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Not quite off the beaten track

One of the disquieting of ironies about May Day celebrations in this country, which has stabilized itself over the past two decades or more, is the near eclipsing of the worker in the heady goings-on of the day. This is another variation on the theme of ‘playing Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark’. Whereas the theoretical position is that May Day should belong to the worker and his concerns, what we essentially have in the name of this memorable occasion now are attempts by political parties at displaying their hold over the people. Besides, the political issues of the times rather than the questions facing the working population get top billing at these displays of party might and muscle.

We don’t have reason to believe that there were marked deviations from these ‘norms’ yesterday. To begin with, most political parties had done away with worker processions which were the veritable life-blood of May Day in times past. Accordingly, a tepid air pervaded the city and the atmosphere tended to be thick with the languor of the usual public holiday, which is the average white collar worker’s day of retreat and ‘recuperation’. What the Sri Lankan usually witnessed in times past from almost the wee hours of the day, was the colourful mustering and marching of workers in the city centre and their robust voicing of slogans which flagged their most profound needs; a decent wage to see them through the month, for instance.

However, yesterday was not only submerged in inertia for the most part, but carried tell-tale signs of a country continuing to grapple with a state-induced fixation with security considerations. The routine security checks in the city, for example, were proof that nothing, essentially, has changed from those uneasy times when suicide bombers were on the prowl and when a clamp-down on normal life was seen as necessary.

This does not amount to romanticizing the past because in those times the trade union movement was exuberantly backed by the political Left, which was a force to reckon with in Sri Lanka’s politics. This was true, for instance, of the sixties and the early seventies when Left parties were so conspicuous by their presence and political weight, that they helped form centrist governments; a case in point being the SLFP-led United Front government which held office from 1970 to 1977.

The gradual eclipsing of the Left in national politics has a lot to do, we presume, with the current state of affairs with regard to our workers. The Left took a severe beating both nationally and internationally with the explosive onset of neo-liberalism and the increasing globalization of capital in the mid seventies, with the result that today most governments have come to believe that poverty and material deprivation would look after themselves. But if our governments take stock of the current resurgence of the Left in Central and South America, they would come to understand that this is not really so. The general populations of those regions are not only feeling the ill-effects of economic globalization but are making the necessary political choices with the hope of bettering their lot.

But the deprived in this country cannot expect any political party, apparently, to champion their grievances because most ‘progressive’ political forces have today closed ranks with those groups which are unlikely to make common cause with the workers of the country or who would stick their necks out for ‘The Wretched of the Earth’. This process has been consummated by the ‘Old Left’ closing ranks with the UPFA. Veteran Lankan trade unionist Bala Tampoe was on target when he once said that instead of having even remnants of the Left, what one finds mainly in Sri Lanka at present is ‘a huge reactionary Right’.

Be that as it may, it is up to governments, if they are worth their people-provided perks and privileges, to put the worker right back at the heart of May Day. There is considerable weight in the contention that Sri Lanka could be up against difficult times, marked by economic gloom. This is bound up with the slow economic recovery world-wide and it could very well be that the local worker and other vulnerable groups would need material protection against vicious economic vagaries.

In the face of a growing economic crunch, which we hope could be warded-off, a fall-back on achievements on the war front would be of no avail. Nor would the holding of grandiloquent ‘tamashas’ in the name of the working people or the launching of mega development projects keep the wolf from the door. It is only a judicious economic policy which focuses on the empowerment of the people, which would win the day for Sri Lanka. The government has the necessary clout to do all this and more and we hope wisdom will prevail in the days ahead.

In this endeavour, the government would need to ensure that it holds hands with the people of the North and East and their political representatives. It should be the resolve of the government, now that the first May Day after the crushing of the LTTE has been held, to ensure that all sections of the people of the North and East are provided the essentials to lead a life of dignity. A special effort would need to be made by the state to ensure that the IDPs in their totality are resettled and rehabilitated.

This is not to absolve the Opposition of any responsibility for the general neglect of the working population and their well being. Making verbal pronouncements on the condition of the working people and of the role of the government in reducing them to their lot would be of no avail, if the UNP in particular, continues to wilt in intra-party squabbles. The lot of the people could be improved only to the degree to which the Opposition gets its act together and brings its weight to bear on the government to get it to discharge its responsibilities effectively. It cannot do this if it is chronically divided against itself.

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