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illustration by KAL (great to have met him in Sri Lanka at the US Embassy btw)

“Kabul ain’t Colombo” I said unthinkingly. My Afghan friend laughs. Leaving things in one’s car while one wanders off into a restaurant or a mall isn’t done in Kabul. Not if you want to find them still there when you come back.

Kabul isn’t Colombo by a long way. Katmandu isn’t Colombo either. For one thing we have better roads, cleaner streets and better public services. Neither is Karachi, Lahore, Delhi (our rape count is much lower for instance) or Male for that matter. For a country that likes to complain a lot, Sri Lanka has a pretty good capital city. Sure, Colombo is kind of boring and it can sometimes feel very claustrophobic and stuffy (that’s what long weekends are for) but you can still travel in public transport with relatively low risk of getting pick pocketed, same goes for the rest of the country. You don’t have that luxury say, in Europe. No Colombo and Sri Lanka are comparatively crime free.

Or perhaps I should say Sri Lanka is pretty street crime free. Most of the crime committed in Sri Lanka is carried out by the so-called civilized. The new elite and the haute bourgeoisie of post war nepotism, which is more a culture here than a contrived state of affairs. From bribery and corruption to burglary, murder and kidnappings most high profile crimes today lead upwards; into rarified stratospheres the country’s weakened law enforcement mechanisms dare not venture into.

Economically, Colombo and Sri Lanka appear to have it pretty good. We’re growing at above six percent a year, we’re doing well on indicators like global competitiveness and our human development indicators trump most of our South Asian counterparts. But Colombians and by extension Sri Lankans don’t seem to be happy. The numbers tell us that we have it good, but we’re not happy. Why?

One explanation could be that I’m an elitist. Living in a bubble of economic prosperity and social comfort that the vast majority are deprived of. Another explanation is that Sri Lankans are just a bunch of unsatisfied materialists that will stoop to anything to get at personal prosperity. And in a context of rapid development, tend to forget their own modest improvement in the face of the vast wealth accumulated by the ruling classes.

Yet another explanation is that yes, there is jealousy. But there is also strong economic discontent and dissatisfaction, exacerbated by the feeling that the top of the pyramid has it easy. The evidence is in front of us, the amount of people complaining about the rising cost of living aren’t just restricted to the poorer segments of society anymore, the number of people taking to the streets in protest of not having basic services is indicative of the failure of the state’s administrative capacities at that level.

In Sri Lanka it is normal for leaders to steal from their subjects. It is almost expected of them. The petite bourgeoisie needs role models after all. And rarely does a Sri Lankan from any walk of life think of not taking advantage of his/her position if they can. Just walk into any government public services department, have a euphemism laden conversation with a traffic policeman or see how many times that bus conductor will hand over your change voluntarily. But at the larger level, Sri Lanka’s nepotistic and hand-out based economic structure seems to be unraveling.

As an example, take the numerous accounts of foreign investors being turned away due to the myriad bribes, protection fees and other baksheesh demanded by its bureaucracy and organized crime networks, which are incidentally indistinguishable from each other. Any foreign projects approved are locked up tight with contracts awarded mainly to parasitic contractors with connections to the ruling classes. Trickle down is minimum What is worse, as the pagawa demanded rises above all reasonable levels, the amount of investment coming in is stalling, drying up reserves of cash that could otherwise have gone into appeasing the people. What trickle down there is, is stalling.

And it’s all about trickle down. Because leaders, while being allowed to enrich themselves, must also ‘take care’ of their subjects. The people must be given a part of the spoils. In effect steal from the poor and give back to the poor, but with a significant cut. The cut is forgiven if their share comes fast enough. Efficient government services thus become a hindrance to this system of patronage. But some rudimentary form of it needs to exist in order to be put into motion as and when the need to dispense some patronage comes up. It is perhaps telling that increasing breakdown of public services is happening though, that means that the upper echelons are either getting too greedy or simply running out of money.

I suspect it’s the latter. Rampant corruption has begun to deprive the economy of what efficiency it had. Political gridlocks and deep rooted biases are pitting it against an international community in a battle that threatens to permanently damage its reputation. And somewhere in the complicated system that is Sri Lanka’s political/social structure, the cogs that facilitate the smooth functioning of this hand-out machine are clogging up. Favors are not being churned out at the pace they should be. Whether there is recourse to address this problem through the coming elections is questionable. In fact, no real solutions other than the ending, or at least cutting back, of corruption can help. Aberrations, like the recent spurt of racist propaganda, have failed to distract. And people are getting angry.

