By Lasantha Pethiyagoda –
How times have changed! When DS Senanayake, SWRD Bandaranaike, Dudley Senanayake, Sirimavo Bandaranaike ruled Sri Lanka, did the people go around glorifying them as larger-than-life superhuman entities? Did anyone try to deify them as worthy of obeisance and reverence? Did we see articles in newspapers specifically devoted to the worship of such personalities as some kind of weird idols that were somehow better than ordinary human beings? Did the ministers who worked under these leaders praise to high heaven, with empty and obviously insincere adjectives, the virtues of these men and women? However, Sri Lanka’s recent rulers rode high on these ego trips.
DS Senanayake’s son Dudley did not have children, so that dynasty ended. SWRD Bandaranaike’s place passed to his wife and then later on to his daughter. That dynasty seems over as well. JR Jayewardene did not cultivate a dynastic culture. DB Wijetunge was by far the most honourable human being to hold the post of “Executive” president. He had no ambition to pass on his genes for the spawn to rule the land. Dynasties have ruled in neighbouring countries in contemporary times. However, this is not a characteristic of representative democracy; nor the parliamentary system as practiced in progressive and politically mature countries.
When the Senanayakes ruled, say the population in Sri Lanka was 12 million. How many ministers were employed? How many “portfolios” were there? Granted, that times were less complicated, with no special emphasis on national security or women’s affairs. If the population has doubled since then, how many times more, is the number of ministers, their minions, carers, secretaries, “official” residences, “official” vehicles for entourages and “security” battalions? There were nine provinces in Sri Lanka. I believe there are still about the same number. Yet, how many more snouts splurge at the trough of public wealth?
How have rich people become rich? They either inherit wealth from their parents, marry other rich people, or make lots of profit from a lucrative business, where sales incomes are consistently high and expenses are correspondingly low, which result in much more cash inflow than outflow. The profits are largely kept by the owners to make their lives better (ie rich people) Who are the consumers? Do ordinary consumers also become rich? No.
As we see around us, prices of commodities invariably go up, although prices of some items like vegetables and fruits (killer commodities that I will deal with later) do fluctuate, maintaining the illusion of fairness. Are there many more people who are very rich than when the Senanayakes and Bandaranaikes ruled in the 60’s and 70’s? Yes. Exponentially so. In fact, the super- rich in Sri Lanka are many, many times richer than the richest back then ever were, allowing for inflation and depreciation in the value of the currency etc. Has economic development (per capita Gross Domestic Product) improved as much as the rich had become richer? No way! In fact it has largely stagnated and has been marginal.
What does the above say about the poor? With almost the same amount of wealth in the country (not accounting for the massive, record foreign debt) the poor have far less than they ever had several generations ago. In the ruthless capitalist system that dominates poor third world Sri Lanka, are the poor being taken care of? Is there a welfare system (Samurdhi?) that keeps the poor above poverty levels, with at least two meals a day, a suitable roof above, protection from common diseases which can kill, or a proper education? I would suggest a loud NO. The rich component of society is a dismal 0.003%, whereas the poor (including the so-called “middle class”) make up 99.997%. So, who has the system benefitted? Most Sri Lankans? NO.
Compared to three or four decades ago, in the last few years many more local residents tune into “Buddhist” channels on TV and radio more often, and also “listen” to bana (sermons) being preached by all sorts of monks with various bents, some often flouting basic concepts of the Buddha’s teachings while talking of their own unsubstantiated theories. Hordes of “pilgrims” flock to the more fashionable places of worship, dressed in white to symbolise purity, on full moon days, presumably to observe “uposatha ashtanga seela” as never before in the contemporary history of Sri Lanka. Yet these same people very clearly seem to be as far from the dhamma as ever, in their daily countenance, behaviour and attitudes, easily established by simple observation.
Now, people lie as a habit, not as a hasty escape route from difficult situations. Dishonesty has become a norm rather than the embarrassing exception. In fact, if one could successfully deceive people consistently and achieve financial objectives and prosperity, others look up to them with pride. The fact that such vermin are beneath contempt, by traditional standards of ethics and morality is ignored or overlooked. The Buddhist concepts of the noble eight-fold path “samma kammantha, samma waayaama” in practice by their kith and kin are looked down upon as stupidity and naivety, or a simple lack of opportunistic wisdom, not worthy of credit.
In those days, people who drove vehicles had respect for others, allowed the person on the right the right of way, did not use expletives as the norm, to drive others out of their path, and certainly did not drive on the wrong side of the road, expecting oncoming traffic to slow-down and allow them to pass whatever vehicle they were overtaking (often simply for the sake of overtaking, rather than for any advantage it offered, in cutting down travel time). Pedestrians were never expected to remove themselves to the roadside drain or gutter to avoid being run down. How has self-discipline and the supremacy of the law been overtaken by might, size of vehicle and aggression? Who do people look up to, for direction and example?
Death has become commonplace and acceptable with resignation and a shrug. To see a freshly dead person on the street does not necessarily attract crowds. On the contrary, people actively leave that area and avoid the body. By the same token, if someone is dying or seriously ill in a public place, is there a responsibility of citizens to help the person? Death seems preferable to many, but only as a state of being, rather than actually having to undergo the process, as their personal circumstances become unbearable or grossly unsatisfactory.
There was a time many years ago, when the word “Cancer” was mentioned, it sent shivers down the spine, and people only whispered it in hushed tones on the rare occasion that it touched someone’s life. Notwithstanding that back then, we knew very little about the disease, what caused it, how it could be prevented with screening, and its progress slowed down with proper lifestyle decisions, there is an extraordinary situation in Sri Lanka. Cancer is at almost epidemic levels, with some reporting that it afflicts one in five persons. People mention how little children regularly die of it; adults dying of it after a short battle, with hospitals sending patients back home saying they cannot be kept in hospital anymore.
Some years ago, scientists and agricultural researchers had established beyond doubt, that chemical fertilisers, weedicides and insecticides as residual carcinogenic substances in fruit and vegetables were a primary cause of nephritis and acute kidney failure and an array of cancers of the stomach, liver and colon and associated blood disorders. The addition of “carbide” to accelerate the ripening process of fruits, the spraying of deadly chemicals soon before harvesting cabbages, carrots, leeks, beans and even “mallum” leafy vegetables spell death to an alarming number of innocent civilians whose choices are severely limited by circumstances. Many are the “middle class” who become victims to this insidious killer. Mosquito-borne Dengue is at record high levels, with hospital wards full of patients. The gross insensitivity and studiedly callous attitude of those in authority is remarkable.
I have my doubts if many ordinary people will live to see any “miracle of Asia” becoming a reality. Life expectancy has fallen from several generations ago. Child nutrition levels are far lower than before. People are smaller-made than several generations earlier. The stray-dog population is estimated to be a record three million now. Perhaps their lifestyle has made them more immune to environmental hazards. We will wait on experts to make such an announcement before it can be actively promoted as an alternative.