Cooperatives as cures for the
readers of the sixties and seventies generation cannot be
faulted for thinking of the Cooperative Movement with some mixed
feelings. In those times, when market forces were on a tight
leash, it was to the local cooperative store that one turned for
one's daily provisions. The 'Cooperative' was always there for
the consumer but the task of acquiring one's essentials from
these institutions, whose interiors were invariably 'suffocatory'
and stuffy, proved agonizing for most citizens. Besides, quite a
few of these establishments were hit by financial and corruption
scandals which tended to alienate the consumer from them.
Those times have gone down in the post-independence economic
history of this country as the 'queues and quotas era.' It is a
misnomer to characterize those years as pertaining to a 'closed
economy' as such, but the average consumer certainly did not
have much of a choice when it came to satisfying his needs. With
severe restrictions on the import of consumables and other
essential requirements, coupled with tight exchange control
regulations, the economic environment was seemingly stifling and
the grouses of the consumer were understandable.
In those not so promising times for the average consumer, the
neighbouring cooperative store or outlet stood out like an oasis
of sorts in the dreary desert, despite its numerous blemishes
and shortcomings. What was so positive about those times was
that everyone was assured of his or her plate of 'daily rice',
making good the election boast of a Prime Minister of those days
that she would go to any lengths to keep the masses fed, even if
it meant 'importing rice from the moon.'
Come 1977 and the economic policy of the state underwent an
explosive revolutionary change. With a seeming suddenness which
was staggering for the man of the street, almost all economic
controls were relaxed and Sri Lanka entered what is referred to
as the 'open economy era.' Almost everything a consumer's heart
desired was there for the buying and at a price, from grapes and
apples to the most dazzling and alluring attire, sporting the
most prestigious brand names, and the best of shiny cars from
the busiest factories of the West and East Asia.
The 'open economy', in other words, was a rich man's delight.
If one had the means nothing could get in the way of one
satisfying one's heart's desires. But a critique that was
trenchantly leveled at the liberalized economy, and which still
holds water, is that it does not ensure the economic well being
of the poorer sections of society. It is said that when a one
time Minister of a Leftist persuasion, who was in the
administration which regulated the 'closed economy', was told,
at the height of the 'open economy' in the mid-seventies, that
people no longer had to search garbage bins for a morsel of food
now, since the times of hardship were no more, the former
Minister had quipped that such searching 'would prove futile
today, because even the bins did not have food remnants'. Such
were the economic rigours, apparently, which the liberalized
economy introduced for the poor of the land when it manifested
itself in the seventies.
The quotable anecdote illustrates the seeming extremes of
economic policy. It just would not do to rush from one policy
extreme to the other. In these times, when the economy could be
viewed with the wisdom that time brings, it could be seen that a
middle course in the handling of the economy is best. While
economic controls should not prove stifling and be intolerant of
economic and business entrepreneurship, we cannot swerve to the
other extreme and imagine that the 'market' would take care of
All this drives home the advisability of persisting with our
humble cooperative establishments and with the time-tested
Sathosa, which has proved so handy in our time of need. Prices
would have proved unbearable, for instance, for the less
privileged and wealthy, at the time of the National New Year in
April, if Sathosa did not prevail and deliver the goods.
Some satisfaction could be derived from the fact that the
Mahinda Rajapaksa administration's commitment to the
'Cooperative' is remaining and that political leaders are
continuing to pledge their allegiance to the system. Prime
Minister D.M. Jayaratne, only the other day went on record that
'internal trade could prosper through the cooperative system.'
The government would, indeed, do well to sustain cooperation.
The law of the wild cannot be permitted to penetrate the human