Feb 19, 2018

Political chaos in SL demands “Alternatives” not “Course correction”

A tweep “SinguPlural” on Friday (Feb 16) referring to my article in Daily Mirror that same day said, “Contrast to the liberal cacophony churned out in abundance since Sunday, this piece tries to explain the economic factors that contributed to the rise of Rajapaksa in the rural South”. Since Sunday, with LG election results very clearly registering a massive shift away from the Sirisena-Wickramasinghe government that benefited Mahinda Rajapaksa’s newly formed SLPP, the Colombo wailing was to stop a “Rajapaksa comeback”. But how, is what they always miss.

“Yahapalana” apologists were divided in how they read the riot act of the voters. Some tried to pin all blame on President Sirisena. Some laid all blame at the doors of PM Wickramasinghe. The common thread in all reasoning and explanations was the failure to punish the corrupt (Rajapaksas in particular) and pave way for cleaner governance as promised at the 2015 presidential elections.

As the ‘tweep’ “SinguPlural” noted, all explanations and reasoning go on the single assumption, this free market economy can be cleaned of corruption and can be democratised too.

Can free market economies be ‘corrupt free’?

The always ignored fact in all those explanations and reasoning is that in this widely opened free market economy, corruption and fraud is inherent and cannot be cleaned up. The other is that, in our part of the world, neo liberalism cannot survive without majoritarian extremism. Sri Lanka under Rajapaksa and also under Sirisena-Wickramasinghe runs with Sinhala Buddhist extremism. India under Modi with Hindutva dominance, Myanmar now with Nobel peace Laurette Aung San Su Kyi cultivating their brand of violent Buddhist extremism, Pakistan and Bangladesh with Islamic fundamentalism, is how neo liberal economies are sustained.

There is a political necessity for such racism in neo liberalism. Neo liberalism is a market based urban economy fixed on competitive consumption. It is not a development model with socio economic and cultural contributions in improving quality and standard of human life. Neo liberalism with awfully relaxed trade opportunities in markets leads to accumulation of income and wealth in main cities with a new middle class that plays the ‘insatiable consumer’. It creates cramped up, towering major cities leaving out large, dry and empty rural life. Cities with massive multi-storey apartments and condominiums, modern sophisticated private hospitals with expensive comfort neatly sutured with numerous health packages, large shopping complexes with glittering digital hoardings selling designer stuff from sport shoes to lingerie, cosy luxury restaurants and hotels serving food from Chilean Curanto to Cantonese Chow Mein and adjoining car parks with valet service; all offered to the growing urban middle class and to the new “filthy rich” do not reach out to village life that has no consumers with buying power.

What is conspicuously absent in these free market economies with unrestricted trade opportunities for unlimited profiteering are space and facilities for intellectual and cultural indulgence. The famous tourism website “Lonely Planet” says, “The grandest thing about the National Art Gallery is its name” and that remains in Sri Lanka, the only such gallery built by the Ceylon Society of Arts and the Arts Council of Ceylon beginning in 1911 and the first stage completed in 1932 during colonial rule. Ever since then, even the much hyped mega development plan for Colombo and Western Province, commonly called “Megapolis” development does not include any modern library, new and modern museums, modern theatre and cinema halls, auditoriums, children’s playgrounds and family recreational centres.

During the past 40 years since we opened up our economy, rural society has been left out of economic life. Over 19 State sponsored IRDPs in about 07 districts (N-E left out) beginning 1978 with heavy donor funding, some running into extended phases have not provided anything significant to rural life. Such district development with Colombo planning don’t get integrated and cannot be integrated into this free market economy that is essentially export manufacture trade and exclusively service oriented for urban life. Rural society is left for cheap labour in factories, as migrant labour in Mid East and recruited young soldiers to the frontlines of a brutalised war concluded in 2009 May.

While the culturally sustained paddy cultivation remains the main subsidised occupation in the dry zone, the agri sector has not been modernised in productive terms. Even the tea and rubber industries have not been developed as modern industries with subsidiaries around them for more and better value addition. Whole of the rural society thus lived with the large pay packet the young soldiers brought home once in 03 months till the war was concluded and for now with remittances from Mid East the toiling young women send home and the meagre savings the female workers send from sweat shop factories. Over the decades they created a small consumer society, with communication centres, 3wheelers, the random old tea kiosk turned into crude “Chinese” eating houses and small consumer stores selling light cosmetics and cheap imitations of Colombo fashionwear.

