By Ameer Ali –
On 4th February 2018 Sri Lanka will be entering its 61st year of independence from colonialism. It is time that the citizens of the country at least its apolitical literati come together and collectively make an assessment of the overall achievements and failures made during the sixty years so that an informed balance sheet could be presented to be audited by the public. Such a balance sheet should counter the ‘alternate facts’ presented by politicians. The cycle of democratic elections, political campaigns associated with them and change of governments that result from them has the drawback of keeping even intellectuals obsessively occupied with judging and comparing short term changes made during each political regime rather than assessing the long term trend and directions.
What is now required is not a quantitative balance sheet which the economists, statisticians and other pundits usually produce but a qualitative one. It is not about GDP per capita or literacy rate or life expectancy but about unquantifiable social cohesion, national co-operative spirit or Khaldunian asabiyya and happiness. In short, it is not about Gross National Product (GNP) but about Gross National Happiness (GNH) as the monarch of Bhutan once famously announced. What has been Sri Lanka’s record in this regard so far and where is it heading to? Is the nation and its people happier now than what they were on the eve of independence?
Without going into all aspects surrounding this heavily loaded question I wish to select only one issue that is menacingly disrupting the growth of GNH at the moment and threatening its decline in the future. This is the issue of plurality or diversity management. It was Arnold Toynbee the famous British historian who once wrote that diversity is the sign of growth and development whereas uniformity is the sign of decay and decline. Diversity is also the gift of nature. One of the gifted resources of Sri Lanka from the beginning if its recorded history has been its cultural and ethnic pluralism and diversity of its natural resources. In both, the country’s rulers especially after independence have magnificently succeeded in mismanaging. It is a record of grand failure.
The Sinhala-Tamil-Moor-Malay-Burgher ethnic and Buddhist-Hindu-Christian-Islamic religious plural mix is a permanent historical heritage of the country and no amount of legal, constitutional and chauvinistic political gimmicks can succeed in disinheriting it. What is required instead is to learn and practice the fine art of plurality management on which depends the country’s GNH. Unfortunately, the history of post-independent Sri Lanka has been marked by progressive mismanagement of this heritage. Managing this plurality by successive political leaders has assumed the model of a zero-sum game in which each element of the mix is deemed to win only at the expense of the others. There is a lot to learn by the current leaders from the managerial experience of the earlier kings and queens of Sri Lanka. The pre-colonial economic prosperity and political stability of this island, and happiness of its people hinged largely on the ethnic and cultural tranquillity achieved under their management. Can the historians of Sri Lanka point out one incident of ethnic or religious convulsion let alone cleansing in the pre-colonial history of this country? It is time that our political heroes who champion the cause of their respective ethnic and religious communities re-read the history of this island. This applies even to the minority of Buddhist monks and other religious leaders who are now scare mongering the people with imagined dangers of pluralism. In contrast, what the past teaches is the promotion and preservation of a healthy spirit of cosmopolitanism amidst plurality which was disrupted in the interest of imperialism during the colonial era. That disruption has been allowed to continue by the new rulers who replaced the colonialists.
One can argue that the size of the population and the needs of the country have dramatically increased between then and now and that the problems which accompanied that change are also so complex that it is too simplistic and futile to compare the two contexts. It is certainly not. Along with the increase in scale and complexity of the challenges the instruments available to tackle them such as the institutional structures and quality of social and human capital have also increased both vertically as well as horizontally. It is the failure to use these instruments inclusively rather than exclusively that has led to the grand failure in plurality management. The inclusive spirit of the past led to cosmopolitanism whereas today’s spirit if exclusivity has led to provincialism.
The mismanagement of ethnic and cultural plurality has spilled over into mismanagement of the natures’ diversity. Once again there are precious lessons to learn from the past. For example, the ancient monarchs embarked on building irrigation schemes without damaging the natural environment. That was a strategy of balanced development without destroying the natural assets. Whereas our latter day potentates enamoured by scale, prestige and even personal gains have constructed mega dams, diverted rivers and built tourist enclaves on the advice from foreign experts and institutional money lenders but with utter disregard to the protection of natural environment. The consequence of this megalomania has been disastrous. Is there a better illustration of this mismanagement than the Uma Oya catastrophe? Similarly, unplanned urbanization policies to create mega cities mainly for the benefit of the rich and powerful have produced mountains of squalor amidst pockets of opulence. Meethotamulla garbage dump is a towering example of this thoughtless urbanization.
Plurality mismanagement has led the country to the brink of disaster. One can go on citing endless instances of mismanagement that have gone unreported until the consequences become to horrific to hide. The question that faces the country now is whether it wants to change direction and if so how. This is where the nation’s literati have to take responsibility, become apolitical and be active in the field and lead the campaign against this outrageous mismanagement. None of the existing political parties that are vying for power has neither the willingness nor the capacity to lead such a public campaign. These parties are rich in slogans, poor in vision and bankrupt in policies. To them the only objective is to capture power at any cost and keep on playing the zero-sum game thereafter. One cannot also depend on the current religious leadership to lead this campaign because unlike in the past they have become dangerously myopic, political and materialistic. Sri Lanka desperately needs an ‘Arab Spring’ led by the apolitical to prevent the country descending to kakistocracy. Such a spring should not be allowed to be hijacked by vested interests. It is the silence of the good people rather than the wickedness of the bad that makes the world a dangerous place.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia