The Other J.r.

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SRI LANKA [image, unknown] The President - Rich nations to blame

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The other J.R.
A New Internationalist interview with the President of Sri Lanka, J.R. Jayawardene.

NI: Why is it that the quality of life in Sr Lanka — as measured by such things as the infant mortality rate or literacy or life expectancy — is so much higher than you would expect for a country whose GNP is only just over $200 per head per year?

JR: It may be because, for a long period, we have had a welfare state. We give free medicine. And our doctors are very experienced. We have now eliminated malaria, which was a grave scourge. For other illnesses, we use the latest drugs — for example against TB — which were at one time not easily controllable. We attend to mothers with pre-natal and ante natal classes and there is a lot of health education. Most of our illnesses now are due to bowel diseases — to the bad use of water. If we can get over that, it will be even better.

Another reason, I would say, is that general geographical conditions here are favourable to life, except when we have the occasional drought. We are fairly free from floods, earthquakes, cyclones. Very free, I should say. So climatic conditions are one reason. It is also a small country, easily accessible. And there is a good system of hospitals and schools throughout the island.

NI: Is it your view that Sri Lanka can no longer afford the welfare state and that social services must not take second place to economic growth?

JR: Who says that?

NI: That is the image which the UNP party now has in the industrialised world — that you are putting economic growth first and welfarism second.

JR: Ask them why they are raising the price of goods to us? I can’t afford to buy goods at the prices they are charging and also spend money on welfare. Whatever you buy from foreign countries is going up rapidly every day — flour, sugar, oil, machines, textiles. It is the biggest constraint we now have. Without changes in international economic relationships, our efforts will be under-mined.

Any government which comes to office today — Socialist or Capitalist or middle-of-the-road — has this to deal with. We have to meet the constraints which the developed countries are imposing on us.

People forget what oil prices, for example, have done to us. Mr Lee Khan Yew came here recently and told me that if they had faced this oil crisis when they were beginning to progress 10 or 15 years ago, they would not have been able to do it. People forget that.

NI: In the late 60s and early 70s you argued that Sri Lanka’s future lay with indigenous socialism. Is that still your view?

JR: I was arguing that earlier — in the 50s.

NI: Do you still believe it?

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Born in 1906, J.R. Jayawardene entered Parliament in the 1930s, became a cabinet minister more than 40 years ago, and can lay claim to being the Third World's most experienced statesman. Photo: Camera Press

JR: No. Now I think you must trim your sails to your own country’s needs and resources and forget about philosophies and theories. We have to adapt ourselves to what we can afford to spend. We are faced with an economic cyclone.

It is all we can do even to survive.

NI: During my stay here everyone I have spoken to in the slum gardens and in the villages — with very rare exceptions — has told me that they will not vote for your government again. They feel it’s just another government of broken promises.

JR: Whom are they going to vote for?

NI: The general reaction to that question is ‘I don’t know’.

JR: I also don’t know. It won’t make any difference who comes in. They’ll face the same situation. We used to give rice free and it cost about 50 or 75 cents a measure. Today it is 6 rupees a measure in the world market. How can anybody buy it at 6 rupees and give it away virtually free? Whatever the consequence of it, it just can’t be done. Neither my government nor any other government can alter it one bit. In fact, the opposition would only make it worse because they would create far less employment than we are doing. I quite agree that these voters have the right to vote against us — but they’re making the biggest mistake if they think that any other government is going to do better.

NI: Food stamps are now available to those who earn less than 300 rupees a month.

JR: Yes, it costs us almost 2 billion rupees.

NI: A lot of people who earn less than 300 rupees a month say that they are not getting food stamps. Are you satisfied that the very poorest people are not going hungry?

JR: After the first distribution, we are not distributing any more. There may be some people who are left out. But half the population is getting food stamps — it is over and above our calculations. There may be some people who are going hungry — but it’s a very small amount. There is nothing I can do.

NI: Your government is now offering an incentive of 500 rupees for anyone who volunteers for sterilisation (the incentive has since been reduced to 200 rupees). Does this incentive scheme have your personal support?

JR: Yes, or it wouldn’t have come into being.

NI: What is your view on compulsory birth control?

JR: We are not going to go in for compulsion. But I feel that people should control their families and so we are offering incentives to married people with two children. It is not available to those who have no children.

Without population growth we would have been self sufficient in rice 25 years ago. But the population growth is exceeding our development and so it is part of our development to have planned parenthood. And we intend to go on with it

Mexico today is in a distressing state because of lack of population control — I don’t want our country to come to that.

