By Siri Gamage –
Each time we visit Sri Lanka for holiday, it throws fresh insights about the place, people, systems and what it offers in comparison to other countries. We just returned after spending three weeks primarily in Kandy and a couple of days in Colombo. On the way back, spent three days in Singapore, which is a remarkably well-organised place though the currency is equivalent to Australian dollars.
There don’t seem to be a national plan to improve national production. Instead, the economy seems to be heavily based on imports of all kinds including drugs, food, clothing, vehicles, and more. In other words, Sri Lanka seems to have a dependent economy on other countries and multi national corporations. Such a development is bound to benefit those companies and other entities involved in imports including tourists rather than the local producers. Export is not even mentioned in everyday public discourses, not to mention government policy.
Development of a society should be measured by the quality and standard of life offered to a country’s citizens and visitors not by the number of roads built or vehicles imported as if there is unlimited space on our roads. Are the people able to move about easily? Can they live peacefully without the fear of harassment? Are they able to obtain necessary services without having to pay bribes or going after politicians or beaureacrats? Can they easily obtain medical assistance when needed? Does the society look after its elderly well? Are the young people gainfully employed? Is the education relevant and useful not only for employment but also broadening the mind and acquiring a global knowledge? Is the environment clean? These are among many questions one can pose about the quality of life one deserves.
Notwithstanding the many development projects completed and under way in Sri Lanka it appears the place is for the rich and powerful who have the money, wealth and power rather than the middle or working classes (though some government employees and doctors have been afforded duty free motor vehicle permits). It is also designed for the tourists with fat pockets. Fancy and expensive tourist resorts and hotels cater to well-to-do segments and foreigners whereas they are beyond the reach of the majority Sri Lankans. The daily accommodation cost of a five star hotel can easily exceed 200 US dollars – the equivalent of RS.24,000. This is the average monthly wage of a minor employee in such a hotel, eg cleaning staff. On the roads, three wheelers abound. Drivers of these cut across oncoming traffic, find short cuts in very risky ways putting lives in danger and move between moving vehicle lines. The buses that the average person travels look very old Indian makes, no air conditioning or even a fan. What comfort do they offer the public, especially elderly and sick? One is really unlucky if he or she had to travel standing. Each time the driver applies the breaks, the pressure affects the elderly person’s hands holding the seats or the rails above. Compare this with those fortunate enough or shrewd enough to acquire modern vehicles often with paid drivers including our politicians and middle to top ranking beaureacrats. When public transport is not improved for the many, our politicians are gifted with very expensive imported cars out of the public purse. Why? The argument goes that it is because they are the leaders who manage the nation’s affairs so they deserve such extra comforts. Irrespective of the problems facing the country and the economy (mind you that according to some reports, the country owes more than forty billion dollars to international lenders), the political class coming from the two major parties and some minor parties seem to want to enjoy the luxuries that those rich enough in the first world enjoy i.e. Toyota land cruisers.
Thus there are two systems in the country operating in unison, one for the rich and powerful, and the next for the middle and working classes who have to toil in the heat, dust, traffic and the lot. The rich and powerful travel in fancy cars, four wheel drives, often driven by paid drivers while living in air-conditioned comfort. They are highly connected to the elites who rule the country and the owners and managers of business ventures such as supermarkets, tourist hotels/resorts, travel and tour companies, private educational and medical establishments, plantations, banking and finance sector, import trade etc. They also enjoy international links both at business, professional and family levels. Top layers of the political and bureaucratic classes also enjoy these privileges. The middle and working classes, not to speak about the poor, are in a constant struggle to meet their living expenses, expenses to do with children’s education, medical expenses, housing and transport costs etc. in a situation of highway chaos that one can observe on the roads due to uncontrolled import of all kinds of vehicles, poor state of buses and trains.
While the latter group is trying to make ends meet under the existing economic conditions the former group is enjoying the first world living conditions in a third world context due to their privileged economic, political and social conditions. The fact that the country owes over 40 billion dollars to foreign lenders is not a matter of concern to this group as much as the new taxes do not bother the members of this group due to their high-income sources. Their wings are spread far and wide and the power and wealth they have acquired allow them to not only enjoy modern comforts but also entertain others close to them. Members of this group frequent five star hotels and resorts, holiday bungalows, high grade eating venues, and undertake foreign travel as a matter of course. They often live a mixed lifestyle where Western and Eastern lifestyles join in precarious ways to make their life unique and distinctive from the rest of the island’s population.
