As we celebrate 71 years of Independence from the British, challenges that await us as a sovereign state are formidable. On that account, there seems to be hardly anything to be celebrated. As politicians, military officials, ambassadors as well as common people gather to the Galle Face Green to celebrate independence, the challenges that confront us as a nation remain, blurring our modest achievements into oblivion.
Here are a dozen such challenges, to occupy the mind, one for each month until the next independence day comes to the Galle Face Green!
1) Despite violent and armed challenges to the sovereignty of our country we have been able to maintain constitutional governance. A desperate effort to wrest state power through a constitutional coup was defeated barely two months ago. Yet the political ramifications of the developments that took place during that coup, seem to have a bearing on the future of governance. Yet it highlights the ever-present danger the presence of an executive Presidency poses to constitutional governance. Although brave and unflinching judicial action has saved the day, for the time being, the need to have a system where the constitution, instead of a monarch that uses the constitution as a facade rules the country, remains the dire need of the day.
2) The constitutional changes that had been a standout promise of the good governance mandate( now largely abandoned) seem very unlikely to become reality, despite the Report of the Panel of Experts being presented to the Parliament by the PM. In view of the upcoming national level elections, neither of the main parties of the coalition seems too keen on presenting a draft constitution in an atmosphere where the Maha Sangha and the nationalist elements are hell-bent on preventing such a new Constitution. Accusations, largely unfounded, that a scheme of Federalism has been introduced, seems to polarize the body politic beyond a point of consensus. Given the numbers in Parliament which would become a constitutional assembly in the eventuality of drafting a new constitution, it is almost impossible.
3) Despite the conclusion of the civil war ten years ago, reconciliation remains as elusive as ever. Many issues with regard to releasing of land occupied by the military in the North and East, Persons who have gone missing during the last phases of the war, devolution of power in a substantial degree remain sore points that make reconciliation very difficult. The conduct of politicians on either side does not help the situation either and act as an insurmountable barrier in ensuring mutual trust, a prerequisite for a meaningful dialogue aimed at a solution to the ethnic problem.
4) The most ominous aspect is with regard to the economy. We are under a very heavy foreign debt load, yet successive governments have relied heavily on them and made it an issue beyond salvage. The collapse of every imaginable local industry has led to an ever-increasing budget deficit and leaves us heavily dependent on foreign countries for even our essentials. When a shipload carrying fuel to the island is delayed by a few days, the entire transport system in our country is affected beyond measure, as we witnessed recently. The military budget does not seem to have lessened despite there being no war in the country and the leaders have not managed to channel those resources for important areas such as education, healthcare, infrastructure, transport etc.
5) Corruption is rampant in every sector of society reaching State institutions, individual relations, corporate affairs, education, law enforcement etc. All these areas which are under a cloud and statistics show that many citizens, although disapproving of bribery, are not hesitant to oiling the palm of someone, mostly officers in state institutions. They bribe to get children into schools, house plans approved, goods released from the Customs, preferential treatment at Police, Hospital, courts etc. Corruption is a cancer that has spread to every aspect of life warranting immediate counter measures.
6) Racial and religious disharmony needs to be addressed without further delay. For long politicians not only have turned a blind eye to racism but, in fact, have benefitted from it using it to come to and remain in power, hoodwinking the majority and creating bogeymen in other ethnic segments. The Black July is not totally beyond repetition as the recent incidents in Digana and Aluthgama suggest. In an atmosphere where the three national leaders seem anxious to pacify the Sinhala nationalist sentiment in view of the upcoming elections, racial harmony is at stake.
7) Despite the seeming upward mobility of the Economy witnessed by Sri Lanka entering the threshold of a lower middle-income country, the income gap among the population is ever widening. While the rich get super rich by the day, the poorer strata of society are driven to the brink of survival. In areas such as education, access to law, representation in governance etc. this disparity is amply evident.
8) The total disintegration of society as seen by the collapse of the social order, discipline and mutual respect to each other is abysmal. There seems to be little fear of the law and utter disregard for the rights of others. Grab what you can by hook or crook, seems to be the order of the day. In the short term, at least, that type of attitude seems to yield dividends, egging on others to take a cue thus pushing the entire country into a status of lawlessness and anarchy.
9) Absence or lack of policy-making at the national level has eaten into any progress that we have achieved in the seven decades after gaining independence. Whether it is education, health, social welfare, economy building, waste management, the approach seems to be nothing but haphazard and ad hoc; political mileage seems to be the only stimulus that ticks the political authority to act in each of these areas.
10) The environment has been ravished and damaged beyond recognition. The beautiful and scenic country it was is no longer there other than in the postcards issued by the Tourist Board to attract foreigners. The beaches, lakes, canals, rivers, marshy lands are massive dumping grounds for waste and sometimes harmful chemical refuse. Air pollution is rapidly on the rise and before long it will be on par with cities like Delhi, Tokyo, Beijing, making it unsafe for humans to go out without a mask. Water resources are drying up or polluted, wasting rampant with no awareness of the fact that water is going to be more valuable in another few decades.
11) The governments that came to power had shown remarkable idiocy in our foreign policy decisions. From being pro-US during the JR regime to being on the verge of becoming a Chinese colony during the Rajapaksa era, to the present time where we seem to be dictated to terms by institutions like the IMF and the World Bank; our foreign policy has not been wise, to say the least. In the current reality of international geopolitics, it is important that policymakers are able to read developments in this regard with cold logic.
12) Patriotism has been mistakenly identified with support for the military forces alone and politicians who pay lip service to such patriotic ventures. Yet in countries like Japan, a person who toils hard in his area of work and contributes to the development of the economy are hailed as heroes. It is that type of heroes that is the need of the hour.
All is not lost, yet. But the vistas are bleak!