The failure of the State of Sri Lanka can be explained in terms of the decline in the rural agriculture and diminution of the livelihood of the rural peasantry – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
Whoever wins the Presidential Election, it will not be a solution to the crisis Sri Lanka is facing. It will aggravate the problem rather than alleviating it.
With the announcement of the winner of the next Presidential Election, the presidential system of governance retained so far with the transitional provisions made in the 19th Amendment will cease to operate and it will be converted into a parliamentary system of governance with a nominal president, in which the entire State power will be vested in a cabinet of ministers led by the prime minister.
If the president is elected by one party and the prime minister and the cabinet of ministers from another, in view of the fact that the president is elected by public vote, it will invariably lead to create conflicts between the president and the government eventually making the entire system of governance a hilarious mockery.
Here are some of the salient features of the crisis Sri Lanka is facing:
1. The State remains at an impotent situation which is inefficient, ineffective, frail and infirm due to the impact of violent struggles and deterioration caused by rampant corruption.
2. The nation is in a state of chaos, divided in ethnic, caste, and religious lines and consequent violent clashes among them.
3. The country’s economy is in danger of becoming bankrupt at any moment. The most unfortunate thing is that following the election of the next president, the semi-presidential system of governance prevailed until now, will change forthwith and the entire ruling power of the country will be transferred to the Parliament which is extremely inefficient, corrupt and incapable of fulfilling its responsibility.
The plight of rural people is extremely sad today. The small holdings of tea plantation once remained a rewarding source of income to the farmers in the Southern Province. It also constituted a lucrative source of income to the rural economy of the Southern Province.
Even in remote and uncongenial areas like Hiniduma, the economy of small-scale tea farmers stood far stronger than that of the farmers of other areas. In the areas where there was no electricity, the farmers had generators in their homes. Almost every home had some kind of vehicle. The plight of the tea smallholders today is pathetic and it is hard to believe the hardships they have been compelled to undergo.
The distance from Galle to Baddegama is 19 kms. There were seven tea factories from Kimbiya to Baddegama. Six of them have already been closed and the only factory still in operation is in dire straits.
The factors such as drop of the price of raw tea leaves, the pressure incurred on tea factories by doubling the Economic Service Charge (ESC), doubling of the interest rate on bank loans, shortage of labour, the glyphosate ban and the tea re-export policy, etc. have created an adverse situation, threatening the survival of not only the tea smallholders but also the tea factories operating on the supply of leaves of small holdings completely.
The same is true of the situation of the pepper and cinnamon farmers. The importation of substandard cinnamon and pepper under the re-export policy and mixing them with cinnamon and pepper produced in Sri Lanka has resulted in a sharp decline in the price of both products, making the lives of cinnamon and pepper farmers miserable.
Even the rubber cultivation of Sri Lanka is in a bad shape where it has reached a level beyond restoration, forcing the abandonment of cultivation. The factories that manufacture rubber products in Sri Lanka no longer buy rubber produced locally because the imported rubber is cheaper than the rubber produced in Sri Lanka.
The paddy cultivation too is in a crisis situation. Although paddy farming is the main agricultural crop in Sri Lanka, the income earned from paddy is much lower than that of any other crop. If the farmer is lucky, the maximum income he can earn from paddy cultivation is around Rs. 40,000 per season, per acre. The shortage of labour is also a major problem for the farming community and the Indian migrant workers are employed during the harvest season.
There is a possibility that the paddy fields in the wet zone which have not been cultivated and abandoned can be used for growing other crops without damaging the lowland nature of the paddy fields. But, due to stringent laws imposed on the use of paddy lands, hundreds of thousands of acres of uncultivated paddy lands in the wet zone have been abandoned without being put to any use of economic value.
There has been a rapid increase in the density of wild animals that harm agriculture over several decades now, as no measures have been taken to control the growth of wild animals. In addition to the increase in the density of wild animals, it has caused an enormous increase in the damage to agriculture. This situation, in addition to having a negative impact on the national economy, has resulted in a downturn in the incomes of the farmers.
The loans granted by micro finance companies to rural women without collateral can be considered as a major pillage. There are reports that over 150 women have died by suicide, being unable to pay the interest and the instalments for the loans obtained. The huge increase in the price of arrack and cigarettes has led to a large number of rural people turning to consume illicit liquor like kasippu and beedi respectively. Thus, it seems a far greater damage had been caused by trying to eliminate one menace.
Plunder of land
This unfortunate and tragic situation in rural society can be perceived as an outcome of the decay and degeneration of the State. Most of the affairs of the country during the past few decades had been implemented without proper guidance and the control of the government. This situation can be considered a characteristic inherent in a failed state.
Commercial plantation can be considered a heritage from the British. From the British period until the takeover of tea plantations by the Coalition Government headed by Sirima Bandaranaike, Sri Lanka was acknowledged as the best tea producing country in the world. Tea and the other commercial plantations also served as a major source of foreign exchange for the country.
The decline of the commercial plantations of Sri Lanka can be said to have begun with the takeover of estates that were under foreign companies and the other estates and lands which came under the Land Restrictions Law. The land taken over by the government in this manner was over one million acres. The government did not have a proper program to manage the large estates that were taken over.
