Completing 73 years of “Independence” on 04 February, Sri Lanka is left with “songs of praise” sung without meaning. It has accumulated a massive debt of 2.3 trillion dollars no government would be able to payback within this free market economy. With COVID-19 pandemic making economic life far worse, getting Sri Lanka economically back on its feet is a major challenge. Crumbling economy and the ever-towering debt, has left Sri Lanka in tight geo-political conflict between China and US led Western power bloc with India as a concerned neighbour.
Rajapaksas back on the saddle of power announcing in February 2020 Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from UN Resolutions 30/1 and 40/1, the UNHRC has once again come with a damning report on accountability, impunity, human rights violations and war crimes committed. It has clear indications the UNHRC has no faith in domestic mechanisms for investigations and inquiry. Everything added, it is a daunting task for any government to take responsibility for in finding answers to save Sri Lanka’s future.
With the crumbling economy clawing daily life, other political issues have lost importance they should have, and “expert advice” is focussed on getting back to economic “normalcy” that for most was “normalcy” before the COVID-19 pandemic. For economic experts and the People, debt repayment, UNHRC Resolutions with international pressure and geo-political conflicts tied to regional politico-military power are issues they are no party to.
Thus, reducing everything to economics, what is the society demanding as answers to this complicated and complex crisis? Do they have any idea as to how Sri Lanka could come out of this major crisis and what Sri Lanka’s future should be?
Combing through different social segments, one would not see much difference between different social segments in their perceptions of future SL. Urban or rural, middleclass or low down, they all speak of their own present issues and have no serious thoughts about a common “tomorrow”. For the poor, it is about their day-to-day life. They certainly lack intellectual capacity and information to think “differently” and think about answers for the future. The more educated urban middleclass also don’t have any interest in “socio economic development programmes” that can provide answers for all what they grumble about. In simple language, the urban middleclass is the most selfish social segment and “tomorrow” is not in their thinking too.
“Tomorrow” lost its importance and social relevance after JRJ’s free market economy. Two generations lived through it since 1978 and the third in this new millennia are racing for “success” in life. “Success” never defined within this free market economy in terms of quality and standard of life. Fundamentals of free market economies want governments to keep the “State” out of its business and that leaves governments outside defining and planning “development” for People.
Fact remains, despite all ignorance, disrespect and disregard for a “better collective tomorrow”, we need to find answers for a future that will ensure our independence and sovereignty. Lift us out of debt and keep us free from international probes and geo-political conflicts. That can only be assured with “development and democratising of the State”.
Changing of “leaderships”, looking for new “leaderships” to run this dilapidated society has been a waste of effort and time. New or old, they hold on to privileges they decide for themselves in a parliament that is no more than a rowdy gathering, where majority stand for Sinhala-Buddhist dominance. Within this politico-economic system established to nurture a free market economy, politicians of all colour are “agents” of Filthy Rich business dealers who decide profits. Changing of leaders without a serious programme for “development and democratising of the State” have never brought any change.
We are therefore left to open the discussion for an alternate approach for the future. That needs some direction towards new “development”, very much different to what Sri Lanka came through 40 years. That compels us to first decide what “development” is, that we want.
“Development” is about creating equal opportunities for People to improve their standard of life with quality. Development therefore should provide better infrastructure, better services, better incomes, more free time for leisure and cultural activities, freedom and dignity in life with equal opportunities and equal access to resources. It may have different models for different societies, but in debt ridden poor countries the State is held responsible for providing all citizens equal opportunities and equal access to essential services and resources.
Two major changes are needed immediately in economy and in education to begin such far reaching reforms all round. Economy is not about mere tax regimes, bank interests, trade tariffs and the “stock market”. Economy should not be left for free market dynamics that are controlled and manipulated by big time traders. It should also not depend on FDIs manufacturing for profits in the global market. Including market, it has to be planned and regulated, very much different to the ’70 era of “rations and queues”. Whatever investments called for, should be for clearly identified areas that would strengthen national economy including rural economy as identified within a “National Development Policy” (NDP) declared publicly and endorsed by the People. NDP should focus, lay stress and work towards establishing our national economy as part of and within the South Asian market, yet open for trade in rest of Asia as well.
Education the basic necessity for a “learned” rational society has been reduced to “certificates” that People have been made to understand is the only “qualifier for employment”. Education thus is about formal “teaching” to gain certificates and never about rational thinking and knowledge. Very much proved with all the hype created around “fake” cures for COVID-19 virus that had professionals and unskilled labour alike, queueing up. “Free education” within this mess is just habitual talk today. The term “free” is a total misnomer in national education. “Kannangara Educational Reforms” never proposed education for “free”. What is still called “free education” is a politicised educational network of 10,000 plus schools with over 240,000 teachers that keeps urban poor and rural children “literate” with educational certificates issued at two different national level exams.
This “free” education paid for by taxpayers, requires to be redefined. To begin with, all 350 plus “National” schools should be turned into “fee levying” public schools. More popular national schools within municipal council limits, should be placed at the high end of fee levying. Grade V scholarship exam should be scrapped and replaced by a scholarship that covers university education as well, offered to the best students at G.C.E O/L exam from non-fee levying schools in every district. Fee levying private schools under whatever label, should only be allowed to tutor children within the “national education system” and not for what they decide for profits.
School structure beginning from pre-school, syllabi, curriculum, teacher recruitment and training, tertiary and university education, adult and aesthetic education and everything else related to national education should be submitted to social dialogue as a “White Paper on Educational Policy”, before adopting it.
Healthcare is another that requires serious change. Healthcare should focus on “prevention” of diseases. “Curative” healthcare should be the “extension” in healthcare service. In short, healthcare should reduce numbers falling sick, instead of focussing on increasing number of “patients”. Curative healthcare is only about investing heavily in providing hospitals, staff, medical professionals and ever modernising medical equipment to treat ever increasing numbers of patients. Necessity therefore is to improve, modernise and strengthen preventive healthcare services at community level to keep reducing patient numbers.
So is public transport that JRJ ruined in 1979 by bringing in micro and small investments into public transport. Integrated public transport need to be re-introduced as a provincially and nationally organised essential service, managed as efficient, comfortable and affordable public enterprise.
All these would lead to far reaching, serious reforms that would change the entire socio-economic landscape and also in how People think about social responsibility. They would demand structural changes in democratising the State with “people’s participation” for policy and decision making at local government and provincial council level.
Now, if anyone asks me “What’s your ‘Sri Lanka’ you wish for?” my answer is simple. It is where People decide what they collectively need to prosper and work towards achieving it with “State Power” shared at local and provincial levels. Where do politicians come in? They come in as elected “legislators” with conditions attached. “Right of Re-call” being fundamental. All these certainly need a very serious social dialogue, a condition that cannot be abrogated in deciding a New Sri Lanka. A responsibility we cannot keep dodging or postponing.