Colombo Telegraph

Plight Of The Poorest Of The Poor; Is It Getting Better Or Worse?

By Lankamithra

“In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.” – Confucius

In a desolate landscape, orphaned by any promise of rain or wind, in a still gloomy surrounding of trees and shrub, a lone farmer is tilling his land until sunset. Sunset in this arid zone is a spectacle of rioting colors, all the colors of the rainbow, from crimson red to violet and orange and blue, all dancing to a riotous order. But our farmer is woefully oblivious of that brilliant splendor. Far out on the horizon, a hazy column of clouds deters any human eye from seeing the fine line that divides land and the skies. But the hoeing goes on for it is the season for preparation of the soil before rains arrive, filling the manmade tank allowing the field channels to gush along the precious waters to the land of the farmer. Bare-bodied and exposing a half-starved, an almost emaciated figure of man, our farmer’s daily life is made up of physically tiring tasks. Whether driving a heavy digging hoe into a hardened earth and turning it around, one hammering after another, with sweat pouring down from his frail shoulders to his hollow parts of the outer stomach, or finishing flimsy repairs to a worn-out thatched roof of his old shack of home, he is not impeded by rain or shine. Demands on his labor are not foreclosed.

We have not yet arrived at the doorstep of a total disarray of our economic life. We hope that where administration of governmental affairs is in tatters, the economy collapsing, where all vital indices are showing an alarming downward trend, men, women and children drifting on the streets like ants without a queen-ant, will not arrive soon. Today there is no foreign enemy to point the finger at or as against a target to galvanize a hapless army of unarmed men; instead we have wretched politicians taking credit for an unknown accomplishment. The farmer had gone through this worthless terrain of early-twenty-first-century-politics. Snaking from one selfish leader to another, he has gone weary of the journey. The social burden he carries is enormous and his knees are buckling down- one physically and the other spiritually. Physically it’s emaciating him beyond recognition. The strapper of a man at the time he married his village sweetheart, is now a mere skeleton with some occasional flesh here and there. Our farmer was never affiliated to any political school of thought nor was he attached to any political organization at village level.

This great human odyssey is being played in every corner of our rural hamlets and villages. Their inhabitants’ inexorable struggle to keep their families contended and their stomachs full and spirit breathing is a hard daily routine. To relieve their melee of cruel hardships imposed by their own lack of education, their being born with no bequest of land from their parents and with many mouths to feed, their being exploited by the village lender and a heartless system that keeps trampling the poor and rewarding the rich and avaricious is a great story to tell. It is a great tale to chronicle.

Successive governments have failed to do the bare minimal for the poor, except perhaps the exception of R Premadasa, despite his dubious record in the exercise of governmental power, somewhat dictatorially- as argued by some, in a Stalinist-fashion. Premadasa is one political leader who has no match when determining to accomplish quite difficult tasks for the poorest of the poor. When Premadasa spoke for the poor, no political leader doubted his commitment. No organization doubted his authenticity.

Ransinghe Premadasa did not hail from those exalted halls of urban sophistication. In fact he did not pay any respect for that class which was rich in snobbery and miserably deficient in real commitment to alleviation of poverty. Classified as belonging to déclassé, Premadasa is one leader who commanded the respect of those so-called sophisticated class to an infinite degree and at the same time treated them like mere mortals whose riches were mainly owing to the closeness of connection they enjoyed with those in power. I have written extensively on the subject of ‘Premadasa Exceptionalism’, but that was principally limited to his social and political milieu. Premadasa’s accomplishments in the field of economic development are creditworthy to say the least. Although his Executive Presidential tenure was slashed down way before he completed his full term, his term as Prime Minister, as second-in-command in the J R Jayewardene-government was the one that brought much fame and praise. As Minister of Local Government, Housing and Construction, Premadasa’s contribution to the massive development program undertaken during that time was not second to the stupendous accomplishments of Gamini Dissanayake in the Lands and Mahaweli field and Lalith Athulathmudali’s achievements in the development of the Port.

When one looks at the present set of politicians, one does not find another R Premadasa. R Premadasa’s rivals were not limited to the traditional Opposition. Late in his career they came from within. And he did not handle that with prudence and wisdom. With the departure of Premadasa, the destiny of the United National Party also took a nasty twist. Seventeen years in power is too long for any party to be holding reins of power.

The governments that succeeded did everything for their cronies and friends in the upper class of society and neglected the poor. That is one reason, among many, that our farmer is in this trifling cycle of poverty, whose constant struggle for survival is just another sad chapter in the worsening human saga in the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.

This is the broad overview of Sri Lanka’s plight today. Politician on the one hand and bureaucrat on the other have played out the common man. Farmers, manual laborers, office peons and clerks who are now known as management assistants, all low and middle level workers both in the public and private sectors have become collectively subordinated to the massive mega-deals the politicians and officials are trapped in.

In a land totally barren of decent cultural practices and creative art, completely devoid of financial integrity yet thirsting for accountability and transparency from the government sector which was the promise that was held in the hustings, the people’s wishes have taken a back seat. It is not because the government is otherwise engaged in massive development undertakings. There is a palpable feeling especially among the business leaders and academics that the government is not competent. That is a very shameful badge to wear.

Whether it is incompetence or lack of motivation or even deliberate disregard for the promises held out during an election campaign, masses cannot be patient beyond average human endurance. Why the Rajapaksas score all points in the media is directly ascribed to this lack of action by those in power. How can anyone justify Mahinda Rajapaksa’s criticizing the current government’s and writing to the media under the heading, ‘irregular Appointment of High Court judge Threatens Independence of the Judiciary’? What does he think about the voter public? True, our people have a very short memory. Yet for the person who abused the country’s judiciary to such an unprecedented degree by removing the then Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake in the most disrespectful manner, sending the real war hero General Sarath Fonseka behind bars under the most flimsy charges, after using the then Chief Justice Mohan Pieris like a doormat, to hurl stones at the current regime is laughable.

The real issue with the current rulers, among others, is their lack or inability of fighting back in the pages of print media or on the wide screens of television. Strong criticism, in the most severe form and fashion without any mercy is the only answer. Mahinda Rajapaksa, as Donald Trump in the USA is living in his own universe of alternative facts. Mahinda Rajapaksa simply cannot relate to the reality of being out of power. His daily routine of getting ready in the morning, setting his red shawl (satakaya) around his neck, arriving at his ornate Presidential desk and shouting orders at his security staff, receiving visiting foreign dignitaries etc. is irreversibly changed. His present routine might be totally different. But getting used to that routine where there is no ‘power’ is a very hard thing to digest. But his unlimited wealth apparently has the capacity as well as enormity to sustain a planned campaign against a ‘media-unsavvy’ administration.

But in the midst of this brutal conflict between two antagonists, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithri/Ranil combination, we should not forget our farmer who was sweating it out far out in the lost land of the arid zone. His day is not yet over. After finishing day’s work in the field, he is eagerly trekking towards his home where his wife and child await, not particularly with any hope or optimism. Yet when the family’s breadwinner reaches home in his usual depressed state of mind, the whole panorama of the human drama becomes visible to the discriminating eye. Now his landscape is a shack of home. The roof is leaking and the cow-dung-floor is uneven and rough to the feet of his little child. His plight is terrible and his future is gloomy. This is the story of our rural folks. It is more cruel than sad.

*The writer is available on lankamithra1955@gmail.com

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