Three more days and another new year; 2019 would dawn with sky rockets, firecrackers and “31st Night” bashes in Colombo. For the fun loving urban middle class, the Constitutional crisis, the threat on “democracy” there was a month ago, is no more. For them, it’s yet another New Year with grand expectations; joy, good health, peace and prosperity. No different to the sky rockets, firecrackers, barbecues, beverages, music and dancing of yesteryears and what was wished for one year ago and every year before that.
Beneath all that fun and frolic in the city the political crisis festers into 2019. A scary situation, a crisis that demands alternate answers to resurrect a new “democratic” State in place of the present corrupt and the crumbling. This crisis is many faceted. From Ministry Secretaries, Department heads to District Secretaries and down to Grama Niladharies, the whole State administration is corrupt and inefficient. The Police Department needs serious reforms to turn it into a civil department with public acceptance and trust. Independence and integrity of the judiciary is lot more than a “historic decision” of the SC that pleases the urban social activists. Clean and efficient it has to be, to be independent. The free market economy has topped all that with heavy corruption and growing disparities between urban and rural life.
Answers don’t come with blind faith on individuals. Getting back to an insanely corrupt parliament on a SC ruling is not getting back to “democracy”. All political parties represented in parliament led by autocratic leaders represent “wheeler dealers” growing out of this free market economy. Such political parties don’t take principle positions on any issues.They work on cheap, populist slogans instead. Free market economies are not only inherently corrupt, they also breed ethno-religious extremism.That’s one major reason the Tamil National Question remains unresolved this long though ITAK leaders would continue to believe in these leader seven after the New Year dawn.
Within all that the liberty to roam for employment and to decide and choose his or her basket of goodies came to be interpreted as “freedom and democracy”. The “free and open market” with a growing urban middle class struggling to increase its purchasing power too is being showcased as “development”. The rural folk, that’s 70.4 per cent of the population of this country, Sinhala, Tamil and Muslims all included, live in the periphery of the slow moving and almost stagnant market. They lack “buying power” to be of any worth in this consumer society. Buying power is not “purchases” of the poor who “buy to live”. “Buying power” is the “extra rupee” of the urban middle class who spend on extra comfort. It is therefore not just cash flow and profits that decide poverty in neo liberal economies. It’s the marginalising of rural life, the neglect of State funded priority services like education, health and public transport that defines poverty.
Within that lopsided market,“poverty alleviation” is a crude game of numbers. “Poverty line” drawn around Rs.4,000 per person per month claims Sri Lanka’s poor is around 5.0 to 6.0 per cent while the “Household Income & Expenditure Survey” by the Census & Statistics Department says an urban family of 04 needs a monthly income of Rs.58,930 for basic living while in rural society it is Rs.38,274 per month. Over decades, this has also created a growing and a gnawing disparity with 20 per cent of the population enjoying 52.6 per cent of the per capita income, leaving the majority with little or no access to basics in life.
"Import of vehicles should be restricted giving preference strictly for public transport and other productive use, to ease growing traffic congestions"
Yet within this “free for the filthy rich” market economy, no government can plan for sustainable economic growth with equal opportunities and access to social benefits. Planning in a free market economy is about opening up for more and more investors. This leads to increasing restrictions on access to health, education, public commuting, access to markets and cultural and intellectual life. Break down of moral and social values are unavoidable accompaniments. We thus have to re define “development” People need for a “contended life”. Not only in terms of material purchases but also in terms of “cultural and intellectual life”.
Sketch for “2019 Manifesto”
“Development” defined for a contended life, we need to work on a “National Policy on Socio Economic Development” that should include,
A. Education - reforms seriously thought and planned for pre, primary, secondary, tertiary, university and post university higher education including adult education. Curricula should focus on cultural and secular life. “Free education” to be defined in terms of marginalised, the poor and the less privileged. In-service training and regular knowledge improvement/advancement for teaching profession needs inclusion, making teaching a socially respected profession at the high end.