This had two evil side effects that changed the old value system not for the better, but for worse. One, it made youth search for quick money for a fast consumer life, never mind how. This increased domestic migration with youth trekking to Colombo and suburbs in search of whatever livelihood possible. Two, it allowed for politicising of local life leading to a lawless, corrupt rural society. In a corrupt rural society tied to political control of life, two things grow quite fast. One is illegal trade and business sidestepping law enforcement and two, increase in sexual abuse of children, rape of women and underage marriages. All that taken toge ther breeds dependency, frustration and an “anti State” feeling.

Though opinion makers and elite social activists in Colombo cannot and could not read this growing dependency, frustration and an “anti State” feeling in rural society, this was evident against Rajapaksa at the 2014 September Uva Provincial Council elections and then as a repeat at the 2015 Presidential elections too, despite the Colombo middle class believing it was their call for anti corruption and for good governance in a “just and fair society” that defeated Rajapaksa. It was again evident with the just concluded LG elections with the entire rural society voting against the Sirisena-Wickramasinghe “Unity” government, though the Colombo middle class still wants to believe it is inaction against “corruption” that defeated their “yahapalana” government. IF “corruption” was a decisive factor in this LG election, then the more conscious, educated and privileged urban middle class should have voted against the UNP in majority municipal and urban council areas. But it wasn’t so in urban areas. It is the marginalised rural society that voted overwhelmingly against this “Unity” government.

Neo liberal economies unable to provide answers to any of these multiple issues that are their making after all, the urban filthy rich and the urban middle class are thus compelled to find a political answer to keep this melting rural society under wraps. That is how majority extremism finds validity in neo liberalism. The majority ethno-religious population in the marginalised rural society is provided with a dominant “patriotic” platform that lives by holding the minorities as reason for their failures. This when geared for elections, the big city middle class and the “filthy rich” can decide political power without any call for change of systems and ignoring the need for a paradigm shift in “DEVELOPMENT”. Their call will remain for “reforms” in governance that could eradicate corruption. Reforms that have been proven bitterly unsuccessful, if not before then with this much fancied “rainbow revolution”.

What’s a ‘paradigm shift’ for us?

The heavily professionalised urban middle class will not go beyond demanding what they would term “better” reforms. They will not discuss this neo liberal economy either. With hoards of professionals who keep chasing after big money with no morals and ethics in how they earn and live that money earned, they will not want any change to this free market economy within which they remain privileged high end consumers. For them the remedy is to punish those politicians who run the government and found corrupt. Professionals without whom there can be no corruption are mere individuals who can also be punished if found guilty and replaced with “better ones”. They simply don’t understand it is this “open for corruption” system that contracts and hires professionals from the Central Bank of Sri Lanka to the Colombo Stock Exchange, the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF), Ministry Administrators, Auditors, Accountants, Valuation officers, Legal and even prosecuting officers, one after another.

The political and administrative system(s) established over 04 decades is there to facilitate corruption. There is no “course correction” possible within this free market economy. The only option available now in bringing back decency and dignity to human life is to replace this “free” market neo liberal economy with an efficiently regulated market economy within a “National Policy” for socio economic and cultural development.

An economy with “calculated market regulation” is not that pre 1977 economy with strictly rationed essential consumer items and a market with police barricades. That closed door economic model with rations was as bad as this unrestricted free market economy that leaves 70 per cent of the population in rural society on the fringe. That also should not mean the pre 1977 controlled economic model must be shunned as “failed”, to live with this free market economy that has also failed, purely because there is no tested and proved economic model that could be adopted with assured success.

Successes if any can be continued with. What we need to learn is, how we could design and engineer our own model from our failures. The pre 1977 closed door economy had many aspects that can be remodelled and built into a market economy for national benefit. There were many industries the State held total monopoly. Ceramics and Kelani tyres were 02 such monopolies. They had no competition and the consumer had no choice. They existed without new technology and expertise for improving quality, designs and appearance,

It would have been different, if the government allowed market competition in those areas among local manufacturers. If import substitution was promoted not through banning, but through tax schemes and imposition of CESS, used to promote these local products with incentives for quality improvement to match international markets. In the agriculture sector, there is market space to develop subsidiary industries around paddy cultivation to introduce processed rice in neatly and hygienically packeted retail form instead of releasing rice in the traditional raw form.

There is much space for serious thinking to plan the economy within an inclusive “National Development Policy”. Education, health, public transport and housing can be planned and executed on a level playing field with equal opportunities within such national policy. Such a paradigm shift can replace this extremely exploitative, largely discriminating free market economy that is inherently corrupt and racist, with a functional democracy that ensures economic freedom and social equality with human dignity. That remains the only option for a decent and a dignified future that no “Rajapaksa bogey”, no “reforms and course correction” can provide could provide even short term answers for within this heavily exploitative and indecent free market economy.

Kusal Perera