A careful analysis of the developments in diverse fields in this country over the past 50 years or so leaves little doubt that Sri Lankan society has been on a gradual, regressive path. This proposition may appear to be inconsistent not only with the outward appearance of material change like infrastructure development but also with much touted positive indicators of social and economic development like literacy, life expectancy and income.
But, when we look at the developments in such diverse fields as politics, the arts, public service, academia, professions, civil society, and social institutions, you begin to think hard. Once again, the proposition advanced above may appear to be inconsistent with what is visible in each of these fields today. All those who are active in these fields are far more visible, vociferous and pretentious today in comparison to their counterparts several decades back. Yet, a closer examination of the present state of affairs in the relevant fields would point to a very different picture.
What is outlined above is a wide ranging and complex narrative that can be simplified by way of a few illustrative examples from a number of fields. The rest of this article is devoted to this purpose. An overall, general observation that can be made at the outset is that the visible quantitative expansion of diverse fields such as education, politics, health, infrastructure, public service, the private corporate sector, the voluntary sector, and modern professions has concealed the steadily declining quality and standards in most of the above fields. While it is true that there are pockets of excellence or isolated positive examples in various fields, the general trend of deterioration is an empirically verifiable fact.
Let me begin with the less controversial areas of music and drama. There cannot be any doubt about the fact that the country witnessed a renaissance in music, drama and other related fields several decades back. Many people still talk about and enjoy the cultural products from that period. In more recent years, there has been a visible expansion of artistic activities such as reality shows, private and public institutions providing training in diverse artistic fields, talent shows, proliferation of media institutions, etc. but no one is talking about a cultural renaissance today.
As is well known, both the general and higher education sectors have expanded steadily over the last half a century or so. Student enrollment in schools increased rapidly during this period reaching universal primary enrollment. The number of universities has increased four fold over the same period. There are over 250, 000 teachers employed in nearly ten thousand public schools. Meanwhile education bureaucracy has also expanded steadily over time.
What is outlined above is a wide ranging and complex narrative that can be simplified by way of a few illustrative examples from a number of fields. The rest of this article is devoted to this purpose
Despite this unprecedented, quantitative expansion of the general education sector, there are clearly visible signs of declining educational standards measured in terms of skills of both teachers and their products. For instance, it would be surprising if even ten percent of the teachers in state schools have a reasonable level of competence in a second language at a time when the State has adopted a trilingual policy for the country and the rapidly changing local and global environment demands both teachers and students to be at least bilingual. In this Internet age, anyone with multilingual skills can have access to an ever expanding body of literature relating to almost anything under the sun.
But a large majority of our teachers and their students in most schools in the country cannot make effective use of this enormous resource due to their poor language skills. The current general education system that measures educational achievement by the grades that students acquire at examinations has effectively deskilled several generations of youth in the country. The situation is not much better within the higher education system.
As is well known, poor English language skills among university students prevent them from making use of library resources available at the Universities, let alone Internet-based literature. As is the case with school teachers, the language skills of many university teachers have also declined over the years. This situation has forced many university students, particular in the liberal arts stream to rely almost entirely on lecture notes, hand outs and a few publications available in their mother tongue.
This is not an environment conducive for intellectual development of university students and the expansion of their knowledge and skills. This situation has emerged in a country where a truly cosmopolitan atmosphere prevailed in the few local universities about half a century earlier. University academics originating from diverse socio-cultural and linguistic backgrounds merged into a broadly unified intellectual elite. The situation became worse with the establishment of universities in the provinces with inadequate human and material resources.
The result was that many university students could remain confined to their own provinces, without having any contact with fellow students in other provinces or senior faculty members in other universities. This naturally reinforced their regional rather than national identities at a time when university students and graduates needed to transcend primordial divisions in society. What is also significant is that the emergent situation remained largely concealed from the outside world. Largely monolingual school leavers and university students rarely interact with English speaking elites in urban centers and vice versa. Look at the audiences at many seminars, workshops and conferences held in Colombo on a regular basis.
Sri Lanka: A Regressive Society Declining standards of university education have also been accompanied by a chronic neglect of Research and Development in almost all sectors. As a result, many research institutes and research centers established in the country after independence have by and large declined in the recent past. Inadequate funding and continuous brain drain have made the situation worse.
