14 October, 2019

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Rural Reawakening As The Solution To Economic & Social Problems

By Siri Gamage

Dr. 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.

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    I don’t believe that the bucolic happy life of his childhood.that Dr Siri describes actually existed.
    “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.”
    In the 30’s 30,000 people died of Malaria. Diseases like Polio, Mumps, Smallpox, etc killed many even into the 50’s. Lack of transport kept many people in their villages doing whatever was available there. Lack of education meant that youth neither knew of nor aspired to “distant dreams and fake lifestyle preferences,”
    What changed all this was mass education, improved sanitation/ health services and spread of information.
    If we want to reverse the trend, Yes it is possible. Stop compulsory education, shut down the internet and mass media, and shut down the universities. That should do the job. We will have no shortage of coconut pluckers , hewers of wood and drawers of water.

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      Dr. Siri Gamage,

      “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”

      Our own talents, our own intelligence and our own innovations, need to use the talents of the others as well, because we do not have the critical mass and intelligence like some others do. 50% of our populace believse that the Sun goes around the Earth, and there may still be a few who believe in a flat Earth

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3EspZtA7C3o

      How We Know The Earth Is Round? It should be noted that Eratosthenes was not trying to prove the Earth was spherical, he already knew it was because of evidence found by earlier Greek scientists like Aristotle, based on the lunar eclipse and shape of the eclipse.

      The legendary Carl Sagan brilliantly demonstrates how Eratosthenes proved a spherical Earth. Hard to believe that some people still deny this 2200 years later.

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    You are living in a western developed country – australia – I suppose. What I am writing is relevant to North america. But, europe is also disintegrating now. Probably, you are aware, most of the people lived in the mega cities and economic centers of the world, as they want to say, want to move out of the city and want to live inthe rural areas. they want to do their employment related work via the computer and twittor accounts.. I think you are aware most of the social problems because of the urbanization and moving away from the culture that they lived in. for example, In the north american west, I heard always the first generation of immigrents (not the parents) beome westernized. but, the second generation feel lost and they go back to their own culture. with respect to economic problems, again you are wrong. The capitalist economy is made to make individuals earn as much as they can, spend those money to feed to consumer driven market and tht is at the expeense of the family unit, culture and the country. Now, in sihale, both parents are struggling to go ahead the economic rat race. children are suffering. They become objects. they need to pass exam and show their abilities to make parents proud. Some young girls get hooked up to bad boys and destroy their lives. Drinking parties, binge drinking, drugs, mental stress, depresion are all western capitalist problems. ————- I think Sinhale has grown enough. what needs is the distribution of the wealth. What you say is comptible with the IF adn world Bank economic principals which would work only for one generation. After that you see the society is disintegrating country is going to bankruptcy. See, North america,Europe, Japan and South Korea. I think any economic solutions that neglects the culture of a society, environment of the society (both mental and physical) would fail. YOu see that infront of your eyes, if you it carefully.

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      Dr. Siri Gamage in Australia is suffering from a bout of nostalgia for his youth.
      The trouble in my opinion is not that we have embraced Western values. There can’t be anything wrong with Western values if they work well in Australia, and most Sri Lankans would die for a chance to go there.
      The trouble is that we have only taken to Western values half-heartedly, unlike, say, Singapore or even China. What sort of society is it that educates its children but requires them to fall at the feet of some politician at prize-givings? Or requires old men to give up their seat in a bus to a young boy in a robe?
      Neither here nor there, actually.

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        I agree.there are good Western values. There are good Asian values also, eg respect for elders. Most of our people live in rural areas. What happens with education? Those who do better leave. Those who don’t do better also leave,eg carpenters, Mason’s, domestic workers, labourers. What remains become alcoholic or socially disfunctional due to poverty, thuggery etc. I’m not saying there are no others who succeed in business,politics,professions such as lawyers. But generally in a fractured rural society when community becomes disempowered and subject to political and some would say religious control via ritualistic ideology rather than critical philosophy of the Buddha, such community loses its soul,identity,strength and purpose. In such context,individuals chase distance dreams ,communities struggle. The economic model of borrowing and more borrowing rather than sustainable community development on the basis of an indigenous model will make us slaves to western powers and corporations. Instead,ways and means of liberating rural communities economically,politically and even culturally have to be conceptualised.

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    LAC3 (rtd) Buddhadasa: You said : “Stop compulsory education, shout down the internet and mass media and shut down the Universities. That should do the job”. What crap is that? Of course, I know there are “Buddhadasas” born and survive in “Abuddassa-kale”. My elders tell that such people are born to this world during a “Kaliyugaya”. You seem to be one of them to suggest the above. What Dr. Siri Gamge suggests is the NEED of the present day. Please read it again and again and perhaps some wisdom could dawn on you to find some modern way to pluck coconuts, draw water and wood chopping. By the way what does that “LAC3(rtd)” means? We know that “Buddhadasa” and “Ganadasa” never lived up to the meaning of those names.

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      Mr Douglas,
      If YOU read carefully between Dr.Siri’s lines, you will realize that he is proposing a society where people stay in their villages . “example. People who grow coconuts dry them in the sun or barns and make copra.”
      The only way to do that is to keep them uneducated. Please do look up “sarcasm” in the dictionary.
      LAC3 = Leading Aircraftsman 3. Retired long ago.

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        This is a complete misreading of what I wrote,,,please re-read,,,

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    sports cars, clothing styles, speaking in broken english, living the night life in the night club, having an affiar outside the marraige etc., does not talk the economic strength of the country. those are social problems that came with the econimical and technological development. those problems existed inthe orld society too. But, not this way. Peole have gone in discipline and that is their mental environement. So, things need to be considered.—————- with respect to our industries, I heard in India when Railway engines were imported, the minister ask to disassemble ne engine as many smaller parts as could and asked the enginners to what parts can be manufactured in India. See sinhale. It was a Green bawl and exported rice. Now, they do not have technology to store rice when there is a glut and when there is a drought, we have to improt because that is what IMF/WO recommends in order to keep tha SU dollar transactions alive which pays some transcation fee to a certain country. On the other hand, that business help the minister. So, in that sense, capitalism is there to promote corruption.

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    The development of rural facilities can be done through the establishment of a “rural development bank” which has a charitable or non-profit element chartered to support rural people.

    But the development of rural areas should not be an excuse to forget investing in infrastructure and economic stimulus for the urban regions, particularly Jaffna, Kandy, and Colombo. These areas need better transport infrastructure.

    I also support measures to lay out a scheme to make sure everyone has access to basic infrastructure and welfare (water, sewage, hospitals…).

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    LAC3 (rtd). Thank you. I think Dr. Siri Gamage has requested you to re read (so did I) what he wrote. To me in summary and the meaning of “Rural Reawakening” was to “Empower” the rural based “Know How” by revolutionizing that “Resource” making substantial investments on innovations, support services,education,shifting market strategies , financing etc. so that dependency on “Foreign Capital” could be minimized. In that context a “sarcasm” is unwarranted.

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