I have written several articles in this column pointing out the precarious nature of the country’s economy and the disorderly state of society and polity in recent times. While the economy is unsustainably distorted, both structurally and functionally, many long standing social issues remain entrenched. The political machinery is not functioning optimally and appears to be incapable of making significant reforms to accommodate any rational and reasonable demands on the part of marginalised communities and progressive forces. These developments have come after nearly two years since the change of government in 2015. As is well known, many people in the country, following the 2015 elections hoped for a drastic shift in the way the public affairs were managed. Yet, despite a number of initial progressive measures, more recent developments have frustrated many people.
Economic decision making under the previous regime was widely criticised by professional economists as being politically motivated, largely dependent on the narrow interests of a few local and foreign players. The Economic Development Council that was established about two decades back as a substitute for the long abolished national planning council dominated by well qualified technocrats became defunct. But, where are we today ? How transparent is economic policy making today ? Who are the professional economists and other specialists who are involved in complex economic decision making? Do we have good economic governance in the country at present? The truthful answers to these questions can only be disturbing.
Many people who are not doing well such as educated yet disadvantaged young people, poor rural farmers and casually employed people in all sectors are waiting to hear how they are going to benefit from the new economic policies of the government. What is required is a multi-pronged approach to addressing diverse issues of the economy. Yet, there appears to be no major policy thrust to push the economy forward to make it more diversified and productive. Moreover, there is no explicit strategy to reduce wasteful and unsustainable private consumption and narrow the wide economic gap between the rich and the poor. The thorny labour question remains unresolved and many workers do not see much hope in this country in the foreseeable future. Agriculture remains unattractive and hundreds of thousands of acres have been abandoned by their cultivators. Are we at least trying to put such land under alternative crops ?
Sri Lankan society remains highly divided on ethnic, religious and ideological grounds. Politics, education and the media have continued to reinforce such divisions. Persisting social disparities have made the situation worse. Many people tend to perceive their personal misfortunes as the result of an advantaged position held by another community. Competition for resources, be it land, money or employment, is seen as a zero sum game involving ethnic or religious groups. This is also at least partly a product of the long established practice of allocation of public resources on the basis of political patronage and personal connections, including nepotism.
Sri Lanka’s politics has long been dominated by populist and ultranationalist forces and the successive governments have often given in to populist and nationalist pressures. This has been true with respect to policy decisions concerning many vital economic, social and political issues over the years. Some of these decisions have adversely affected the life chances of many people over time. Some people left the country as a result. We lost thousands of highly skilled people to other countries and we are yet to recover from such losses in the recent past.
It is the responsibility of the knowledgeable people to make ill informed people aware of the consequences of different public policies so that they could identify and support more rational policies. For this to happen, discussions in the media need to present diverse ideas and factual information. But what often happens is that two equally partisan groups debate on controversial issues leading to further polarisation of opinion rather than finding common ground. While the media institutions are supposed to provide space for diverse ideas and interests without bias, this is not what often happens. This is due to the fact that, over the years, media also came under increasing political influence. This sort of media environment prevents people from forming reasonable opinions on important policy issues.
The need to bring about ethnic reconciliation was widely discussed in the run up to the elections in 2015 as an urgent matter to be taken up on a priority basis by the incoming government. Despite several important steps taken in this direction following the formation of the new government, these have not been consolidated into a major national thrust towards national reconciliation. In an earlier article, I pointed out the need for an integrated national program involving all the relevant national and local actors. Yet, what we see today is a series of disjointed activities with no shared vision nor common agenda of the relevant agencies. Meanwhile, there are signs of worsening inter-community relations. Under such conditions, it would be difficult to prevent agents of ethnic discord from taking centrestage in the near future and disrupting the relative peace that prevails today. This is a frightening prospect for a country that immensely suffered from an ethnic war.
As indicated above, persisting social disparities also help prepare a conducive environment for the rise of all forms of nationalism. Donald Trump mobilised , among others, disaffected white, blue collar workers adversely affected by deindustrialisation. As is well known, the vast majority of Sri Lankans have not only come under increasing economic pressure in the recent past but also suffer from a sense of relative deprivation. This has become particularly significant in a situation where private consumption is increasingly the key defining feature of social class divisions.
Even in the education sector which has traditionally been dominated by public consumption, private expenditure has become a critical factor determining access to quality services and educational success. This situation can be remedied not simply by pumping more public funds into education but by formulating and implementing effective policies and programs. Yet, there are no signs of this happening.
In modern, democratic states, it is generally through evidence based public policies that pressing social, economic and political issues are addressed. When credible national institutions are established to facilitate the process of policy making, there is almost no need for politicians to take ad hoc decisions. This may reduce their importance in the public eye but the same would enhance the credibility of the decision making process. So, the public acceptance of a policy does not necessarily depend on the popularity of politicians.
It is unreasonable to assume that many long standing issues can be easily sorted out in a few years. The war deprived the country of many opportunities but this is not widely recognised by the wider public. What is highlighted the mere fact of the end of the war. While physical infrastructure development is highlighted as a great achievement but its enormous cost in terms of accumulated debts and opportunity costs involved has been usually downplayed. Curtailment of civil liberties encouraged many people to leave the country and prevented others from returning to Sri Lanka. The negative image of the country abroad most probably discouraged FDI. Since these issues were not widely discussed in a non-partisan manner, many people remain ill informed. This is a major problem in a multi-party democracy like Sri Lanka where governments come and go at frequent intervals. In such a political environment, populist sentiments guide political leaders much more than reasonable ideas and scientific evidence. This is where we stand in this country today. We are unable to live up to our own high expectations that political change a couple of years ago gave rise to. The disintegration of progressive forces under the heavy weight of increasing disillusionment can only pave the way for a right wing regime that can undermine democracy and rule of law.