What is striking about the current state of play, as Tisaranee Gunasekera has observed in a recent article to Colombo Telegraph, is the lack of an alternative development model for the country conceived by the Sirisena – Wickremesinghe government. She remarks that the present government, once comfortable in power, is pursuing a similar economic policy to that followed by the Rajapakse regime earlier. I am inclined to think that the development model being adopted by the present government has the potential to draw the country further towards dependency on foreign lenders by increasing our foreign debt rather than putting our economy on a sustainable level. Let me explain. As stated before, our economy seems to be premised upon more and more imports rather than more exports. This includes more and more foreign investments and further borrowings. Import of essential goods in large quantities cannot be justified if they are the ones that can be produced locally with sufficient lead-time. One such example is the predicament that our papaw fruit is facing due to the promotion of a particular (imported?) variety in local supermarkets. Import of motor vehicles and three wheelers in large quantities is clogging our roads. Yet there don’t seem to be a sensible plan to control such imports or to develop public transport.
There is a belief that globalisation is the answer to all our ills and we should embrace it with both hands. In this spirit, we tend to not question foreign investment, presence of foreign universities that sell their degrees for a very high price, and tourist ventures that occupy our pristine coastline. However, many social scientists now observe the good and the bad sides of globalisation while noting its underbelly, i.e. the colonial designs in postcolonial contexts. Issues such as human trafficking, drug trafficking, money laundering have become easy with the relaxation of border controls and movements of goods. Cultural hegemony being expanded in the name of a global culture by some powerful countries of the global North is being noted by such social scientists. In order to counter the expanding hegemonic globalisation, various anti hegemonic globalisation measures and alliances are proposed. A powerful argument advanced is that globalisation destroys localisms and implants in their place what is called global= localisms. Thus when coca cola, hamburgers or pizzas supplied by a global chain replaces the pastries, sweets or rice and curries supplied by local restaurants and shops, localisms are replaced by global-localisms. Instead of going to the Devon restaurant many young people now go to the Pizza Hut near the temple of the tooth in Kandy because it is fashionable, gives a different taste though expensive. How this taste is manufactured and what synthetic ingredients are used in the making of Pizzas or the health effects don’t matter? I have explored these issues about globalisation and anti hegemonic responses in a recent chapter in a book to be published by Nova Science Publishers, NY (see Gamage. S. 2016 Research Gate).
The planning seems to be overwhelmingly focused on economic development rather than social and cultural development including moral development. The process seems to be dominated by economists and bureaucrats rather than other social scientists such as sociologists. The country needs a five or ten year plan developed with wider community consultation. Annual budget is not an alternative to such a plan. Such a plan should include measures for economic growth as well as social development. The latter refers to ways of improving quality of life of people. Reducing dust and vehicular fume on roads, rail transport etc. are part of this. Housing affordability is also becoming an issue. So is the quality of medical services. For a developing society, reliable, affordable medical service is an essential element. Yet in Sri Lanka patients are compelled to visit doctors in their private practices or channeling centres after hours to get such service. In medical and education fields, more and more people are driven to private practices while the public sector institutions are struggling and offering a low quality service. I had to consult a medical doctor for a dry cough and sinus problem for which I was given six different types of tablets plus a cough syrup. Obviously my condition did not improve until I consulted a doctor in Singapore hospital on the way back who prescribed one tablet and a cough syrup. Why Sri Lankan doctors prescribe so many tablets need to be investigated by health authorities. They don’t even provide the names of prescribed medicine to the patient. The list is for the pharmacist. Are they so busy to write the names of prescribed medicine to the patient or are our health regulations so weak that they don’t bother?