In the first stage of the transfer of the estate land, it was the politicians of the ruling party who knew little or nothing about the estate management who became the administrators of these estates. A large chunk of the best estate lands which were taken over by the government after 1977 were bought at very low prices by government politicians and political cronies, all becoming estate owners and planters. The plunder of land that occurred in this process can be said to be equal to or bigger than the plunder of land that took place at the beginning of the plantations industry during the British period.
The remaining plantation lands after this plunder were handed over to private estate companies during the regime of President Ranasinghe Premadasa. The new owners of the estates managed to enhance the outward look of the plantations but did not maintain the qualitative value of the products. As a result, a significant decline occurred in the global recognition for Sri Lanka tea. Now it has declined to the lowest level due to the fact that the producers have resorted to mixing tea with sugar for the sake of maximising profits.
The State has the ultimate responsibility for protecting the quality of export products. The State has tremendous power over plantation economy; there is a minister in charge of the subject and a huge bureaucracy under him. The State bears a huge public expenditure to maintain them. In spite of all this, if the commercial plantations sector of Sri Lanka has failed, doesn’t it reflect a sign of a failed state?
A failed state
The failure of the State of Sri Lanka can be explained in terms of the decline in the rural agriculture and diminution of the livelihood of the rural peasantry. It is clearly evident that Sri Lanka is pursuing a policy of issuing license for re-exportation without any judicial review of the quality of the products imported and exported and the impact it makes on the economy of the country.
The recent incident of Dhammika Perera importing garbage to Sri Lanka clearly shows how the policy of issuing re-export permits has been adopted when the garbage disposal has become an insoluble and explosive problem in Sri Lanka. It is not difficult to understand that the garbage in question had been imported under the guise of re-exporting them and craftily dispose them mixing with local garbage for the purpose of making money
It is a horrific act which causes enormous damage to the country; yet it does not appear that the government has adopted a strict policy to rectify the error. It is a clear indicator of the extent of the failure of the State. Similarly, the re-export policy on cinnamon and pepper also reflects the extent of the failure of the State.
Sri Lanka can be considered the country producing the best quality cinnamon in the world. Not only has it failed to utilise this natural heritage to maximise its income from cinnamon, but the government’s policy on cinnamon has also damaged its reputation. The same thing can be said about pepper.
The stupid policy that has been followed for a long time with regard to wild animals harming agriculture and the immense damage done to agriculture by wild animals is just one other example among several hundreds of them that can be cited to illustrate the failure of the State of Sri Lanka.
The extreme and arbitrary policy adopted on the use of glyphosate is another example. The government banned glyphosate not on the recommendation or at the request of agriculture experts of the Department of Agriculture. It was banned in response to a request of a political group linked to the government that posed as a group of environmentalists. The ban on glyphosate had a devastating effect on commercial plantations of the country.
Similarly, giving priority to paddy cultivation when the income from paddy cultivation is low and the paddy requirement of the whole country can be produced in the dry zone is another example that reflects the extent of the failure of the State.
Education can be considered the most important factor that affects not only the present but also the future of the country. The whole education system in Sri Lanka is in a confused mess. Here we are talking only about the school system, not the whole system of education. The school system has been established in a manner providing super grade schools for the children of well-to-do people while children of poor people will get under-resourced schools without much facilities or reputed image. This discrepancy in the school system has corrupted the entire education system. It is important to note that in all developed countries schools are categorised as pre-schools, primary schools, senior schools or secondary schools and junior secondary schools. The situation is the same in all schools. When selecting a primary school, one can apply only to the nearest primary school. This simple system provides equal value to all elementary schools and prevents the competition for enrolment in schools as well as offering bribes to get a school.
This simple system facilitates the allocation of resources to schools and school management as well. It prevents a class divide and discriminatory social divisions within the school system. As all children receive a primary school closer to their home, it reduces travel costs and eliminates traffic congestion.
Although the Commission on Youth Unrest and the National Education Commission have repeatedly pointed out the necessity of replacing the present messy school system with a simplistic system, the leaders who rule the country and top government officials do not allow the corrupt system to be changed. This is another illustration of the failure of the State of Sri Lanka.
Overcoming the failure
The failure of the State of Sri Lanka cannot be overcome by electing a new president who has no executive powers or appointing a new government after a general election. As long as this inherent failure of the State is not overcome, invariably the wretchedness of the country will continue to be so.
What we have in Sri Lanka, in every sense of the word, is a failed State. It is a State that has lost its good sense and operational strength and has degenerated with rampant corruption. If we envisage a change in the ugly and miserable conditions of the country, it is necessary that we change the failed image of the State and make it a successful country.
In order to do that we must go for structural reforms. The full attention of the nation must be focused and directed to this crucial and definite question. A program of reforms and constitutional changes that will help re-create the State and society cannot be expected to come from Parliament, which is corrupt and has lost good sense. The best and the only way to do so in the present context of Sri Lanka will be to direct the country to adopt a people’s constitution aimed at effecting structural reforms.