By 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?