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Town Hall/ White House

Original post from the SAES blog. I’m blogging and tweeting from the South Asian Economic Summit along with a few others, hastag #saes2013.

This morning Pakistani economist Akmal Hussein talked about how mainstream economics/capitalism teaches that inequality is essentially an un-avoidable by product of growth. He said that equity is not only a measure of social justice but can also be a powerful driver of growth. You just have to open the lower and middle classes to opportunities to grow, giving you a much bigger base.

Great sentiments, I agree 100%. But how easy is it to talk about equitable growth while many countries in South East Asia are facing a ‘neoliberalize or die’ situation? And indeed, are enthusiastically jumping in the very same capitalist bandwagon that facilitates this systematic inequality. India for example is notorious for facilitating corporate expansion. It is, in fact, one of the most characteristic features of its growth. I think the tendency is to hope that equity will come after wealth is achieved, but if the West is any example, a semblance of equity within one’s borders is only achievable by impoverishing peoples beyond it.

Earlier still Ahsal Iqbal Chowdhry, Federal Minister For Planning in Pakistan, spoke bold words about the ‘failure’ of the Washington consensus, and even mentioned discarding it for a Colombo consensus, whatever that may mean, hopefully achievable starting today. But seeing as the most powerful economy in the region got its early nineties boost by the very same Washington Consensus, has it really ‘failed’ in that sense? What would India have been if it wasn’t bailed out? If it wasn’t invested in heavily by Western corporations?

I’m not defending the Washington Consensus, far from it. It has indeed created a lot of harm by seemingly creating growth, but it is ironic that it is this very growth that we celebrate, and hope to convert into something that is fundamentally against its nature. The Washington consensus ‘worked’ because it was essentially hegemonistic. It is the patronage of the powerful to the weak, and beggars cannot choose luxuries like equity.

Will Choudhry’s imagined Colombo Consensus incorporate some similar form of hegemony? Assuming it can even shrug of its Western counterpart as easily as he makes it sound. Indeed can South Asia with all its deep running conflicts, ever form a collective without some entity dominating?

Perhaps the fear of outside interference can enlighten the region to the benefits of mutual cooperation. But it has already incorporated many elements of Chowdhry’s ‘Washington Consensus’, perhaps too many to think of turning back without completely destroying and remaking itself. Perhaps in retrospect, it is telling that both speakers were Pakistani?

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Galle Face (and a shameless plug for my Instagram)

Washed out streets and a clean Colombo welcome the start of SAES2013. A literary metaphor for a fresh beginning? Perhaps. But also an ominous symbol of one the themes of the conference. The weather in Colombo hasn’t been normal for years now. When I was a kid, the monsoon was like clockwork, April was always hot, August was rainy, and December offered slight relief from the repressive humidity.

Over the last year mostly, and the year before that somewhat, Colombo has felt more like a mildly warmer version of the Central Hills. Not that I’m complaining. I hate the humidity, and now I just need some mosquito repellent to grab a good night’s sleep on most nights. The reprieve gave way to a month or two of absolute scorchers, but that is a price I’m willing to pay. I like the new Colombo weather.

However, this post is not about weather, at least not in the conventional, hi-how-are-you-doing-its-very-hot-no? kind of way. Climate change, the likely culprit of Colombo’s newfound coolness (a very relative term still), is a major problem for the region. And a topic that the South Asian Economic Summit (SAES 2013) where I’m sitting at right now, is quite concerned about.

The unpredictability of monsoons, while mildly inconveniencing the city’s cubicle warriors with cumbersome umbrellas, plays havoc in the region’s agricultural sector, the rise in sea level threatens low lying islands, the melting of ice caps in the Himalayas threatens norms of water flow and while Colombo may have been benefitted with a welcome bout of cooler weather other parts of the region have feced extended spells of debilitating heat. Besides, of the sea level rises that stroll along Galle Face could soon turn into a wade. All these changes affect millions of lives and threaten the already struggling development processes of the region.

The carbon neutral conference happening in Colombo right now is talking about how to address this and many other problems. It’s easy to be cynical in adventurous discussions like the ones taking place today, especially being in a region bogged down by political corruption and policy blindness. Economists and policy wonks can talk and talk but you and I know that when it comes to implementation it always boils down to what the politicians stand to gain on the ground.

