Machan movie poster

The opening scene in the German-Sri Lanka feature film Machan (2008) unfolds at a garbage-strewn Colombo street, somewhere in the city’s underbelly. Three young men are putting up political posters, playing hide and seek with policemen on night patrol.

Conversation reveals that the men are doing this to earn a few rupees. Soon, the inevitable question comes up. “Why don’t we get the hell out of this country?” asks one.

The ‘patriotic’ one replies, “Nothing like Sri Lanka. Abroad they treat you like second class citizens.”

At which point, lead character Stanley points to himself – his dirty clothes dripping wet in sweat, paappa (paste) and dog urine — and says, “So what are we now? First class?”

That, to me, was the most revealing moment in the perceptive film, ostensibly a comedy. An able-bodied young man, clearly willing to work hard, sees no hope of doing well in his own country.

The rest of the story revolves around a fake Lankan handball team going to Germany to play in a tournament. Every member of the team – players, manager and coach – soon goes missing. They scatter in integrated Europe, looking for greener pastures.

Italian director Uberto Pasolini based the film on a true incident that happened in 2004. Before and since, thousands of young men and women have been leaving their land — by hook or crook – for completely strange lands.

For three decades, such action was attributed to the long-drawn Lankan civil war. That certainly was one reason, but not the only one.

It doesn’t explain why, three and a half years after the war ended, the exodus continues. Every month, hordes of unskilled, semi-skilled and professionally qualified Lankans depart. Some risk life and limb and break the law in their haste.

It isn’t reckless adventurism or foolhardiness that sustains large scale human smuggling. That illicit trade caters to a massive demand.

Most people chasing their dreams on rickety old fishing boats are not criminals or terrorists, as some government officials contend. Nor are they ‘traitors’ or ‘ingrates’ as labelled by sections of our media.

These sons and daughters of the land are scrambling to get out because they have lost hope of achieving a better tomorrow in their own country.

I call it the Deficit of Hope. A nation ignores this gap at its peril.

Mind the Gap!

There are other formidable gaps. The government is preoccupied with bridging the burgeoning budget deficit, and also balancing imports and exports. Social and political activists, meanwhile, are busy protesting the growing democracy deficit.

These are all important and urgent. But who can take up the ‘silent emergency’ of young Lankans progressively losing hope?

Both anecdotal and statistical evidence indicates a pervasive trend.

A global comparison of net migration rates shows Sri Lanka having a minus 1.95 score in 2012. That is the difference between the number of persons entering and leaving a country during the year, per 1,000 persons (based on midyear population). In the SAARC region, only Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Maldives have a bigger negative score.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not opposed to migration per se. Humans and their ancestors have been moving around this planet for at least 100,000 years, creating a delightful melting pot of races and cultures. Nation states trying to guard borders against new arrivals is a relatively recent phenomenon, and not always an effective one.

And unlike certain countries with restrictive emigration policies, Sri Lanka allows its citizens to freely leave the country (as long as they do so through official channels). This wasn’t always the case: until 1977, Lankans travelling overseas – even for private reasons and using their own money – needed ‘clearance’ from a government babu.

All I’m questioning is this: why is there a widespread sense of hopelessness among many Lankans about pursuing their personal dreams in their own country? Are their ambitions and aspirations too lofty for our society and economy to support?

The desire to leave is most discernible among young people. A national youth survey in 2010, conducted for the Ministry of Youth by sociologists at the Colombo University, found that as many as 50 per cent of Lankan youth “wanted to migrate”. The survey covered a large, distributed sample: 3,000 randomly selected youth between 15 to 29 years, in 22 districts excepting Kilinochchi, Mannar and Mullaitivu.

The reasons for going overseas are many and complex — the best of surveys can only capture a part of what people really think or feel. But surely something is seriously wrong when half the country’s young people want to exit?

Personal circumstances shape each individual’s tough decision to leave behind loved ones, peers and familiar settings. Bread and butter considerations rank high: chances of doing well professionally or starting one’s own family.

