19 August, 2022


Disempowerment & Alienation: A Fact Of Life For Many In Sri Lanka

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

Sociologists and other commentators often talk about social mobility, the idea that some people particularly youths in lower socio economic classes, move up the class ladder as a result of education, employment, business, politics and other opportunities. However, there us reluctance on their part to talk about how and why people get disempowered, alienated and helpless in society. Yet this process impacts the majority of people in a country like Sri Lanka. A deeper investigation and reflection is necessary on this subject if we are to understand the full extent of the process. One may even call this downward social mobility but there is no need to complicate the matter by adding sociological jargon when we can avoid it.

To understand disempowerment, we have to understand empowerment. If we talk about economic empowerment we know how individuals, families and other groups empower themselves economically. Avenues may include business, professional employment, and migration to other countries or even entering into politics. Families and groups thus empowered form various networks based on a range of criteria including the industry sector, profession, old school and university ties or even family and caste relations. Links established this way function to facilitate a comfortable life for the members of such networks and groups. For example, if one needs to get something done from a government department, hospital, police station, the port or even a company, he or she finds friends or relatives who can assist on a personal level.

Political empowerment is a subject that does not need any introduction, as many are familiar with this process through experience, media, and the bloated cabinets etc. Nonetheless, it involves acquisition of legitimate/formal power through elections by engaging in party politics and being rewarded with elected and other positions i.e. Heads of various corporations. These positions within mega institutions, some with economic significance such as banks or Insurance Corporation or Sathosa, offer certain privileges including material comforts by way of official residences, cars, drivers, and even domestic staff. Once in such positions, occupants empower themselves and strengthen their networks further.

Cultural empowerment also goes hand in hand. In particular, this is associated with material and consumer culture that is spreading in the country like a wildfire. At times, such empowerment involves participation in traditional cultural events, e.g. getting a seat to observe Kandy perahara, which is otherwise sold in open market for Rs 5000-10000.

What about disempowerment then? How do people disempower economically? When someone doesn’t have a job to earn an income he or she disempowers. When a person’s salary is not enough to feed a family or to make meager savings, the same happens. When someone has to live in a sub standard rented house for life that person disempowers. When a person has to work as a labourer, landless farmer, construction worker etc. devoting his energy for a meager wage he gets disempowered. Domestic workers, tea pluckers, pottery and juggary makers disempower along with small fishermen when their products cannot be sold for a better price. When there are severe inflation people in lower socio economic classes disempower.  For example, many feel that the buying power of RS 1000 today is equivalent to buying power of RS 100 a few decades ago. As the process of economic disempowerment has continued for many decades it has become multigenerational involving a majority of people.

What about political disempowerment? When there are no local bodies with elected representatives, people disempower. When law enforcement authorities treat citizens like animals, peoples empower. When human rights are violated by those who exercise power the same happens. With each election result, it seems a majority of people disempower politically rather than empower because the elected representatives move away from the people and their living contexts and relocate in comfortable and luxury surroundings which assuming emboldened identities which then need to be augmented by symbolic and costly material paraphernalia.  Social distance between the elector and elected becomes wider and the alienation of disempowered greater. When government administrators at local and provincial levels treat people as subjects rather than empowered citizens, people get disempowered. Language use also can be one such avenue of disempowerment as is the middle class and upper middle class etiquette visible among high office holders.

Cultural disempowerment is associated with the economic and political versions. Those who are not able to conform to the norms and or practices of high culture, a concept that sociologists define by using various criteria, people get culturally disempowered. For example, how many can afford to stay a few days in a five star hotel or resort in Colombo and elsewhere? How many can afford a buffet lunch at Galle Face hotel for RS 3900 per head? How many can afford to travel in a medium size car? How many can speak English properly with bureaucrats for official purposes? How many can afford to send children to prestigious local and international schools? How many can keep domestic servants let alone modern houses with servant quarters?

Recently I travelled by intercity train between Peradeniya and Colombo. All the way I could witness huts like small houses along the rail line belonging to disempowered people who have set up such structures on railway land. Roofs are covered with galvanized sheets and asbestos. Some have cardboard sheets in between. The disempowered do not travel in air-conditioned buses. There are no such buses in the private or public fleets for the use of disempowered majority anyway. Supermarkets such as Keels are out of bound for these people due to unaffordability. So are the private hospitals and international schools, not to speak about foreign universities. Hopelessness rein supreme among this layer due to multiple disempowerments. Yet those aspiring to empower themselves politically and by implication economically by using various discourses using the vernacular language efficiently seek their vote.

