by Anura Gunasekera
More than fifty years ago, my friend Jayasena Sirimanne, then a struggling amateur actor-cum-producer, and I, impressed by the dark, saturnine good looks of Nihal Ratnaike, his deep, rumbling baritone voice, the tall broad shouldered frame on which clothes sat with an uncontrived elegance, his avowed Marxism and casual contempt for the established order, named him the “Maha Kalu Sinhalaya”. We found it quite natural to conflate Nihal, the journalist, with the deposed Walagamba fleeing the advancing Chola.
Nihal, in our youthful eyes then, was the eponymous dissident, the quintessential bohemian. He lived that life as it came to him naturally. Politically, he was committed to an intellectual attachment to the extreme Left but he did not actively fight for his convictions.
In my early twenties, his little single bedroomed flat on Havelock road was a very convenient place to sleep off the excesses of a night, before presenting myself at my parental home the following morning. That was an abode which very frequently saw similar traffic. Nihal was always unquestioningly hospitable, sharing with all-comers meals he cooked himself in his tiny kitchenette. One wall of the sitting-cum-dining-cum- bedroom was covered with packed bookcases, prominent among the titles that I can still recall being Hemingway, Steinbeck, Silone, Moravia, de Beauvoir, Henry Miller , Orwell, Wilde, Mailer, Fitzgerald and other dissidents and icon-bashers. The playwrights ranged from Shakespeare to Ibsen, Beckett, Arthur Miller, Nabokov et al whilst Eliot was a preferred poet. There were also shelves dedicated to Ceylon history. On every available ledge rested dusty brass figurines, and sculptures and carvings by local artists, whilst a wide range of paintings, line drawings and sketches adorned much of the wall space. Very prominently featured was an iconic poster of Che Guevara and, alongside, a billboard print from the Moulin Rouge. The latter he had acquired whilst living in Paris.
Before I met Nihal in person I used to be an avid reader of his regular column in the Daily News, written under the pen-name “Viranga”. I liked the name so much that when our son was born many years later, we named him Isuru Viranga. But that is another story.
In 1967 my friend, the late Trevor Rosmale-Cocq, amused by my admiration of the writings of “Viranga, introduced me to the real man. The meeting took place in the then Art Centre Club bar, a dimly lit watering-hole above the Lionel Wendt, the meeting place of choice for both the artful and the artistic of Colombo. It was then managed by Ananada Gunatillke, who soon became my friend, entirely because of my frequent visits to the place.
Nihal could be found at the club on most evenings. Before entering the place you knew he was there; the deep, distinctive rumble of his baritone emerging clearly from the babble of voices, punctuated occasionally by the belly laugh, an equally deep extension of the voice, the man himself leaning against the bar, glass in one hand and cigarette drooping from the other, invariably in intense argument, either about current politics, theatre, film, art or books. Those were the subjects closest to his heart, those which invigorated his senses.
In the group around him would be Ernest Macintyre, Winston Serasinghe, Dhamma Jagoda, Chitrasena, Nihal’s dear friend Bevis Bawa, Geoffrey- the equally famous but less outrageous other Bawa brother- journalist Ajith Samaranayake, painter Manjusri and other assorted writers, theatre producers, journalists, actors and actresses, playwrights and artists; not all of them at the same time but at one time or another. There would also be yet others , not to be classified as belonging any cultural milieu but simply interesting personalities, some who worked hard at sustaining such an image, like the eccentric Eustace Fonseka. Tony Muller was a fixture at Nihal’s side, generally unsmiling and uncommunicative, opening his mouth only to sip from his glass.
The Art Centre Club then was where the off-beats and the oddballs gathered, along with star-struck youth such as I, feasting off an exotic table. The conversation was always interesting and often brilliant, the company very colourful and bewilderingly varied, whilst the drinks were cheap and the older patrons very generous. Impecunious, unemployed youth such as I could stride in confidently, with only the return bus fare in hand and, a few hours later, stagger out with the bus fare still intact.
