Colombo Telegraph

Bigger Is Not Always Better

By Ranil Senanayake

Dr Ranil Senanayake

With mega cities and mega economic zones, the current crop of politicians seem to follow the ‘bigger is better’ philosophy of consumerist economics. They are the ‘Wannabe’s’ of Sri Lanka, those who want Sri Lanka to be like Singapore or Dubai or New York. They wanna-be anything but Sri Lankan. They would change our culture, our values, and our environment and compromise our nationhood, just to become more like some other country that has attracted their personal attention.

We are told that they have to create megapolises and mega economic zones in order to get the money to pay the for loans taken for our ‘development’, at the same time taking out more loans to continue their ‘development’ agenda. The medicine that they propose might be much worse than the illness. With some politicians promoting ‘industrialization’ without any thought of what type of industries they propose, we are back to an era of inviting ‘robber barons’ into our land.

In a horribly polluted planet, countries with responsibility towards their citizenry are pushing out their polluting industries. It is not difficult to guess where the displaced polluting industries will go to. They will move to countries with loose environmental standards or with corrupt rulers, They will get those rulers parrot the formula of industrialization and come in as the ‘investors’ who will save us by providing jobs.

The ultimate act of betrayal of a nation is for its leaders to sell the birthright of its citizenry. Access to clean land, access to clean air, clean water and safe food is our birthright. So far this ‘development’ process has almost completely restricted public access to the shore along our southern coast, it has reduced the quality of air in our urban centers to the point of being a health hazard and has rendered 90% of the streams with drinkable water to be unusable today. For how long more can we afford to continue the madness?

It is not that the current rulers are unaware of the dangers. It was in February 1978 that the Daily News published this article:

The Meaning of Development

‘Development and progress, are words that we are very familiar with, and rightly so. As a nation all our hopes and aspirations are centered around the promises attendant on this processes. However, recently there have been some questions on the values of “development” and as in every controversial issue the battle lines have been drawn. The combatants are, as is usual in these affairs, mostly from developed countries and the people of developing countries more often than not, are mere witnesses to these esoteric exchanges. I do not intent to imply that these arguments are not valid; rather I would like to draw attention to the fact that often both points of view have the references deeply rooted in ‘developed’ or western technological thought.

Development in the context of the correct usage of the world certainly seems wedded firmly to Western technological thought. Whether we use it to describe an economic order or a social order, the roots are the same. The word development carries other connotations in the context of present usage. It suggests that the country to be developed is some way inferior to the model to which it aspires to become. The point here is: inferior by whose standards? To an industrialist from a western country, a poor village in the third world does indeed need to be developed. A view, that will more often than not, be held by the rulers of the same country. At this junction a quote from Richard Gott (CDN 26.1.78) seems pertinent.

“With the formal ending of colonial rule in all three continents of the Third World, political independence was granted a tiny elite trained not to question the framework within which the world economy operated”

It is this elite that laid the foundation for education in those countries, thus the value system operating and transmitted was certainly not endemic by any means. With this perspective in mind, lets us attempt to look at ourselves.

We in Sri Lanka are continually talking about development. I believe that in the end this merely means an increase in industry and consumerism. It most certainly could not refer to a cultural or a philosophical development.

For a country in which a major part comprehends philosophical concepts that are addressable only by a minority of scholars in the West, must certainly, in comparative terms, be more developed. An argument could be made “Do we not need to be developed in our agriculture?” Does an agricultural system that does not rely on any form of energy subsidy other than biological energy need to be “developed”, so that, its productivity becomes reliant on external fossil energy?

In the so-called developed world active research in under way for such fossil fuel unsubsidized systems. We have it, and want to disrupt it in favour of energy intensive agricultural practices. Could this trend be attributed to the fact that most of our scholars are trained to look at problems in a purely western technological perspective? Of course all of us want to utilize our training for national good, but we should be careful and try to evaluate objectively the long-range repercussions of increased energy dependence.

Hartford Thomas (CDN 26.178) who is a proponent of Third World development, comments on the help given by developed countries to the to be developed countries, “The philosophy of development from the grassroots comes up from the professionals, in Robert Mc Namara’s annual speeches and in the work of Schumaker intermediate development group”.

