Dr A. C. Visvalingam
For society to succeed in any undertaking – whether it is to eradicate poverty, improve educational standards, increase exports, or do anything else of national importance – its efforts must be underpinned by the Rule of Law, impartial and speedy dispensation of justice, and genuine democracy. Sri Lanka, instead, has drifted down towards lawlessness, injustice and oligarchy over the past two generations, during which span of time we, its citizens, have been supposed to be in charge of our own affairs. Recognising the progressively multiplying symptoms of a failing state, many far-seeing and courageous individuals have tried over the years to make the public aware of the ever-escalating dangers to the present and future citizens of this country if we continue passively to accept the deterioration of all our institutions. Sadly, their efforts to encourage our citizens to take a proactive stand to help arrest the steady descent into poor governance and inequity have had minimal impact. There has been very poor support from the public to all calls for corrective action. We, therefore, need to understand why our populace is so spineless in the face of so much corruption, inefficiency, injustice and authoritarianism, and then devise strategies to overcome those obstacles which de-motivate people from exercising their sovereign powers to act for their own and the public good.
The Well-Connected and Well-Provided
Those who have close connections and ready access to the political and bureaucratic hierarchies, an income that does not require any need for personal budgeting, property, beautiful homes, a multiplicity of vehicles for themselves and their children, means to hire enough servants and other employees to do their bidding, dual citizenship or permanent residence status in more salubrious climes and enough assets (lawful and unlawful) in various banks in and outside Sri Lanka, as well as free access to lavish perquisites from a multiplicity of public companies, form a group that sees no reason why it should take the risk of crossing swords with those in power, whereas it is so much safer and profitable to join the latter in the robbery of the nation’s revenue and capital. They think that only impractical and idealistic fools would try to change a system that so successfully and generously serves their interests. They do not mind if our powerful politicians, their relatives, friends and hangers-on take most of the cream as long as they, too, get an attractive share. Whenever their political and bureaucratic overlords and collaborators lose power and others take over, it poses no problem for this class of persons to switch their loyalties promptly to the newly dominant lot. Like the nobles of France prior to the French Revolution, they are blind to the injustices to which the vast majority of our citizens are subject. Their consciences are anaesthetised by acts of limited philanthropy, usually buttressed by participating prominently in religious activities.
Most of those who are proactively concerned about the deplorable state of the nation come from the middle income groups. However, such inspired persons form only a minute proportion of these groups. It is not that the rest of them are unconcerned; it is just that they have conveniently persuaded themselves that it is either a waste of effort or too risky an undertaking to confront those in power. Being largely conservative by nature, they also fear that any agitation, for change might end up making things even worse. So, they do nothing useful to change the status quo.
The majority do their best to keep out of conflict areas and concentrate solely on trying to be upwardly mobile. They do not realise that success in their self-centred endeavours will not ensure the security that they crave for, so long as civil liberties, national discipline, fairness and equality slowly wither and die.
Their principal concern is how to get their children educated, employed’, married and well housed. They do not recognise that they are making the world worse for their children by their acquiescence in the breakdown of good governance. By neglecting to help re-establish the Rule of Law, more and more of their efforts go to enrich those who have manoeuvred their way into the seats of power. Middle-income earners generally think that the only effective protest that they can mount, with minimum effort and maximum security, is to vote out the current bunch of legislators at the next elections and hope for the best once again. The strange thing is that they, like almost everyone else in Sri Lanka, are convinced that they know exactly what is wrong with the policies and practices of whoever is in the current government, and are also quite sure that, given the chance, they could do so much better. The only thing they are not prepared to do is get up from their armchairs and turn off the TV. They unabashedly leave it to somebody else to make whatever effort is required to clean up the mess.
The poor in Sri Lanka are easily manipulated by demagogues on public platforms who appeal to patriotism, religious loyalties, historical myths and class affiliations, employing Goebbelsian propaganda of all sorts. These appeals are supplemented by incentives such as the promise of free land, subsidised housing, lower priced food, cash handouts, state employment for the children of those who work for them during election time, salary increments which are unrelated to performance etc. After the elections, however, the poor find that they have to spend a substantial part of their time trying to meet their elected representatives to make good on the latter’s pre- election promises. The more persistent supporters succeed in getting what they want but the vast majority live in hope until the next elections, while getting progressively disillusioned.
As for those who do not work for political parties, they find that they need to spend most of their time on trying to make ends meet or to supplement their income, often by not so legitimate means, which leaves no time to devote to encouraging good governance. In any event, they are certain that there is nothing that people of their economic class could do to influence things for the better.
The Slow and not too Painful Way Forward
As for the well-connected and well-provided, they have to understand that their less fortunate brethren are not going to tolerate the ever-increasing gap between the haves and have-nots without going on the rampage one day, with no prior warning, engulfing all those who thrive on the increasing inequities that we see. For example, in some countries, the rich are forced to live in well-guarded ghettoes and their children have to be sent to school with bodyguards. In other words, their wealth has imprisoned them.
Therefore, even if it is only out of long-term self interest, rather than moral scruples, it would be very much to the benefit of the well connected and well-provided to help establish the Rule of Law, justice and authentic democracy before the winds of change blow them away altogether. The affluent have always to be mindful that they have a lot to lose, unlike those less fortunate, and that, even in a small way, they should support the efforts of those in the middle-income groups and the poor who are trying to make a difference.
Middle-income earners and the poor should try to persuade an apolitical figure who is held in high regard in their neighbourhood to use his influence to get at least 10- 15 concerned, apolitical persons in their area to meet as a “discussion group” in the local school or assembly hall or place of religious worship for the purpose of addressing topics of local and national interest. Only those who are not active in party politics should be invited to become members of the discussion group.
If the discussion group arrives at a broad consensus on a given issue, its members should take it one step further by preparing a report or petition encapsulating their thinking and recommendations. They should then persuade as many of their fellow voters as possible to sign the document and have copies delivered to all the MPs of the District in which their neighbourhood is located.
A practical way of defining a neighbourhood would be to base it on the Polling Station Area (PSA). This is because a PSA is geographically so small that everyone there lives within walking distance of each other. Typically, it Would have a population of about 1500-2000 voters, many of whom would already know each other. There are about 10,700 PSAs in the country and if, for a start, even one in ten PSAs succeeds in forming discussion groups and sends out, say, a petition once every two months, the people’s representatives could not ignore such a lobby for long with impunity.
The proposal made here could be made really effective if a central organisation, independent of political affiliations, and with reasonable access to locally-generated funds, were able to communicate regularly with the PSA leaders and send them a summary of reliable data relating to current issues so that the discussions in the PSAs are not vitiated by un-informed speculation or by the propaganda spewed out by the kept media.
Every effort should be made to collect locally whatever funds are required to run the central organisation, considering the strong antagonism amongst the more vocal among the population, to most sources of foreign support. If even a small measure of success were to be achieved by a few PSA discussion groups, it would not be long before those in the neighbouring PSAs would join in to form what would be a genuine people’s movement to change things for the better.
[Dr A. C. Visvalingam is President of CIMOGG – Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance – Sri Lanka]