Nihal was one of those exceptional people with a genuine personal magnetism, which made others to gravitate to him. It was not a consciously cultivated state but a natural composite of luminous intelligence, sardonic wit, a deep sensitivity to social and political dynamics, a genuine caring for people and a brutal honesty of opinion. What you saw was what you got. His imposing physical stature and rich, deep voice complemented the other attributes.
When I joined the Police Department as a Sub-Inspector in 1968, Nihal was horrified. In his eyes the police was a necessary evil but also an “extension of a fascist regime”- his own words. He recommended that I read George Orwell’s “1984”, as an extreme case scenario of life under ultimate repression. Some years later, after I had read Solzhenitsyn, I suggested to him that life in Stalinist Russia was the closest one could get to the Dystopia of Orwell. However, whilst conceding the excesses of the Bolshevik regime, he rationalized them as a regrettable case of individual freedoms occasionally being subjugated for the common good. When I left the police to become a planter in a British owned company he was amused, asking me how I planned to justify my admiration for the revolutionary vision of Che Guevara, whilst being an agent of the oppressive colonial model of plantation management. I cannot remember how I dealt with that question.
As a writer and journalist and in his views candidly expressed on other platforms, Nihal was aggressively anti-establishment. He openly despised the United National Party political doctrine. Unsurprisingly, the very day after the UNP election victory in 1977, he was dismissed from his then position as Deputy Editor of the Daily News. When I phoned him from my estate home in Nuwara Eliya he said, ” Anura, the Dharmishta government has done something very Adharmishta to me”, his very words. Subsequently, he successfully contested his dismissal at Labour Tribunal and was awarded compensation. Later, he did a short assignment for “CARE”, followed by a spell as the editor of “Focus”, another publication which enjoyed a brief but interesting life. With the changing of regimes he returned to Lake House where he was, variously, Associate Editor, Editor-in-Chief and Director, Editorial. He was also Media Consultant to the Prime Minister during Ratansiri Wickramanayake’s term. In between there were also spells at the Sunday Standard and the Island.
Nihal was a deeply complex, non-conformist who led an extremely simple existence. He attracted people to his orbit very quickly and retained them as friends for life. He was genuinely indifferent to the accumulation of wealth and assets, or material gain. Quite content with what was sufficient for the day, he lived a life which was governed by his uncompromising principles and unconventional personal beliefs. His passing was also consistent with the way he lived, quick, without drama and extended farewells. He had left strict, detailed written instructions for his family, for the immediate and unceremonious disposal of his physical self. His much loved sisters, the twins Indrani and Manel, and Waruna, his loving nephew, all of whom cared for Nihal in his final years when ill-health enforced dependence on this otherwise fiercely independent man, followed his final directives to the letter.
Nihal would have considered this tribute an embarrassing ostentation but I feel obliged to tell the world of a man who, at an early stage of my life, compelled me to examine my world view from different angles. We disagreed often but delighted in the debate. In the last couple of years, restricted by Covid-induced protocols, we did not meet often. My last meeting with him was a couple of months ago, when I sat by his bed for a few hours and reminisced on old times, discussed the books that we both enjoyed, together deplored the current state of the country, chuckled over interesting incidents of the past and revived memories of old friends who have passed on.
Nihal was older than I with a near generational gap between us but, together, we have sat through the final rites of several mutual friends. Trevor Roosmale-Cocq and Abey Ekanayake were two such in the last decade. The most recent was in 2019, that of Scott Dirckze where, as he was laid to rest, Nihal said to me with great sadness, ” he was a good and dear friend; I shall miss him very much”. I shall say the same of Nihal, my dear friend of over half a century.
Match against Djokovic; Partying PM; Prince turned Mr Nobody, and no hope
Slightly old hat but arguments for or against Novak Djokovic being allowed to stay in Melbourne for the Australian Open will swirl around and then die down, sadly, but inevitably. The sports world will go on; Australian might will continue; and people will soon forget and go about their business. May even be that when the winners of AO are announced only a couple of persons will remember him who was such a wonderful player who hardly ever lost his cool and seemed so steady and even relaxed when on tennis courts. Remember Robert Frost in his poem, Out, Out succinctly mentioning this fact at the end when the boy whose arm was cut by an electric saw breathed his last.
