Facades of Development: Of Commonwealth Games and Drag Racing at Green Path
We woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of screeching tires, booming exhausts and the smell of burning rubber recently. My cousin’s children had nightmares and could not get back to sleep when the test runs were done. Calls to police emergency numbers were ignored: there seemed to be official patronage for speedsters and noise polluters – including of course the daily Presidential convoys in the area.
Residents of Green Path and its environs, one of Colombo’s posh residential neighbourhoods, are worried about the latest sports extravaganza planned by the ever entrepreneurial Rajapaksa Bros Inc. Earlier this year they ran a weekend “Hawkers Street” there with loudspeakers blaring till the wee hours, but that was not a commercial success, so drag races are planned to bring in the crowds in November. Drag racing, however, can drive local communities up the wall, and there have been several fatal accidents recently in high profile races. Why inconvenience and traumatize already besieged city dwellers who look forward to some peace and quiet on the weekends? They are already coping with increased noise and environmental pollution as Colombo’s tree canopy is destroyed as part of city ‘beautification’ coordinated by the Ministry of Defence, that includes knocking down walls, painting facades, displacing shanty dwellers, and land and house grabbing. And now there is the pending legislation for Govt. appropriation of so-called “underutilized assets” that erodes the notion of private property beyond the reach of the sovereign/state.
Do savings, a habit encouraged even among children, qualify as ‘underutilized assets’? Shouldn’t the government rather concern themselves with underutilized and under-performing state corporations and institutions such as Mihin Air or the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and the 249 loss making Govt. institutions listed in the latest COPE report or the jumbo Cabinet of Ministers, most of whom could be considered both underutilized and overvalued?
Meanwhile, Green Path residents are questioning the necessity for so many sports extravaganzas (Hambantota Beach Games, Cricket stadia, Commonwealth Games etc.) which seems to be piling on the national debt. Is it to distract us from the fact that the Urban Development Authority has been taken over by the Defence Ministry?
Religion, Sports and Opium (aka Kudu)
“Religion is the opiate of the masses” wrote that brilliant theorist of capitalism and its discontents. Marx meant that religion was like the icing on the cake of the status quo – it enables the capitalist class to rip off the labouring masses by extracting excess labour value, while distracting the latter from the conditions of poverty, suffering and underdevelopment. Religion, in other words, discourages labourers, the wretched of the earth, etc., from protesting or asking for their rights (land rights, labour rights, fair wages, etc.). It teaches people to be patient and delay gratification in order to be rich, metaphorically speaking, in the next world. (recall: “men are born free but everywhere they are in chains,” and most of the time don’t even know it).
As inequality reaches breaking point in many parts of the globe (witness the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York, the US and elsewhere, and riots in Greece, Rome, Britain, etc., and capitalism’s paper money castles melt away due to debt and likely default with unemployment rising), a witty observer of South Asian affairs noted that with modernity, city living, and new styles of consumption, etc., cricket has become the new opiate of the masses. Cricket, among other things, enables nationalism to flourish amidst burgeoning poverty in the South Asian region (poverty in the subcontinent is second only to Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the UNDP), and makes precarious lives liveable, even enjoyable.
Well, one might ask, what’s wrong with religion, sports or a little bit of kudu? We all need some fun after all, especially since we have been liberated from the LTTE after thirty hard long years of war. Marijuana is after all legal in Amsterdam and California. The adrenaline and endorphin rush that sports enables may go a long way to make us all feel good. True, drag racing is a ‘rich man’s sport,’ as was recently noted on NDTV in a debate on whether India needs a Formula One race track built on Advise land, given the Maoist war, and all that jazz. But that’s not the point.
The problem is that the current regime in Lanka seems to be on the fast track to aping the very same western model of economic development, inequality and conflict that’s causing all the trouble now: deficit spending, conspicuous consumption, resource depletion, encouragement of corporate colonialism, and financial crisis, with looming defaults. This model of neoliberal development enables the rich to get richer and the poor poorer, and increases social, economic and regional inequality leading to violence. As Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel (author of Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do) recently said, is it fair that CEO of Banks and even some athletes make billions of dollars while a school teacher who perhaps makes a greater contribution to the social good makes barely enough to get by?
Painting Facades, institutional de-development, and fixing (poverty) figures
Thus, not surprisingly, the regime seems to have figured that blurring the economic picture of growing income, social and regional inequality with a few sports extravaganzas and lots of spin may do the trick. The poverty figures (like the commercially borrowed foreign currency reserves that the Central Bank boasts about), have been fixed at around 9 percent only because the poverty line has conveniently remained the same for the last three decades, at around a dollar a day, obviously a sum insufficient for anyone to live on. India has debated and revised its poverty line upward, but local poverty think tanks swallow the spin and look the other way, preferring to publish platitudes about the ‘multidimensionality’ of poverty.
Thus, Lankans living in the South (never mind our relatives in the northeast living with military occupation) are being given a double dose of liveliness and spin: religion, sports and opium (aka kudu) to survive the regime’s excesses and extravagant ways at this time. After all, ‘Buddhist’ values are used to justify militarism, war and violence, while the underlying values are actually fast cars, casino culture, and now, it seems drag racing. Formula One has been suspended over the Indian Ocean for the time being till the land is filled, found or appropriated.
