“I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion about the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.”
Many of our rural folks have been conditioned and brainwashed with a notion that poverty is caused mainly by exploitation of one class by the other. The influx of Socialist Marxist thinking, in addition to the sheer arrogance and insensitivity of the ruling class which was dominated and spearheaded by educated, English-speaking elites, who were clustered around big cities in the country, advanced the acceleration process instead of reduction or elimination of the impoverishing progression of the masses.
In addition, with Sri Lanka gaining independence from the British in the mid Twentieth Century– at the height of the Cold War- that Marxian-based propaganda had a penetrating effect on the unsophisticated intellect of the poor men and women who did not know any kind of socio-political governance except nearly five hundred years of foreign dominance and being subjugated to a feudal system and as serfs of an emerging mercantilism-enriched class in the Nineteenth Century.
Kumari Jayewardene in her book, ‘Nobodies to Somebodies’, most vividly spells out the chronology as well as the social structure that lent itself for the rise of a class of wealthy landowners and traders in Colombo and other big cities, mainly Jaffna, Galle and Kandy. She writes thus: “Members of another group of Sri Lankans, who were to form an important part of the emergent 19th century bourgeoisie, were landowners, whose holdings provided them with a means of accumulation and later, a basis for expanded growth in the plantation era. Just as the monopolistic policies of the Dutch and the British had located a stratum of officials in the cinnamon industry and endowed them with a basis for growth, their administrative policies also created a group of Sri Lankan officials, called Mudaliyars. Peebles (1973:1) has defined them as an economic and social status group “mediating between the alien rulers and the bulk of the indigenous population” performing functions that the foreign rulers were “unable or unwilling to do”.
Graduating from Mercantilism to Capitalism did not happen overnight. Nor did it occur without any socio-economic costs to the various stakeholders of an Island-nation. Emergence of a middleclass with a reasonable amount of spending power and access to factors of production saw to it that this developing socio-economic class developed their own ambitions and aspirations that went beyond just comfortable living and hobnobbing with powers that be. Although Kumari Jayewardene describes the mechanisms and means by which this emergent Mercantilist class accumulated wealth and proximity to the colonial officialdom at the time, she stays away from looking deeper into the mechanics which were employed by the British civil servants who held deciding powers to award contracts to the would-be-dealers of arrack renting business which, according Kumari, the main means by which this accumulation of enormous benefits of a rising specter of capitalism. Yet the total absence of trickling-down effect of such accumulation of wealth and business knowhow to the bottom dwellers of our society contributed to the widening of the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, the long-term effects of which would manifest themselves much later in Sri Lankan society.
This widening of the gulf between two economic classes was not only in one or two parts of the country, it was spread among all parts and corners of the land, from Dondra to Point Pedro and Colombo to Batticaloa.
However, it was more pronounced in the rapidly developing urban areas where the limited availability of land met with the challenges of a migrating population to these urban centres. The vicarious result of this process of unchallenged and disorderly development was the degrading of the ‘have-nots’ into poverty levels from which those who fell into it could not come out.
When Sri Lanka obtained Independence, the macro picture as well as the micro dynamics changed. With the influx of locals into decision making positions and politicians becoming all- powerful, the left wing politicos, advancing the cause of themselves in the pretext of advancing the cause of the ‘have-nots’, presented a mirage of a utopian society as the economic ‘promised land’.
Localisation of politics, even though it was a logical and historical necessity, was not the main cause of creation of poverty instead of wealth. Infestation of crude and unsophisticated methods employed by some semi or uneducated politicians who entered into politics saw their power as a means to fattening their own personal purses. Corruption, in the pretext of accelerating the process of getting things done, set in as a constant in the dynamics of social movement. There is no looking back from this all-powerful yet utterly degrading human folly.
In every human society, whether ancient, medieval or modern, corruption of the mind through material rewards has existed in varying degrees. But for those societies that embraced democracy with accountability and transparency of all transactions executed by government, this corruption-process was checked quite regularly and punishment dispensed to those who were found guilty of such corrupt practices. For those nations which became newly independent, this process posed a sever challenge. Good governance became a byword for acceleration of the process of getting things done at any and all costs.
The notion of getting things done at any and all costs had a latent factor- parting with a ‘santosam’ as a mark of gratitude for the favour. These ‘santosams’ may have been, more often than not, solid green cash and in some other cases representing foreign trips of pleasure and leisure in the world’s deluxe holiday resorts, houses and cars and even a good time with the fairer sex!
The worm of corruption began to find its way into the body politic of Sri Lanka as in all other developing countries. ‘Santosams’ in the shade of hundreds became thousands, then hundreds of thousands until they became millions.
What is being alleged against the last regime is that in order to receive lucrative contracts from the Government, they had to part with these nefarious and unspeakable rewards even prior to the award of such contracts.
The price of contracts went up due to these awards of rewards without any addition of value to the contract. And those rewards were not injected back into the nation’s economy; they went into either foreign banks or got lost in the realm of the unknown.
Consequently, the ultimate costs of the product of these contracts were artificially inflated and those who are at the receiving end of the benefits of these projects could not afford the price of utilizing these benefits for inflation has eaten into their affordability. Corruption began the process of feeding on man’s inability to withstand the inflated costs, the eventual result being the creation of poverty.
The direct and indirect effects of this process are visible everywhere and the lengths and breadths that an ordinary man or woman has to travel to get a simple thing done, he or she has to mortgage their property, sell one of the meager assets, or if it’s a member of the fairer sex, even sacrifice her precious virginity. It is prevalent in every sector in our society. Trade, industries, education, infrastructure development, land alienation or wherever the government intervention is required, the exchange of a ‘santosam’ for getting a job done is practiced as if it’s part of the natural and original process.
Pundits and media personnel are paying great attention to this aspect of our social dynamic but any deceleration of the process of corruption does not seem to be in the offing. What is even more disheartening is the total complacency and apathy shown by the parties that part with such gifts, santosams and crude rewards to those who are charged with dispensing justice and fair-play. From both ends, giving as well as receiving, the rotten process is eating into our social system. Corrupt practices have become a second nature to those who occupy high offices and departure from that accepted system is considered bordering on lunacy and inefficiency. Corruption has become equal to poverty and vice versa.
Leaders can make a change but total parting of ways seems impossible for corrupt politicians who desire rewards for favours as the sustenance of a robust democracy takes precedence over going after practitioners of corruption and other anti-social activities. In such a convoluted context, we are all faced with no choice. Containment instead of elimination of corruption has become our limited goal.
Even containment of corruption could be construed as interference with the system that is already in play. The average man and woman are plagued with a dilemma after dilemma and in the interest of achieving their own limited resolutions, they will increasingly resort to cruel and wicked ways which will consume not only them as a whole but the very fabric of our society.
The writer can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org