“And they, since they Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”
So very tragically true of all persons; all who brag, rant and pound their feet will die and not many will remember them.
The Editor of this paper commented on it and seemed to stand for ‘the Law holds for all’. He made no mention of the health waiver the world’s Number One tennis wizard got which he traded on to go to Melbourne in the first place.
Dr Upul Wijayawardhana in his piece printed beside the editorial on Tuesday 18 – “Australian antics and Djokovic’s disgrace” mentioned this. “It is surprising that Djokovic was given a medical exemption to enter Australia by … Tennis Australia and the State Government of Victoria after testing positive for coronavirus.” He got the permission to enter the AO, so he did, though there were controversial issues.
So, Cass in her emotional and yes, unreasonable, sense, sides with the tennis player. He should have been segregated and allowed participation in the tournament. We do not ask they consider his attempt at being the tennis world’s first to win 21 grand slams, but that here was an outstanding sportsman who got clearance to enter and was even permitted release from segregation in a hotel and allowed to resume preparing for the tournament to start on the 17th. It seemed to be a tussle between a state government and that of Australia and poor Novak was A pawn, as it were.
Now, the Aussie Open has lost its glamour and even interest to this ole soul – Cassandra. She hoped Nadal and others would withdraw from the OA. But since it was not their deportation, they go along. Hopefully they will publicly comment in support of their co-sportsman. Nadal already spoke out.
Ordinary citizen of UK
Poor Prince Andrew: his carnal desire has got him in a dirty soup! Will he, now be stripped of all titles and even won military honours, go forth to court to battle his case as Mr Andrew Windsor with perhaps Mountbatten added as a middle surname? What a downfall and comedown!
Cass has been having an emailed argument about whether Virginia G is a gold digger or not, and whether it can be accepted Andrew raped, as is accused, a teenager way back around two to three decades ago.
Cass’ arguing friend seems to see the issue in the light of what Virginia G wants to crush: – power, money and connections used against the underprivileged. She has spelled out her legal pursuit of Andrew thus. Noble aim but why select only this former prince? Surely there were others earlier – Epstein himself. To Cass she has schemed her way adroitly, seeing Epstein imprisoned and committing suicide (it is said, though belief is he was done in, with all the secrets of the rich and powerful within him), and his aide and abettor in the crime of trafficking underage girls – Ghislaine Maxwell – convicted to prison for 50 odd years. Virginia would surely have banked on raking in a great amount of lucre and of course publicity, fat and middle aged as she now is. True, Andrew (we dare call him that) was accepting what Epstein offered him, but to Cass and her incisive eye, it would definitely not have been rape.
What came across sharply to Cass was the difference between her much younger correspondent’s opinion and Cass’. To the younger one Andrew was all black and Virginia a sweet little kid pounced upon and sullied against her wishes. Cass emerged rather old fashioned, believing in the adage that boys will be boys and men are allowed much more than girls/women who are censured more. Yes, that was the attitude of Sri Lankan society or what Cass knew of in her Kandy upbringing. We do not know whether a negotiation has been worked out or whether the ex-Prince faces the pretending Innocent in an American court of law with #metoo etc very strong over in the USA. The gracious duty-bound Queen is the greatest loser in this randy, rapacious business.
No storm in a teacup
The previous Cassandra Cry, referred to the bring-your-own-alcohol and observe- Covid-restrictions party in June 2019 in the garden of No 10 Downing Street. She classified it as a storm in the Brit’s cuppa. Not so, not so many means. This party has resulted in a loud call to the PM to resign, perhaps not only the premiership but his Parliament seat too, which means being thrown out of the Conservative Party leadership. Boris Johnson is a bird of the Andrew feather – loves fun and partying. But he marries his girlfriends, one by one! The storm is brewing and it’s getting hotter for the PM as ex employers throw in their tuppenny worth – all damning!
Us in Paradise?