B. Health - needs overall change in perception from “curative health” to “preventive community health”. Major focus to gradually reduce patients seeking treatment in hospitals. Curative health needs strong referral system across both State and private sector. Preventive health sector personnel should have improved modern training.Regular eye, dental and ENT clinics should be compulsory as State responsibility from pre-school to Grade V; 10 years in a child’s life. Focus being to produce a healthy future generation.
C. Public transport – government to take full responsibility for an efficient, affordable and a comfortable public service. Import of vehicles should be restricted giving preference strictly for public transport and other productive use, to ease growing traffic congestions. City commuting should have efficient linking between rail and bus transport to reduce individual private vehicles entering cities. Schools should promote bicycle travel with pupils resident within 02 km enrolled to public schools and all “school service” vehicles banned.
D. National economy - should be “people driven” and not “investor” driven. Should be planned with a guarantee on a “minimum national wage” for “decent work”. Economy to be regulated, with focus on the South Asianmarket. Rural economy should be planned to greatly reduce migration in search of employment to cities and Mideast. Economic planning should accommodate adequate green canopy in all cities, guaranteeing a forest cover not below that in 1990,with guarantee on wetland and coast conservation.
E. Agriculture - requires a wholly different approach to subsidised farming. Subsidised paddy farming in the dry zone needs rethinking.It leaves labour idling for half the year and large tracts of seasonally underutilised land. Complete neglect of post-harvest technology for most agri-products denies stabilised market prices throughout the year with glut harvests leaving farmers at the mercy of middlemen.
F. Cultural and intellectual development – economic development should facilitate the development of a culturally advanced Citizen. All development planning thus should include modern facilities in all provinces for modern museums on different subjects, modern and multidimensional libraries, fully equipped auditoriums, theatre halls and also recreational centres and parks for both children and adults.
G. Media – State media should be taken out of ministerial authority and placed under an independent public authority. Unlike private print media, all electronic media using digital frequency spectrums should be regulated for social responsibility. An independent authority should be responsible for short term lease of digital frequencies and their terms and conditions in detail, made public.
The “challenge” is to create an
inclusive “State” that can bear responsibility for such a broad and complex new approach for “development” with a paradigm change. The problem lies with the Sri Lankan State. It was conceived, established and improved upon by the British over a period of about 130 years as a “Unitary” State. When Ceylon was handed over to the Colombo elite as an independent State, centralising was structured and firm, centred in Colombo. That centralised colonial State was re fashioned as a Sinhala Buddhist Unitary State by both the UNP and the SLFP leaderships. In the first parliament, the UNP government disfranchised and turned plantation Tamil labour into “Stateless” wage earners.
Usurping of power by Sinhala Buddhist leaderships continued with Sinhala made the only official language in 1956. The first Republican Constitution in 1972 made certain the Sinhala Buddhist Unitary State remained further strengthened by fostering the Buddhist Sangha as a privileged religious clergy (Chapter 02 Article 09 says the State as a duty will protect and foster the “Buddha Sasana”, ie., the clergy). This allowed the Colombo centred governments to directly patronise Buddhist monks who became a legitimate political factor in the Sinhala South. The Colombo centred Sinhala Buddhist Unitary State since independence reveals how “development” has left the rural Sinhala people marginalised.
The lesson learnt is, a “Centralised Unitary State”, would leave “development” as a privilege of the Colombo centred urban life.Development should ensure “a fully contented life to all Citizens with dignity, peace and stability”.
What could then be the alternate model? A way out would be to,
1. Have a carefully regulated open market that will not turn citizens into screaming consumers in an atomised society
2. Shift investments to planned and identified economic sectors with strict conditions laid down for employment and safeguards on employee rights
3. Restructure local government and provincial councils as participatory democratic organs of governance
4. Ensure public policy making is open and participatory and is adopted within a national development plan
All or most of these would need a new Constitution dialogued in society, consented to and approved by the people. I would propose the APRC Final Report (accessed here - http://www.groundviews.org/wp-content/uploads/July-20-APRC-Final-Report.pdf?x98647) as the main “discussion document” for 2019 to have all its “Greetings and Good Wishes” worthy of the year.