When we gained Independence it was the classic model moving up towards prosperity. Alas, it did not work out that way...
The Fourth of February is a special day for all Sri Lankans. Most of us will eagerly take a break from our daily schedules, watch the Independence parade on TV, read a few feature stories about our Independence in the newspapers and, maybe, have a chitchat with friends about the current political scenario over dinner.
But when all these things have ended, only a very few would have reflected upon where we are 72 years after the Independence.
Our first Prime Minister, D.S. Senanayake, who was known as the Father of the Nation, addressing the crowd on that eventful day said :
“We believe in life and brotherhood and justice for all citizens. Freedom of speech and freedom of religious worship are integral features of our way of life. Without them, we cannot be a true democracy.”
He also emphasised in his speech that all citizens should work together for the country’s development forgetting ethnic and religious differences.
At that time Ceylon (Sri Lanka) was Britain’s model Commonwealth country. After the Second World War, it was a good middle-size country with fewer than 10 million people.
It had a relatively good standard of education, with two universities of high quality, and an efficient Civil Service largely of locals, and experienced politicians in representative government starting with City Council elections in the 1930s.
When we gained Independence in 1948, it was the classic model of gradual evolution to independence and moving up towards prosperity. Alas, it did not work out that way.
One of the main reasons was that successive politicians did not heed to the advice given by our first Prime Minister and, as a result, we paid a big price for not doing so.
This made me ponder – “How far have we progressed since our Independence?”
While we have claimed our sovereignty from the foreign rule 72 years ago, do we truly have freedom of living in a dignified manner? Or, are there large disparities between rich and poor or between common citizen and political influential person?
Yes, we do have. Every day, we experience this disparity closely, but we have become so immune to it that we turn a blind eye towards it. We are a nation where the richest 20 per cent enjoy more than half the total household income of the country, while the poorest 20 per cent get only 5 per cent.
The situation of the poorest 10 per cent is worse. They get only1.8 per cent or less. Furthermore, income gaps among different regions are even wider than the income inequality at the national level.
"The idea of Sri Lanka tomorrow should be of one land embracing many peoples. ..a nation characterised by profound differences of caste, creed, colour, culture, cuisine, conviction, costume, and custom can still rally around a democratic consensus ..."
The imbalances in opportunities and wide gaps in income levels, as well as in living conditions, among regions and between the rich and the poor had not been addressed adequately during the past seven decades. It’s a sad truth.
This regional imbalance is visible even in the industrial sector when you consider that over 80 % of industrial enterprises are concentrated in the Western Province, while other provinces have very few industries.
All successive governments failed in ensuring an inclusive growth process which yields broad-based benefits to all, by providing equitable access to economic participation among all citizens, particularly aiming at improving the livelihoods of the poor.
Of course, in a number of fields like literacy rate, electrification, provision of pure water etc., we certainly have much to be pleased about but much remains to be done.
However, one thing that scares me the most regarding the present situation is whether we have maintained the secular fabric of our country.
As the first Prime Minister rightly said, the foundation of Sri Lanka was that every citizen would have the freedom to practise his or her faith and this right would be protected, but the frequent news of mob-related violence that have been on the rise since past few years has been concerning. The unfortunate part is that some politicians have been seen supporting the groups.
Ethnic or religious disunity runs deep. It infects the total nation and the hearts of all Sri Lankans alike. Since without conscious, deliberate, and sustained effort, no one can remain unaffected by its corrosive influence, all groups must realise that such a problem cannot be easily resolved.
The transformation of a nation ultimately depends on the initiative and change of character of its citizens. Therefore, this may be an opportune moment to let us advance with an unflinching determination to lend effective support to the resolution of the ethnic and religious issues that are hindering the progress of this country.
Next important issue is finding out how we can transform our Independence into a meaningful one. First, we must ensure the growth and stability of racial and religious harmony. Both are at low ebbs today. Healing the wounds and building a society in which people of diverse backgrounds live as members of one family are the most pressing issues confronting us today. Our peace, our prosperity, and even our standing in the International Community depend on the resolution of these issues.
To build a society in which the rights of all its members are respected and guaranteed, all three races must be animated with the spirit of optimism and faith in the eventual realization of their highest aspirations. Everyone must recognize that unity is essential for their common survival. Everyone must recognize that there is only one nation – the Sri Lankan nation. Everyone must recognize that a harmoniously functioning society that permits the full expression of the potential of all persons can resolve the social and economic problems which are now confounding a society wracked with disunity.
When we talk about. meaningful Independence, another important matter which needs to be considered is political accountability. It is the key to the democratic consolidation, which is an essential requisite for the protection of Independence and sovereignty of the country.
This means, we need reforms that will substantially improve the role, the processes and accountability of our Parliament to the extent that it is not only deliberating, but anticipating, and leading. As a representative institution, our Parliament should not only want to have public confidence in its motives and actions but should want to genuinely deserve that confidence.
Today, we have a unique opportunity of creating a political system and an environment where nearly all citizens can appreciate and participate in government and politics. This can be done only as long as the idea of political integrity and efficacy is built into our parliamentary system. We cannot expect citizens to get involved in social development if the politicians practice mindless politics rather than act as honourable and capable men and women. If the politicians themselves do not believe in our country’s ineffable capacity for good governance, how do we expect citizens to extend their support to develop the country.
We need to put the right people to work. We need to cultivate a generation of an educated workforce. We need to take the towns to the villages. That is the meaning of true independence. It means ‘taking the road less travelled” or sometimes, that “unconventional path” devising different solutions to our problems.
Thanks to the corrupt politicians, our democracy may be freewheeling, boisterous, corrupt, and inefficient. But, despite many stresses and strains over the years, it has survived, and even at times, flourished.
So, the idea of Sri Lanka tomorrow should be of one land embracing many peoples. It is the idea that a nation characterised by profound differences of caste, creed, colour, culture, cuisine, conviction, costume, and custom can still rally around a democratic consensus – namely, that everyone needs to agree only on the ground rules of how to disagree.
It is this consensus on how to manage without consensus that has led Sri Lanka to exist for the last 70 years, even as it faced challenges that led many to predict its disintegration.
Independence Day doesn’t mean one day of nationalist pride, it means a commitment to serve the nation in a truly inclusive way. Until we eradicate these social evils, intolerance and learn to accept differences and celebrate them, the people in Sri Lanka will never begin to prosper.