By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.” – Paine (The American Crisis)
The Floating Market is one of a kind. A brainchild of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it was built by the UDA at a cost of Rs.100 million. Its row of shops-on-boats looks rather quaint from afar. Closer encounters, reportedly, are not so pleasing. The shops have no proper walls or doors. Instead they have loosely woven coir-covers which provide no impediment to inclement elements or robbers. Every night the shop-owners face a Hobson’s choice: do they carry their merchandise home with them or do they sleep in the shops to protect their merchandise?[i]
Shops in this part of Pettah are patronised almost totally by bus-passengers. Time is of essence and the passengers rushing from one bus to another will stop at a shop because it is literally by the roadside. The Floating Market is picturesque, but it is not located by the road side. This inconvenient setting is affecting sales; most shop-owners reportedly find it hard to make ends meet[ii].
A market which is pleasing to the eye, but is neither convenient for buyers nor profitable for the sellers is the infrastructural twin of an international airport with no international flights and a port which has created zero-employment opportunities.
Attractive, but impractical, unproductive and wasteful – that is Rajapaksa development.
Ordinary Lankans may not know that the cumulative losses of the UDA (that fief of Gotabaya Rajapaksa) from 2006-2011 amounted to a colossal Rs.1.23 billion[iii]. But they would know from their day-to-day experiences that Rajapaksa development is of scant benefit to them.
The Rajapaksas are destroying Lankan democracy from within. But the Siblings have been able to disembowel basic rights and freedoms without resorting to generalised repression. This, together with their Orwellian media policies, has enabled them to dismantle democracy behind a democratic façade.
The latest CPA survey reveals the success of this strategy: 58.7% of Lankans think that the country has become more democratic, post-war while only 10.6% of Lankans think it has become less democratic.
Popular perceptions are not necessarily a measure of democratic health. The gentile and politically inactive German majority did not regard Nazi Germany as a land of unfreedom. Public faith in Rajapaksa democracy does not make Rajapaksa rule democratic; but it does demonstrate the limits of ‘restoring democracy’ as an electoral slogan.
Dismantling familial rule and turning Sri Lanka into an ordinary democracy (with the usual warts) is imperative. But campaigning on that basis, solely or even primarily, will not help the opposition to defeat Rajapaksa rule. Democracy must be restored; but it can be restored only via an electoral platform which accords primacy to economic issues.
There are no factual reasons to believe that a majority of Lankans either support or oppose the presidential system. Most Lankans probably do not care one way or the other. This does not mean that the current executive presidency should not be replaced, ideally with some sort of hybrid system. This means the opposition should pay at least equal attention to rice-and-curry issues.
What will replace the executive presidency? What will be the new electoral system? What about devolution? How will the new constitutional provisions be enacted? (If Mahinda Rajapaksa is defeated, it is almost certain that a majority of parliamentarians will consent to abolish the executive-presidency.) These are important issues. But to resolve them, the opposition must win the presidential election. That requires a roadmap which is political and economic.
The opposition roadmap should not only explain how democracy will be restored in 100 days. It must also explain how prices of certain consumer essentials will be reduced in 100 days. A roadmap which focuses solely on political issues and ignores/marginalises ordinary economic concerns of ordinary voters will be as effective as a one-limbed runner in the upcoming presidential race.
The Socio-economics of Familial Rule
In September this year, an eight year old girl was raped in Akmeemana. The mother was a tea-plucker; she had to go out to work everyday leaving her two daughters alone in an inadequately built house[iv].
This story symbolises the connection between poverty, insecurity and such horrendous crimes as child rape.
As the UNDP pointed out, Sri Lanka has an abnormally heavy reliance on indirect taxes, “which account for over 80 percent of total tax revenue. This shifts the burden of taxation onto the poor.”[v] Rajapaksa rule neglects the concerns of poor people while imposing ever higher burdens on them via indirect taxes. In the past, governments subsidized the poor; now the poor are subsidizing the government. In Sri Lanka, the President and his political and personal cohorts are the real welfare kings and queens.
The Rajapaksas are building eye-catching but wasteful First World infrastructure projects by imposing crippling indirect taxes on poor/middle class Lankans. Absolute and relative poverty in Sri Lanka can be dented not by giving more handouts, but by reducing the crippling tax-burden on the poor.
Take that mother in Akmeemana. She has to pay more for basic consumer essentials, because of the exorbitant taxes imposed on them. The Rajapaksas take a large component of her meager earnings and squander it on unproductive and wasteful projects. The money she could have used to build a safer house for her two young daughters is spent on airports and expressways. Millions of ordinary Lankans get cheated out of their earnings in a similar manner.
This is Rajapaksa development.
The people feel the economic pain. But they must be shown, again and again, the connection between their personal economic problems and Rajapaksa rule.
The economic component of the roadmap must not be the pie-in-the-sky, rice-from-the-moon variety. The roadmap must contain clear and concise information about how prices of selected items can be reduced in the first 100 days. The people can also be told that the consequent reduction in governmental revenue can be covered by making cuts in wasteful and unproductive ventures – such as Mihin Air or Mattala airport or the astronomical sums allocated for the misuse of the executive president.
Eric Hobsbawm argued that the purpose of government is not to look after the gifted minority but to care for the ‘ordinary run of people’: “Any society worth living in is one designed for them, not for the rich, the clever, the exceptional, although any society worth living in must provide room and scope for such minorities.”[vi] In other words, a meritocracy which does not ignore popular concerns; a meritocracy committed to the alleviation of the problems of the less-merited majority.
Rajapaksa Sri Lanka is the antithesis of this – it is not a meritocracy; nor is it concerned about the ordinary problems of ordinary people. The Rajapaksas ignore both the ordinary and the exceptional in favour of familial. Rajapaksa governance exacerbates both brain-drain and popular discontent. The brain-drain gives the Rajapaksas a freer hand politically and socio-economically while popular discontent provides them with a flexible weapon which can be used against political opponents and ethno-religious minorities, depending on the need.
Most Lankans and most Sinhalese know, instinctively, that they do not benefit from Rajapaksa rule. The opposition needs to come up with a politico-economic roadmap which can bring this discontent into political-life.
[iv] Struggling Mother Earner Families Vulnerable to Predators – The Sunday times – 21.9.2014
[v] Sri Lanka Human Development Report – 2012
[vi] On History