Disguised role of women in Blue Economic Growth
by Professor Oscar Amarasinghe
Chancellor / Ocean University of Sri Lanka & President / Sri Lanka Forum for Small Scale Fisheries (SLFSSF)
Small, developing island states like Sri Lanka are gradually moving from a Green Economy Focus to Blue Economy Focus, aiming at exploiting ocean resources for employment creation, earning incomes, strengthening the economy and improving the wellbeing of the people. During 20-22 June 2012, at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) held in Rio de Janeiro, coastal states requested an extension of the Green Economy to encompass the Blue Sector, due to their small resource base which was limiting further expansion of their economies.
Today, many coastal states are placing high emphasis on Blue Economic growth, which is defined by the World Bank as “all economic activities, related to oceans, seas and coasts, which cover a wide range of interlinked established and emerging sectors”. On top of the traditional ocean activities such as fisheries, tourism and maritime transport, Blue Economy entails emerging industries including renewable energy, aquaculture, seabed extractive activities and marine biotechnology and bioprospecting.
Although it is popularly believed that Blue Economic Development is new to Sri Lanka, the origins of Blue Economic Growth can be traced back to the late 1950’s when the country introduced motorised craft and new fishing gear; the “Blue Revolution”. During the pre-Blue Revolution era, fishing was mainly carried out by artisanal craft operating in near shore areas to a lesser extent, and by beachseines (madel) which was the major technique of fishing. The seine nets were laid in nearshore waters and hauled from the beach. During the immediate post-war period, nearly 90% of the fish catch came from beachseines. Most of the fishing activities were mainly confined to inshore waters, to a distance of about 3 km from the coast. In the late 1950s, the whole fisheries sector was subject to a revolutionary change that came about as a three-pronged strategy: a. introduction of motorised craft (offshore craft with inboard engine and small fiberglass boats with outboard motor); b. motorisation of traditional craft (by fixing an outboard motor to the aft or side of artisanal craft) and c. introduction of new fishing gear (nylon nets and hooked lines and new fishing methods).
This marks the onset of Bue Economic Growth process in Sri Lanka.
The Blue ECONOMIC GROWTH PROCESS (in fisheries).
Generally known as the Blue Revolution, the technological change in fisheries in the 1960s and 1970s led to a movement of fishing loci away from the coast and fishers started exploiting the offshore waters. Fish catches increased to significantly high levels and fishing incomes were on the rise unremittingly. The dream of fishers was to acquire an offshore craft. This trend continued into the 1980s, by the end of which the offshore craft was further improved by the boatyards of the country to construct the present day multi day craft with inbuilt ice compartment, water tank, cabin for the crew, GPS, etc. These craft started to venture into deeper areas of Sri Lanka’s Exclusive Economic Zone; EEZ (which extend to 200 nautical miles from the coast) and even beyond. In searching for better resources, some of these fishers who were fishing illegally in the waters of other countries were arrested and detained in prisons of foreign countries for long periods of time. Today, more than 1,200 of these craft fish in high seas targeting tuna and other large fish species, for export, while others (about 4,300 crafts) filch upto the edge of the EEZ. These crafts are engaged in lengthy fishing trips of one to several weeks of duration.
Changing role of women in the fisheries sector
A major characteristic of Sri Lanka’s blue growth in respect of fisheries is that the new technology did not compete with the traditional/artisanal technology, displacing the fishers operating such non-motorised vessels. In fact, the new motorised craft enabled the fishers to move away from the coast into deeper waters which were yet to be exploited. About 55,000 of Sri Lanka’s fishing fleet of 60,000 vessels still engage in one day fishing trips up to a maximum distance of 24 nautical miles (edge of the Contiguous Zone). The rest consists of nearly 5,000 multiday crafts. Obviously, Sri Lanka’s Blue Economic Growth (in respect of fisheries) has principally caused an expansion of the coastal fleet, especially the small fiberglass boat with outboard motor operating in near shore waters, and deep sea fishing which commenced in early 1990s is gathering momentum recording a high rate of increase in multi day crafts since the beginning of this millenium.