The poor state of agricultural research centers in different parts of the country is indicative of the general trend over time. Research institutes in other fields do not seem to have done any better. This is an alarming situation at a time when many countries even in the developing world compete for FDI and export markets on the strength of their highly skilled Human Resources and technological capabilities.
Backwardness of industrial research is obvious and this is partly related to the collapse of many primary industries after liberalization in the late 1970’s. While we have not paid any attention to modern industrial research focused on new industrial products and processes, both the elites and common people have simply become voracious consumers of imported industrial goods, ironically brought from recently developed Asian countries like Korea, China, Malaysia and Singapore. Almost all these countries were not more developed than Sri Lanka about fifty years back.
Post-colonial historians like David Ludden (2005) have documented the process of emergence of a development State in South Asia. The focus was mostly on India during the British colonial rule and post independence India under enlightened leaders like Nehru who made every effort to modernize the country by driving it away from caste, religion and superstition in favor of equality, science and practical application of empirical knowledge. The idea of planning was accepted as the cornerstone of State intervention. Many state institutions were established including the National Planning Council to steer the process forward.
Post-independence Sri Lanka did follow a somewhat similar path in the first two decades or so since independence. Yet, religion in Sri Lanka has emerged as a dominant force influencing public policy, pushing modern science to the background. The idea of secular education never got rooted in this country, let alone the idea of a secular State. Yet, progressive education reforms introduced in the early 1940’s , focused on the central school system, showed great promise but were later subverted by vested interests, resulting in the de facto segregation in education on ethno-linguistic lines preparing the ground for social and ethnic conflicts that followed.
Regressive nature of social and economic transformation soon became evident in almost all spheres. While the public sector became the main source of employment for the upwardly mobile social groups, including rural youth, in the initial years, state institutions played a significant role in addressing diverse social and economic issues in society. Progressive legislation and newly established institutions in such areas as land development, public transport, labor relations, cooperatives, social security and rural development played a catalytic role in bringing about positive social and economic change in the country in the 1950’s and the 1960’s.
A vibrant rural development movement, an extensive multi-purpose, cooperative movement, a rural women’s movement called Mahila Samithi and the mobilization of the farming community in all parts of the country around modern farming techniques were largely the result of state interventions through specialized institutions established for the renewal of the rural sector. Yet, the declining quality of education and the deterioration of standards in politics and public service, particularly after economic liberalization, adversely affected the functioning of state institutions. Increasing politicization of state institutions often undermined their effective functioning leading to loss of productivity, efficiency, poor quality of service delivery, etc. While the state policy after economic liberalization in 1977 emphasized the role of the private sector in almost all spheres, public services declined in significance. For instance, agricultural extension services took a backseat, while the market forces began to dominate the agricultural sector.
So far, in this article, an attempt has been made to advance the argument that the process of social, cultural and political change in Sri Lanka in the recent past has been a regressive one. The deterioration of State institutions in general over time is one clear example. The decline in standards in public service in particular and public life in general constitute another case in point. Of course, many other examples from diverse fields can be cited and exceptional cases can be found but the pattern remains more or less the same. Present public disenchantment and the social and political unrest in the country are at least partly indicative of the fact that many people have been able to sense the direction of change. On the other hand, understanding the negative trend is of little use if no attempt can be made to explore the possibilities of reversing it. It is in this context that understanding the causes of change is important.
It is by addressing these causes that we can hope to bring about the desired changes. On the other hand, many people have also been able to achieve their life goals thanks to the deteriorating conditions. As is well known, popular politics, religious revival and ethno-religious discord created unprecedented opportunities for many people to achieve a great deal in their lives in terms of material advancement and social influence. Most of them would have been non-entities in a society guided by knowledge based institutions, reason and modern values. So, any attempt to reverse it would naturally be resisted by people with vested interest. The present social and political contestations around national integration , religion and public policy reforms demonstrate this reality in no uncertain terms.
Yet, Sri Lanka can no longer afford to allow the regressive trend discussed above to persist. For what is at stake are the country’s prospects for sustainable development, social and political stability and improving the quality of life of the ordinary citizens.