10 January 2012

Being and becoming Sri Lanka

Andare Smith, who claims to be the grandson of Adam Smith, and writes the column ‘Wealth of a Nation’, had a novel take on Sri Lanka.  He wrote, ‘After becoming the Miracle of Asia, we could become the Miracle of the East; then we can aspire to be in turn the Miracle of the World, the Miracle of the Solar System and the Miracle of the Universe, and thereafter perhaps we could become Sri Lanka’.

Andare’s drift is clear enough.  In the rush to become miraculous, we may just be forgetting that if we are not Sri Lanka, miraculous or otherwise, we gain little by becoming a miracle of a larger geographical area.   We might shine, yes, but if we lose sense of who we are, then we might have lost it all. 
Andare’s thoughts took me back to the year 2001-02, when Ranil Wickremesinghe came up with his plan for the country, ‘Regaining Sri Lanka’.  That ‘regaining’ had nothing to do with Sri Lanka.  To ‘regain’ something, one has to first and foremost be conscious of what has been lost.   To know what has been lost, one has to know what was there before and also be convinced that was there before was good for the most part. 
The easier thing is to is to look around, check out your neigbours, see what their preferences are and use them as standard to assess what you have and don’t have.  The difficult thing is to figure out who you are on your own terms.  That calls for a different kind of comparison.  It demands a delving into history, a look-back at the paths taken from long ago to now.  In other words, it is not about being or becoming like Singapore or about being better than India, but about being the best at who we are, i.e. Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans.
This requires us to re-discover ‘Sri Lanka’, not in slogan and political rhetoric but in its cultural and civilizational essence.  Not easy, but necessary, unless we are only interested in glitz and confetti, polite applause in public and sneering behind our backs, a big fat GDP and endemic poverty in vast swathes of the country.
What all this calls for is to examine what we are doing right now and where we are planning to go, and then ask ourselves how ‘Sri Lankan’ it all is.  Take ‘development’ for instance.  It’s all about growth-focused initiatives. Where has ‘grown-focus’ taken the world?  Where has it taken those countries that offer themselves as blueprints for how the rest of the world should be and become?  Who fell out, who was kicked out and how many people have had to die for the sustained development of SOME economies?  What was the blood-cost?  What kinds of values became current and what were discarded?  Did we become better as a species? Did the earth get healthier?  Well, if we looked around, the answer is pretty clear: we screwed up!     
That’s at the global level.  At the local level, we’ve faced and overcome many challenges, from insurrections to tsunamis to terrorism.  We’ve built roads and dams, provided healthcare and education that generated statistics which left the region and much of the world far behind.  We won the World Cup.
We also have a terribly flawed constitution.  We have cut down our forests. We’ve created jobs and made a lot of goodies available to the rich but have well and truly compromised our ability to protect our economy from spoilers.  Our food security.  In the name of ‘progress’ we have dismantled traditional systems of social security.  We have a seed policy that is deferential to multinational seed companies and wrecks all attempts to conserve traditional seed varieties.  We have roads that come in the name of development and go away with profits extracted, from land and man and woman. 
We have heritage but it’s up for sale.  We have history, but it is hardly ever perused and its distortion celebrated in the name of ‘today’ and ‘tomorrow’.  We wave flag and sing anthem but there is neither in our hearts and lives.  We have associations but we are not a community.  We are Sri Lanka but we never ask ourselves whether under the façade of chest-beating nationalism there is anything significant that make us different from others. 
If and when we become a ‘miracle’, we may no longer be Sri Lanka or Sri Lankans but clones of other miracles, which of course is not bad if the vast majority of our people got to live miraculous lives, except that things don’t crumble in that direction usually.   
We must ask ourselves if Andare is correct, i.e. must we go through Asia, the East, the Solar System and the Universe to return to Sri Lanka?  We didn’t always work according to someone else’s blueprint.  We didn’t always inhabit someone else’s version of our reality.  And we got on fine.  We didn’t have any sophisticated education system, except the pirivenas, but those who listened to bana regularly, built structures that have amazed the world. Maybe we are getting definitions wrong, setting wrong targets and operating in frames of reference that sound great but are nevertheless hollow. 
Maybe it’s good to just BE Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans.  That’s what Andare seems to be saying.
[This is from 'The Editor's Blog' of The Nation]