We continue in Fool’s Paradise with fireplaces in gardens; fear of lack of medicines; rising costs and sharing the anger of helpless farmers shedding tears. “Half of USD 6.7 mn paid to China would have helped save Maha yield.” So pronounced SJB’s MP Rohini Kaviratna. Inexplicable, unbelievable, the pinnacle of absurdity not to import chemical fertiliser, weedicides and pesticides now that it has been realised the move to organic farming was too precipitous and cost the country and its people so very much. And to add fuel to the fire an announcement is made that a fresh order for organic manure has been sent to that seaweed company in China. We never learn. It’s corruption at whatever cost. And with no money to import fertiliser much is spent on food like beetroot and rice.
Chandra Jayaratne in The Island of Tuesday January 18 lists all our country and people’s travails in his article ‘People’s wishes.’ Cass painfully counted the words in one line of his article and computed that his very long first paragraph of 42 lines had approx 300 words – all of our country troubles. Him being the excellent writer with keen brain and good sense to match, writes very precisely. The list of woes was that long! So, you can imagine what dire straits we are in. His second paragraph lists origins of these maladies: “unprofessional, arrogant, egoistic, even childish … heading towards a failed state.”
Please, please wake up, those in power and do what needs to be done to brake the speeding to bankruptcy. We really do not want ‘splenour and prosperity’. We only want to live fairly decent lives, and that is not stymied by the pandemic. The ‘gloom and despondency and poverty’ are man-made.
On that note Cass says bye bye with no hope in her.
Patriotic surgeon who volunteered to work on battlefield
By Admiral Ravindra C Wijegunaratne
(Retired from Sri Lanka Navy) Former Chief of Defence Staff
In 1991, I was selected to one of the prestigious sea appointments in the Sri Lanka Navy. After a short familiarisation course, I was appointed to P 467 (old pennant numbers), Fast Attack Craft (FAC) Super Dovra Mk ll, one of the fastest FAC of the Navy at that time. Built in Israel at a cost of US $ 30 million, it was the vanguard of our Navy throughout our conflict with LTTE Sea Tiger terrorists.
P467 was commanded by LT Cdr Ariyadasa, an officer senior to me, who has intercepted the highest number of smuggling boats in SLN in Western Naval Command. So, my sole intention was to work hard and capture more smuggling boats than LT Cdr Ariyadasa.
Two days after my appointment, my FAC was attached to Eastern Naval Command to patrol the Northern waters. It may have been done by someone in the Naval Headquarters who didn’t want to see me in Colombo?
We had to deal with not smugglers but LTTE Sea Tigers operating in the northern waters at the time. The LTTE had some camps on the Southern Indian coast; it was their main logistics route to the Northern peninsula. They had boats moving at an excess of 30 knots (30 nautical miles per hour – approx 40mph ) and our FAC had a slight speed advantage over terrorist speed boats.
The distance between India and Sri Lanka is approximately 24 nautical miles. Indo- Sri Lanka International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) has been marked at equidistance, approximately 12 nautical miles. So, terrorist boats moving at 30 knots could cross our waters in 24 minutes ! That’s the time the Navy had to detect, chase and to destroy them. If you had got too close to land, which was held by my enemy at that time, you would have been fired upon with enemy’s shore gun batteries. The FAC would have become a “sitting duck” in such an eventuality. The enemy always kept their tractors with the trailers in the water ready for their boat arrivals.
As soon as their boats hit the shore, they were loaded into tractor trailers and moved to safety. This was done in reverse order when the boats were launched. It was more difficult for us to detect the boat launching pads as they were done at night. However, those days when LTTE Sea Tigers saw an Israeli built Dovra, they used to run away at maximum speed. Most of our chases of sea tiger boats ended up in a “stern chase” and with slight speed advantage, we destroyed the enemy boat with 20mm Oerlicon cannon we had as the main weapon.
