By Vishwamithra1984 –
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” ~George Bernard Shaw
The roads look narrower than they really are. It’s the optics. Not that they have shrunk in their measure; the traffic has increased to such a choking level, once broad-looking motorways can no longer accommodate the daily-increasing numbers of vehicles, two-wheelers, three-wheelers and four-wheelers are all competing for the same narrow space. Honking kills you and the congestion chokes every breathing person in or on these moving wheels; humanity’s busy schedules keep getting busier and the roadways resemble more like parking lots. The effects of the free-market economy are taking their toll.
When one adds the expansion of the human population into the mix, the choking process assumes its own destructive dimensions. Nobel laureate Pearl S Buck said “when man demands no more the earth too shall die”. Of course, Buck expressed this in the context of the suffocating effects the Chinese policies had, both on the economy and society, at the time. Nevertheless, the latter part of the Twentieth Century and the last one and half decades of this Century in Sri Lanka have proven beyond doubt that an unregulated market place, if left alone to the vultures of the capitalist class of businessmen, would be disastrous to a country as well to its majority of citizens.
What was ushered in 1977 by the JR Jayewardene Government was a brutal necessity. The ’70 to ’77 Government of Sirimao Bandaranaike along with the left parties ran the Sri Lankan economy to the ground. Instead of expanding the size of the economic ‘cake’ so that more pieces could be cut, the leftist polices of the ’70 to ’77 Government virtually shrank the economy and started cutting smaller pieces. Populist economic policies carried the day during the 1970 election campaign (rice from the Moon proclamation by Mrs. Bandaranaike etc.); once in power, the obsolete Marxist economic policies and doctrinaire approach to the country’s burning issues overtook any rational and realistic adoption of policies and principles. The great experimentations of the ‘Double Doctor’ aka NM Perera failed miserably.
The youth who propelled them to a historic electoral victory in 1970 turned against them. Campaign rhetoric was proven futile and an unforgiving chain of events became too much even for the brilliant political mind of Felix Dias Bandaranaike to grapple with. Mistakes, both of political and economic nature were piling up, one on top of the other. A free people were willy nilly succumbing to the merciless onslaught of political brainwashing, but it was only seven long years they could endure the agony and no more.
The shackles of Marxist economic policies had to come off; the suffocating hold on free speech and movement had to give way and the ’77 elections opened the gates of hell for those who held the reins of power. When the people spoke, they screamed. The power-holders, when in power, pretended not to hear them but had to eventually submit to the will of the electorate. Then the shackles came off. The freeing of the economy was ensured, almost overnight. But freeing of the economy was not enabled without some perilous results to the nation’s mindset. The inevitable repercussions that a fresh process entails began another process, one of social distortions and economic competition bordering on fierce bargaining and bootlicking. American journalist Sydney Harris said that the greatest enemy of progress is not stagnation, but false progress. Looking back on all the years that we spent after the ’77 surge into the free-market economy, what Sri Lanka is experiencing today seems to be that kind of false progress.
Credit cards and motorbikes do not signify the advancement of a society. If the motorbike is not used for the generation of consequential economic activity, that investment becomes an end in itself instead of a means to an end. The ever-increasing gulf between the haves and have-nots is sharpening its edges; the slightest of misstep would spell catastrophe, tearing away all the tissues and fiber that held a delicate body together. A thirty-year war alone cannot be blamed for a limping trek towards economic progress. During the war years, from 1983 to 1994 too, the country endured this war but the economy did not stagnate; cronyism was present but not rampant like today. Every step after a painful step that was taken towards fulfilling election pledges was embroiled with kickbacks for politicians and cronies; massive scale projects, ranging from infrastructure to service-oriented ventures were artificially inflated; standard procedures were marginalized and fair-play was not a defining yardstick to measure progress or growth.
Meaningless meandering along a cruel path of progress produced more cronies and henchmen and their offspring became not only the enviable stock in the market for pleasure and lust, they became agents of corruption and merchants of perverse desires. Massage parlors and karaoke bars were patronized by the lower middleclass and the middleclass proper. While the proletariat worked harder to make ends meet, their younger generation indulged in the bones thrown out by the actual consumers of the meat- richer fellows of society.
When peace ultimately dawned on the arid landscapes in the North and East, alcoholism, above everything else, broke loose; an unprecedented number of youth started frequenting legally established bars and illegitimate liquor joints. The free-market, while unshackling the economy had spread some dangerous seeds of avarice, over-indulgence, greed and lust. No man or woman could withstand the winds of greed and desire. Now we are reaping that unholy harvest.
Chauvinism was mistaken for patriotism. Gangsters garbed in yellow robes were parading on the streets and surrounding court premises, making the false assumption that their robe was an open license to get away with vandalism and physical assault. Exercise of self-restraint, a defining precept of Buddhism, was abandoned by the very practitioners of the Dharma. Birthday parties on lavish scale for and by these Buddhist monks left a sense of distaste in one’s mouth; the beneficiaries of the free-market wealth poured wealth and pleasure on the clergy and indulgence in lusty ventures paved the way not for the creation of wealth, which in fact is the very essence of free-market economic principles, but for the inevitable decay of society at large and the individuals in particular.
In all these ghoulish indulgences, the chilling effects of failure of the pursuit of capitalist economic measures were felt in every corner of the land. In the villages and city centers, grama-sevake divisions and Kachcheries, in the crowded corridors of power and forlorn hamlets in the rural country-land, the unmistakable signature of a failed system of governance was engraved. The socio-economic fabric is cracking and it is visible that a harmonious and dynamic equilibrium is yet to be attained in the structures that sustain a developed nation. The ’70 to ’77 regime and its governance displayed that the so-called mixed economy did not work; the regimes that followed threw away the myth that unregulated market economy and its machinations could serve the people better. All the while, political cronies reaped the harvest.
Whatever is in stock for the people of Sri Lanka, the politicos, the clergy, academics and entrepreneurs, are all floating in the fog of indecision and socio-political impotence. No social entity has the guts to break with tradition and convention; the Government seems reluctant to venture into new arenas. The result is that Sri Lanka has become the playground of these social forces who are working simultaneously towards destroying the each other. The relentless advance of technology and science seems to have little or no effect on the real lives of our people. When international terrorism seems to be taking strides, after defeating one terror group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), Sri Lankan leaders seem oblivious to a growing threat of financial and social terrorism perpetrated against her very soul by the advancing armies of anti-social forces who are operating in the shadows.
In the midst of all this, the average Sri Lankan is waiting to hear whose names would appear in the so-called ‘Panama Papers’. That is a kind of perverse waiting. They love to hear someone falter- looks more like a national trait. But the lamentable trek of Sri Lanka’s recent history continues along a very suspect path and with a lot of twists and turns. Who will be the individuals who are going to be affected is of trifling concern. But the effects it would impact on the nation’s psyche, the crippling of the mind and thwarting of the very dynamic of a people struggling to lead a normal life coupled with usual lethargy that sets in when they find themselves again in the comfort zone should cause some concern among reasonable men and women. Joseph Conrad, who is considered one of the greatest men of English letters, said thus: “Facing it, always facing it, that’s the way to get through. Face it”. Whether one is reasonable or not, Conrad’s words ring eternally true.
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org