Aragalists’ proposals for ‘System Change’

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By CHANDRE DHARMAWARDANA
[email protected]

Although there is much talk of “system change”, it is hard to find specifics of the new systems that are to be created. In the early seventies, Mahinda Wijesekera, the father of the present Minister for Power, was a student leader of the Vidyodaya University. As a key figure of the JVP, he told me that they are fighting for a “system change”. My critique of their plans got reported by Viranga (Nihal Ratnayake) in the Daily News. The campus faced student strikes with the demand that I withdraw my critique, considered reactionary and insulting. The five lessons of the JVP sufficed for the young revolutionaries to fall behind Wijeweera and cause mayhem.

Pathum Kerner, one of the Aragalists out on bail, is a medical doctor, in his forties. He contested the 2020 general elections as the leader of an unofficial Green political party, rejecting the existing corrupt political parties. More recently, his approach to “system change” was presented in a YouTube presentation.

The rural farmers began the initial protests. They faced Gotabaya’s ban on agrochemicals that drastically reduced harvests and brought them to bankruptcy. The eco-extremists of the Viyathmaga, who triggered the ban, believed that traditional agriculture and organic farming were “healthier” and equally bountiful. “Going organic” was the SYSTEM CHANGE that the eco-extremists had wanted. That the “present methods of food production are unsustainable”, and that “a different system” is needed, seems reasonable and has acceptance among the elite, among politicians, and even among many scientists who gloss over the realities of feeding a world of 7-8 billion people. Many people regard the switch to organics as an objective that “should be achieved gradually”. Pathum Kerner would have endorsed this policy in July 2020. The JVP also seems to support going “fully organic” gradually.

The present writer has argued (in many publications) that even the “gradual approach” is meaningful only if we let half the world population starve. Growing organic food for a niche market of elites and for export, while retaining fertiliser-based agriculture for feeding the world, is the only scientifically valid model of agriculture that we have today. Modern approaches to agriculture using agrochemicals are far friendlier to the environment than “organic” models of agriculture.

The Yahapalanites under Sirisena, Ven. Ratana, Champika Ranawaka and others pushed to ban the pesticide Glyphosate, destroying the corn harvest and critically damaging the plantation sector. This was not lesson enough for the eco-extremists of the Viyathmaga who influenced Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The protests of farmers were soon overtaken by the protests of the middle class, facing shortages of natural gas for cooking and fuel caused by the forex crisis that was expected in the wake of the pandemic. The Aragalaya gathering at Colombo’s Galle Face Green, fueled by the forex crises, swelled, demanding Gotabaya’s resignation to make a radical “system change”. It was not only a protest, but also a cultural carnival displaying a spontaneous creativity and gaiety nourished by the inputs of the leisured classes of Colombo. I was reminded of the “fête de l’Humanité” that the French Communist party newspaper has held every September in Paris, since the 1930s, showcasing its many famous literary and artistic adherents. The Aragalaya sent President Gotabaya into exile on 10 July but the goons of the government and the violent side of the Aragala got exposed in the process.

Although Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) bemoaned the destruction of his valuable collection art, books and Buddhist sculptures in his house, he had no thoughts of preserving for posterity the spontaneous art of the Aragalaya. The public has clearly expressed its opposition to violence and counter-violence, destruction of MPs’ houses and ignored the August 9th Aragalaya call to regroup.

Gotabaya called several leaders to ride the cusp of the crisis, but it was RW who captured the wave and shot up to become the new President. The Aragalaya and the public had rejected all political parties, corrupt to the core, and asked for a clean break. In contrast, the party leaders and political commentators have called for an “all-party interim government (APIG)”. This did not happen even under daily suicide attacks by the LTTE, and so, how can cantankerous politicians come together heeding a largely peaceful Aragalaya? An election under an APIG would have returned the same politicians, conferring them a false façade of legitimacy. The best option is indeed to carry on with RW and a skeleton government. But what corrupt skeletons did RW gather? Why was it necessary for RW to appoint individuals with criminal records, men suspected of blatant bribery etc. to his Cabinet? One of the reasons given by Premadasa against joining the government is the continuing stench of corruption in the RW government.

So, how do the Aralgalaya leaders, some out on bail, or any other new faces hope to change this entrenched system? They have some two and a half years to get organised and form new parties with new faces and write manifestos; while RW also has a chance to either prove his worth and his integrity, or to fall into the hands of criminals, financial wheeler dealers and old cronies. Or, is RW already a prisoner of the Pohottuwa party?

Dr. Pathum Kerner (PK) has presented his proposals for system change in a YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTOXSCjmB0g While the revolutionary youth of the 1970s under Wijeweera demanded full nationalisation, PK proposes to go beyond JRJ towards “a complete privatisation” of the internally economy. Everyone complains of the large size of the government. It runs most of the industries and services using 1.5-2 million to do the work of 0.5 million. PK makes the same complaint, and speaks glowingly of Thatcher and Regan. He points to how the state sector is used by politicians to give contracts and employment to their cronies. New business licences are issued through patronage. An arrack permit brings ten to twenty million rupees to the politician. “The system” breeds corruption and cronyism. PK alludes to the need for law and order, transparency, efficiency and shrinking the government — the standard neoliberal narrative since Margret Thatcher.

Neoliberal economies “legalise” corruption by institutionalising lobbying. Following Thatcher will need tough inhuman steps that only a government armed with draconian powers can carry out, in culling out one million government employees. Pathum Kerner refused to elaborate how he hopes to do this. A large part of the “government business” is in providing health, education, security, infrastructure and public transport. PK avoids these inconvenient topics.So, the Aragalaya Right offers the usual free-market deregulation imposed under an iron hand a la Pathum Kerner, while the Aragalaya Left offers the usual socialist workbook imposed by the July 10th revolutionaries with their helmets, motor bicycles and incendiary devices?

Removing a million workers to shrink the government will cause economic collapse even if they go without a fight, because removing a million consumers from the market will cause a market slump. A country facing economic collapse immediately needs MORE GOVERNMENT intervention and not less. The governments can buy stock in private companies and inject money. The claim that governments must sell off loss-making enterprises to come out of an economic crisis is inconsistent with macro-economic dynamics. When employment is terminated, the government must pay unemployment allowances to keep people solvent, and ensure that their collective loss of buying power does not kill the market. The government can safely divest itself of profit-making businesses, but it has to restructure and re-invest in loss-making businesses, unless they are nonessential businesses that can be closed up. Issuing of licences and permits should be tied to bank loans, so that the liabilities of failed businesses or corrupt contracts become a bank liability. Politicians should be barred from sponsoring projects and limit themselves to legislation. Strong executive powers are needed to enforce social stability during a crisis.

 Meanwhile, strategic sectors like energy and food must be re-organised (jointly with foreign entrepreneurs where needed) to exploit the special advantages that Sri Lanka has. The large potential in hydropower obtained by reducing evaporation, diesel from vegetable oils, biomass energy etc., can be developed with limited forex expenditure, unlike solar energy that needs forex in the initial stages. The food and plantation sectors too need forex, but this is immediately recovered within the year with good margins when the products are exported.

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