The new fishing technology also demanded that fishers spend more and more time in fishing-related activities such as net mending, gear preparation, craft repair and engine repair work, search for purchased inputs, etc. All this meant a heavy burden on women in taking care of household and social onuses. Interestingly, women willingly take up these challenges because the fishing incomes are several fold high and they enjoy a better living standard than their fellow fishers who still operate artisanal crafts in nearshore waters. Needless to highlight that, the issue with fishing incomes is more about their fluctuations than about the absolute value, and along with uncertainties of the duration of fishing trips (uncertainty of the boats returning on a particular day), the women are confronted with a high risk of falling into financial crises when incomes fall short of subsistence and when the breadwinner is absent for long periods of time. Thus, many women fisher folk are engaged in earning supplementary incomes from various activities such as rope making, fish drying, selling prepared food items, sewing and selling garments, etc. They are also involved in various other risk insurance mechanisms such as revolving credit schemes like ‘seettu’ and spending on activities that would strengthen inter-family ties. Women also resort to intra-family adjustment strategies when they are confronted with income shortfalls. Here household resources are distributed in favour of the male members in the household (who are the breadwinners) and the burden of consumption shortfalls are mostly borne by the female members in the household (tightening of the belt by only the female members).
Due to the absence of husbands in taking care of household affairs, the women are burdened with additional responsibilities such as attending to children’s education, taking them to private classes, maintaining and improving their discipline, dealing with public officials, meeting social obligations, participating in community affairs, etc. In the daily routine chart of a housewife in the deep sea sector, there is hardly any space for her own pleasures. While feeling that they are being taxed heavily by men who are away on long fishing trips, the majority of women want their husbands to continue with motorised fishing and offshore fishing due to two major reasons. First, motorised fishing earns high average incomes. Second, women enjoy a high freedom of choice when the husband’s are absent from home- they seem to enjoy taking part in community and social affairs. Since men are absent from homes for long periods of time, almost all major decisions at home are made by women and almost all social and community obligations are met by women. Some of the fisheries cooperatives in the south of the country are mainly run by women. Intra-household gender relations too have changed in favour of women. With women’s engagement in income generating activities and their important contribution towards community and social development activities, their ‘fall back position’ (bargaining position) has improved. Women fisherfolk are compelled to be alert and knowledgeable about all what is happening around them, while the men are left to fight the ocean.
However, previous studies carried out by the author revealed two specific problems confronted by women in the deep sea fisheries sector. Long absence of fathers from home has made life more difficult for mothers in maintaining discipline among boys. The second problem is the arrest of multi day boat fishermen for poaching and detained in foreign countries for very long periods. The affected families, especially the mothers, may have to undergo tremendous hardships during such periods and other than the members of the fishing community, apparently no other regular source of help is available to them.
Fish Processing and gender
One of the traditional household activities of women fisher folk in Sri Lanka has been processing of fish into dried fish, Maldive fish and salted fish, of which the two former are practiced more commonly. Dried fish processing and small-scale trading form the major employment activity in coastal villages for women fisher folk in earning supplementary incomes. In fact, for many fishing villages, where dried fish processing is widely practised, it has become a way of life for the women, indicating its high social value within the fishing communities. as a means of smoothening inter-temporal fluctuations of daily fishing incomes; income smoothing. Although women employment in fishing communities is not a common phenomenon in the Buddhist communities in the south, they are involved to a great extent in fish marketing and other beach based activities in other parts of the country, as in the case of the western coastal region of the country. The advantage of women engagement in household level fish processing activities is that it minimises the possibility of any negligence of household chores, while assisting the household to make the ends meet.
Whilst recognising the responsibilities and burdens which women shoulder in navigating the ‘blue craft’, it needs to be highlighted that women are systematically denied the resources, information and freedom of action they need to fulfill thiese responsibilities. In fact, the role of women has often been undermined in fisheries, which is a male dominant industry. Their access to credit, information and training opportunities is weak, and very little efforts have been made to improve women’s access to such financial, physical and human capital. Moreover, engagement in fish drying at the household level may not have been the choice of employment by women, but they are forced to do it because it is an activity that their men would approve of (because they stay at home). Regrettably, unregulated expansion of the growth process is now causing a concentration of the fish processing trade in the hands of private commercial enterprises, in which women and men work as labourers; the resource owners converted to labourers, where women are paid less than men for the same task performed.