What does a young man or woman entering the work force – after 15 or more years of studying and training – confront today?

The good news is that the guns are silent, car bombs are not going off any more, and roads and bridges are being built in earnest.

But securing a decent job on merit and talent has become more difficult. Being self employed or starting a small business is hard when banks don’t lend easily.

Without parental wealth, old school ties or political connections, a qualified youth finds it really tough to get a break, let alone succeed.  A generation ago, the underdog still had a sporting chance.

What Meritocracy?

The cocktail circuit never tires of lamenting what is wrong in the country. Our political and business leaders, meanwhile, keep urging youth to be honest, hard working and entrepreneurial. But how many movers and shakers have created an enabling and nurturing environment for that to happen?

And are our academics and processionals – most of them beneficiaries of free education and meritocracy – doing enough to safeguard these core values? Clamouring for 6% of GDP for quality education loses meaning when the ‘products’ of that process are abandoned en masse in the end.

In a rare moment of candour, an engineer who hails from the grassroots and reached the heights of academe told me: “I’m all for egalitarianism and meritocracy – until I become part of the elite!”

No, forced equality a la socialism is not the answer. Life is inherently unfair, and everyone needs plenty of resolve and resilience for the bumpy ride. But when feudalism is endemic, and favouritism rules the day, some idealistic young people may decide…enough is enough.

For evidence, browse the Lankan blogosphere – the digital graffiti of a disenchanted generation.

Perceptions Matter

When someone is debating hard whether or not to stay on, the larger societal context also plays a part.

Most Lankans cherish three institutions, holding them practically sacred: universal adult franchise (symbolized by elections), free education (competitive public exams) and the de facto national game of cricket. In recent years, irregularities and malpractices have corroded the integrity of all three.

Rigged elections, leaked exam papers and match fixing have become the norm. True, there still are some honest public servants, conscientious judges and courageous newspaper editors. But they are outnumbered and, for the most part, voices in the wilderness.

Just ask Kumar Sangakkara. Or Victor Ivan.

Perceptions matter a great deal in private decisions. Most human decisions are not ruled by macroeconomic data or legal nuances. People who decide to pack up may not weigh the pros and cons in a rational manner. But the Deficit of Hope – a composite phenomenon in our minds, built up over time – might well be the decider for some.

Of course, the Deficit of Hope affects everyone. Many among us lead ‘lives of quiet desperation’, to use Henry David Thoreau’s phrase, and that’s far from healthy. We are said to have exceeded USD 2,000 per capita GDP, but income disparities are greater than ever. One in five Lankans has psychiatric issues.

What can be done to enhance our nation’s Hope Quotient?

Governments can’t legislate hope, nor can their spin doctors manufacture it. Just as well. Hope stems from a contented people — not those in denial or delusion — and in a society that is at ease with itself.

We have a long way to go.

Hope Letters

Restoring hope isn’t a task for the government alone. We’ve all contributed to its erosion — hands up anyone who has never bribed or jumped ahead in a waiting list through connections.

Good laws and functional institutions are necessary — but not sufficient. We also need an environment where anyone from any background feels there is a greater chance of making a good life here than anywhere else.

Until enough young men and women feel they are equal citizens, the outward march of genes and brains will continue.

Science writer and columnist Nalaka Gunawardene always asks more questions than he can answer. He blogs at

  • The main profitable self-employment seems opening up a ‘phone shop’ where mobile phones, accessories and SIM cards are sold. Yet, they cannot guarantee a bank loan to start one. Fruit-stalls are also not that bad. But the problem is that educated youth are not attracted to such self-employments.

    It is a shame that Sri Lanka has almost no venture capitalist culture where the rich people or institutes lend money to promising start ups. Securing a bank loan is very difficult unless you are able to prove the banks that you are so well off and you don’t need money.

    So, migrating has become the default option at whatever the cost. Going to the Middle East is not that rewarding anymore. Those who are lucky enough go to a Western country legally or otherwise.

    It is high time the government and the private sector embark on a policy that a viable environment for the youth is created.