But ideas are important. Ideas, if powerful, can eventually trickle through the political processes, even those as mired as the ones in S. Asia, and create some change down the line. People here are talking about regional integration, investment promotion, collective agricultural initiatives, regional transportation and energy management etc. All very adventurous stuff for countries with long histories that are used to justify enmity just as much as to justify friendship.

The conference live streams here. Join the discussion on Twitter on #saes2013.

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The Rally For Unity crew has done a pretty neat timeline and infographic (click to enlarge) of the events that took place in Grandpass between June and August this year. Accurate information is crucial if anything is to be done about the upsetting problems we’re seeing today. IMO mainstream media, due to various restrictions, is failing at providing a cohesive and honest picture, a much needed vacuum for some solid citizen journalism to fill.

Sinhala and Tamil translations are on the way according to R4U’s Facebook page, which posted the below along with the graphic.

“What Really Happened in Grandpass?” – This infographic was developed to shed light on the events that unfolded at Grandpass from June to August this year. All information has been factually verified and vetted. Sinhala and Tamil translations will be made available by the weekend.

It is regrettable that certain groups can unduly influence and divide peacefully co-existing multi-ethnic communities. We encourage all Sri Lankans to remain vigilant against such interference and to continue to preserve goodwill among all communities.

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As published in Echelon (artwork by same) 

May Day Rallies to me were a vague call back to communist absurdity, until I found out that the phenomenon actually started in America, and has more to do with the labor movement than communism. I’d always greeted it with appreciation; because like every Sri Lankan I appreciate the occasional holiday, them being so hard to come by and all that. This time though, volunteering with a movement of anti-hate activists, I found myself stepping out to distribute our message to rally attendees. As veteran activists assured us, there is no easier way to get your message across to otherwise practically unreachable corners of the island than to ambush the people when they gather in Colombo en masse.

May Day in Colombo is a crazy affair. Busloads of people are brought in from all over the country, hundreds of thousands of people gather in the city, they eat, they drink and they pay for nothing. Although no official figure is known, if the government’s claim that nearly 2 million people were ferried into the city this May is to be believed, then the cost for the whole day could have been close to a billion rupees. What is also unknown is who actually footed the bill. Mainstream media was silent on this particular nosy question.

Minor rallies attracting fewer people had move the staging area to the middle so that only half or even a quarter of the grounds were fully used. This seemingly absurd tactic succeeded in giving the illusion of a larger crowd, especially to the cameras. However the JVP rally drew massive crowds to the BRC grounds with its decorated floaters and people in red t-shirts with stylized pictures of Rohana Wijeweera, reminiscent of that iconic Che Guevara portrait, emblazoned on their backs.

The emasculation of the labor movement in Sri Lanka started before Wijeweera, in the 1950s, when it was at its peak. During its glory days the labor unions organized a series of successful strikes under the leadership of AE Goonasinge, who founded the movement in the 1920s. At the height of the power of Sri Lanka’s political left, which soon adopted the movement, the general strike and civil disobedience of 1953 brought the UNP government of Dudley Senanayake to its knees. A massive outbreak of what some called ‘hooliganism’ and others termed a ‘public uprising’ forced his resignation. The 1953 hartal represented the first and probably the last real instance when genuine public discontent was allowed an outlet via something close to ‘democratic’ means in independent Sri Lanka.

The general strike of 1980 for instance was less successful. The vicious crackdown of JR Jayawardene’s UNP only put the nails on its coffin. In a nation with the glimmerings of war already on the horizon, and politics highly oppressive, the labor movement had lost much of it potency. In the intervening decades, the once influential LSSP had split in to various parties touting Trotskyist, Maoist, Stalinist and other ideological manifestations of leftist thought and the labor movement had split along with it. Traditionally ‘capitalist’ parties had encroached it in a bid to dilute its power and transform it into a means of countering political opposition. In the process, public recourse to expression of dissent was quickly moving from democratic to undemocratic means. The eighties are a bloody testimony to this, with not one, but two insurgencies tearing the country asunder.

Alcohol and sycophancy go together. Now parliamentarians bring their own busloads of people whom they apparently ply with drink to appease. Indeed an overwhelming number of people we met that day were drunk. The scent of liquor and the doddering unpredictable congeniality of drunk people was everywhere. When we reached out to grab a number of caps that fell out of a bus carrying rally attendees, eager for any implement that would allow us to ‘blend in’, we found them soaked in vomit. At rallies that were starting off, people were enthusiastically shouting slogans and dancing to the beat of drums; at rallies that had gone on for a while, they were morose with a higher tendency to get into fights. After tactfully extricating ourselves from a tight spot we proceeded in the afternoon to a rally where the crowd, seemingly done partying for a while, was idly napping in corners of the grounds as the speaker onstage droned on about Engels and whatnot, as oblivious to the crowd as the crowd was to him.