It seems that such a society and its elitist layers that are empowered and privileged are happy to maintain the majority layer as poor and disempowered rather than empowered citizens. Systems, processes and institutions in place and the official and political culture as well as the normative structure associated with them seem to reinforce the disempowerment process just like they did during the colonial period. What has changed?

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Hey Prof. Good points but dis-empowerment of the majority so the Global 1 percent can own over 80 percent of the wealth is a global phenomena.
    Look at Middle East and Africa which is oil and mineral rich but mainly disaster land due with massive refugee crisis and war, caused by so-called “development” and corrupt Capitalism. Today networks of legalized global financial corruption promoted in the name of “development” promotes a culture of corrupt third world politicians and business elites looting poor people and depositing the funds in secret off shore bank accounts as revealed in Panama Papers. Why has IMF, World Bank USAID not spoken about corruption in SL or used their fake development experts to trace off-shore funds and return to Lanka rather than loading VAT taxes on the poor? Read THomas Pikety, Guy Standing and the book: After Picketty.

  • 0

    What I see is you tried to be a scholar at the expense of the Politician’s, the society’s dishonesty, shamelssness, talk of colombo elite as Colombo-7 people but the behaviour or actions like Kotahena or Gaspha- handiya like. Otherwise, just use simple temrs we learend on the way. They are always complaining about humongous debt that we have because, Mahinda Rajapakse borrowed so much. At least we have some mega proejcts that we needed such as highways. Now, it looks even Hambanthota was not a waste because, the way things goes it will eventually becomes a success. This govt is complining but they have done. Amidst all these, there was another talk was Govt gave Car permits to 100 politicians and the loss os tax revenue was Rs 3.1 billion. Now, govt is allocating another Rs 755 million. Because, they need funds such as fuel allocations to their existing fleets. Besides, Ranil wants to increase the number of politicians. some how when the elections comes, as all the elections will at the same time, the number will be 10,000. Just imagine the cost or salaries, perks, benfits and maintenenace. Because, they are paid every more than once. Then think about the loans they got fro doing nothing. bonds, treasury bills, cash swaps with Indian and china, credit lines from different countries, then loans from every bank in the world including IMF and World bank. How many times they have issued treasury bills and bonds. Then the humongous bond scam wg=hich runs into mega billions and trillions depending on whose calculation is right. Poor people have to comphensate those as taxes. How will people will succeed. Because, mentally handicapped thieves are running the country. They are mentally handicapped becasue they get caught everything they do. So called journalists, academics, scholars and everybody just talk.

  • 1

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  • 1

    Dr. Siri Gamage: Very timely presentation that must receive the urgent attention of the “Youth Population” of Sri Lanka. I saw the “FORCE; MAGNITUDE; USE and ABUSE” of this “Disempowerment and Alienation” very well demonstrated on August 15th, when Mrs. Shiranthi Rajapakse– the wife of ex President and the then “First Lady” arrived at the FCID on summons to record a statement in relation to the “Murder” of Mr. Wasim Thajudeen. The ex President along with the “Stalwarts” of the “Joint Opposition Circus Team” brought bus loads of their “supporters” to show off placards and shout slogans depicting the summoned lady as their “Mother” and save her from “harassment” of the Law Enforcement Authorities. The STATE security forces were placed in readiness with all the equipment necessary to face any eventuality of a “civil disturbance”. Just imagine how and to what extent those in the political field have “Disempowered and Alienated” the PEOPLE from “Independence and Freedom” to THINK and RESPECT the JUDICIARY of the country. This is the MODUS OPERANDI very surreptitiously deployed by the present day Politicians to capture power and ENTER that “ELITE CLUB”. So long as the PEOPLE do not acknowledge and realize this surreptitious operational method of “Disempowerment and Alienation” adopted by the members of the “Elite Club” that include many of the so called educated and professional categories, this country cannot come out of the rut that it has fallen to. The people need to be AWARE and REALIZE this danger and sooner the better.

  • 0

    Siri Gamage laments the ascendancy of “Disempowerment & Alienation: A Fact Of Life For Many In Sri Lanka”. The thrust is that the poor Lankans are at the wrong end. Unfortunately this is the trend all over the world – just look across the Strait.
    Siri has ignored Disempowerment & Alienation 101.
    In 1948, disempowerment of a section of the then Ceylonese started with the disfranchisement of so-called Up-country Tamils.
    The 1956 SWRD B “Sinhala Only in 24 hours” was an unashamed disempowerment of Tamils.
    The successive GoSLs ignored the pogroms, introduced the standardisation etc. What were these for Siri?
    The civil war was inevitable but even after war was brought to an “end”, to judge the life of a typical Tamil please read CT of August 20, 2017 “Police Intimidates Member Of EC After He Criticised Police For Working In Sinhalese In North And East”
    Also read the multi part series by Dr Brian Senivaratne.
    It is now clear that “Disempowerment and Alienation” is a tool of the powerful. Has nothing to do with the language/religion divide.

