rom Gramashakthi to Gamperaliya, major rural investment over the next few years is now Government priority. What does the idea of rural development – abandoned globally in the decades of liberalization, including under an ‘open economy’ since 1977 in Sri Lanka – mean today? Will rural development merely serve as a fig leaf for expansion of political patronage, or is there rural capacity to shift such investment towards progressive social and economic change?
There are a few interesting historical trends with electoral politics in Sri Lanka. First, given the long democratic tradition of universal suffrage, the first country in Asia reaching back to 1931, there has never been a successful military coup and the citizenry have overthrown authoritarian governments at crucial elections; the 1994 and 2015 elections are two such instances. Second, electoral swings against incumbent governments have been a consistent pattern. Third, the rural constituencies when their interests are neglected have dramatically shifted their electoral allegiances leading to change of governments. It is this relationship between the rural constituencies and electoral politics that is shaping the current rural development drive.
One major reason for the overthrow of the Rajapaksa regime in 2015 was its abandoning of the rural constituencies during its second term. While rural infrastructure works such as electrification and rural road development were given priority during its first term from 2005 to 2010, after the war they became focused on urban-centred development such as the beautification of Colombo backed by tremendous international financing. The current Government continues to neglect the rural economy despite the long drought ravaging many districts; the consequence was the major defeat in the local government elections this year.
State versus social mobilization
Rural development as with any other form of development requires capital, and if it is a development drive by the state, it requires state funds. Furthermore, even when such funds are made available, there is a need for rural capacity to absorb such funds. This capacity for absorption also requires local state structures to disperse funds and carry out rural infrastructure work. The line ministries and district secretariats have the administrative and implementation capacity to build such local infrastructure and provide “livelihood schemes” mainly in the form of handouts. Indeed, with the neglect of the rural vision including the related rural development institutions over the decades, it is political urgency resulting in dispersal of funds and projects by the administrative bureaucracy that is characteristic of contemporary initiatives of rural development.
"One major reason for MR regime overthrow in 2015 was its abandoning the rural constituencies during its second term"
On the other hand, sustainable and meaningful rural development has to go beyond infrastructure and handouts, challenge top-down development by officials and increase avenues of production with the participation of people. This requires strong social institutions that can mobilize rural society. However, most of the social institutions such as co-operatives, rural development societies, women’s rural development societies, farmers’ organizations etc., all require considerable strengthening. Furthermore, even those state and non-state institutions that are to build the capacity of rural social institutions, including for agricultural research, training and extension, require revitalization. With social mobilization crucial for any serious rural development effort, it remains a central challenge for the Government’s current programme centred on state institutions.
Building rural economies
There are major public misconceptions about rural development that are also the consequences of decades of intellectual neglect of the rural question. First, the flawed idea that rural economic problems are simple matters and can be dealt with state priority and funding. Here, urban elitist arrogance reduces rural development to allocation of some funds, ideas about starting companies in villages, or throwing some computers at rural educational and other institutions. Second, that the rural world has not changed and that it is archaic and is about subsistence. In reality, there are considerable changes and many new dynamics in the rural social life; their incomes and livelihoods come from multiple sources, including linkages with small towns and migrant work abroad. Furthermore, there are new possibilities for production and increased value from rural agricultural production for both the national markets and even exports.
Third, the aspirations of rural youth and society more broadly have also been changing as they seek economic stability while integrating with new forms of consumption, which are also related to advances in media and communication technologies.
In other words, the rural societies are as modern, dynamic and complex as urban societies, and it is our urban ignorance that relegates the rural to the backward and simple. For the urban working class, employment and income are important for their daily lives, which when affected lead to rising protests and strikes. Similarly, for rural folk, landed agricultural production and other sources of waged income are critical for sustaining their communities, which when disrupted invite a political response.
In this context, when governments forget the rural population, they come back with a vengeance at elections. But remembering rural constituencies is one thing, and working with them to build a progressive economic future is of another order. Rural development is not just about building small infrastructure and handouts, it is much more about rural production with the participation of producers who form communities, whether they be farmers, fishermen, craftsmen etc. and to build a stable economic base.
"For rural folk, landed agricultural production and other sources of waged income are critical for sustaining their communities"
Returning to the current rural economic drive by the Government, its success depends on whether rural social institutions are strengthened and a rural economic vision is consolidated. At the root of the problem are decades of neo-liberal development policies sharpening the rural-urban divide, including by pushing for rural to urban migration and abandoning the rural economy and society more broadly. Therefore, even as funds are pumped into rural works, progressive rural social change requires an ideological battle waged against statistic bureaucratic tendencies and elitist urban discourse.