What motivated them to come? Perhaps some came of their own accord, spending hundreds of rupees, from distant villages, in order to fight for the rights of the laborer in a broken system on a much needed holiday. But May Day today is less about the workers than the politicians that represent them. The money, in a rare example for our country, is flowing from the top to the bottom. It is the politicians that are bringing the workers into town. It is the politicians that are spending money, apparently motivating workers to fight for their own rights. The labor movement has been sabotaged by politics; its integrity sold for a free trip into the city, a lunch packet and a quarter bottle of liquor.

Today, any resemblance the labor movement has to a ‘people’s movement’ has all but disappeared. In a few decades, from the height of its power in 1953, it disintegrated from fighting for the people and toppling governments in their name to being an instrument for their subjugation. The failure of several attempted general strikes in the wake of utility price increases in recent weeks evidences its lack of cohesion and unity. May Day rallies today are a sad testimony to what infighting, politicization and a loss of purpose can perhaps do to any truly grassroots movement that strives to express the ‘people’s voice’ in our country. The labor movement is a body without a soul. A farce perpetuating an ongoing political charade.

Indonesian_Sampan

Do you know what it means?

Most pejoratives have origins in completely acceptable descriptive words. ‘Negro’ comes from the Latin ‘Niger which means black, ‘Paki’ is shortened from ‘Pakistani’. Terms like Chinaman, Coolie are also derived from relatively innocent descriptive origins. They get their pejorative connotations after being repeatedly used in an insulting manner.  Other names originate directly from a desire to put down and insult, but the word ‘Hambaya’ belongs to the former category.

‘Hambaya’ is derived from the Malay ‘Sampan’. The word for a somewhat flat bottomed boat, also used by the Chinese. Pictured above is an Indonesian sampan, coming back from a fishing expedition. Sampans were frequently seen in Sri Lanka’s South Eastern coast when Javanese people stopped en route while migrating to countries like Yemen and MadagascarMany of them stayed back here as well. The term was eventually associated with South Indian traders who were also Muslims like the Javan people, and who adopted the same style of boat. And eventually, as ‘Sampan’ became ‘Samman’ in Tamil and ‘Hamban’ to the Sinhala people, a collective term ‘Hambankaraya’ was used to describe them as a whole.

According to ethnologist Asiff Hussein, author of Sarandib: an Ethnological Study of Muslims in Sri Lanka, the word did not acquire its derogatory connotations until the beginning of the 1915 riots, the first ever incident of tension between Sinhalese and Muslims. According to Asiff, the riots were sparked by ‘coastal moors’ of Indian residence temporarily ensconced in the center of the country (the riots started at Gampola) for trading purposes. They were not as accommodating as Sri Lankan moors (the term used for resident moors in the country) and objected to the procession of the perehara (Buddhist festival) near their mosque (contrarily, resident moors were long known to have facilitated and supported perahara activity).

The ensuing tensions spread the  use of the word ‘Hambaya’, shortened from the rather more respectful ‘Hambankaraya’, as a wide derog to describe all Muslims even the ones that hadn’t migrated on a boat. But then again, everyone in Sri Lanka, except maybe for the aadivasi, migrated on a boat, and a lot of us still continue the proud tradition, but I digress. The word ‘Thambiya‘ probably acquired its seedier usage around about that time as well. Just like in ‘hambaya’ the problem is the suffix ‘ya’ which basically turns an endearing term that refers to a younger brother into a racial slur.

Signs that ‘Hamban’ was once a respectable term are everywhere. Take Hambantota for instance, what will probably soon be Sri Lanka’s on-paper capital. The whole place is named after the Hambankarayas or at least, their boats.. Hambantota basically means ‘Port of Hambans’. Further to the East, ‘Sammanthurai’ means exactly the same thing. ‘Samman’ is the Tamil version of ‘Hamban’ and ‘Thurai’ means port.

