ith almost universal literacy and high levels of educational attainment among many of the adult citizens in the country, one would have expected by now overwhelming public support for a State based on secular, liberal values. Yet, the country continues to be highly divided on fundamental, secular democratic values. Religious leaders at all levels, people who offer solutions to existential problems based on superstition, age old archaic rituals, semi-literate monks who have subverted the teaching of Gauthama Buddha to prop up a populist religion that blends with day to day politics of the land and politicians who thrive on primordial divisions among people, continue to have great influence on large segments of the population including the so-called educated opinion makers and have the ability to sway public opinion on matters of great social, economic and political significance at a critical time like the run up to a crucial national election.
This situation clearly indicates that, despite many decades of democratic rule and rapid expansion of school and university education in the country following political independence, the large swathes of the population remain uncommitted to social, cultural and political values that underpin modern, secular democracies in many other parts of the world. How do we explain this situation? There is no simple answer. In this article, an attempt is made to explain this paradoxical situation by looking at some of the post independence policies that continue to produce and reproduce social and cultural divisions that underpin political and ideological divisions in society.
As is well known, Sri Lankan political elites at the time of political independence had a broadly liberal political and economic outlook. Despite a large rural population dependent on an expanding small-holder peasant economy, the country’s economy was widely identified as an export import economy dependent largely on the export of a few plantation products. Moreover, society was polarised between an urban, English-educated elite and a mass of vernacular educated rural peasants. It is this state of affairs that came under severe criticism from both the left and the Sinhala Buddhist nationalists. It is the mobilisation of these social forces through a popular democratic process that brought about the 1956 political transformation.
The emergent post-1956 political formation had both ethno-nationalist and social democratic connotations as is evident from a myriad of state policies that were subsequently adopted. These included ‘Sinhala only’ policy, vernacular education policy, segregation of schools on ethno-linguistic and religious lines, import substitution industrialisation, land reforms, protection of labour and peasant rights, expansion of peasant settlements through irrigation rehabilitation and colonisation schemes, expansion of the state sector through increased public services, etc. All these policies together contributed to a significant expansion of the lower middle class creating opportunities for upward social mobility for rural and urban lower classes.
Yet, by the early 1970’s, a rapidly expanding population coupled with rising aspirations for upward mobility among youths belonging to all ethnic communities gave rise to unrest among educated segments of the population as was clearly evident from the 1971 JVP uprising followed by youth agitations in the north. Liberally oriented political opposition at the time saw the emerging crisis entirety as a failure of the state domination over a closed economy and sought to swing the pendulum to the other extreme by adopting an unregulated open economic policy.
What happened under the post -1977 open economic polices has been widely examined and documented and therefore, needs no detailed elaboration here. Suffice it to say that the socioeconomic order that came into being after 1956 was not critically evaluated looking at its negative and positive elements and no attempt was made to adopt policies that would have reversed the negative trends while building on more socially and economically desirable aspects. A few illustrative examples can help explain the emergent situation here.
"English language has been widely accepted as the major link in global business and communication"
As already mentioned, the large state sector consisting of pervasive state services, import substitution industries, diverse specialised state institutions, extension services, etc. absorbed most of the vernacular educated, upwardly mobile youth in large numbers creating a massive rural lower middle class. Many of them over time reached very high positions in the state sector. But, with economic liberalisation , private corporate sector emerged as the dominant and lucrative sector of the economy. Privatisation of state enterprises including plantations reinforced this trend.
Meanwhile, the English language, which was largely pushed to the background until 1977 emerged as an increasingly significant language of communication and business in the emergent globalised economy, creating the demand for English language skills. Increasing demand for English led the the proliferation of English language classes, expansion of urban private schools and the establishment of dozens of international schools. Yet, the neglecting of teaching English in the public school system for decades gave rise to a mostly monolingual teacher population, making it virtually impossible for rural children to acquire basic English language skills.