The popular belief and even economic thinking in the government quarters seems to be to say that we need more and more foreign investments to develop the economy. Thus the government encourages investments in fields such as production and manufacturing for exports by multinational corporations, services such as education and health, tourism and the like. Foreign investors do not come to a country like ours unless they can make a substantial profit and export such profits on favorable terms to company share holders. The country may gain some benefits such as employment for the working people, and company taxes from such investments and enterprises. But we have to provide land, water, electricity etc. for these ventures. The main beneficiary of such private ventures runs by multinationals are the shareholders who do not necessarily live in Sri Lanka. Those who are employed in these ventures mostly derive ‘a living wage’ only. Thus one has to question and critically examine whether this sort of foreign investment is the best option available for a country like ours in its search for a development model suitable for the 21st century? How these ventures affect local industries and manufacturers need to be carefully looked into. Whether similar incentives and concessions that are given to foreign ventures should be given to local entrepreneurs should also be considered.
My view is that the development that the present government is pursuing is a lop sided one dependent on mega projects with substantial foreign content and investments rather than one based on indigenous economic and social development. This model can only lead to the expansion of socio economic disparities and social tensions in time to come. Leaders with vision on the contrary need to look for an indigenous development model designed to harness local talent, resources, products, creativity and export potential. In other words, the current emphasis on import oriented development policy need to be put upside down in order to initiate such an export oriented indigenous development policy. However I have no faith in the capacity of the existing political class to envision such a change as it is dependent on import oriented, dollar dependent economic policy. This is the same policy that has driven the country to such a debt-ridden situation. It is highly unlikely that such a policy can bring the country out of its current mess. In the meantime, our land and beaches are being given away to mega tourism projects and others all over the country. Alienation of lands for such mega projects need to be carefully managed in a planned and limited way rather than in a wholesale way as happening now.
Importantly, development of indigenous products and services for the regional and global markets needs to be examined. For example, it is a matter of fact that a range of foreign universities and higher education institutions are marketing their degree programs in Sri Lanka on a fee-paying basis. For this purpose, teaching English and other languages like Japanese has become an industry. Yet our educational planners and government policy makers have not yet thought about preparing selected courses for marketing in the Asian region and beyond on a fee charging basis through existing universities or by establishing an internationally focused university designed for the same purpose? Sri Lanka doesn’t have a shortage of academics that are able to offer courses in business studies, accountancy, commerce, human resources, tourism etc. for a regional and global market. But we need leaders with a vision to venture into such new ventures and be able to implement policies and projects to compete with those who try to market education to our young people and rain their resources. Higher education sector is badly affected by ‘the import syndrome’ as evident in other sectors including pharmaceuticals, essential consumer goods, motor vehicles, etc. If we are to advance our economic course coupled with advancements in services to the world, we need to adopt similar strategies that the so-called developed countries have been adopting especially under the open economy policies. University faculties of arts and social sciences are still organised around traditional disciplines that we inherited from Western colonial country like Britain and to a degree USA. The research in such faculties are not organised around key problems that the nation is facing? Research conducted in such faculties seems to be scattered, disorganised, discipline based and individually-focused rather than problem oriented. They lack a critical mass of social scientists working on a given problem in order to be able to make discoveries and contribute to research and development.
Production of essential goods such as vegetables, fruits, fish, meat, rice, medicinal herbs, clothes, shoes, hats, umbrellas, and more need to be brought under a national plan of action with a view to accelerating and exporting where possible should be a main priority. But do we even produce a bicycle in our country? If not why not? Are we so dependent on imports from other countries to the extent that we don’t or aren’t even producing a bicycle or a three-wheeler? Where are the incentives for such tasks? Unless we turn around the current emphasis in economic policy for imports, foreign borrowings, and maintaining a lavish, elite lifestyle by those who rule us, and start producing somethings in the country useful for human living, we will never be able to get out of the debt trap and dependency syndrome that has been imposed on us by the ruling class and their foreign partners in crime. If we continue the same path of economic neoliberalism (based on free market philosophy and less government regulation), our valuable resources such as land, beaches, water, minerals, will be handed down to foreign investors on a platter for temporary gain and the increasing divide between the rich and powerful on one hand and all other subordinate classes on the other will expand. The financial resources of our parents will be extracted more and more by foreign universities offering degree courses on a fee paying basis without any contribution to research and development in the country. Those who go through such courses will either end up in a developed country as a migrant in time to come or if remaining in the country culturally and linguistically uprooted. The long-term viability of the economy and society will be challenged with more borrowings and future governments will be compelled to resort to force to curb social and political dissent. Whoever is to blame for the present perils the country is facing, there is no excuse for present leadership not to think long term about the future trajectory of the country, it’s economy, and society on a sustainable basis by using different or micro development models. It is even desirable to establish a think tank or a Future Commission to look into available options and collect ideas that can be useful in navigating the current phase of history in such a way that reduces our dependence on foreign agencies and powers. If necessary, some lessons can be drawn from a country like Singapore in the economic field. However, any development proposed has to be in line with the cultural norms and values of the country and community expectations rather than those devised by bureaucrats and technocrats in consultation with foreign consultants whose allegiances lie elsewhere. A recent doctoral graduate under my supervision examined the secondary education policy development in Bangladesh and analysed how it’s design and shape have been heavily influenced by external donor agencies? This is a common trend in not only in the education field but also other fields in the global South, in particular South Asia.
