19 December 2014

On living with and without the state

The role of the state in the amorphous and varied activity, process and objective called ‘development’ has been the subject of many a doctoral dissertation.  The literature on the subject would fill quite a large library, in fact.  States are sometimes ‘interventionist’; they have an overbearing presence in the affairs of a country, especially the economy.  Some argue that states should play the role of facilitator and regulator (read ‘keep out of our hair’; ‘our’ referring to capital interests). 

States make their presence felt through tax regimes, regulatory mechanisms and relevant enforcement authorities, the law etc.  Some may consider states to be a necessary nuisance; a pain in the whatever because no one likes rules and regulations but a useful player in keeping out anarchy.  Good to complain about. 

Human beings are strange creatures.  They want to be pampered and they want something to complain about too; seldom content but frequently agitated and unfulfilled, want to take but hate to give, will talk for hours about rights but remain silent on responsibilities. 

I’ve written about what an ungrateful bunch of citizens we are for the most part.  This is not to say that states are perfect or that governments are made of principled men and women; they are not.  On the other hand, a citizenry that is pampered from womb to grave must be possessed by a strange ingratitude to want and demand as it does so frequently. 

States are not perfect, let me repeat. Governments are about people with vested interests. The architecture of the state is more or less designed to serve the interests of the more powerful sections of society.  Those who rebel against the welfare state are often silent about the fact that states typically serve capital interests and indeed to an extent that makes amounts allocated to education, healthcare etc for the poor look like a pittance. 

I have begun to wonder why we tend to confuse ‘state’ with ‘saviour’.  It is not as though some people sat down one day and designed a foolproof state to stand the test of time.  It is a flawed edifice because architect, engineer, resident and renovator are all frail human beings.  What this means is that there are things where we can wait on the state only at our own peril. 

Sometimes a tough, responsible and uncompromising consumer protection movement can force institutions and officials to deliver (as per job description) on the legitimate expectations of consumers and taxpayers.  Sometimes it is not enough.  We can complain about the inefficiencies of the Health Department and the various local government authorities whose responsibilities include effective and sustainable disposal of waste and the maintenance of proper drainage systems, but if we do nothing ourselves we up the risk of dying of diseases such as dengue.  

We can’t wait on the state. We can’t expect consumer protection organizations to fall from the sky either.  Organizing is not easy; takes time, effort, sacrifice and a lot of disappointments.  On the other hand, we can do the small thing; like we all did when the entire country was facing a serious dengue threat.  A lot of people became aware of the threat thanks to the efforts of the various state institutions including the media, but dealing with the threat required citizens to take some initiative. 

What is necessary in the case of dealing with communicable diseases need not be put in cold story in other situations.  If we can be extra-responsible when there is a serious public health situation, we can be mildly responsible in other situations too, can’t we?  The state cannot force the people not to use polythene or reuse and recycle.  Ordinary citizens can do all that and also do educate themselves about basic conservation behaviour such as switching off unnecessary lights, repairing a leaking faucet etc. 

A spoilt citizenry can only spoil the nation and a spoilt citizenry cannot demand that a Government remain squeaky clean.  We can demand that governments design policies that ensure national food security, but if we don’t use whatever space we have to plant some chillies, gotukola, capsicum, brinjals etc., then were are being hypocritical, aren’t we?   How can be bad-mouth the municipal council for being inefficient in disposing garbage if we are not conscious of how much unnecessary garbage we produce by our ignorance and carelessness? 

I remember visiting a friend in the Colombo National Hospital a couple of years ago.  My doctor friend had a task: to direct patients referred to Colombo from hospitals in various parts of the country to various wards as per their most serious complaint.  It was around 9.30 pm and there wasn’t exactly a rush of patients for him to handle.  At one point however there was a bit of excitement, or let’s say a sense of urgency.  A young woman was wheeled in.  She had attempted to commit suicide by swallowing sleeping pills. She was conscious but in great physical distress. 

My friend was not sympathetic.  He told the patient that the next time she wants to kill herself to take enough sleeping tablets because to save her life now an enormous amount of money will have to be spent by the state, money which could have been used to prevent diseases and cure those who have fallen ill for no fault of theirs. 

I asked him whether it was right to blast a patient like that.  He said ‘she will survive but I am furious because we are not a rich country and we have to use our resources carefully’. 

The bottom line: are we responsible citizens?  What kind of polluting signature do we leave on this earth by the way we live, the things we do, our vocation etc?  What are we robbing from our children when we choose to do this instead of that?  Should we defer to the state because we pay taxes and rates and leave it at that? 

Let’s face it, states are imperfect.  We can lament, we can scream or we can do something about correcting the flaws of the state. In the very least we can say ‘screw the state, let’s just live’. Well, ‘live more responsibly’ would be the better option.      

*This was first published in 'The Daily News' on December 19, 2009.  The points are still valid, I believe. 



Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com.
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