17 April 2012

As the sun sets on the dominant paradigm of development…

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet-style systems in Easter Europe for people was seen as a triumph of one political and economic system over another, that of capitalism over communism.  Even today very few people recognize that the two systems are essentially two versions of a single paradigm called ‘modernism’, which flows from a largely Euro-Centric understanding of the world and consequent extrapolations. 
For many decades there were things we were supposed to treat as self-evident truths.  We were allowed to be anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist but were not allowed to question ‘modernity’, which was duly accorded with some kind of ‘intrinsic’ value and marketed as something good that everyone should aspire to obtain.  And there was ‘science’ as in an overarching knowledge system and relevant applications which too were based on fundamentally Euro-Centric philosophies and epistemologies.  We could criticize the West and its imperialistic urges but were required to treat with utmost respect and accord god-given status that thing called ‘science’ as defined by the West. 

When people like Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera (‘Ganadura Mediyama Dakinemi Arunalu’ – ‘I see the first rays of dawn breaking through the dark night’) and Prof. Nalin De Silva (‘Mage Lokaya’ – ‘My world’) began questioning the modernist premises and especially its Marxian variants, they were vilified as racists, chauvinists and accused of being archaic and guilty of an unwholesome fascination with the past. Even those who recognized that they could not be pooh-poohed away, complimented them in backhanded manner, calling them ‘native intellectuals’ as though there is such a thing as an ‘international intellectual’. 

A lot of what these two individuals were articulating were in fact already quite in vogue in intellectual circles in the Western Hemisphere.  The ‘cardinal error’ committed by Gunadasa and Nalin was that they drew extensively from Buddhist philosophy to critique the dominant paradigms and recognized the fact that much of the critique that was coming from within the West itself was founded on principles that Lord Buddha had articulated more than two millennia before. 

I still remember a comment made by Deepthi Kumara Gunaratne of the now defunct ‘X Kandayama’ which quickly succumbed to in-fighting and thanks to incomplete and erroneous reading of the bibles they preferred slid from scholarly engagement to pornography.  This was outside the Public Library in the early years of this century.  He chided me: ‘You will become just another journalist if you don’t give the reading public the new knowledge of the world’.  I asked him what this new knowledge was.  He said, ‘Derrida, Foucault, Lacan’.  I said, ‘mata e siyalu denaatama wediya budu haamuduruwo aluth’ (to me, Lord Buddha is more ‘new’ than all these people).  That newness was something that I discovered thanks to people like Nalin and Gunadasa and which I was persuaded to explore in greater depth by Champika Ranawaka.

In February 1992 Champika Ranawaka and 15 others were arrested at the Kauduwuwa Temple in Wadduwa by some overzealous police officers.  They took into custody and destroyed the manuscript of a book that Champika had authored based on notes he had been maintaining since 1989, i.e. long before terms such as sustainable development and traditional knowledge systems entered the lexicon of ‘sanvardanaya’ (development) in Sri Lanka.  Champika was held for three weeks.  All he did was write.  Re-write, to be more accurate.  He re-wrote that document, which he titled ‘Sanvaradanaye Thunveni Yamaya’ (translatable as ‘The sunset of development’).  That book, ‘published’ in Roneo print in 1991, was the foundational document of the first ever green political movement in Sri Lanka, the Janatha Mithuro. 

Those who are quick to call Champika (and others) racists, chauvinists, extremists etc., refuse to acknowledge two things. First, that their consistent, principled and at that time largely unpopular and vilified struggle against LTTE propaganda and Eelamist posturing (including its ‘federalist’ versions) played an important role in overturning the ideological dominance of the Eelam Project to which significant sections of the polity had succumbed.  They do not acknowledge that had these ‘racists’ not been around, it is quite possible that we would be living in a post-CFA Sri Lanka which would have (in the very least) the LTTE governing one-third the country and half the coastline and where all of us constantly live under the shadow of terrorism. 

Second, even if there is reason to treat with suspicion and fear the Sinhala Buddhist nationalism that Champika championed, this does not take away from the fact that he is clearly way ahead of his generation in terms of intellect and academic output.  Few can match the volume of his writing. Fewer still would dare challenge him to debate on any of the subjects he has engaged with over the past two decades, including the philosophy of science, quantum physics, paradigms of development, politics pertaining to environment and Buddhist philosophy.  He gave political expression to the theories first articulated by Gunadasa and Nalin.  Even those who disagree with him on certain issues, and I am one of them, must recognize that he is a formidable foe, not least of all because of his indefatigable energy, the fact that he is a voracious reader, and his considerable capacity to synthesize the material he encounters and extrapolate and apply in ways few are able to do.  

My principle critique of Champika has been the fact that he has allowed Sangvardanaye Thunveni Yamaya to gather dust, as it were, in preference to the politics pertaining to overcoming the terrorist threat, even though the latter was a prerogative that no nationalist could put on the back-burner.  This is why I believe that despite certain flaws and shortcomings, some of which is understandable given political realities and limitations of resources, he was the most suitable person to be the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources.  It forced his hand.

That he turned the ministry and its various institutions into profit-making entities that did not have to depend on the Treasury, attests to his considerable abilities.  He also deserves applause for running a clean show and can be justifiably proud of the fact that former COPE chief, Wijedasa Rajapaksa’s assertion that his was one ministry that was free of corruption and misappropriation of funds.

What struck me most and what made me write this, however, is a small news item in the Daily News of March 11, 2010 (business section) titled ‘Council for Sustainable Development mooted’.   He has said that a ‘Green Lanka Programme’ will be implemented from 2010 to 2016 through a National Council for Sustainable Development which will be set up by the ministry. 

He has pointed out the dangers of over-dependence on fossil fuels, remarking that the emission quota for this century ended on September 25, 2009, a sobering fact indeed.  We know today that the ecological footprint is obliterating bio-capacities and that nations are running on ecological debt.  Champika Ranawaka, it can be argued, is two decades late.  On the other hand, we have to recognize that we were a nation and a people that were lazy and clearly unwilling to wake up to these realities during the same period. 

There is a significant mismatch between the sentiments that Champika has expressed and the strategies implemented (and those in the pipeline for implementation) and the overall direction, thrust and character of that which is called ‘national development’.  Both ‘environment’ and ‘people’ have been de-factored or suppressed to regime preferences which still salute (in practice) the dominant (and failed/failing) paradigms of development.  

We can vilify Champika Ranawaka, Nalin De Silva, Gunadasa Amarasekera and others if we don’t like their faces or are uncomfortable with their politics pertaining to notions of identity and nationalism, but we can’t vilify ourselves and pretend that things are ok, or that ‘modernism’ or ‘capitalism’ or anything else would ‘work’ under a different regime. That’s being naïve and moronic. 

We believed human beings could dominate nature and craft it as they liked. This was the fundamental flaw of Euro-Centric philosophies and development paradigms and indeed ‘science’.  The ‘centrality’ of the human being has proved to be a massively erroneous conjecture.  Correction requires the injection of massive doses of humility.  I am not saying Champika is humble. He is not.  On the other hand, his theories and the strategies he is trying out are most certainly ‘humbling’ and this is a step in the right (or at least ‘a better’) direction.  

[first published in the Daily News on March 12, 2010]