The FAC had a crew of two officers and 12 sailors at that time. It was a very close “family”. My Second-In-Command was LT SHU Dushmantha, fearless and an excellent officer. He was an outstanding tennis player, an old Anandian and from the KDU Intake 4. Sadly, he died in action out at sea on 30/10/1998. He was a recipient of three gallantry medals for his bravery and valour out at sea namely, Weera Wickrama Vibushanaya (WWV), Rana Wickrama Paddakkama (RWP) and Rana Soora Paddakkama (RSP). I had Leading Seaman Newton as my coxswain (later rose to Master Chief Petty Officer rank and excellent photographer), and Leading Marine Engineering Mechanic Premaratne (also rose to MCPO rank later and excellent cook) looked after the
engines. Our FAC during her first patrol to Northern Naval Area was able to destroy a enemy boat, which was a great achievement to me personally and to my crew.
The FAC was a time-tested craft in the SLN. From time to time, we upgraded our weapons and sensors on board FACs. When we were onboard an FAC, we had only a radar to detect enemy boats at night. Later, we had MSIS (Multi Sensor Integrated Systems) and better forward main guns such as US-made 30mm Bush master chain gun, but the platform, the FAC hull remained the same.
When we fought with Sea Tigers, there were no suicide boats. The enemy fled at their maximum speed when they saw an FAC, Then enemy developed their suicide cadres and speed boats later loaded with explosives and started to steer towards us at excessive speed on suicidal missions.
We had to rewrite and develop our fighting tactics and manoeuvres against the new threat. We lost some of our best FAC Commanders and crews due to those deadly attacks. I salute them and all those who worked tirelessly during this period and special thanks to our gunners, electrical/electronic engineers and marine engineers for keeping FACs operational and battle-prepared.
There is a unique difference in fighting at sea that on land. There are no covers in sea battle. Whoever fired effectively first won. Sea battles are very short and decisive.
There is a special bond between your shipmates (FAC mates), whether you are an officer or a sailor. You go to battle together in Fast Attack Craft and come home victorious ,or perish at sea together. OIC take decisions and he had to be brave and knowledgeable.
My FAC command period was eventful and enjoyable. I was married and my wife Yamuna was expecting our son. We lived in married quarters at the Naval Base Trincomalee. Those Royal Navy time officers quarters are specious and beautiful.
Our patrols to Northern waters lasted seven days. If everything went well, you got a seven-day break for maintenance, repairs to get ready for next patrol. Before heading for the North, I would leave my wife with my brother officer’s family living at the Naval Base, Trincomalee, where she would stay until my return. She preferred to be with LCdr (L) Sarath Silva’s family. Sarath is from my junior batch and his wife Chandrani looked after Yamuna very well. They were very close friends. Such is the camaraderie among Naval families !
When your FAC is non operational, you have to take some other Operational FACs on patrol. This is not a good arrangement as you are going out to sea with an unknown crew. However, in September 1991, I had to take P468 (my batchmate Shirantha’s FAC) as mine was under repairs on slipway. Further, my 2IC, Dushmamtha was also on leave. I decided to go to sea on board P468 without a 2IC, on a six-day patrol to Northern waters.
Fast Attack Craft have two very powerful inboard engines. They required large amounts of low sulphur diesel (LSD). One engine consumed approximately 100 litres of LSD per hour. Two engines running, its 200 litres per hour. It takes four hours for us to sail from Trincomalee to KKS. About 800 litres consumed per one run to Northern waters from Trincomalee. If Rs 100 a litre of LSD, FAC consumes approximately Rs 80,000 worth of LSD per one run. Then we do seven days patrolling and returning back to Trincomalee. Navy has 36 Fast Attack Craft. So you can imagine the fuel costs.
Navies are very expensive!
So, two days of my patrol onboard P468 was uneventful. On 13 June 1991 around 10AM, we were returning to KKS for rest and refuelling from the Mulativu sea area. Sea was calm and I was keeping about two nautical miles from the land and moving North at approximately 20 knots speed. I was on the flying bridge and enjoying bright sunlight and very clear weather. My lookout sentry on Port side (land side) reported two open jeeps moving on Manakkadiu road, one fitted with a gun. The area was held by enemy. I sounded action stations and told the crew that I would turn towards the jeeps and increase speed.
I told them when I was turning away from land they had to engage the targets with our 20mm cannon. The sea was deep enough for the FAC to go up to 400m from shore. Forward gunner was very good. His third shot hit a jeep and it started burning. Other jeep took cover behind a sand dune.