Sri Lankan women are quite educated with a literacy rate above 92%, and as effective agents in propelling the blue craft and coping with diverse vulnerabilities in fisheries. What is required is to empower women, so that they will enjoy decision making power on their own, have access to information and resources for taking proper decisions, have a range of options from which to make choices, have positive thinking on the ability to make changes involved in the growth process, etc. By managing the household, taking care of children and aging parents, meeting social obligations, earning supplementary incomes to smooth consumption, women definitely play multiple roles in the process of Blue Economic Growth.
Evidently, two factors have been primarily responsible for reaping benefits (high fishing incomes, high foreign exchange earnings from exports, strengthening the economy and improving the wellbeing of the people) from the process of Blue Economic Growth in the sphere of fisheries. The Blue Revolution that took place in the 1960s and 1970s, made an exceptional contribution towards the expansion of the offshore sector and the use of modern fishing methods. Equally important has been the role of women in propelling this growth process by undertaking increasingly more and more household and social responsibilities and managing diverse fishing-related risks by earning supplementary incomes. For them to perform these new roles in the future, they need to be educated, trained and empowered. It will help women to gain control over their own lives. It fosters power in them, for use in meeting the wellbeing aspirations of them and their community. Women empowerment is also one of the Millenium Development Goals of the UN (MDG 3), and is also included in Sustainable Development Goals, under gender equality (SDG 5). Article 7.2 of FAO Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small Scale Fisheries states, “All parties should recognize the role women often play in the post-harvest subsector and support improvements to facilitate women’s participation in such work. States should ensure that amenities and services appropriate for women are available as required in order to enable women to retain and enhance their livelihoods in the post-harvest subsector”.
Evidence from country wide consultations held in 2018-2019 (by author and his team) points to a number of measures that need to be adopted to ensure that women continue to propel the Blue Craft to secure sustainable Blue Economic Growth, while meeting their wellbeing aspirations.These include, building awareness among members of fishing communities (especially men) about the importance of women employment for family welfare (aiming at attitudinal changes); introducing technological innovation in fish processing and, train and build capacities of women to undertake them; organising women into groups (cooperatives / savings groups) aiming at increasing their bargaining power vis-à-vis outsiders, especially merchants; building market links to sell their produce and to receive a fair price; providing credit to fisher women entrepreneurs or their organisations at concessionary rates of interest; removing wage discrepancies, where men are paid a higher wage than women for the same task, and ensuring fair representation of women (about 25%) in community institutions (such as fisheries cooperatives.
“If you educate and train a man you uplift a person, but if you educate and train a woman you uplift a family.” (An African proverb).
A devils’ drama in power politics
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa did say with pride the government’s decision to set up 100 new police stations, at his inaugural speech at the opening of the new session of Parliament.
There may be cause for presidential pride in having many more police stations, but the recent records of police activity, especially on matters relating to public security, does leave much to be desired of the Police.
The reports flowing in about the hand grenade found at All Saints’ Church, Borella – Colombo, do raise many questions about police activity: Is it inactivity or directed activity on this matter? The limited time it took to search for the person who placed this grenade, the first arrest in this regard – the sanchristian of the same church; the Church’s own revelation of the longer CCTV on the same day, with a different player in this grenade match, and the police arrest of that person too; and the stories of weapons or fire-toys found in the home of a retired doctor, who is now said to be the brain or strategist behind this grenade match, is rapidly unfolding into a drama of political direction, where the police is playing more than a lead role!
The All Saints’ Church is considered a holy shrine by those who attend religious services there, and those who come there to appeal for the blessings of saints, and God, too. But who would ever have thought that such a place of worship would be the defining authority on how many matchsticks a box of matches would or should have?
The Cabinet Minister in charge of Police was also heavily involved in this All Saints’ show piece – from matchsticks to joss-sticks and sellotape – and the ethnicity of the first suspect, too. As the country moves into the coming disasters on the economic and service fronts, as the dollar disaster keeps rising with Ajith Nivard Cabraal’s blessings, we may well see the All Saints being moved into an All Devils drama, with whatever dramatic expertise that key politico-police authorities possess!
President Gotabaya certainly has a way of his own. He is so fully supportive of his green agriculture programme. His desire for green is certainly not to do with his liking the UNP, although Ranil W may be supportive of any such moves. But his continued support for green agriculture does raise questions about his memory capacity. Has he forgotten all the problems and the near disastrous situations that his green-agro policy did push this country into?
