Welfare and the 'dependent'
Come what may, the welfare system is vibrantly alive
in this country and this is something the rulers and the ruled
alike could take pride in. To be sure, the 'welfare basket' is
costing Sri Lanka a pretty penny but the people are enabled to
tide over their difficulties and make ends meet on account of
the state subsidizing at least part of their expenses.
The recent price hikes of essentials such as fuel and
electricity have taken many off balance but the state was quick
to come out with a relief basket to meet at least part of the
people's needs and this is a positive which should not go
unnoticed. No less a person than President Mahinda Rajapaksa is
going among the people right now and leaving no stone unturned
to meet their essential requirements.
Such concern has its roots in the commitment of progressive
governments in this country to the basics of the welfare state.
In fact yesterday the Progressives of this country celebrated
the 56th anniversary of the 'Social Revolution of 1956.' That
is, the coming into being of a body-politic that for the first
time in post-independence Sri Lanka gave pride of place to the
ordinary people of this country.
This was an important turning point in the political history
of this country because Sri Lanka's internal political power
balance tilted strongly in favour of the ordinary man, woman and
child after the historic electoral triumph of the Mahajana
Eksath Peramuna in 1956 headed by the legendary S.W.R.D.
Coupled with this dramatic shift in power came an economic
development paradigm which placed emphasis on the mobilization
of the people in achieving development and on taking to the
people welfare measures which would help greatly in their
empowerment in every conceivable respect. In other words, the
people came to be seen as a vital driving force of history. The
people's representatives from this time onwards were mainly from
the more disadvantaged sections of society and these
representatives, thanks to the welfare state system which gave
them a Free Education, went on to be the drivers of
post-independence Sri Lanka.
However, welfarism could be said to have suffered setbacks
from time to time from then on, although the essentials of the
system remained intact.
There were the years following the 1977 polls triumph by the
UNP, for instance, which not only saw the 'rolling back' of the
political map of Sri Lanka but also witnessed the steady
diminishing of the local welfare system.
Suddenly subsidies and welfare assistance to the people were
seen as a hindrance rather than as an incentive to
socio-economic development. Accordingly, the welfare state too
was drastically cut down to size and the 'unkindest cut' of the
abolishing of the 'rice ration' too was administered with
It is the height of political irony that the self same UNP is
today attempting to portray itself as championing the cause of
our welfare-sustained public.
Be that as it may, there is no denying that the
cost-effectiveness of current welfare measures must be carefully
assessed by the state, although the state would remain committed
to the principle of welfarism as long as progressive-minded
persons are at the helm of governance. The government would need
to do some tight rope walking on this front because it has to
strike a balance between meeting the essential needs of the
people and discouraging in them what Prime Minister D. M.
Jayaratne has referred to as a 'dependent mentality.'
But the most vulnerable sections of Sri Lankan society must
be looked after by the state and the latter is doing this quite
readily, thereby testifying to the vibrancy of our welfare
legacy. For instance, the fuel needs of the poor are being met.
Such measures make us wonder whether the Opposition could have a
case against the state on this score.
But the concomitant of the 1956 development paradigm is the
mobilization of the people in the development effort and this
must be initiated and sustained forthwith.
The empowerment of the people and their mobilization in the
development drive must go together and this is the most decisive
answer to the 'dependence' syndrome.