I am not arguing that some degree of foreign investment and involvement in the country’s future development is not important. Such investment and involvement can be advantageous to the country in some ways. The policy planners in economic and other fields have to clearly identify and articulate such advantages in relation to each project that involves foreign investment. One criterion for assessing the merits of foreign funded projects should be to ascertain the degree to which they create further dependencies on the foreign products, services, funding, personnel, and technology. Policies that encourage the development of local talent, know how, technology, resources, entrepreneurship etc. should be formulated with a priority. Unless these two go together hand in hand or if the policy makers give priority to those projects with foreign funding, expertise and inputs only, our dependencies can increase and our resources and opportunities wasted. As stated earlier, the aim of foreign investors is not necessarily the achievement of our priorities. Their priority is to generate a profit for the institutions they run and represent. This applies to foreign universities with a presence in the country also drawing hundreds and thousands of unsuspecting local students to the degree products they desperately try to market by using various strategies in the country.
For a start, the government should conduct an analysis of consumer products to ascertain the degree to which we are dependent on foreign imports if it is serious about developing a national development plan for the next 5-10 years. Next it should do an analysis of which of these products can be locally produced, what incentives, educational and promotional programs are required to encourage local producers and unemployed youths to get involved in the production of such items? If loans or other funding is required, they should be organised. Similarly, some of that land being given to foreign countries to initiate industrial or economic zones should be allocated to local producers with a plan, e.g companies, cooperatives, small groups of young producers. Government assistance and advice can be provided in terms of scientific advice, quality control, pest control, water supply and infrastructure building as well as labour laws and control. For those products that cannot be produced locally due to factors like lack of expertise, funds, infrastructure, etc. the government can look at some joint ventures with suitable regional and global partners. These suggestions apply equally to various service areas in education, health, entertainment, accountancy, law, also.
One of the attractive features of Singapore is its excellent customer service when it comes to various services whether in hotels, restaurants, airline, airport, shops, taxis, buses, trains, and hospitals. This helps the country to attract foreign tourists and holidaymakers. The country has become competitive in the region and even the world due to the edge service providers in Singapore have developed in serving the customers. This has come about as a result of deliberate planning, training, and more importantly from an understanding of the nature of competition each sector, each industry, each service area is facing. Often one can witness how various surveys are conducted at airports, shopping centres etc. about the customer satisfaction so that they can further improve the product or the service. Serving high-end customers requires a special skill.
Where Sri Lanka fails is in social planning in comparison to countries like Singapore. This is a seriously neglected field in the country since gaining independence. When I say social planning, among other things, it includes diverse spheres of social life, the infrastructure, service provision, behavior patterns, social and government attitudes. Lack of coordinated planning is a major loophole in the field. While economy and economic development is a necessity to sustain the social life (even Karl Marx would agree on this), and planning economic development should be done in consultation with sociologists and other social scientists with additional expertise, social development should also be conceptualised with the help of a multi disciplinary team of social scientists and others who are able to develop a vision, mission and concrete actions that will help our people to lead a comfortable and happy life. Further embracing of the dominant Western development model based on global capitalism and mega projects of immense magnitude is not going to create the comfort and happiness that we deserve in the long run. Many young and the old from so called developed economies of the Western world are fleeing to Eastern centres of recluse and wisdom in search of another path, another lifestyle, another world view away from the dominant consumer oriented lifestyle that extracts every inch of human energy and household savings while pushing organic communities to be self-centred individuals. More and more people are also looking for alternative consumer products away from the super market shelf as the products available in these outlets have questionable health impacts. Thus organic food production and consumption are gaining increasing attention in developed countries. The danger in the present conceptualisation of development in the country is the potential that the whole country or key provinces can become a supermarket to sell imported consumer products while destroying local products on the way!
