The ancient story tells how the Jewish people returning from years of exile stood at the threshold of the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey; they test the new ground by sending a team to survey the land that they were about to enter; the feedback had been somewhat scary. The inhabitants of the Promised Land are described as giants in comparison to the newbies who were like grasshoppers. This account from history reminds us of where Sri Lanka stands today. The country is at the threshold of a new beginning following the conclusion of an election to pick representatives to the legislature, who will decide and direct the future of Sri Lanka. The people have unanimously given their mandate for a fresh start; a journey that they hope will charter a new path for the country – prosperity through development.
The giants that we as a nation face are multitude. From poverty, violence, rape and crime, to the drug mafia and the underworld, drug and alcohol abuse to unemployment and corruption and racism are mighty giants that have overwhelmed our society for decades, made us walk in reverse rather than progress. Some of these have been buttressed by none other than politicians. We as a people have lived for too long in the clutches of separatism and communalism, inflamed by our leaders, who have relied on the emotions and insecurities of the people to promote nationalistic agendas. The results that the election produced are indeed telling, a result of communal politics, on one side a majority that has felt side-lined for too long in favour of minority groups, while on the other, Sri Lankans belonging to minority groups reluctant to embrace a collective identity. If not for both these scenarios being the reality, the country could have progressed much more on a common platform of a reformist agenda that clasped Sri Lankan-ness for the collective good, rather than having wasted years demanding, criticising and alleging and pointing fingers at each other.
Leaving aside such drama, encouraging is the fact that this time the thrust is to uplift the worth of our native entrepreneurs, farmers and industries and to develop skills and technologies with dedicated ministries to handle them going forward. The new leadership has opined its commitment to an inclusive and pluralistic Sri Lanka and it is within this ethos that the development agenda must reach its fruition, where irrespective of people’s ethnicity, skills and technologies unique to certain groups of people and regions, such as rural industries, craftspeople and artisans, farmers and start-ups must be developed to a standard that will allow them to excel in international markets. The commitment of the new regime to this new vision is indeed praiseworthy, focus on individual areas such as batik and handloom fabrics, cane, brass, clay furniture, gem and jewellery related industries, promotion of coconut, palmyrah, rubber based products, cashew, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, betel, paddy and cereals, organic food, vegetables and fruits, the fishing industry, livestock and dairy, to name a few, signals a new journey for industries that had been in want for long. There is equal emphasis on creating employment opportunities and skills development, education and housing, improving drinking water in rural areas and improving fertilizer supply and more. If promulgated and carried out with commitment, it has an overarching reach to include a majority of the people involved even in the minority of industries in the country. It will provide the stimulus to grant many areas of work the dignity and the visibility that they deserve, so that the people engaged in them will no longer have to confront the media to lament about their grievances. A great deal is achievable if corruption is wiped out, which many predict will be a herculean task even for the Executive who will have to work with the existing institutions to promote the reformist agenda for development. But, it is only the beginning, hence, patient optimism is important.
Now that the race for power is over, the stage is set for a show of true leadership, a governance that will establish, in time to come, as envisaged, a society that is disciplined and endowed with a strong work ethic, a people that will transcend beyond the limitations of an identity to be a people of action. For that reality to dawn, the country needs servant-leaders and not self-aggrandizing sycophants and irritating rebels scuttling the forward march.
Jennifer Paldano Goonewardane