Simmering Villages and Arrogance of Politicians
By Sumanasiri Liyanage
In the last five years or so, my principal focus of analysis has been Sri Lankan villages, especially the villages in the Dry Zone. Since the introduction of the so-called open economic policies, villages and their inhabitants have experienced multiple changes in their day-to-day lives. Now, it is hard to see thatched roof and clay wall houses. Every household may have at least a motor bike. Three-wheelers and four-wheel vehicles are not a rarity. Educational and health standards have significantly improved. Within a 20-kilometre radius, a government dispensary or a rural hospital can be seen.
The changes that have happened in the sphere of production are critical and significant. Inanimate power has replaced human and animal power in the process of production. The contribution of peasant human labour has become marginal, though it is still critical. The relationship between labour and land that was most noteworthy about fifty years ago has been transformed more into a relationship between labour and capital. Rent or tribune is not the principal form of surplus transfer from producers to others, as rent is increasingly being replaced by interest and profit as the major form of village surplus extraction. All four kinds of reproduction funds that Henry Bernstein eloquently outlined, namely, the consumption fund, the replacement fund, the generational reproduction fund, and the ceremonial fund, now appear in monetary form and have become commodified.
A Martian who visited Sri Lankan villages fifty or sixty years ago will recognise that Sri Lankan villages have undergone what is popularly known as ‘capitalist transformation’ now. Nonetheless, it is clear that the capitalist transformation that includes the dominance of capital and commodification has not brought in substantial benefits to the village people. Moreover, it has added to their problem and aggravated relative poverty, indebtedness, and insecurity, while upsetting the metabolism between humans and nature.
Dialogue with villages: ‘Gama Samaga Pilisandara’
Although many have made, especially in social media, insulting remarks over President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s programme ‘chatting with a village,’ I think it is in principle a good idea. Two main criticisms have surfaced. Some tend to think that the Head of State should not waste his time chatting with villagers on their day-to-day issues, as the provincial-level administrators can handle them in a more effective and less expensive way, if the Head of State focuses more on making the system workable.
There is some truth in it. Nonetheless, we are all aware that provincial-level administration has deteriorated and has been politicised since the late 1970s, irrespective of the fact that the number of officers at provincial-level has proliferated. A related criticism is that the Head of State should have already known the village-level issues, so that there would be no need to visit villages for the sake of knowledge gaining. The second criticism is more offending, since it has been alleged that the programme is not more than a drama of which the script had been written in advance.
And the visit has a pre-programmed objective of offering benefits to the henchmen of the local-level politicians. Of course, the Head of State may and should have some idea about the village issues, but the problems faced by different villages may not be the same. Besides, it was a tradition of the Sri Lankan rulers to visit areas occasionally to get firsthand information about the grievances of the people. History has many stories saying that kings had visited villages oftentimes in disguise to fill the gap in the knowledge that was provided by officers. It is unlikely to prove the charge that the visit was pre-programmed, since many high-level provincial-level officers had failed to give the information sought by the President.
“Going to the village is to fulfil the mission when in power. No other President has gone to remote villages to solve people’s problems. It is not my practice to stay in Colombo and consult only the officials and identify the problems of the people. Whoever criticises this system, I work according to my policy.” The President said so while participating in the ninth ‘Gama Samaga Pilisandara’ programme held at the Dickellakanda Junior College premises in the Dickellakanda Grama Niladhari Division within the Deraniyagala Divisional Secretariat Division in the Kegalle District last Saturday.
Problems unseen and unattended
While the President dialoguing with the villages, novel issues that cropped up with the advent of capitalism in rural Sri Lanka are yet to be seen and addressed. However, during the last two elections, presidential and parliamentary, politicians of all colours talked about some of these issues, but as usual, forget when they come to power. Two simmering issues that have come to the fore in recent years are the issue of human-elephant conflict and the problem associated with microcredit. The ongoing satyagrahas in Walsapugala and Hingurakgoda signify the present crisis of the prevailing agricultural mode of production.
Governments tend to believe that the cultivation of more land is the solution to the problem of increasing agricultural production that includes food for humans and animals. This belief takes us more and more towards industrial agriculture that is associated with mono crops and the increasing use of chemical fertiliser, herbicides and pesticides. This mode of agriculture has now become a part of our agriculture denting it into the minds, attitudes and thinking pattern of peasants. As a consequence, more and more forests including wildlife sanctuaries were transformed into cultivable land, thus adversely affecting wild animals and flora and fauna.
Walsapugala farmers very correctly understand that elephants come to villages and destroy their crops mainly because of the human invasion into their territory. This issue was also raised by the leader of the indigenous community in Sri Lanka. The sad part of this story is that in the last few years, the highest number of wild elephant deaths was reported in Sri Lanka. The farmers of Walsapugala, ardent supporters of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, understand that the lives of humans and wild animals are closely linked with the agrarian mode of production.
The Hingurakgoda satyagraha signifies another facet of present agricultural mode of production that I discussed in one of my previous columns. Microcredit firms claim that their microcredit business was highly successful, and the indicator of this success is a higher level of loan repayment. How is this success achieved? Primarily in two ways. First, introducing a loan chain system so that the debtors will be entrapped in the debtor cycle permanently. Secondly, these organisations and their agents use intimidation and threats in collecting loans. As a result, more than two hundred suicides of women, children and men were reported in many parts of the country. On 6 April at the satyagraha site, OG, a culture group based in Rajangana brilliantly performed the reality of this pathetic situation of debt victimisation.
Politicians of the Government as well as the Opposition have not so far responded positively to these issues. Although Cabinet decided to issue a Gazette legalising elephant corridors, the Government, which is quite famous in prompt issuance of Gazettes, has issued it on 12 April. The despicable behaviour of a powerful Cabinet Minister from the region had made the situation worse. The same is true over the debt cancellation demand. Although the Prime Minister’s Office promised on 25 March to arrange a meeting with the Prime Minister, the promise is yet to be fulfilled.
Hence, it would be nice and fruitful, if the President arranges two dialogues at least with the poor farmers of Walsapugala and Hingurakgoda. It is important to note that in both places, women play a major role, in fact, in the case of Hingurakgoda a leading role. Two simmering issues though may be addressed separately, it is imperative to keep in mind that both are just two facets of the current agricultural mode of production.
About the writer:
The writer is a retired teacher of Political Economy at the University of Peradeniya.