Making the Political Alternative meaningful and Relevant to Masses
Posted on July 18th, 2019

By Siri Hettige, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Colombo – Courtesy The Island

There has been considerable public discussion in recent months about the need to find a meaningful and real alternative to the existing two mainstream political formations in Sri Lanka. But, the people in the country are yet to see a clear vision and a cohesive programme of the proposed political alternative. In this brief article, an attempt is made to articulate a possible vision and a programme to be discussed and considered by relevant parties in the next weeks and months.

Against the backdrop of persisting political turmoil, chronic uncertainties and a deep sense of insecurity felt by the vast majority of people, what is urgently needed is to identify a clear path along which the country should move forward to meet the legitimate aspirations of diverse segments of society. Given the serious economic, social, cultural, political and environmental issues that have evolved over a period of time, the country needs to find alternative ways to address various issues that have remained largely unresolved due to past policy failures. In the remainder of this article, I outline some alternative strategies that can be adopted to have a clear break from the past in the five areas mentioned above.


As is well known, Sri Lanka’s economy today is highly distorted, tilting heavily towards services. Productive sectors like agriculture, urban and rural industry and artisan production have either stagnated or declined. Many rural people have migrated to cities or overseas for casual employment. Continuous exodus of labour, the decline of productive sectors, a continually widening trade gap and mounting public debts have generated inflationary pressures that make life miserable for an increasing proportion of the population. While income distribution has become highly unequal, rural urban disparities have widened. Meanwhile, the informal sector of the economy has expanded and living and working conditions of people, dependent on the informal sector, remain precarious. The above state of the economy demands a major effort to restructure it in order to diversity all sectors, create productive employment in all parts of the country and reduce inflationary pressures. Both domestic and foreign capital should also be diverted into production oriented ventures outside the major urban centres. The development of social infrastructure such as quality health and education facilities outside major cities is critically important to facilitate decentralised development in the country. What should be noted here is that the concentration of wealth and people in and around urban centres is not socially and environmentally sustainable.

Social System:

Increasing economic and social pressures, arising out of the above economic conditions, have created precarious working and living conditions for a majority of people in the country. Growing spatial mobility of people of all walks of life has weakened family and community life leading to vulnerabilities among children, youth, the poor, the differently abled and the elderly. Increasing significance of privately funded education, transport and health services have given rise to a sense of relative deprivation among low income people. While formal systems of social protection such as pensions and Employees Provident Funds, cover only a minority of economically active people, others are exposed to economic and social risks and vulnerabilities. Many elderly people continue to engage in employment way beyond retirement age due to the lack of old age pensions or productive assets. Many such people also suffer due to the deficient publicly provided health, education and transport facilities.

The conditions outlined above shows that the social system is increasingly polarised and unjust. Emergent social conditions are at variance with the widely held egalitarian values in the country. A range of social policies are needed to address the issues involved and create a sense of social justice and equity among socially marginalised people in the country.


By the time the British rulers left Sri Lanka following nearly 150 years of colonial rule, the country had already become a centralised parliamentary democracy. Yet, the social and cultural policies adopted by the colonial rulers had prevented the emergence of a unified citizenry. Ethnic, linguistic and religious divisions were already part of the social, cultural and political landscape. The highly unequal education system during the colonial period continued to reproduce social and cultural divisions in the country. Poor and basic educational facilities in rural areas did not help transform the largely marginalised rural population into a citizenry with a modern social and cultural outlook. Such people remained wedded to a traditional way of life connected to a largely subsistence oriented rural economic pursuits, and their world views and lifestyles were very much shaped by traditional beliefs and archaic religious and ritual practices. Given the lack of access to modern educational facilities and mass media in rural areas, most rural inhabitants remained cut off from the influence of modern urban industrial cultures. Though a tiny anglicised, privileged post -colonial elite had emerged in urban areas, thanks to the emerging colonial economy dominated by plantation production, import and export trade, service industries, etc. , the vast majority of people remained wedded to parochial, traditional rural cultures of several ethno-religious communities.

This cultural pattern continued after independence due to post- independence cultural policies that prevented the formation of an overarching mainstream national culture suited to a modern, secular democratic society.

Political Structure:

Though Sri Lanka became a centralised parliamentary democracy, under the British rule, vast, remote rural hinterland remained weakly integrated with the Centre due to poor transportation and communication infrastructure. This situation was also conducive for the perpetuation of strong regional, ethnic and religious identities. Following independence, such identities became even stronger due to cultural, language and educational policies adopted by post-independence regimes. It is this situation that paved the way for competition among ethno-religious groups for political power and public resources such as land, employment and business opportunities. Such competition eventually led to anti-state, violent political campaigns including the armed struggle in the north and east for a separate State that ended in 2009 with the defeat of the LTTE.

Though there have been some efforts over the last few decades to institutionalise a more decentralised political structure in the country, mostly centralised nature of the State remains. Provincial and local government institutions remain weak and poorly resourced. Many functions that can be easily and more fruitfully carried out at local and provincial levels remain with the government. The result is a top heavy administration that controls much of the country’s public finances and other resources, often leading to wastage, corruption and inefficiency. The distribution of public resources through political party based networks of patron-client relationships has made the situation worse as this has given rise to political favouritism and discrimination, preventing the emergence of a unified citizenry with equal rights and life chances.

Environmental Resources:

Economic, social and political conditions outlined above have not been conducive for the sustainable management and use of natural resources of the country. Fragmentation of land, unplanned human settlements, implementation of development projects in a haphazard manner, over-exploitation of natural resources, pollution and degradation of the environment, etc. have been the result. Natural and human induced hazards such as flooding, landslides, soil erosion, pollution of water resources, human-animal conflict, droughts, etc., pose serious threats to livelihoods and well-being of people in almost all parts of the country. Successive governments that ruled the country, over the last several decades, are largely responsible for the above state of affairs. Their failure or refusal to adopt evidence-based policies to deal with issues in the five areas mentioned above, namely, the economy, social system, culture, political system and the environment, has been the main reason for the deterioration of economic, social, cultural, political and environmental conditions. These governments were led by the mainstream political parties that have not shown any readiness to change their policies and governance styles. Given this situation, people in the country have to opt for a viable political alternative outside the political mainstream. There are already growing signs of a clear readiness on the part of a majority of people to look for such an alternative. Such an alternative path has become critically important today as the economic, social, cultural, political and environmental challenges facing the country demands a holistic and rational approach to development, public welfare and peace in the country. Such an approach is already outlined in the sustainable development vision 2030 policy document prepared by an independent expert committee.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.



Copyright © 2024 All Rights Reserved. Powered by Wordpress