While painting facades and building infrastructure are certainly a good idea it does not add up to sustainable development which is about institution building and investing in talent and human resources. Despite government plans to turn Lanka into a ‘knowledge hub’, the Colombo Public Library languishes like a medieval relic, sans a computerized catalogue, standard in any library these days. The head of the library is only “acting” (as are so many other heads of state institutions), and hence there is no development plan or policy for what should be a flagship institution. Meanwhile the decennial National Census, scheduled for this year, which would be the first to include the whole county since the war began and a national priority for regionally balanced, knowledge-based development policy planning has been postponed due to understaffing and other problems. The current governance practice of political patronage, corruption and militarized management is marginalizing qualified individuals with the necessary technical knowledge and actually de-developing institutions and hollowing them out. Heads of public institutions and department, be they universities, hospitals or libraries, are increasingly appointed on the basis of political connections these days, a practice that encourages brain drain. Thus, several universities have dished out free Doctorates to the Rajapaksa siblings.
Investment in human resources, institution building, people-cantered planning and good governance including promoting meritocracy (rather than mediocrity) is at the core of sustainable development. The question then is: why doesn’t the regime stop meddling and fix underutilized and underperforming state corporations and institutions that are misusing assets– such as Mihin Air, Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, Sri Lanka Cricket, rather than drawing up secret legislation to take over so-called underutilized assets? Are the regime’s coffers running so low — despite and because of borrowed foreign currency reserves? Appropriating and then selling or leasing underperforming assets may help pay off the interest on commercial loans and losses incurred playing the tanking stock market with EPF and ETF funds and other losses incurred due to delays with the mega projects, not to mention the 19 billion losses made by 249 Govt. institutions listed in the latest COPE report.
Finally, once take over will the under-performing assets? Will they be run by the military — as are many of the newly built debt-ridden cricket stadia?
Sports and Corporate Colonialism
At the same time, Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) has confirmed that the 100 national cricketers have not been paid their salaries for months, since April when the country co-hosted the World Cup together with India and Bangladesh. Capital expenditure on the recent World Cup left the country’s richest sports body facing a sizeable debt. There are also doubts about whether the SLC will be able to pay salaries in the next two months. Meanwhile Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage earlier told BBC Sinhala that Sri Lanka still owes more than $18.1m (£11.2m) to the Chinese construction firm that built the brand new stadium in the president’s hometown, Hambantota.
Sports is a good thing, but the increasing capitalization and commercialization of spots has eroded the ethics of sportsmanship in many places resulted in corruption scandals – from FIFA, to the Indian Premier League scandal, not to mention the mess in Sri Lanka cricket that Kumar Sangakkara noted. Aside from the noble sportsmen and women, the sports enterprise is increasingly about band advertising and corporate colonialism and a lack of business ethics is apparent in the over capitalized global sports enterprise, of which car racing is a growth sector. Thus, recently in a discussion with Zainab Badawi on BBC, civil society representatives from India and South Africa, which hosted the Commonwealth and Olympic games, said that these sports events had benefited multinational corporations and media organizations rather than local communities and labourers, while indebting the country’s economy and hindering the fight against poverty in South Africa and India. The consensus was that such sports extravaganzas impoverish already poor countries and merely benefit trans-national corporations.
Take Back the City: The UNP Must
Colombo’s citizens are hoping that now that the Colombo Municipal Council has come under the control of the UNP there will be a rethink of development priorities, and that the sort of mindless activity that drag racing represents will be discouraged. Drag racing is really about car sales and corporate colonialism that the Rajapaksa regime thrives on despite its anti-western rhetoric.
Meanwhile, the Urban Development Authority was brought under the Defence Ministry as a means of justifying the increase in the Defence Ministry budget in 2012 and to keep the people quiescent– more than two years after the end of the war in May 2009, and in the context of mounting civil society opposition to the overt militarization of every aspect of governance, education and civic life. The Sri Lankan government has allocated the highest, nearly 230 billion rupees, expenditure to the newly organized Ministry of Defence and Urban Development in the 2012 Appropriation Bill, which was recently presented to parliament. According to the government, the total expenditure for 2012 is estimated at Rs. 2.22 trillion (US$ 20 billion) necessitating an increase in Recurrent Expenditure from Rs. 1.029 trillion in 2011 to Rs. 1.109 trillion in 2012, and the Capital Expenditure from Rs. 938 billion to Rs. 1.111 trillion.
As Mark Duffield in his book Security, Development and Endless War has noted, the current global trend of securitizing development ensures the policing of the boundaries of inequality that enables the rich to get richer and the poor poorer, in real terms. In the context, civil society and opposition parties in Lanka would need to form a Rainbow Coalition to resist the current regime’s economic development model, first by takeover of the UDA by the Defence Ministry and one might add the underutilized assets appropriation bill that sets a dangerous precedent.