  • 0

    Mr. Pillai,
    1956 changes are seen by many Sinhalese who were able to get into universities and professions or join the government service, NGO sector,migrate as empowerment. Many of them are in high income govt.jobs today. I am sure the expansion of university education via Tamil medium has contributed to the elevation of rural Tamil youths also in socio economic terms . However, I accept the fact that many of these youths , both Sinhala and Tamil ,may have faced discrimination in the employment field. Ability to enter politics or involve in party politics have allowed some individuals to climb the socio economic ladder along with their political masters. Religious figures from all religions also have made some progress in securing material privileges while using the cloaks as labels. However,the point I make in this article is that while this game in the town is continuing and those in privileged positions are enjoying the fruits of their enterprises,big and small, the very same system produces a large community of disempowered and alienated people including youths who learn in Sinhala and Tamil. This is a deliberate outcome and one could even say being engineered by the political class to maintain the inequality and subservience. The existence of this community,diverse though in class,religious,ethnic terms, is important for the current system of governance to continue even though it has brought post colonial dependence. When we can we need to write and speak about this saga. Those on the ground can take the lead and develop strategies to combat this dependence and elite strategy formulated during last 70 years and more. PS. Jim Softy is like all of us,ie write but no action yet criticises others for writing. This is first grade duplicity to me. All of us who write are scholars. No need to have a degree to write,,,

  • 0

    Capital – Market economy is unofficial and un-organized collective power. It is misunderstood as Mudalali making money. In a society, where law and order exist, distribution channels are better maintained, poverty is not existent. Denmark, Finland, Norway, New Zealand….In Lankawe Mullaithivu, Batticaloa and upcountry sides where Tamils lived hut are symbols and sights. This is why Lankawe is only able to dream of Singapore but never will reach Singapore.

    Poverty is infectious in capital markets or in free societies. When one sector of community lack resources, then sickness follows in that community, poor education follows, poor labor market, poor business activities for them and neighbors find hardly any business interaction and thus the poverty infect the neighboring area too. On the other hand, when one area is revived, the neighboring areas start to revive too. We have seen this in Indian recovery recently. When the foreign industries opened up factories in TN industrial zones, rural young farmers flocked to production area instead of low income farming. This made the Bihar likes high poverty states to find labor jobs in Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, and Maharashtra. Further, this is forcing the farmers to modernize farming to manage with less labor, because the labor they imports from other states was not satisfactory for them.
    Sinhala governments deported active Tamil works in the estates and artificially created slump there. Sinhala Governments spent about $400 billion to devastate the Tamil areas just implement the standardization and Sinhala only with iron fist handedly. By these activities Lankawe is one of the most indebted nations in the world and to recover form that debt it is selling its lands to aggressive colonizers like China & Saudi Arabia. Improving Tamil area, instead of looting and depositing in foreign banks, will improves income of Sinhala merchants by Tamil consumers.

  • 0

    Tamils have done EVERYTHING possible in their power to destroy Sri Lanka, and now start whining about poverty ? ! Funny. Policies needed to develop the country as a whole was labelled as anti-Tamil and the governments and the Sinhalese people were attacked by the Tamils. For example standardization was to do exactly what is necessary to empower and uplift a country as whole, namely to distribute and make university education accessible to the rural areas, so that rural areas can be developed, which all of the countries Mallaiyuran has mentioned has policies on. Today we have people flocking to the cities for jobs and businesses and over-population in the cities has resulted in pollution, homelessness etc.

  • 0

    However much the Tamils say that the war was because of unjust treatment of the Tamils, what you call unjust is unjust, but absolute necessary policies if a country is to progress. (In my humble opinion the war was not about rights at all, but about Tamil fundamentalism and would have happened whatever the governments had done, because Tamils wanted to rule. It was not about injustice, but about nationalism). Anyways, for a moment imagine that the whole country had only one ethnicity (for example all Tamil or all Sinhalese). Would you still think that the rural development policies including standardization is unfair then?

    SL-Tamils should think if 10% of the population want to continue privileges they had been given due to unjust distribution by a third party, namely the British colonial rulers, is it fair to demand that the same continue, when the rest of the population including the Muslims and the estate Tamils had no problems with the language policies or the standardization? What would be the social structure be today if standardization was not introduced? Would it be fair to continue the same colonial policies which would have produced a 50-60% of doctors and 70-80% engineers and a good 50% of all civil servants who couldn’t and refused to communicate in the language of 75% of the population?

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