Does he know nothing of what his blanket ban overnight on agrochemicals did to the agricultural sector? Has he not been informed of what this country paid to the shipload of Chinese fertiliser, which our own analysts found to be contaminated? Is he not taking any action against the officers of a state bank who signed a Letter of Credit, without the necessary information on financial security?
This is certainly playing with a green ball that gathers all the dirt on the field and giving all strength of profit to the Chinese player!
The President did say he would submit to Parliament the recommendations of the Expert Committee appointed to help draft a new Constitution. That means he has some faith in the Parliament of the people. That’s good. Let’s wait and see how this goes on.
What raises many problems is that he was so uninterested in the findings of the Special Committee appointed by him to study the gas disaster, caused by the gas dealers. Was he so ignorant or uninformed of the repeated and continuing blasts of gas cylinders, the deaths caused to mothers and children, the injury to gas users, and the huge damage to homes? When will this Parliament have a proper debate on the gas catastrophe, as it may on recommendations of the Expert Committee on the new Rajapaksa Constitution?
The President’s speech was short. It was good, because the problems this government has caused to the country, since his election as President, and the huge election of a two-thirds majority in Parliament, which has given more than Green Agro Power, would not be a good, lengthy exercise.
Rajapaksa Governance is certainly calling for major changes in our political thinking, and system of governance. Making it even more brief would be of more service to the country and the people, than what the Family Power nor Pavul Balaya is doing today.
Even with the many twists of the current police exercise, and the rise of the new All Devils Drama that is unfolding, let’s hope the Rajapaksa Power Play gets run down to its end very fast!
BY Srilal Miththapala
From time immemorial the female form has been exploited for diverse reasons, to achieve a wide variety of outcomes by various cultures, individuals, groups, tribes and business organisations.
At the same time, women have always been aware of the immense power of their sensuality, and how it can be subtly used to further their ambitions.
The tourism and hospitality is not an exception in this context, where a woman’s presence in the service delivery/customer contact points usually has a strong positive impact.
This discussion tries to analyse this phenomena in an objective manner, with special emphasis on how localised cultural contexts affects it, and the resulting implications
Women and sensuality
Sensuality is about ones sexual feelings, thoughts, attractions and behaviours towards other people. Sensuality is diverse and personal, and it is an important part of who you are. And manifests in various ways such as body language, tone of voice etc.
Many In today’s world believe that a wide variety of expressions of female sensuality can be empowering to women when they are freely chosen. It can also be utilised by women to further their personal ambitions and goals.
History is full of such examples. The very origin of humanity may have been vastly different if Adan did not succumb to Eve’s ‘charms’ in enticing him to eat of the forbidden fruit.
Delilah enticed Samson to reveal the secret of his brute strength, at the behest of the Philistines.
Eva Duarte, was an illegitimate child with dreams of stardom. She met rising political star Juan Perón in 1944 and unabashedly charmed herself into his life, ending up as the First Lady of Argentina.
Cleopatra is cast as the ultimate femme fatale, whose influence supposedly ruined many a good man’s career, with she herself succumbing to the complicated web she wove.
And Harry Belafonte summed it all up in his famous song “Man Smart, Woman Smarter”-
“And not me but the people they say
That the man is leading the women astray
But I say, that the women of today
Smarter than the man in every way”
All these examples are of women who have leveraged their sensuality in a rather ‘aggressive’ fashion for personal gain, which often had them labelled as promiscuous, flirty and slutty, and looked down upon.
However in todays ‘sexually liberated’ world, the feminist movements have successfully transformed this thinking by radically removing the arbitrary shackles prescribed by tradition. Today a woman who is aware of her sensuality, and confidently carries it, is considered an emancipated person.
However when a woman’s sensuality and form, is used to achieve some results by a third party, implicitly or explicitly, it could be considered a form of exploitation.
Women in Hospitality and Sensuality
‘Sexual hospitality’ was an ancient custom whereby the host provided a hostess from his household to the male guest for their pleasure.
The Himba tribe of Nigeria, are known to practice the Okujepisa Omuka tradition, which involves a man giving his wife to his visitor for sexual entertainment and pleasure.
While such actions do stem from cultural norms, there are other numerous examples where there is an aspect of domination, where women are forced or coerced to provide these services, rather than of their own free will.
However in today’s commercialised and highly competitive hospitality industry, a women’s sensuality has become a commodity employed to attract customers, although it may not be officially endorsed.