  • Not that I think we need to improve our country. I but I want everyone to consider something. If Stanley was born in Italy, and was poor relative to other Italians, and if there was a country vastly better than Italy, he’d want to go there.

    There are studies done that show that people always compare their income with those who’re around them. For example, if you ask a person who makes Rs. 30,000 rupees per month what’s the salary he’d like to have, he’d always say something higher than that, but also, say something like 50,000 or 60,000, not something like 5 million US dollars. This is because they always compare themselves with those around them. Stanley doesn’t compare himself with someone in Ethiopia or someone in Switzerland, but with people around him who are little better off than him.

  • Wallflower

    When the educated and the intelligent are not afforded their rightful place in a country, when there is Democracy with an opposition simply letting the governing party set precedents where they could come later and improve on such practices to the detriment of a country, I wonder who would like to stay on. I know of several who left to earn some money and come back, but seeing the ground realities decide that this country is on reverse gear and forget about coming back.

  • alex

    Err, nepotistic, theocratic, chauvinistic, militarised, morally bankrupt, corrupt, unlawful, inflationary, state … its not complicated to figure out why people are leaving. Based on GDP per capita there are atleast 110 better countries to go to … and since the war ended sri lanka has been going down that ranking (hmmm .. that shouldnt be happening? duh). The thesis above is unnecessarily abstract, emotional, and not really to the point. Need to bring in sterner measures like Pyongyang does to stem the flow .. sure Gota is looking into it although foreign remittances are an equally good reason to let them leave – means having to beg for less money from the IMF.

  • Jayalath

    The emmigration of people to different countries simply isn’t a phenomenal thing ,but it is worth to realise how it works in a country like Sri Lanka . The mass exodus of people from a country is looming due to the internal conflicts and better prospect . I’m an emigrant , and living in Erope , so I know what it is exactly meant by .

    There are few ways of emerging the emigration , such as skilful ( career wise) asylum , or as a student .and it is importsnt to concern why people really want to go and live in another country leaving behind their family and love ones . Certainly , When it come to Sri lankan Tamils and people who linked to 89,90 insurgency which was inevitable to run away to save the life . These weren’t simply be able in to account of some people’s purport of immigrating to a better life , as they had been on a go of a life and death ,also they didn’t have an alternative . The argument of their fugitive can be argued in a different category .Infact , the majority emigrants who pays a big lumps sums to emigrate and some end up with successfully and some aren’t .

    However , why these people kept their lives in a serious risk and looked to go abroad ? According to this artical and survey which has exposed the hopes of 50% of srilankan to migrate to another country . This is a shocking figures and shameful . The question is , if we are a nation of best buddies or best all of it as Sangakara and Victor Ivan had been confessed . why these best buddies of this big nation of crooks want to go foreign .

    Has Sangarkar or Ivan have the answer ? No , These people are better off and they can say ofcourse anything my friend , they obiviously would say what come to the edge of their lips to deceive people . they won’t heed us as they need us ,but our role is to look after ourselves .in real theory .
    but in reality , it is contraversal and fearful .

    Also the Ugly scenes of 30 years of north & east war caused major role of immigration , can you simply ignore these things from your head and tell some one how good we have been as a nation or country ? I cannot , I would feel shame . . Can any one justify the genocides and rampage of dark days in Sri Lanka since 1948 . ?
    or does any one think Those all happened because of people had nothing to do , therefore they all did for a fun ?

    When these two party politicians robbed our country time by time and then we rose our voice together against it when the majority people looked away like they did not see it and when those people were massacred by state rogues , did you think it was right ? Or justifiable ?

    This is the real story of exodus , we left country because we were ignored and our voice wasn’t simply cared .we disagree to bend down to political rivals , and we said to the politicians that you aren’t right , your way is wrong and detrimental toward the country , then we were blamed and our voice was suppressed .
    Especially the emigration of educated people from the country made a huge loss , they were not offered the right place and deliberately ignored them .

    So, how can a country go forward ? These things at least should address and drive the country straight forward . Which is our wish and hope .