Commonwealth Games and Regional Inequality
Last year India played host to the leaders of the big five of the United Nations Security Council: David Cameron of Britain, Sarkozy of France, Medvedev of Russia, Hu Jin Tao of China and Barak Obama of the United States; but they all ignored Lanka, even though Mahinda Rajapaksa had won the ‘war on terror’ against the LTTE amidst allegations of war crimes. The Colombo regime is thus desperate to have some distinguished visitors in Lanka and to show its status – hence the emphasis on the Commonwealth, an organization which is irrelevant. The Commonwealth is an institution which has no economic, political or social significance (unlike OECD or G8 or G-20 or BRICS or NAM). How much was spent on the show in Perth with all the security, for what? Couldn’t those funds have been better used as development aid? Why are all the anti-western governments such as the Rajapaksa Regime going along with this joke of an institution – a group of former British colonies so many years after the sun set on the British Empire? It is those who are desperate for a bit of recognition like Rajapaksa who sustain the great waste of time and resources that constitutes the Commonwealth which should be disbanded?!
In his breakfast speech at the recent Commonwealth meeting in Perth Mahinda Rajapaksa said that the Commonwealth Games in Sri Lanka would enable reconciliation. In fact, the Hambantota Commonwealth Games bid has meant that funds needed for reconstruction in the conflict-torn northeast of the country have been spent lavishly on the South, exacerbating regional socioeconomic inequalities – one of the root causes of 30-year war in the country. Sri Lanka hosting the Commonwealth Games will merely widen regional inequalities between conflict-affected regions in the northeast and the South
The Commonwealth Games will also push Sri Lanka closer to bankruptcy. The 8 percent growth figure may conceal the real economic picture which as Nobel Prize economists Stiglitz and Amartya Sen have noted in “Mismeasuring our Lives: Why GDP does not add up”, while foreign currency reserves are fixed to conceal the country’s highly indebted status. The Central Bank is overvaluing the rupee in order to pay off some of the dollar denominated national debt but this is affecting exports and harming the real economy. This macro-economic policy subsidizes many white elephant infrastructure projects and the regime’s excesses, but is fundamentally anti-poor, as pointed out by a panellist at the State of the Economy 2011 seminar organized by the Institute for Policy Studies. GDP figures of 8 percent conceal the fact that most of the growth is due to consumer spending rather than on productive investments or Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in any case.
In Search of Development Alternatives
India built the Commonwealth village in New Delhi, a city with 14 million people, while Hambantota town has a population of 300,000. The whole of Hambantota District has a population of 525,370 of whom 96% are considered rural residents. The demographic and population profile as well as the labour market profile of Hambantota would not support the infrastructure being built, since it is unlikely that skilled labour would migrate there to fill job vacancies! While developing poor regions is of course important, there needs to be a national plan for balanced regional development that leverages existing assets including human resources rather than presuming that skilled service workers will migrate to Hambantota once an airport is built.
Why build an international airport in Hambantota, when the population of the entire district is only just over 500,000, of whom 96% are classified as rural residents? If the country needs a second international airport, it should be in Jaffna which has the demographic and population profile, including the Diaspora, to support it. Surely economic development policy and planning is about leveraging already existing assets, including human resources? Hambantota getting the Commonwealth Games would be the surest means of greater regional, economic and social inequality that would further strain the current highly militarized peace in Sri Lanka. There will be a lot of white elephant infrastructure and stadia once the games have come and gone, not to mention debt to China which is hedging its bets building Indian Ocean ports in Gwardar, Pakistan, Chittagong and Myanmar (String of Pearls).
Finally, communism collapsed in the USSR giving rise to mythologies about the ‘end of history.’ So too, capitalism is collapsing now under its own contradictions – much as Marx predicted. There must be a third way of development– an equitable growth model that remains to be sufficiently theorized. At this time, when talk in the global village is of the rise of the BRICS (Brazil, India, China, Russia and South Africa), and South-South cooperation, there is a need for southern voices and political-economic analysis for an alternative development paradigm to the current iniquitous model of growth sans economic and social ethics or justice.
As Professor Laksiri Jayasuriya has written in Taking Social Development Seriously, Sri Lanka must refrain from following the path of the Euro-American model of economic development, inequality and debt, so long held up as the model by the Breton Woods Institutions, IMF and World Bank, which now need a ‘hair cut’ and downsizing with early retirement for technical experts, much like the European banks exposed to Greek debt. Simultaneously, there is need to link economic analysis to the social, on the one hand, and political (governance and government, including militarization) on the other. This requires independent thinking and knowledge generation in the global south. Sri Lanka, which once had high social development on low per capita income and was held up as an example of human development by Amartya Sen in the seventies, should be investing in human resources and talent towards theorizing development alternatives rather than aping an increasingly discredited economic development paradigm- if it is to be an Asian Knowledge Hub.
Meanwhile, a plan to minimize noise and political pollution in Colombo is materializing – offer Rajapaksa Bros Inc. Hambantota as their very own country. This way the increasingly Gaddhafi-esque Royal Family and their playboy sons and nephews may drag race through the villages in peace in their Principality. And we would have some peace!