When women and girls are repeatedly objectified and their bodies hypersexualised, the media contributes to harmful gender stereotypes. In a study of print media, researchers at Wesleyan University found that on average, across 58 different magazines, 51.8 percent of advertisements that featured women portrayed them as sex objects.
The hospitality industry today, not only legitimises and reinforces these historical gender stereotypes to some extent, but also eroticises hospitality, albeit in a subtle manner. Almost always front-end customer contact staff are attractive, well-groomed and well attired women. An establishment will go to great efforts taken to design ‘eye-catching’ uniforms for frontline female staff. (This is more prevalent in resort hotels in the Asian region, which are seen to be more exotic destinations) .
The hospitality industry is a “looks” industry, in which women are expected to use their appearance as part of the service experience. Restaurants often have strict grooming and uniform rules, requiring employees to maintain certain “looks.”
There is no doubt that women in the hospitality industry do brighten up and add colour to the industry by their sensuality, charm , physical form …call it what you may. Ask any hotelier and he will conform that the charming smile of a girl at the front esk has neutralised many a guest complaint!
This in turn often attracts sexists remarks and sexual innuendo from customers, which are possibly relatively ‘mild’ and female frontsline staff usually learn to cope with. ( “The food is as good as you” and “Are you on the desert menu? Because you look yummy.”)
However this environment of the hospitality industry which to a certain extent ‘accepts’ this status, could also lead to other forms of more damaging issues.
Women in Hospitality-The Sri Lankan context
Women in the industry
Women’s under -representation in the labour market is high in Sri Lanka. The population comprises of 52.8% females but when it comes to labour force participation their representation is only 35.6%, which is the lowest in South Asia (Department of Census and Statistics – Sri Lanka, 2014).
Howev, Sri Lankan females are among the most literate in South Asia, and the country tops the sub-continental rankings for female literacy. According to the University Grant Commission of Sri Lanka is the only country in the region to produce more female graduates from its local universities.
The Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management (SLITHM) – Colombo School in 2017 had a representation of only 21% of female students, 12 % in Kandy Hotel School and only 6% in the Anuradhapura Hotel School. Similarly the three privately managed hotel schools namely Mt. Lavinia Hotel School, The Winstone Hotel School and William Angliss Hotel schools representation is 11%, 10% and 24% respectively.
Sri Lanka’s overall female labour force participation is lagging behind many Asian nations. Presently, Sri Lanka’s female labour force participation rate is around 35% compared with male participation rate of 75%
Despite its importance to the economy (was the third largest foreign exchange earning Industry before CoVid), Sri Lanka’s tourism industry and its growth was facing several constraints, among which the lack of skilled human resources is prominent.
However, in contrast to the high levels of female participation in the tourism industry worldwide (about 54%), albeit with some regional differences, women are highly underrepresented in Sri Lanka, with females accounting for less than 10% of the workforce.
The reasons for this are varied, and often based on cultural issues and norms. Jobs in the industry are considered to be socially unsuitable for women, especially for single females, and are often associated with
safety issues (sexual harassment),
poor prospects of career advancement
lack of job security
poor retirement benefits in relation to the public sector;
long/late working hours and shift work (no flexibility)
sub-standard working environments and facilities.
Some of these are definitely perceptions perpetuated by the media. Consequently, parents and husbands have discouraged their female children from pursuing a career in the hotel sector.
According to a World Bank study on women’s participation in the Sri Lankan labour force, 85% of the respondent stated that women are likely to leave their job in tourism after marriage.
From the aforementioned reasons that women shun the tourism industry, sexual harassment at work is perhaps the most contentious issue.
In a wide ranging study published by Hospitality Management Degrees Net, it is stated that one in every ten women in the hospitality industry in the world, has faced some form of sexual harassment, with restaurant and frontline staff reporting more incidents. The type of harassments ranges from sexist remarks (87%), sexual innuendo (84%), and inappropriate touching (69%). The larger proportion (80%) are from other male co-workers and customers (78%)
In Sri Lanka, there are no specific studies done on the sexual harassment in tourism industry, but there is considerable literature on the general female workforce in Sri Lanka.
However, the same aspects are prevalent in the local tourism scene with restaurant and the housekeeping staff most prone to such issues. The most common acts of harassment were obscene language, sexual jokes and sexually suggestive comments.
In a Sri Lankan context more women in junior positions in hospitality experience sexual harassment which indicates that it has to do with both gender and power issues. With low levels of education, they are less confident than other employees when dealing with difficult people in positions of power.
