Andrew Buncombe: Regrettable damage by any measure

Delhi Notebook: Sri Lanka's government may have won the war, but there is still a lot of work to do
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The Independent Online

I was in Sri Lanka when I got the call that our apartment had been gutted by fire. The only thing that really mattered, of course, was that my partner, who emerged from the shower to discover an air-conditioning unit belching flames and the living room full of smoke, was unhurt, albeit a bit shaken. But when I got back to Delhi I discovered 20 years-worth of books charred and blackened, stinking black ash everywhere and the sickening, headache-inducing smell of burning.

The man who rented us the unit claimed there was no way his machine could have been at fault (I was tempted to tip him over the balcony when he said the fire was "regrettable", but concluded that that might not help). The landlord maintained there was nothing wrong with the wiring, though he has agreed to pick up the bill for repairs.

This morning a team of eight workmen set about cleaning, sanding and repainting. They say it will take a week, maybe two, so it could have been a lot worse.

In contrast, I couldn't help thinking about the people in Sri Lanka whom I'd gone to try and see but whom the government is keeping off-limits to journalists, in refugee camps surrounded by razor wire.

The UN reckons there are up to 300,000 Tamil refugees. The government says some could stay in the camps for two years. These are people who have lost everything; many have had family members killed. It will take a lot more than eight workmen for them to put their lives back together. Sri Lanka's government may have won the war, but there is still a lot of work to do.

Fast-tracking the poor

I love India's railways, in particular the long-distance Shatabdi Express service. I like the fact that, amid the country's seeming chaos, the express trains almost always leave on time and are rarely more than 10 minutes late getting to their destination. Could the train service become even better? The newly appointed railways minister, Mamata Banerjee, says she wants trains "with a human face". She wants to provide concessions for the poorest travellers: "It is a social obligation that we have to fulfill. We will try and give economic freedom to those sections." I'm all for that.

Gandhi bides his time

Is he or isn't he? I predicted recently that Rahul Gandhi, the great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru who is tipped as India's prime minister in the not-too-distant future, was poised for a senior cabinet job. Now I read that Rahul, one of the main tacticians behind the Congress Party's re-election, has opted to stay out of the cabinet to allow the premier, Manmohan Singh, "his space and freedom". I still think it is only a matter of time before Gandhi, 38, steps up to be anointed.