We saw some movements on the beach with enemy cadres getting into boats on land. When we were breaking away from targets and headed towards deep sea, our boat was hit by enemy fire from boats. Crack and thump of 50 calibre machine gun fire was very clearly heard.
Do you know how to identify someone is firing at you? You hear two noises (in military terminology known as a crack and thump. Every shot fired at you makes two noises for one shot. As bullet velocity is faster than the speed of sound, you first hear sound “tuck’ (or crack) when bullet goes through air closer to you. Then you hear sound “Dum” ( or thump) after some time. That is the sound made by bullets leaving the gun barrel. A well trained Special Forces person will be able to say the approximate distance of firer by the interval between crack and thump.
Enemy gun fire rained on the FAC, but we were almost beyond enemy’s effective gun range. Suddenly, one enemy gun shot hit the guard rail of the FAC. It’s splinters hit my left shoulder and upper arm . A sailor who was standing next to me at Open bridge was also hit in the leg. Blood soaked my left arm and multiple injuries were visible.
I knew I was hit badly. Sailors onboard panicked. I steered the FAC to a safe distance from land and informed my colleague Rohan, who was on another FAC on patrol and steered towards KKS.
After bleeding was controlled by a sailor trained on combat medicine, I found no major damage to my bones. I felt a bit dizzy, but able to walk into a waiting ambulance at KKS harbour to be taken to Army hospital at Palaly for immediate medical treatment.
On arrival at the Palaly Army Hospital, I saw a tall figure in a surgical gown waiting for me. He was non other than Dr Maiya Gunasekara, Consultant Surgeon. Dr Maiya took a few hours to remove whatever shrapnel he detected. He said others would remain inside the bones as they posed no threat. They are still inside my left shoulders and upper arm.
I consider them as gifts from the LTTE but they prevent me from through any Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines!
I invited Dr Maiya on board to my FAC that evening and took him to sea and showed him Point Pedro and VVT (home town of LTTE leader Prabhakaran) from sea.
Dr Maiya volunteered services as a surgeon at the battle front and saved a number of officers and men who were severely injured.
Dr Indrajith Maithri (‘Maiya’) De Zoysa Gunasekara, FRCS, FICS, Consultant Surgeon was born on 22nd August 1951 and educated at Royal College, Colombo 7. He was a College coloursman in Basketball and Rugby Football and represented Royal College in Athletics as well. He represented the Royal College rugby team for a number of years and later entered the Medical Faculty of Colombo University. He was the recipient of Leslie Handunge trophy awarded to the best sportsman at both
Colombo and Peradeniya Universities in 1974. He excelled in both studies and sports, graduated from both Royal College of Surgeons of England and Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and captained CR and FC rugger team and represented the National Rugby team and the National Rugby sevens team for a number of years . He was President of the Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union and Chairman of National Sports Council.
Now, he is the Consultant Surgeon at the Nawaloka Hospital, Colombo. He will sits in his consultation room (Room 55) at Navaloka Hospital daily.
However his dedicated service to the Nation in treating our Armed Forces personnel at the Battle front in Palaly Army hospital is not known to many.
Former South African President Nelson Mandela once said “There will be no greater gift than that of giving one’s time and energy to help others without expecting anything in return”
Thank you Dr Maiya – we salute you !
South’s development debacle compounded by SAARC’s inner paralysis
From a development point of view, it’s ‘the worst of times’ for the global South. The view of some of the most renowned development organizations is that the woes brought upon the hemisphere by the Covid-19 pandemic have probably stalled its development by decades. The inference is inescapable that the South would need to start from scratch as it were in its efforts to ease its material burdens, once the present health crisis shows signs of lifting.
A recent Jakarta Post/ANN news feature published in this newspaper on January 14th, detailing some of the dire economic fallout from the pandemic on the South said: ‘Between March and December 2020, the equivalent of 147 million full time jobs were lost in the Asia Pacific region. In 2020, the World Bank estimated that between 140 million people in Asia were pushed into poverty and in 2021 another 8 million became poor…..Vulnerable groups such as women, ethnic and religious minorities and migrant workers were worst affected. Across Asia, informal and migrant workers suffered an estimated 21.6 percent fall in their income in the first four months of the pandemic.’