There are also instances reported of subtle ‘sexual bribery’ where certain ‘favours’ can be demanded by those in higher management positions in return for job related rewards.
However, without specific information it is difficult to comment about the Sri Lankan situation. But definitely harassment is often ignored or taken to be ‘part of the job’, by both the targets of the harassment, and the co-workers who witness it. Unfortunately in the hospitality industry it is taken as the ‘norm’ and exposure to unwanted sexually related attention is considered to be part of the job (Hoel & Einarsen, 2003).
When compared to actual number of complaints on sexual harassment from the employees of the tourism sector to other main sectors, it is seen that complaints received from tourism sector is much lower than some other sectors where the females dominate in numbersss. (such as the apparel industry)
There is no doubt that women play a vital role (knowingly or unknowingly) in marketing and promoting a hospitality establishment through their own sensuality. However this subtle ‘making use’ of women to promote the business can lead to enhanced issues related to sexual harassment to them, both from within the establishment (co-workers) and from without (customers).
This can be managed if there is a good open and transparent work ethic and culture, where professionalism and the dignity of labour is respected.
D A C S & Mendis B.A.K.M. Women in Tourism Industry – Sri Lanka Silva (2017)
Museums through Prof. Thapar’s eyes
Dr. Roland Silva Memorial Lecture:
By Uditha Devapriya
On Thursday, 27 January, Prof. Romila Thapar will deliver the Dr Roland Silva Memorial Lecture to the National Trust of Sri Lanka. Prof. Thapar will be speaking about the museums in India, charting their evolution from private collections to public displays and placing them in the context of similar institutions from other colonial societies.
Museums formed a crucial part of the colonial project, aiding administrators, officials, scholars as well as nationalist elites in their reconstructions of the countries they lived in and governed. Not surprisingly, after Independence the role of such institutions changed. Prof. Thapar would be discussing this aspect as well along with their potential to bring the historian and the social scientist together and their contribution to society.
The event will be the 141st such organised by the National Trust, as part of its Monthly Lecture Sessions. Originally held on the last Thursday of every month at the HNB Auditorium in Colombo, these lectures have brought in various scholars from fields connected to the study of history including archaeology, architecture, and ornithology. The shift online during the COVID-19 pandemic did not bring them to a halt: while the trustees held 10 online lectures in 2019, they held eight in 2020 and another 10 in 2021. Since 2015, moreover, these lectures have all been uploaded online free for everyone and anyone.
The brainchild of two of Sri Lanka’s finest archaeologists and scholars, the National Trust of Sri Lanka celebrates its 17th anniversary this year. Its objectives include the identification, documentation, protection, and conservation of the country’s heritage, defined in terms of physical objects like historic buildings, monuments, artistic and cultural works, as well as intangible artefacts like rituals, customs, and beliefs. More importantly, it seeks to inculcate an interest in these matters among ordinary people.
There it has more or less been doing what such organisations should be doing. The contemporary notion of a National Trust first came into being in late 19th century in Britain, with the establishment of a National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. Founded as a not-for-profit association in 1895 and incorporated by an Act in 1907, it has since become the largest conservation charity in Europe. Its aim has not just been to save important sites from destruction, but also to open them up for public enjoyment. More than 125 years later, it has evolved into a fully-fledged institution, overseeing more than 500 historic sites, 250,000 hectares of land, and 780 miles of coastline.
Since then similar institutions have sprung up elsewhere. In India, a National Trust was established as a registered society, a corporate body with its legal personality, in 1984. Today that country is home to more than one such society: the International National Trusts Organisation lists three, including the Indian Trust for Rural Heritage and Development. In other countries these organisations serve different functions: the Yangon Heritage Trust, for instance, focuses on urban heritage, while the Siam Society also focuses on the natural sciences. Whatever function they serve, the International National Trusts Organisation lists more than 80 of these institutions, emphasising their common inheritance.
Though the need for a National Trust had been felt for some time in Sri Lanka, nothing was done about it until Roland Silva and Senake Bandaranayake intervened in 2004. The concept papers reveal that a great deal of thought went into the founding of the organisation. Initially conceived as the “Sri Lanka National Heritage Trust”, it later transformed into the National Trust for Cultural and Natural Heritage. The concept papers tell us that from its inception, much emphasis was placed on the notion of intangible cultural heritage, based on UNESCO’s classification of customs, traditions, and beliefs as enshrined in a landmark treaty, the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, in 2003.
