He now wonders, how he can go to sleep each night, only to wake up the next day and depend on his 24-year-old son who has just started his career.

He is a man living with cardiac problems. I have seen him anchored to conscious breathing, those long and tired breaths, colder by the hour. I have noticed the muscle spasms on his left shoulder each time he breaths, his constant body pains and his anxiety. A few months ago, he failed his cardiac stress test, and now hanging feebly, onto a hospital waiting list to get an angiogram done. It will take months or years until his turn arrives.

They have told him that he is not a 'priority patient'. Those who are not 'priority patients' hang onto long waiting lists. This is the dilemma of public health care in Sri Lanka, and its insufficient resources to meet the growing demand.

He cannot help but think of the time he used to be young and healthy. Memories come hurtling, while unraveling the life in slow motion. "How wonderful it is to start things than end," he thought. The corners of his eyes were wet, but wetness isn't a celebration.


The road to Hambantota International Convention Centre appeared straight, unlike the wires that threaded together the telephone poles by the road, dangling into space as birds started flying away disoriented from their perching.

I couldn't help but wonder, isn't there more to getting to where you're going than just knowing that the road is straight, fast or convenient? Any road or highway will take you to the same place, but how much we pay attention to those who we meet along the way to reach our destination?

Similarly, should the pathway to development only be a straight one? Should we reach our destination at any cost?

The World Conference on Youth cost Sri Lanka some Rs.500 million to host 1500 delegates from around the world. The enormous amounts of public money spent on massive infrastructure development projects from highways to luxurious shopping arcades and glamorous walking paths in urban areas further add to the irony of lack of public resources for people like Mr. Mendis.

Mr. Mendis represents the majority of this country, whose children may never attend a World Conference on Youth, who probably never reconcile with the fact that he hasn't been able to 'catch up' with the escalating cost of living and indebtedness, with his meager salary. He will never forgive himself for retiring from his job without a support mechanism or savings for his children.

The story of Mr. Mendis is only one in many untold stories. The question is, should we leave Mr. Mendis behind, simply to reach our destination quickly and conveniently as possible? What should we prioritize?

Like many other Millennials, I was born and raised into the millennium with destinies handcuffed to development goals and great expectations. As children we were enthralled by a crystal world that was believed to have great things lie within, waiting, until we come of age.

So we stood waiting and watching, with our button-like noses pressed against the crystal wall, until we were smacked awaken by the development goals that failed us, wars and inequalities that devastated us, and economic and environmental calamities that plunged us to the deepest grounds.

Twenty years later, I met the same set of enthralled dreamers, on my way to Hambantota, to contribute to a discussion on the world's next set of development goals.