By Emil van der Poorten –
The slower descent of the penny in one’s thinking processes is a reality of the ageing process and I can only blame it for the fact that I didn’t observe something right before my eyes: an emerging and clear pattern of events heralding a return to mediaeval systems and methods of governance in Sri Lanka. However, in self-defence I can also say that those constantly claiming erudition in all matters Sri Lankan had also failed to perceive what was happening in the cold light of day!
In previous short articles about my neighbourhood I have spoken of the fact that the pathway for the power line which carried electricity for domestic use was cleared entirely by manual labour provided “voluntarily” by the local informal settlement “colonies,” the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) from a time when many state-managed plantations collapsed under the weight of incompetence and corruption. Before the Ceylon Electrical Board would consider the erection of power poles and the stringing of power cables, the local residents had to cut down trees, trim the limbs off others and clear the path for a power line up to a transformer from where individual supply was to be set up. Using their own hand tools, borrowing a power saw or two from the larger land-owners of the area was the only way the task could be achieved. But they did it and then had to sit on their hands while the CEB-installed power lines didn’t carry any electricity until the local politicians could make political capital out of the event, until the arrival of an election that was on the horizon. In any event, the work was done and the power was delivered. However, the supply to the settlers’ houses from the transformer entailed an additional task for the residents: they had to carry another set of power poles to designated locations and then install them as well!
More recently yet, we had the spectacle of volunteer (“shramadana”) labour being employed on road repairs so that some accessibility, no matter how close to a bullock cart track it is, was ensured for medical and other emergencies where a wheeled vehicle was required. Again, I documented the fact with accompanying photographs.
Now I keep getting reports of the “shramadana” labour required of (very poor) residents at the schools which their children attend. In one instance I was told that, at one of the meetings periodically summoned by the school administration, parents were asked to, first, collect all the damaged furniture in the school and then told that the repair and/or replacement of all of it was their responsibility. For those with some carpentry skills this would require their foregoing wages that might otherwise be earned elsewhere to perform a responsibility that in more “advanced” parts of the world (inclusive of Sri Lanka before the arrival of pestilential governments) would have rested with the Department of Education. If the parent didn’t have the carpentry skills to do this work, they would have to hire someone else to do the job, something which surely would place yet another burden on an already over-burdened purse.
In a Central School in the district, I was told that a retaining wall had to be constructed by labour provided by parents. The manner in which this would be done would presumably be the same as in the previous example cited with the added cost and responsibility of providing the building material – rock, cement, sand, etc.
In an even more ambitious project, one of our employees had, as all the other parents of that school, to contribute a sum of Rs. 10,000 towards the construction of a building to replace one that was past its “best before” date. He had paid half this amount in the first of two installments and would, next month, have to come up with the rest. This man who lives away from his village and is estranged from his wife, provides for three teen and pre-teen sons already attending school who reside with their grand-mother. The burden this places on him, an unskilled worker, can well be imagined.
This imposition of forced labour on a population living in an allegedly “developing” country in the 21st Century almost defies description!
At least in mediaeval times, the forced labour of the peasantry and poorer people in the nation was driven by the fact that alternatives did not exist because of the technology available at the time. Today, with enormous budgets devoted to alleged “development” goals, this is nothing short of obscene.
Does one even have to join the dots from the fact that there is wholesale theft from the public coffers to the concomitant need for forced labour from the poorest elements of our society for the maintenance of essential services? What is required of these “volunteers” cannot even be dignified with the term “improvement of facilities” because it is, basically, maintenance of existing “plant.” We are not talking about building some Parakrama Samudra or Yoda Ela. We are talking about a “gal bemma” here and some “mesa and “putu” there! At least in mediaeval times, what was achieved led to the enhancement of the quality of life through such as the establishment of an intricate irrigation system. In the current circumstances, what we are seeing is forced labour band-aids to shore up basic services.
That there is in progress, quite advanced in fact, a return to a repressive monarchical system in this country is now beyond argument and, in that context, what is happening in the matter of forced labour in the Rajakariya mode has a certain logic to it. The question is, “What, if anything, are Sri Lankans going to do about something that has now gone beyond being a mere “trend” or fad?”
As a footnote, I cannot but draw attention to the fact that those who spend their time pillorying “Colombians” (aka urban supporters of human rights and decency in governance) could better devote their efforts to taking a look at what is happening to the poor of a rural Sri Lanka of whom they claim expert knowledge from atop their pedestals of self-righteousness. However, that could well be beyond the capacity of those systematically spouting rhetoric in defence of a government whose conduct is indefensible!