Many Malays still live in the Hambantota area. My uncle was married to a Malay there. Almost his whole family (and wife’s extended family as well) and nearly the entire neighborhood were wiped out in the tsunami. Malays have more than a passing influence on Sri Lankan culture, language and history. But this is often overlooked because of the small size of the Malay community in the country today. They are usually cast in the same cultural bucket as Sri Lankan Moors, who are themselves a pretty diverse lot to begin with.

Not all of the Hambankarayas were Muslim. Chandrabhanu was a Javanese king who spent some 30 years of his reign trying to invade Sri Lanka. He probably used many sampan in his invasionary forays. He was a Buddhist.

Dharmapriya Dias and Gihan De Chickera in a scene from Machang

Dharmapriya Dias and Gihan De Chickera in a scene from Machang

Sri Lankans have a fascination with everything foreign. Going ‘to the foreign’ or ‘ab-road’ is considered to be the epitome of success. For after you are ‘in the foreign’ life there is going to be all feather beds and high disposable income.

I’ve run into many people like that in my time, who hasn’t? Once i had someone explain to me in great detail how to make a convincing case to seek asylum in Canada. The process involved coming up with a newspaper article/advertisement calling me a wanted man, going through highly exciting cut-throat late night border crossings and conning Canadian judges. I was sixteen at the time.

Just yesterday i met someone who expressed a strong urge to go to Germany. Why? because it is ‘awesome over there’. Praneeth (name changed) is a low level executive at a multinational corporation. In other words, he has a job and background that many would kill for. Initially I just thought he wanted to visit, how naive of me.

A friend of his: “do you know what he did? he’s working in a garage in Germany.”

And I say, wow yeah that’s great. Praneeth gets a wistful look in his eyes as I ask him ‘so you want to get a work visa?’ But apparently there are no work visas for Germany, which  brings us to the thorny question; “how is your friend working in a garage there?”

His friend (let’s call him Channa) ingeniously played the system. He didn’t go all ‘Machang’ and escape the hotel the night before the big handball game, but he still lied and connived for all he was worth.

He went there for a holiday, stayed with a monk he knew and somehow negotiated a deal with a local restaurant which produced a letter attesting to the German immigration authorities that ‘Channa is absolutely the best, and pretty much only, cook in the world capable of cooking at our restaurant and it is absolutely essential that you help him come work for us”.

This enabled him to get a five year stamp the next time he applied. And now Channa works in a garage, painting cars and doing other garagy things, cooking be damned. His education is wasted, but he tells Praneeth during his frequent visits home that he feels “very secure” and wouldn’t give it up for the world. And now poor Praneeth wants to quit his corporate job and do the same thing.

If you thought Channa was quite the ‘arch bugger’, let me tell you about Praneeth’s other friend Nimal who is some kind of an ‘international player’. His life involves shuttling between several high profile foreign countries every five months or so. He’d work for five months in the US, come to Sri Lanka, and go work for five months in the UK. I am fascinated, how in the world does he manage this?

Nimal, like Channa, initially went for a holiday. He then came back to Sri Lanka and applied again, and this time got a much longer stamp on his visa. He used this to surreptitiously get a job being a waiter, cleaning stuff or like Channa, working in a garage. Unglamorous, but it pays the bills for a glamorous image back home.

Actually, he is part of a whole network of such ‘international players’ who simply switch jobs with each other when their visas begin to expire; ensuring a constant supply of international jobs that will not cause them to overstay their visas and impinge on the hospitality of their hosts in any way (other than by stealing their jobs of course).

So for example Nimal would give his job in the US over to his friend Riyas as Riyas leaves his job being a street cleaner in the UK which he gives to Nathan who gives up his job as a logger in Scandanavia to Kamal who in turn will leave his job as a shop assistant in Italy just in time for Nimal to come back from a short intermediate stay in Sri Lanka to claim it. And they keep switching ad infinitum. Praneeth thinks its brilliant.

No wonder us unambitious Sri Lankans get so much shtick from Western visa authorities. I don’t blame them either. We enter their countries by the boatload, clog up their social security nets and even contribute with our own brand of organized crime, with raging chain gangs in countries as diverse as Canada, UK and Italy hailing from places like Ja-Ela and Wattala (town names just an example, nothing personal if you live there).

I’ve spoken to others who are a lot more honest about this kind of living. And apparently, hard labor is hard labor whether you are in a developed country or not. Some work three jobs and barely get enough sleep. They show a pretty picture to everyone back home, but they live on the fringes of society and become anonymous automatons with no identity. No life even. And many regret ever leaving home.

*Abroad Yamuda Machang?: Shall we go abroad, mate?

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