Getting back to the subject of social development, one can cite examples of alternative modes of providing service in such areas as transport, medical services, education, environment, sustainable communities, spiritual and moral foundations and so on. A key ingredient of social development is having easy modes of transport from home to town, hospital, school, government offices, recreational facilities, temples etc. Though several highways have been built and others are at the planning stage, Sri Lanka fails miserably when it comes to local transport due to traffic jams, lawlessness on roads, and lack of proper traffic control methods. Where installing a simple colour light operated by solar power or a small roundabout can do the job, one can see traffic control officers’ sweat in the heat with constantly moving hands. Uncontrolled import of vehicles of all sorts contributes to ever increasing frustrations of motorists and other commuters. On some routs, more than necessary number of poor quality buses with no air conditioning and often without passengers run and what their owners can earn is only the equivalent of the monthly loan installment and the daily wages of driver and conductor. More and more unemployed youths have adopted the ideal of running a three wheeler on borrowed money more often wasting their time and energy waiting for customers in a long line of three wheelers due to lack of other employment opportunities. In the area of medical service, our people suffer in long queues waiting to see specialists of all sorts. They get to see the specialist only for 5-10 minutes. Instead of strengthening the clinics in public hospitals, the system has allowed doctors working in public hospitals to exploit patients in large numbers in the morning and afternoon in private practice with large numbers of patients to be seen. While such service provision is the right of doctors, the numbers they see in a couple of hours cannot be justified under any criteria including health and morality. Doctors in Sri Lanka also prescribe over five tablets for a simple ailment. One has to question as to whether they are over prescribing for some reason? When a volunteer group can be trained to provide some services with a social work orientation in hospitals, no such effort is visible. Even ambulance services are limited and this is an area that can be developed further with a charge from those who can afford to pay. Alternative public transport options need to be explored in major cities instead of more and more cars, three wheelers etc. For example, a sky train between Kandy and Peradeniya can relieve the traffic congestion that holds up travellers for hours. If no such conception is even existing in the heads of those in authority, how can the people expect its materialisation in another five or ten years? When it comes to education, various writers have expressed many views. But the key questions have not been either studied or considered by the powers that be, that is about what kind of education do we need for the 21st century? How far do our graduates need to be educated about our culture, history, religions, values and norms, heritage etc. in addition to providing life skills and subject knowledge? How much of language education need to be provided to be able to gain intercultural understanding and reconciliation or for that matter global knowledge? How much of knowledge and understanding about our neighbors in Asia should be provided? Our university courses seem to focus solely on Sri Lanka itself or when they draw on from other countries our academics tend to draw from Western country experiences and knowledge rather than Asian experience and knowledge. Even after sixty-eight years of independence, our academics still tend to look at and explain our social problems from the prism of Western perspectives! Education being provided is not questioned but routinely followed. Our education system that is exam oriented rather than learning oriented seems not to produce critical thinkers and visionaries. Instead it seems to produce mediocre minds that are suitable for performing various day duties, maintaining hierarchies plus the corporate sector. Social development requires the creation of social thinkers and action oriented change agents such as Ariyarathnas, Anagarika Dharmapalas. What we see in the current political and social discourses is the importance of producing more and more shop assistants, bank employees, clerks, hotel workers. Social reformers are unlikely to emerge from the existing political class or through the public education system. They are bound to emerge from the disempowered segments and social activist classes outside above entities.
Some other areas that should receive government attention include the following:
Reorientation of university research to address key national problems and encourage innovation in various fields
Legal reform to expedite the process of handling legal cases without parties having to wait ten or more years to get an outcome
Development of a sense of local history, culture, art, music, drama, poetry, literature.
Developments of entertainment facilities such as parks, footpaths, walk and cycle ways, theme parks, boating facilities
Addressing Behavioral issues such as alcoholism, gambling, and idling, promotion of low fat and low sugar diet, personal hygiene.