NI: It’s now five years since the tea estates were nationalised Yet the wages are still very low and conditions are still very poor. Why are the tea workers on the plantations still getting a raw deal?

JR: They are not getting a raw deal, not now. They are far better off than the villagers. The salary they get is far better than that of the villagers. And their food is provided — and they have free housing. If there are three or four in a tea estate family they can earn over 1,000 rupees a month. The villagers are envious of them.

(See ‘Life after Liptons’ on page 18 of this issue).

NI: In your career you have made many speeches about Sri Lanka’s cultural and religious values and the importance of preserving them. You are also one of the main advocates of the kind of tourism which is bringing Florida Inns and Palm Beach Hotels and all that goes with them. Don’t you find it difficult to advocate both?

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Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike who led Sri Lanka's Socialist coalition government until the UNP victory in 1977 - now deprived of civic rights.
Photo: Camera Press

JR: Except that you can’t live on culture. You must have food for the stomach and work for the hands. We have faced invasions from Europe for four or five hundred years and we have survived. This is a peaceful invasion and we will survive it too.

Besides, how are we to stop it? You cannot prohibit people from coming here. And as they are coming, we want to make the best of it because it is the fastest earner of foreign exchange and the fastest creator of employment opportunities in the world. Wherever there is a hotel and tourists come, many subsidiary industries grow, and people are well paid. One of our main problems is unemployment, so we have to welcome tourism.

NI: It’s also part of the ethos of your government to change what has been called the ‘welfare mentality’?

JR: It is a problem. We are trying to get the people out of that now. Yesterday I attended a temple function and in my speech I told the people that as I go around the country I see coconut trees bearing just one nut. In fact close to that temple there was a tree with only one nut. They all looked up. I told them that the tree ought to be growing ten nuts not one. If you sell ten nuts as opposed to one you get ten times as much money. If you eat it and drink the milk it is good for the health. And if every coconut tree in every small garden is manured then it will increase its production ten times. The people are not doing that.

NI: Why not?

JR: One reason is that they have been spoon fed. If you give them free rice then why should they manure the coconut tree? It takes time to get out of that mentality.

NI: What steps can you take to wean people away from dependence?

JR: We are not giving subsidies now. They have got to earn their living and buy their food.

NI: And yet you were saying at the beginning that it is precisely this factor of the welfare state which has resulted in a much higher quality of life in Sri Lanka.

JR: Yes, but it can’t help now. If we don’t wean people away then the quality of life will go rapidly down. There will be no employment at all. Because now there are factors we cannot control, world factors. That is the problem.

NI: In what is probably the longest political career of any living statesman, what is it that you are most proud of and would like to be remembered by?

JR: That I kept the United National Party alive after its defeat in 1956.

NI: What was it about the UNP at that time that made you want to keep it alive?

JR: After the defeat of 1956, I felt that if I did not keep the UNP alive then democracy would disappear in Sri Lanka. We had to have at least some other alternative organisation to the government in power. Bandaranaike’s coalition came into the office and we were the only other democratic party. If we had disappeared then some day when Bandaranaike’s party became unpopular (this has to you say we are also getting unpopular) then there would have been no other democratic alternative.

I contested the Municipal elections and won. Then people began to join us. So if I had gone along with the people who wanted to wind up the UNP, then we would have wound up democracy.

NI: In 40-odd years there must also be something you are ashamed of?

JR: Nothing. The political decisions I have taken may have been right or wrong but that doesn’t matter. In my own behaviour, there is nothing to be ashamed of. I have done nothing mean. I know they say I am a strategist and a schemer but you cannot be a leader unless you scheme — not in politics or in war or in any human affair. Even a boxer has to scheme — and I was a boxer when I was young — you pretend to hit the face but you hit the stomach. Oh yes, you have to scheme.

NI: What about your former opponent Mrs. Bandaranaike? Do you intend to keep her deprived of political rights?

JR: That decision was not mine. It followed on the decision of the Presidential Commission like night follows day. You don’t blame a judge for executing a man.

NI: Presumably you could personally restore Mrs Bandaranaike’s rights under the power of Presidential pardon. Do you have any intention of doing so?

JR: That I won’t tell you. Or anybody. Just now I have no intention of doing so. I don’t know, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, the situation may change. Who knows? That is not political.

A commission was not set up especially for Mrs. Bandaranaike. The other individuals who have been found guilty by this Commission have been deprived of civil rights. So why is the sacred cow to be protected?

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New Internationalist issue 105 magazine cover This article is from the November 1981 issue of New Internationalist.
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