25 June 2011 / BY Tisaranee Gunasekara
“This disposition to admire, and almost worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or at least, to neglect, persons of poor and mean condition…is the great and most universal cause of corruption of our moral sentiments.” – Adam Smith (The Theory of Moral Sentiments)
Bucket-lavatories are unheard of today. Yet even in the early 1980’s they were a norm in the poorer areas of Colombo (5,000 in Colombo North alone). Each morning labourers emptied the (often overflowing) buckets into open lorries
Today, authorities would ‘solve’ this problem by evicting all families using bucket-lavatories and demolishing their homes (the land will then be ‘developed’ and sold/leased). But in 1977, the minister in charge was Ranasinghe Premadasa. Born and bred in that ‘other Colombo’, he understood that development should be for man, not vice versa.
For him, slum-clearance did not mean evicting slum-dwellers, en masse (thereby creating a worse set of problems); it meant helping slum-dwellers to transform their homes into adequate houses with basic facilities.
This perception informed and shaped his solution to the problem of bucket-lavatories. According to Sirisena Cooray, who as Colombo’s Mayor oversaw its implementation, “We came up with a programme to convert bucket-lavatories to ones with water-sealed closets… Our plan was to provide residents with the necessary assistance and get them to construct septic tanks” (President Premadasa and I: Our Story).
The plan, implemented with UNICEF assistance, was a resounding success. Bucket-lavatories – and the indubitable health hazard they posed – were eliminated without evicting a single family or demolishing a single dwelling.
When the UNP won in 1977, Ranasinghe Premadasa, a key-architect of that landslide-victory, chose a portfolio which seemed curiously-inapposite for a man intent on building a national-base. But under Premadasa-tutelage the Ministry of Housing was transformed from the periphery to the epicentre of developmental efforts. Ranasinghe Premadasa understood the dangers inherent in the ‘growth first’ approach of the Jayewardene administration but knew that he had no power to effect a course-correction.
Instead, he planned to use the Housing Ministry to ameliorate some ill-effects of trickle-down economics while building a solid politico-electoral base for himself. His massive housing programme extended from the ‘other Colombo’ to distant villages; he realised that a successful politico-electoral strategy required a developmental vision which transcended the urban-rural/ethno-religious divides and focused on all have-nots.
Ever since the French Revolution ushered ‘sans-culottes’ onto the political centre-stage, harnessing this potent force has been a pivotal consideration of serious political actors. This challenge assumes critical significance in representative-democracies where numbers matter.
Actual/nascent political leaders approach this task in two key ways. Many use majoritarian supremacism to win-over the have-nots of the majority community (ethnic/religious/caste/tribal). This is a fast-track to popularity. But it is also a poisoned chalice, because, by accentuating primordial divisions, it often sows the seeds of future conflicts.
Winning over the poor of all communities by effecting tangible improvements in their current living conditions is the alternative method. This path is harder to traverse and does not guarantee instant-popularity. But for an ethno-religiously pluralist nation, it is the optimum option, since it evades the mire of ‘identity politics’. If the upward socio-economic mobility of the poor can be achieved without making the rich feel threatened, the other quagmire of class antagonisms can be avoided.
There is a global tradition of such developmental models which are (in the words of Amartya Sen) ‘good and just’. These are radical in intent but non-confrontational in style. Located outside the traditional ‘either-or’ gridlock they view economic strategy as a series of compromises balancing the interests of diverse socio-economic groups, for a common good.
The New Deal is an excellent example, as are the policies of former Brazilian President Lula. According to Perry Anderson, Lula’s aim was to demonstrate that “the state cares for the lot of every Brazilian, no matter how wretched or downtrodden, as citizens with social rights in their country” (London Review of Books – March 2011).
A primary focus of Lula’s strategy was Brazil’s urban-poor, that stratum insultingly dismissed by the orthodox (especially on the left) as the ‘lumpen-proletariat”. Lula’s efforts (via programmes such as Bolsa Familia) were aimed at increasing the income levels and bolstering the consumption power of this segment. This was Ranasinghe Premadasa’s goal too, with his housing, poverty alleviation, rural industrialisation and land redistribution programmes.
Previously, governments tried to redress inequality by reducing the consumption power of the haves and not by augmenting the consumption power of the have-nots. Consequently, everyone (except the politically privileged) consumed less, and the economy stagnated.
Ranasinghe Premadasa transcended this devastating divide by creating a policy amalgam which was pro-business and pro-poor. It was a radical undertaking, because received wisdom (on left and right) had it that the two were antithetical.
Perhaps the most pivotal achievement of Premadasa-economics was to prove that this need not be so, that the state can pioneer economic programmes which are investor friendly and pro-poor. His 200 Garment Factories Programme transformed an infamously exploitative industry (with sweatshop-type working-conditions) into its opposite, not through compulsion but via persuasion (incentives). The state provided assistance to investors who set up garment factories in rural areas and provided their employees with a liveable wage and decent working conditions.
The Premadasa Presidency was no golden-age. It was a time of creative ferment during which a President, who knew the devastating power of poverty and homelessness, made consistent efforts to transform the politico-economic-social landscape by turning the poor into a new middle-class. According to Brazilian political-scientist André Singer, the urban-poor prefer ‘state intervention to reduce inequality’ rather than ‘social movements that can upset order’ (America’s Programme – 14.10.2010). Consequently, a development strategy which improves their condition can turn have-nots into a potent force for politico-economic stability.
That the poor can become a system-stabiliser is the message indicated in a road-side ad by a multinational bank announcing that many of world’s millionaires came from the informal sector (pavement-vendors et al). Ranasinghe Premadasa knew that systemic stability was best served by bringing the poor in as stakeholders, rather than effecting/exacerbating their exclusion.
Today, Sri Lanka is being herded in the opposite direction by a regime which has embraced majoritarian-supremacism as the path to absolute and long-term power. A democracy cannot be dismantled from within without discarding the principle of universal rights and re-embracing the belief that some people have greater rights than others.
An extremely effective way of doing this is by re-imaging the target-group as an obstacle to some ‘national’ goal. Thus in today’s Sri Lanka, the poor are being re-imaged as economic burdens, political impediments and health/moral hazards. Constant attempts are being made to create a link in the public-psyche between the urban poor and various societal ills from crime and drugs to flooding and dengue.
A series of Rajapaksa-engineered retrogressive tidal-waves have overwhelmed ethno-religious minorities and are threatening the urban-poor. Soon the Rajapaksa-model will need land for foreign agri-businesses and peasant small-holders in Anuradhapura will be treated no better than Colombo’s slum-dwellers or Kalpitiya’s fisher-folk.
A ‘development-model’ which traduces the poor, illegalises the informal sector and threatens the homes/livelihoods of communities, in tandem with a political-strategy which treats minorities as lesser-citizens, will lead not to societal and civil peace but to their cataclysmic opposites