Many people migrated to the Middle East and elsewhere for employment in order to earn money to spend on their children’s education in private and international schools. Others sought to find places in urban schools. But, by now, the capacity of most state schools to impart English language skills had dwindled so that even most of those who were admitted to Royal College in Colombo left school with little or no English language skills. Meanwhile, many well-to-do families dispatched their children overseas for education.
The result of the above developments was a clear polarisation of the country’s education system. While the vast majority of rural schools remained ill equipped to cater to the emergent demand for English language and other skills, private and international schools in urban centres prepared children and youth from more privileged socio-economic backgrounds for more lucrative employment in the private sector, international agencies
The vast majority of rural lower and lower middle class families dependent mostly on vernacular schools for their children ‘s education realised that the life chances of the latter were severely restricted by their education. Meanwhile, the stagnation of the rural agricultural economy and rural industrial enterprises due to conditions created by the open economy, also restricted income opportunities in the countryside at a time when the need for monetary incomes also increased rapidly due to the proliferation of private health, education and transport services.
"The situation in many fast growing economies like India, China, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore is quite different"
Many rural lower and lower middle class families responded to increasing social and economic pressures by adapting to the changing circumstances in numerous ways. Many people migrated to the Middle East for employment. Many young men dropped out of school and migrated to urban centres to find employment as drivers, construction workers, informal sector activists, etc. Many women also migrated to city centres as domestic workers, pavement hawkers, sales workers, etc. But, all these options were a far cry from their long cherished aspirations for upward social mobility through education. While many with educational qualifications could still find lower rung positions in state institutions and become members of the large lower middle class, many others could not even do so. This is clearly evident from the fact that thousands of graduates passing from public universities could not find employment in the private sector and had to wait till the governments recruited them for non-existent jobs in government institutions. Persisting unemployment of graduates despite such ad hoc measures shows that there is no solution to this problem.
Meanwhile, increasing consumer aspirations and growing economic pressure made their lives an increasingly agonising experience. Colombo continues to be the focal point of the economy, creating income opportunities for many rural people who look for non-agricultural employment. It is also the place where the best social infrastructure facilities like well equipped hospitals, public and private educational institutions, etc. are concentrated. Making use of such facilities is often beyond the means of people living in the far away provinces. Yet, they can easily see the widening disparities between rural and urban areas.
Being brought up, socialised and conditioned in a mostly ethno-linguistically segregated educational, cultural and social environment, several generations of rural inhabitants have been receptive to ethno-nationalist interpretations of their predicament in the context of the post-independence political environment where many political parties and their leaders have sought their political fortunes through the mobilisation of political support on the basis of ethno-religious loyalties. Moreover, post 1977 liberal economic reforms have also been widely perceived by the members of the rural lower and lower middle classes as a way of undermining the moral economy established in the 1950’s and the 60’s by disturbing the rural urban balance in terms of equitable life chances, creating huge income disparities and bringing back the English educated urban elites, marginalising the vernacular educated rural intelligentsia.
"Many well-to-do parents prefer international school education for their children"
The lack of diversification of the economy over several decades due to diverse circumstances flushed out many people out of relatively stable rural agricultural communities, making many of them itinerant workers in Sri Lanka and overseas, with almost no formal social protection. Job creation has not been the main objective of economic growth in the country for decades. Structure of employment and income shows this clearly. What we have is a very narrow employment pyramid, indicating the relatively small size of the middle class. This situation frustrates many people in the lower segments of society. The situation in many fast growing economies like India, China, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore is quite different.
In conclusion, it is not difficult to understand why the members of a vast rural lower middle class in the country feel that they have been dislodged from the post independence moral economy that flourished in the 1950’s and the 60’s, which was also largely shaped by ethno-nationalism. Given the fact that nationalist discourse has been an integral part of the post independence political discourses in the country, many ardent nationalists have interpreted social and economic inequalities in terms of the competition for scare resources as one among ethno-religious groups, ignoring its obvious social class connotations. This is widely accepted by the members of the large lower-middle class in Sri Lanka, particularly in the rural hinterland where nationalist politicians and their ideologues have an almost captive audience.
Author is a Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of Colombo.