Controversy over Casinos Social, Economic and Political Context

28 October 2013 04:19 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Human social life is full of contradictions, mainly due to the inherent tension between nature and culture. We are often torn between emotion and reason, between naked self -interest and compassion for others, between material greed and spirituality, etc. etc.

Such contradictions manifest in our daily lives and in society at large. While Sri Lanka today displays a very high level of religiosity, social evils have become as pervasive, illustrating one of the above contradictions. The present regime has done a great deal to facilitate the rising tide of religiosity and superstition, often at the expense of reason. So much so, we have university academics conducting Bodi Poojas to bestow divine blessings on their colleagues  who are seriously ill.  
Material support for religious institutions, naming roads and public places after leading but low-key Buddhist monks and sponsoring major religious events are indications of the above commitment. There are other gestures like the intermittent public display of the relics of the Lord Buddha, at times brought down from other countries for the purpose.

"  The attractiveness of this kind of investment, from the point of view of the government is that it is a short cut to earn much needed foreign exchange as Casinos attract people with big money who are at the same time addicted to gambling and other social vices "
The government’s policy statement on alcohol ‘Mathata Thitha', is based mostly on moral rather than social and public health considerations.
Similarly, occasional public pronouncements about the negative impact of mass migration of labour are hardly translated into rational policies to address one of the major social and economic issues facing the country.

The reasons are obvious. As for alcohol, it is a lucrative business for many people including some of our politicians and their supporters.
Mass migration of labour is even more important as it brings in the largest chunk of our export earnings, in addition to relieving the pressure of potential unemployment and increasing of the cost of living.

So, notwithstanding social and moral concerns expressed by many on all three issues, ground realities in the country leave little space for the regime to contemplate on long-term public policies to address these issues.
If we first look at the alcohol issue, in spite of the 2006 Alcohol and Tobacco Act that led to a total ban on alcohol advertising,  the drinking habit has spread steadily across the country in recent years.



It is common sense that a simple ban on advertising cannot deter the spread of the drinking habit which is facilitated by a whole host of social factors such as the conspicuous display of alcohol outlets and liquor dens, overseas migration of youth, generous duty-free allowances, close connection between alcohol and major social and cultural events like weddings, private parties and new year celebrations,  peer pressure and social and economic stress.

Recent official musings about the possibility of legalizing illicit alcohol, popularly known as Kasippu, are motivated by the same ground realities.

So, when we look at the present controversy over the proposed establishment of a major Casino complex in Colombo, it shows how desperate we have become with regard to the need to attract direct foreign investment, no matter what that investment means in terms of long-term social, cultural and public health consequences. The attractiveness of this kind of investment, from the point of view of the government is that it is a short cut to earn much needed foreign exchange as Casinos attract people with big money who are at the same time addicted to gambling and other social vices. While the rest of Asia concentrates on export-led growth, we seem to have chosen the easier avenues of earning foreign money such as export of labour, tourism and gambling. Foreign exchange that flows into the country through whatever channel helps bridge the persisting trade gap and service the massive stock of foreign debts accumulated over time, though it would not help achieve sustainable development.

" Material support for religious institutions, naming roads and public places after leading but low-key Buddhist monks and sponsoring major religious events are indications of the above commitment. There are other gestures like the intermittent public display of the relics of the Lord Buddha, at times brought down from other countries for the purpose. The government’s policy statement on alcohol ‘Mathata Thitha', is based mostly on moral rather than social and public health considerations "
The reason is that we do not build up the productive capacities of the country in terms of human resource development,new product development and diversification of the economy.

The flow of money into the country without the promotion of local production can only be inflationary, leading to higher cost of living and associated problems such as exodus of skilled and unskilled labour, malnutrition, crime, corruption and greater social disparities.
Thailand learned a bitter lesson by promoting sex tourism in the recent past.

It ended up  with a colossal HIV epidemic that left many men and women dead or terminally ill, destroying their families and infecting even unborn children.
It took a massive effort on the part of the social scientists and public health specialists there to formulate evidence-based policies and programmes to arrest the trend and bring the epidemic under control.

There are no short cuts to economic development and prosperity. This is what we learn from the rest of the world.
Countries that are technologically advanced and blessed with highly-skilled human resources, no matter how big or small the countries are,  have successfully faced the stiff competition for foreign direct investment and markets for commodities and services. Germany is a good example in Europe in this regard.

USA’s persisting competitiveness is due to the presence of many world renowned universities, highly sophisticated research institutes, large corporations with huge R & D budgets, massive public programes to promote cutting edge research and continuing innovations in many fields by the products of local and foreign universities. Many Asian countries have learned from the experience of such countries and are not looking for short cuts to economic prosperity. This is what the countries like China, South Korea, India and China teach us. Our policy makers seem to know better.

Sri Lanka is by no means an industrial country. Industrial sector is no longer expanding or diversifying. We export labour to Korea and import every conceivable industrial product from there. This is far more lucrative to our mercantile capitalists who dominate the so-called corporate sector. You only have to look at what the big companies do in this country to understand this simple fact. Agricultural sector is stagnant and is largely confined to tea, paddy and a few minor export crops. There does not seem be any substantial effort to diversify the sector by promoting new agricultural commodities, let alone agro-based industries. We import Australian oranges when there are many areas in the country that are suitable for growing citrus fruits. Cashew nuts are so expensive in this country today that they are already beyond the means of the average consumer. It is well known that cashew nuts are much cheaper in other countries. This is in spite of the fact that there are many areas in the country where systematic cultivation of this crop at a large enough scale can be easily promoted. The same is true for many other agricultural commodities that are in demand both here and abroad. Instead of diversifying the agricultural sector, we have diversified the Ministry of Agriculture by dissecting it into many uncoordinated Ministries! In spite of the establishment of an Institute of post-harvest technology in the country, much of the local fruits in the market are not suitable for human consumption due to all kinds of things the traders do to prematurely ripen the fruits collected from local farmers. It is far more lucrativeto  sell imported and locally produced fruits on road sides than to cultivate it. So, rural youth have migrated to urban areas to sell fruits on the pavement rather than engage in fruit cultivation in rural areas.

It is against the above background that we have to understand the government’s move to promote Casino –based tourism. None of those who protest against it, including some of the coalition partners, does not seem to go beyond a moral argument and does not offer an alternative path that the country should follow in order to get the country out of its present predicament. Yet, given their ideological orientations, shaped by archaic nativist thinking, one cannot expect them to go beyond a moral argument. Government’s alcohol policy introduced in 2006 under similar moral pressure has done virtually nothing to arrest the worsening trends in alcohol abuse and related harm to society. The moral crusaders then were most probably unaware of the existence of a well-developed body of scientific literature on the subject. How can they be any different today? This, of cause is not to underestimate the value of democratic protests that certainly play a major role in promoting good governance in the country. In a country where the science has already been pushed to the background, it is  natural for people to turn to moral crusaders to make a point on an important social issue.

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