Needless to say, being one of the least developed regions of the South and its most populous one, it is South Asia that is likely to be worst affected in the current global crunch. A phenomenon that should not go unnoticed in this connection, is the rising number of the ‘new poor’ in the South. This refers in the main to those sections of the middle class that are sliding into the lower middle class and the ranks of the poverty-stricken as a result of the ill-effects of the present crisis. Job loss and decreasing income are some of the causes behind this rising tide of pauperization.
Referring to this and connected processes the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka states in its ‘Sri Lanka State of the Economy 2021’report: ‘Estimates at the USD 3.20 poverty line are forecasted to be at least 228 million, with a larger share of the population emerging from South Asia yet again. Initial projections for 2021 estimate the number of individuals in extreme poverty to be between 143 and 163 million.’ The stark and widespread poverty emerging in Afghanistan since mid-August 2021, ought to push up these figures quite a bit.
Considering that the South is way behind the North in developmental terms, the unfolding global economic crisis could be expected to widen the chasm in material wellbeing between the hemispheres in the days ahead. However, ‘the overwhelming question’ for the South would be how it could fend for itself in the absence of those Southern-centred organizations that could take up its cause in the forums of the world and bring the region together in an effort to work towards its collective wellbeing. The importance of this question is strongly underscored by the fact that SAARC is more or less dysfunctional or paralyzed at present.
The immense magnitude of the poverty question is yet to be realized by the ruling elites of the South. It is as if the chimerical growth spurt in some sections of the South over the past 30 or so years has rendered them numb and insensitive to poverty-related issues, including the ever-yawning gulf within their countries between the obscenely wealthy and the desperately poor. As is known, while the so-called ordinary people of the South have been wilting in dire want over the past two years, the hemisphere has been producing billionaires in disconcertingly high numbers. This could be true of Sri Lanka as well and the Pandora Papers gave us the cue a few months back.
By burying their heads in the sands as it were in this manner, Southern political elites could very well be setting the stage for bloody upheavals within their states. The need for substantial ‘bread’ has always been a driver of socio-political change over the centuries. They are bound to find their problems compounded by the accentuation of ethnicity and religion related questions, considering that such issues are taking a turn for the worse amid the current economic debacle. Vulnerable groups would need to be cared for and looked after by rulers and these include women and ethnic minorities. An aggravation of their lot could compound the worries of Southern rulers.
The phenomenal increase of billionaires ought to be researched more intently and thoroughly by Southern think tanks, R and D organizations and the like. Among other things, does not this disquieting emergence of billionaires prove that classical economics was wrong in assuming that wealth would easily ‘trickle-down’ to the masses from wealth creators, such as businessmen and other owners of capital? After all, we now have clear evidence that mountainous wealth could exist amid vast wastes of poverty and powerlessness.
However, the view of some commentators that ‘neoliberal policies of privatization’ and connected issues should now be reassessed and even eschewed ought to strike the observer as worthy of consideration. These policies that enthrone free market economics should be viewed as badly in need of revision and correction in view of the inherently unstable economic systems that they have given rise to over the past three decades. Their serious flaws are thrown into strong relief by the present Southern economic crisis which has resulted in some isolated, formidable towers of wealth and opulence sprouting in a sea of hardship and economic want.
Hopefully, we would see a renewed wide-ranging discussion on development models from now on. Ideally, growth needs to go hand-in-hand with equity if development is to be achieved to a degree. There is no getting away from the need for central planning to some extent in our efforts to reach these ends. Capital and Labour would need to come together in a meeting of minds in these endeavours. Development thrusts would need to be launched on pragmatic considerations as well.
However, a regional approach to resolving these issues facing South Asia needs to be renewed and persisted with as well. As long as SAARC remains paralyzed such efforts are unlikely to bear full fruit. Accordingly, India and Pakistan, the regional heavyweights, need to negotiate an end to their differences and help rejuvenate SAARC; South Asia’s key collective body that could usher in a measure of regional development.
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