Personal Perspective
Greening Nilaveli

by Rajiva Wijesinha
And bade betwixt their shores to be The unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea (Matthew Arnold)

I was recently taken to task by a friend now living abroad, about the piece I had written after visiting Nilaveli. Her main grouse seemed to be that I was implicitly supporting the Tiger claim that D S Senanayake had deliberately encroached on the Tamil homelands by planting colonists on them. This was shortly after another friend had expressed disapproval of my comments on the question of a Tamil homeland, because for Tamils this was a necessity after the treatment they had received in 1983 and on other occasions.

The first friend was Sinhalese, the second Tamil; obviously, I would have said, except that I would prefer not to stereotype in such matters. And while on the one hand there was some satisfaction in being attacked on either side, on the grounds that this proved I was observing an objective middle, one has also to confess to a slight sense of failure. If anything one writes serves only to confirm others in their own opinions, one is obviously not a convincing writer. And it is poor consolation to think that this is inevitable, because we all live in our own little worlds and allow others to impinge on them only for our own convenience. As Wittgenstein put it, all conversations are on the following pattern -

A. I went to Grantchester today.

B. Ah. I didn’t.

But apart from regrets that one was having no impact, there was also some sadness at the evident inability of the first writer to look carefully at what I had written. Far from criticizing what Senanayake had done, I had noted that I did not subscribe to the concept of the Northern and Eastern Provinces being traditional Tamil homelands. My complaint was that he had not done enough for the Tamils and Muslims in those areas. So, in the statist dispensation that developed, they weren’t even allowed to do much for themselves. In such a context it was understandable that they would want an independent state. My argument was that, if the unity of the country was to be preserved, they - like all our citizens now constrained by a centralizing bureaucracy - had to be encouraged and supported to get on with the economic development of the area.

That point too my interlocutor had missed. She remarked that, with the state having limited resources, little being done for the north and east was understandable. Now such an attitude would have been understandable some years back, when people could not conceive of anything but the state being the engine of growth. But now we should at least recognize that such a concept was flawed, and therefore amends should be made as soon as possible, by looking at other models of development too.

With every day that passes however, I feel that we are never going to escape from the shackles of statism. Most members of the UNP see the present government as being a rerun of JR’s, which brought them relief from the deprivations of the 70s. They forget that, while the private sector was encouraged to function actively again, JR took even more of the commanding heights of the economy into his hands than Mrs Bandaranaike had done. And his version of the open economy caused even greater hardship to the Tamils of Jaffna than Mrs Bandaranaike’s socialism had done - hence indeed the strange phenomenon of Hector Kobbekaduwa winning Jaffna District and Jaffna District alone in the 1982 Presidential election.

Privatization was not a word that occurred in JR’s vocabulary. It was Premadasa who actually began the process of privatization, and deregulation that encouraged competition, so as to benefit consumers. JR gave only Celltel a license, Premadasa permitted Mobitel and Call Link to start together, and so prices plummeted. And one scarcely needs to stress the enormously successful handing over of the plantations to 22 companies, which have successfully survived even Chandrika’s laboured privatization with its statist maneuvers involving the Merchant Bank before it was brought under intelligent and independent management.

But it should not be forgotten that Premadasa accompanied all this with targeted assistance that ensured development in areas previously ignored. He used the private sector for this too, as in the garment factories that transformed Vavuniya from a one horse hamlet into a thriving township. And he moved swiftly on the infrastructural development that would alone encourage the investment essential to breathe life once more into the ravaged north and east. He cared deeply about the areas that were under government control in those years, and he built them up, especially the border areas, so that they were immensely attractive to those outside them. Hence the movement of people from uncleared areas into cleared ones in the period before he died, a process that has only begun again, without of course the use of such distinctions, in the last few months.

As I have mentioned before, I am sure Ranil has plans for similar activities and similar results that will promote integration. But plans alone are not enough. Premadasa was criticized for being a man in a hurry, but it is only because he hurried that the country was able to stagger through the first few years of the PA government. Had he hurried a bit more, had Sirisena Cooray accepted the post of Prime Minister instead of allowing DB to stay on the grounds that he could do little harm, we might even have reached the 21st century by now. A little bit more activity of the Premadasa sort is now urgently needed if we are to get back into the latter half of the 20th century instead of continuing to go backwards.