Well now, with all due respect for this illustrious gentlemen, I submit that the grassroots existed long before Robert Mc Namara’s discovery of them and that if one reads Schumacher “small is beautiful” one gets the distinct impression that Dr. Schumacher took many beautiful things from so called underdeveloped countries. I do not mean to belittle the great words of these scholars, but wish to point out that they are addressing the developed world. So then, what help do we need from the professionals? To tell us what we already know about ourselves in “developed jargon”?

So we are still confronted with the dubiousness of the meaning of development. It would seem bizarre indeed if it transpired that we have been developing for the past 30 add years manly in a western technology perspective. Some indication of our development can be address if we in turn address these questions in terms of those who describe the path. One of the standard answers is that it means economic growth. On this point Prof. Dudley Seers says, “in fact, it looks as if economic growth may not merely fail to address social and political difficulties, certain types of growth can actually cause them”.

An important question is: who accepts the responsibility for the results of this monomania for economic growth? Are we by changing the value systems, creating an artificial need for goods and services not essential to our well being as measured by any endemic standards. It may be useful to reflect again on a statement by Prof. Seers: “The social barriers and inhibitions of an unequal society distort the personalities of those with high incomes no less than those who are poor. Trivial differences of accent, language, dress, customs, etc., acquire an absurd importance and contempt is engendered for those who lack social graces, specially country dwellers”.

Now lets us take a case in point. Last week in a town in the suburbs of Colombo five youths were picked up by the police. They each had on them. At least Rps. 1000 worth of apparel, i.e. imported shirts, imported trousers, imported wristwatch, imported socks. Their occupation: they were unemployed. How did they earn the money with which to buy the goods? They would steal from the village produce and other sellable items. What was their need? They had to maintain their status. (Tathwaya). Is this development? How did these values come about? A. M. Hockart who was the head of the Ceylon archaeological survey wrote some poignant words that bear relevance to these phenomena:

“Here is a politician who appeals for help in disturbing the pathetic contentment of Asiatic peasants and is ready to pillory as an inhuman wretch anyone who may wish them to remain contented. Contentment has become a crime, because it opens up no markets for goods or for doctrines, woe to the man who does not want more fish, more art, more science, more education, more speed. Trade has no use for him politics and science abhor him. The men after their own heart is the one who can make two desires grow where only one grew before. What, though he threw to the wind, the old fashion restrains and the time honour virtues? What though his stoops to cringing or insolence, to false wood, even to corruption? He is hailed as a creative artist for h has created desire”.

I wonder how truthful would be an advocate of a Buddhist righteous society, if he believes in development in this context.

We are often told that we can not remain apart from the world’s progress and as illuminating examples of progress in the Third World we are shown countries like: Singapore, Hong Kong or South Korea. Do those who want us to join the mad race of consumerism really looked beyond the glitter and the tinsel? Do we want for ourselves a ceaseless struggle for the goods we will be thought are essential to our wellbeing? In a world whose energy resources are constantly dwindling does it not seems obvious to what the fate of energy dependent societies will be?

My discussion is fraught with questions and I believe that they are valid questions. As questions I am sure that they will receive replies from the people whom we the public have faith in entrusting our futures to. I am equally sure that I among many others will gain tremendous knowledge from these answers. This may serve to bring the dialogue of “development” from the “developed” to the “to be developed” (us in this context). For, in the final analysis, acknowledgement of individual responsibility for national processes may serve to act as a safety valve on the social movement called development.’

40 Years after the words above were written, my questions are still unanswered. The many of the same gang as before stand at the helm and we are still being treated to the same old hackneyed formula of ‘development’ with the ‘bigger is better’ formula. Could it be that our leaders are still trapped in their old ideas and do not have the capacity to address modern needs? Could it be that they are blind to the destruction that is being wrought this nation with their pathetic notion of ‘development’? Whatever their personal reasons for promoting this fiasco, it is time to wake up.

It is said that insecurity drives people to project things bigger than they need be. The current mania for mega things might very well reflect on such a political state.

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