By Rajan Philips –
President Ranil Wickremesinghe led the ceremonies to mark Sri Lanka’s 75th independence anniversary. Toward the end of last year, he made a daunting promise – to achieve national reconciliation before the 75th anniversary of independence, that was yesterday, February 4. His intention was laudable, but its realization was never a certainty. So, it has turned out to be. Full reconciliation was scaled down to full implementation of the 13th Amendment. That was not going to be possible anyway before yesterday. All that was possible was the singing of the national anthem in Tamil in addition to Sinhalese. Even that reasonable use was denied a few years ago. The ignoramus who objected to the singing of the anthem in Tamil then, Wimal Weerawansa, is now spearheading the campaign against 13A. Even the Mahanayaka Theros have joined the fray.
In his independence day speech and statement, the President promised “maximum devolution within a unitary state,” even as he repeated his other promise to end Sri Lanka’s economic dependence in the next twenty five years, by 2048. No one foresaw this coming in 1948. When Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, became independent it was apparently in the best of times. Almost all contemporary accounts said so. A model colony was becoming independent unexpectedly soon with no struggle or sweat. No other emerging polity apparently had it so good. The economy was on a roll by the measures of foreign reserves and local consumption levels. As a small island it was easy to be overcome by modernization. Road and rail networks crisscrossed the island, telecommunications and postal services were bringing people closer. Public education was free and public health was looked after, the two anchoring a robust welfare system that was unique among comparator colonies. The population was under seven million and even though the vast majority of the people were relatively deprived, there was optimism that there was opportunity for everyone.
Universal franchise had been introduced 17 years earlier, in 1931, and the people had had a head start in experiencing electoral democracy – uniquely among non-western polities and well ahead of quite a few western ones. Independence arrived on the back of a new constitution, which was a simple text crafted by unassuming legal drafting and not the exalted product of a ponderous constituent assembly. Yet Sri Lanka’s first constitution, unlike its successors, was a compact document that possessed too many virtues and too few faults. Most importantly, it underwrote the communal compact that was the necessary and sufficient prerequisite for the colonial rulers to handover power to their local successors.
“Communal Compact” (AJ Wilson) is the idea that the (Soulbury) Constitution and the granting of independence were the result of a political agreement among the country’s constitutive “communal groups.” Put another way, the British had to either assume or believe that there was such an agreement among the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims before deciding on the timing and the terms of their departure. Before long, however, the communal compact came under stress and eventually broke.
After 75 years, the controversy is over a different and somewhat narrower compact – the ‘devolution compact.’ Equally, the seemingly salubrious economy that greeted independence in 1948, has now become a deflated and damaged economy requiring intensive treatment in 2023. Hence, the tale of two compacts and two economies. But how did we get here?
The answers go back to the circumstances in which Sri Lanka became independent. There was more to them than the rosy pictures painted by contemporary accounts. There were already economic fissures and sociopolitical fault lines. These fissures and fault lines defined the political questions of the day and the political alignments that arose out of them. How they unfolded is the story of Sri Lanka after independence. It is an overtold story, but there are always new takes on them as new generations come along to live through the same old problems.
For all its consumption complacency, the economy in 1948 was the “classical colonial export economy”. Plantation exports paid for consumption imports and left a not too small Stirling surplus as bonus. However, the situation was structurally unsustainable. A fast growing population and a politically demanding consumption culture could not be supported indefinitely by the export earnings from tea, rubber and coconut alone. Within a decade, foreign reserves fell from one year worth of imports to four months of them. There has been no looking back since, albeit the wrong way.
The decades following saw severely imposed import restrictions that did not, however, serve the textbook purpose of stemming consumption and accumulating aggregate savings for productive investments. Import scarcities also had to pay a heavy political price. Unemployment became the new scourge along with the chronic mismatch between the outputs of free education and the labour needs of the economy.
Free education expanded the imparting of academic learning and not the technical mass education needed for the development of industries. Industrial development itself was circumscribed by the small national market of the island, its total lack of non-agricultural raw material resources, and indiscriminate import restrictions. State led industrialization proved to be too capital intensive and addressed neither the unemployment problem nor the needs of consumers.
The open economy alternative did unleash the potential for private industrial development and shifted the economic base from its sole reliance on plantation exports. But skyrocketing consumption levels, privatization of education that serves no social or economic purpose, criminal neglect of and corruption in the vital energy and transport sectors, and economically inappropriate and graft generating infrastructure investments have brought the national economy to its current parlous state.
In the assessment of Sri Lanka’s current President, there is no economy left to be reformed! He is promising, among many other promises, a new take off for a better landing at the hundredth anniversary of independence, which neither he nor his followers and critics will be around to witness.
One beam of light that needs to be added to this rather bleak recounting is the story of domestic agriculture, which has been an impressive one in terms of overall growth, if not quite so in terms efficiency of input allocations and certainly not in terms of the distribution of its outputs. Whether comparatively advantaged or not, agriculture is the bulwark of livelihood for the majority of Sri Lankan households; and inclusive of the plantations, it also provides the main domestic base for local industries. Any government can ignore agriculture only at its peril, and the punishment for anyone choosing to monkey with it will be the swiftest and the severest. The organic fertilizer fiasco just proved that, and rightly so.
In 1966, concluding his monograph, Ceylon: An Export Economy in Transition, Donald Snodgrass saw only one certainty “from the historical perspective of 120 years of modern Ceylonese economic development;” and that was, “the search for an economic system that will provide a politically acceptable and economically viable replacement for the classical export economy will continue.” The economy now is far more diverse than what was there in 1948. But the point about the elusiveness of the search for a “politically acceptable and economically viable replacement,” is spot on, 75 years on.
Of the two, political acceptability and economic viability, it is the political part that has been playing the weightier role in Sri Lanka’s political economy. Politics itself has been swayed by non-economic pressures and compulsions than it has been informed by economic imperatives. The current debate over devolution would suggest that nothing might change even now. Economic doldrums, notwithstanding.
Political divisions along party lines were in their embryonic stage at the time of independence in 1948. The newest political party, the United National Party, had just been formed by DS. Senanayake to contest the 1947 parliamentary elections on a rightwing platform. GG Ponnambalam had formalized his Tamil Congress a few years earlier. And the country’s oldest political party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, that had just been freed of its proscription was already in two parts marking the second of its many splits. Rounding off the Left was the Communist Party that had come into being as the first splinter of the LSSP.
Many candidates ran as independents in 1947 and an unhealthily large contingent of them were returned as MPs. The UNP did not win an overall majority (50 of its 92 candidates lost in the elections) but was able to form the new government with the help of independents and Appointed MPs. The efforts of non-UNP MPs, through their historic gathering at Yamuna, the Havelock Road house of the highly respected lawyer politician, Herbert Sri Nissanka, to present an alternative bid for power ended in failure, marking the first of many such failures to come.
*To be continued..