At its inception on May 27, 2005, the National Trust counted 11 founders, including Silva and Bandaranayake as well as Ashley de Vos. To oversee its activities, seven committees were formed; another committee to oversee the management of the society, came into being in 2010. Arguably, the most important of these, the Scientific Committee, branched out to eight sub-committees, dealing with areas such as monuments and sites, architectural conservation, and industrial heritage. These, not surprisingly, reflected the expertise of its founders; since their formation, they have brought together a wide group of scholars, from art historians and architects to musicologists and archaeologists.
Today, the Trust engages in several activities, and not just lectures. In 2006 it organised an inaugural tour to the Botale Raja Maha Viharaya and other areas of historical interest in the region; due to the pandemic, it has not undertaken any historical tours since 2019, when it sponsored a visit to Jaffna. It also took up several conservation projects, one of them involving the Portuguese Fort in Malwana and another Joseph Lawton’s photographs of various national heritage sites. The latter has proved useful to the researcher and archivist of 19th century British Ceylon. These projects, in turn, led to two audio-visual productions: an exploration into the history of Sinhala music based on a lecture by Tissa Abeysekara, and a similar project about the evolution of music theatre in Sri Lanka.
Perhaps, the Trust’s most important contribution has been its publications. About 20 of these have been done so far. Foraying into different fields, they have spurred interest among scholars and readers alike.
These titles include Senake Bandaranayake’s and Albert Dharmasiri’s Sri Lankan Painting in the 20th Century, Neville Weeraratne’s The Sculpture of Tissa Ranasinghe, Nishan Perera’s Coral Reefs of Sri Lanka, Gehan de Silva Wijeyaratne’s Birds of Sri Lanka, and Shanti Jayewardene’s Geoffrey Manning Bawa: Decolonising Architecture. Reasonably priced and available at leading bookshops, they underline the need to go beyond just coffee table publications of general interest.
Elsewhere, National Trusts have become a gauge of a society’s intellectual activity. In that regard the Sri Lankan National Trust may have much more potential. Though these tours, lectures, and publications have contributed a great deal, they have not been met with adequate levels of interest. Ambitious as these have been, they have not succeeded in gleaning a response commensurate with the Trust’s objectives.
In this, of course, the Trust is not to blame: there is just so much an institution can do. Yet when one considers that the British National Trust claims a membership exceeding 5.4 million, while its counterpart here claims fewer than 600, one realises the depths to which scholarly activity in Sri Lanka has fallen.
That tells us as much about our people as it does about our intelligentsia. Of late, one leading academic institution after another has been swept up by the rigours of politicisation. Scholars have increasingly turned into yes-men. Original research has become a thing of the past. What little intellectual activity there is now is underfunded and overstretched.
If Sri Lanka is to compete internationally, it must produce scholars capable of taking it to the world. Such individuals cannot thrive in a culture that rewards obeisance and acceptance over scrutiny and critique. This does not apply to politicians only, of course; people have contributed to such a state of affairs as well. In other countries, non-specialists rarely, if ever, have the last word over experts. In Sri Lanka, however, they exercise a more formative influence on the public than do professionals. This can only end badly, for everyone.
It’s not unfitting, then, for the National Trust to have chosen someone like Romila Thapar for this year’s inaugural lecture. Professor Thapar is not just the leading historian in India; she is also one of its most outspoken intellectuals. Of late, she has come out into the open, emphasising the need for nuance and rationality in the study of history.
There she has had to face a situation not too different to what we are facing: nationalist extremists have more or less monopolised discussions, turning the study of the country’s past into debates over who should be determining its future. Lost in such debates is the point that we are what we make of ourselves, that we invent the customs and traditions which we believe define us, and that these must always be placed in their historical context.
The National Trust obviously has a role to play in all this. We are caught in the midst of a severe crisis, and economic problems have taken precedence over everything else. Yet, there probably has been no better time to raise these concerns, to talk about them, to make it easier to understand our past. This is something the Trust’s founding members, especially Senake Bandaranayake and Roland Silva, engaged induring much of their lives. It is the legacy the Trust is heir to, the legacy it bears today. If it cannot live up to its own inheritance, no one can.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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