By Siri Gamage –
We often criticise the current development model due to its dependence on foreign sources of funding, expertise, potential for corruption and ideology that it creates, i.e. idea that we don’t have necessary intelligence to conceptualise the problems and solutions. We also criticise the government leaders who rely on such a model to attract more loans, investments and expertise from abroad. This applies even to the fields of education and learning, medicine, construction, culture, food production, etc. However, we tend to forget or give less priority to our own talents, expertise, intelligence and wisdom except in the areas of our religions. This is a syndrome or illness that we have inherited as a nation from European colonialism and continue to suffer from. It is time to reflect on the possibilities for a rural reawakening from the Southern, Northern and Central heartlands of the island and act upon the same with a steely determination to circumvent this dependence on anything foreign.
This is easily said than done in a society where all rivers flow towards Colombo and beyond. Though we have Provincial Councils for so called decentralisation, these bodies contribute only to the existing chaos and the dependency syndrome mentioned earlier. Commentators spend valuable time and energy for discussing the postponement of local government elections. Though they are important, we need to think beyond Local Government bodies when we talk about the rural heartland and its predicament.
There is out migration of the educated youths from rural heartlands to capital city and other urban centres. Some set their eyes on foreign destinations for employment in countries like South Korea. Many choose to engage in quite demeaning work for a few dollars in foreign countries instead of suffering the humiliation of being unemployed in your own backyard and be powerless. The rural population rely on their elected representatives to do the right thing by their kith and kin, a dream they held since independence. Yet by each year that passes, they realise that the solutions to local problems are far away. They observe the activities conducted in the name of development, fancy vehicles with Logos and officials, foreign consultants visiting their locale. They also answer questions these experts and survey conductors ask of them thinking something good can happen. Yet day-by-day they realise how their life is being controlled, taxed, and subjected to rampant consumerism leaving very little in their pockets. They see the way the land, water, and other resources that give sustenance for contented community life are being appropriated by the state, rich classes or foreign companies. It is like another tsunami, intended or unintended.
There is one resource the country has not utilised well for the purpose of rural uplifting or reawakening. It is the rural talent and collective intelligence of the people. This is because there are no vehicles or mechanisms to do so. eg. Community based organisations such as self-help organisations. When I was a school going boy in Walasmulla area in the late 50s, there were rural development societies (Gramma Sanvardhana samagam). There was also Gam Karya Sabha, an elected local government body. Cooperative societies also existed along with temple societies. However, in the following decades these entities evaporated in significance. In the 70s, there was an interest in the idea of rural awakening and development. I remember research projects and seminars conducted by Marga Institue to influence policy making. Mr Sunimal Fernando led some of these projects then. Marga also published books, seminar papers etc. on the subject. Then came the ARTI affiliated to the Ministry of Agriculture doing similar research, training etc. But what is the situation today not only in terms of research but also training and aiding rural agriculture development? How far rural development figure in the minds of policy planners? What priority has it been given in the overall future vision of the government?
The lethargy in coming together as communities and forming rural development societies for the very welfare and development of one’s area is partly due to the fractured nature of rural society. Rural society is divided along political party, rich and poor, caste, ethnicity, and other factors. Secondly, it is fractured along those with economic and political power vs. those who lack these. Thirdly, it is divided on the basis of those who have access to modern knowledge, networks, mobility and technology vs. those without. Most women still play a subservient role to men. Rural youths are marginalised by the social and political system. Though unhappy, many in this situation leave governance to professional politicians and mind their own affairs. Our intellectuals do not discuss or do research on how we were exploited during the colonial time and postcolonial time with the active support received from Walawwa families of the officially appointed local chieftains. They don’t care about how our rural heartland is exploited even today either! Instead, they tend to talk about the merits of foreign investment in getting us out of the debt trap we are caught in or a development imposed from above until the allocated money for projects run out. They also utter the economic development manthra passed down from the World Bank and other multilateral agencies using the same terminology, arguments and statistics. Hardly we see a critique of the same.
Even our education system is not designed to encourage young people for innovation and creativity. It does not provide the necessary tools and ideas or the encouragement to find out how we can utilise our own resources in the rural heartland? I give an example. People who grow coconuts dry them in the sun or barns and make copra. They sell copra to oil mill owners in provincial cities. My father used to do this and I still remember how I went with him to Matara to collect money from the mill owner. But now the world has changed. Many in Western countries use coconut oil and products made from such oil in food consumption as part of healthy diet. In super markets, there is coconut water along with fruit juices. Thus instead of making copra, our coconuts industry can be developed to bottle coconut water and supply to the market and export. Yet, there is no vehicle to do so perhaps except in the private sector. If there are rural development societies focused on the better utilisation of resources and the government provides necessary know how and probably the finances on low interest basis, small entrepreneurs can emerge from the rural heartland in hundreds and thousands. In South East Asian countries like Indonesia and Thailand, there is a concept called Social Enterprise. It is one that is used to articulate policy and programs by the non-government sector to help small entrepreneurs not only in terms of ideas, marketing and loans but also encouragement to start small enterprises. One organization has helped to run 700 petrol service stations in and around Bangkok.
Rural awakening and development cannot be at the expense of spiritual awakening and development. The two need to go hand in hand. Sarvodaya ideology and movement are based on this concept. They are respected internationally. Do we adopt the principles advocated by Sarvodaya in our development initiatives in the rural heartland? If not why not? It is an integrated rural development concept that combines welfare of people, spirituality and economic development. In any rural reawakening, we need to revive our interest on Sarvodaya and other indigenous development models. If our minds are set on distant dreams and fake lifestyle preferences, our villages and the life of sanity that they offered us around the tank, dagba and the paddy fields will be lost forever.
It is important to focus and dialogue on rural reawakening and development based on indigenous concepts, thinking, and possible solutions. Our social scientists and community leaders have a great responsibility in such a task. Rural empowerment should not be considered as something that the national leaders could endow upon those living in the sector during a Vap Magul ceremony with a sumptuous meal. It is something that the people, awakened by their sorry plight have to fight for and secure by collective action. It is simply not something that should be left in the hands of politicians whose interests collide with the interests of rural folk. People from all walks of life need to come together, examine what has gone wrong, and how to correct the situation. Understanding that there is a problem is the first step. Dialogue is the next step. Examining solutions and developing strategies are other steps. How to collaborate across social, religious, ethnic, caste, gender and political divides to achieve a goal is the final step.
If and when Local Government elections are held, elected representatives will look into local problems. But if these bodies are politicized and become ineffective – a common disease prevalent in the country for which no solution has been found yet – those who aspire for rural reawakening and work hard to achieve it can play a significant role to enthuse elected representatives to address local needs through elected bodies. In the absence of community organisations based on sustainable, indigenous development models, elected local government bodies will only be another arm of the Colombo political elites/class to control rural heartland according to their wishes and needs rather than one that empowers the rural folk disenfranchised by the prevailing social and political systems.