08 November 2017

Towards a country called ‘cooperatives’

‘It is another disease you do not have in Moscow: hunger,’ Doctor Zhivago is made to say in the excellent screen adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s classic novel. Zhivago, who has just been told that officially there was no tuberculosis in the city, as decreed by the Soviet Government, makes this wry observation upon examining a sick child. 

A lot of things don’t exist, ‘officially’ speaking. Poverty, for example. And of course its usual accomplices, hunger, malnutrition, stunting among children, an increasing school-dropout rate, unemployment and underemployment, increased incidence of crime and environmental degradation. Likewise, inefficiency is seldom acknowledged as an endemic and serious malady in state institutions. Corruption is often treated the same way. They are referred to, of course, but typically get summarily swept under the proverbial carpet. 

Officially, things are great. The cricket team is covering itself in glory, the LTTE is on the run both here and abroad, opposition MPs are siding with the ruling party indicating governance-confidence, trade union unrest swiftly dealt with and economic growth is making people starry-eyed. Unofficially, the man or woman in the street will tell you, things are bad. 

A doctor’s report on the health of the state would read like this: the government is in reactive mode; has no perceivable plan to resolve the issue of terrorism or the ‘ethnic-issue’ to the extent that it is believed to exist, either through negotiation or militarily liquidating the LTTE; shows no sign of pursuing the project called Good Governance by way of rectifying or compensating for the flaws of the 17th Amendment; lacks a cogent and sustainable development strategy; is faced with a widening gap between rhetoric and practice and is facing a rising tide of discontent from all quarters. 

Let us leave aside the tough issues, those anto-jata, bahee-jata ones. The man or woman in the street will tell us that the primary issue is getting food on the table; in a word, inflation. The President knows that the stomach is a tough customer and more irksome than, say, Prabhakaran. This is probably why he came up with the Budget Shop idea. One shop, in Rajagiriya, opened with much pomp and speeches. Just one. Just not enough. 

There is, of course, nothing startling about providing essentials at wholesale prices. This was what the CWE and the MPCSs were all about. It was not about one ‘budget shop’ but an island-wide network of budget shops; a simple, replicable, time-tested idea that has worked in other countries but didn’t work here. That is not correct, actually. In Sri Lanka they were not allowed to work. In short, the politician subverted the cooperative. 

The world talks about the state or public sector and the private sector as though nothing can exist outside these domains. ‘Cooperatives,’ however do not belong to either category. The dominant development paradigms talk of private property and public property but forget common property. The experts tell us about state enterprise and private enterprise but say nothing about social enterprise. They will not tell us that cooperatives work and work better for communities under certain circumstances, that there is greater efficiency, transparency and accountability in such models. 

The average householder has a problem. He/she cannot balance the budget. The welfarist will tell us that the state must intervene. The neo-liberal will whisper ‘let the free market handle it.’ The former is about patronage, the latter about profit. In both cases, a lot slips through the fingers. In human terms, there will always be those who will be left behind, either because they wear the wrong political colour or because the structures are not compatible with the term ‘all-inclusive.’ Where do they go? Those in and around Rajagiriya have the Budget Shop. There are millions of others. We ask again, ‘where can they go?’ 

It is in this context that the ‘Multi-Purpose Cooperative Society’ appears as a viable proposition. It is an idea that fits in well with the latest development theories of participation, distribution, access, transparency and accountability if properly constituted. The problem with your local MPCS is that Co-operative Societies Law No. 5 of 1972, its amendment in 1992 and the interjections of the 13th Amendment do not include protection from political interference. Recommendations offered by a commission appointed to investigate the problems of the cooperative sector are gathering dust. 

Admittedly, revisiting the legislative enactments pertaining to cooperatives and instituting appropriate amendments will not resolve all the swept-under-the-carpet problems. Such intervention, on the other hand, can help establish a distribution network that cushions the consumer from inflation. A strong cooperative sector will have additional benefits for local communities and local economies and, as current development theory argues, has an important role to play for those who do not find it easy either to supply to the market or demand from it. 

Governments and elected officials have the privilege to deny and the power to ensure that denial is effective in the farthest corners of the island. There is, however, a thing called the household stomach. It is less amenable to digest the lie than is the mind. It will not be denied. Pastenak’s Moscow is still another country and far away from your average household. We can get there fast, though. The way things are going, that Moscow, like it or not, might well be well on its way to Sri Lanka. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that it could make a pincer-like assault on the comfort zone called ‘the middle class’ sometime in the not-too-far-away future. 

It is the time not for sexy ideas, but workable ones. A reconsideration of a simple and effective device such as the MPCS with its obvious flaws corrected through appropriate amendment of the laws, cannot harm, we humbly submit.

['The Nation' editorial, July 30, 2006]