There’s a descriptive that was liberally used not too long ago to describe Sri Lanka: “failed state”. Those who used that term not surprisingly were (at the time) ardent cheer-leaders of that 21st Century version of ‘White Man’s Burden,’ R2P (Responsibility to Protect). The ‘failed state,’ managed to record a comprehensive victory over terrorism, free several hundred thousand citizens held hostage, put a halt to abduction and enforced conscription and made it possible for Tamil politicians to recover voice, dignity and citizenship. These things didn’t count of course.
The plan was to use the failed-state thesis to legitimate intervention (of any kind) by global powers led by the USA and the EU to get rid of a regime these ladies and gentlemen loved to hate. There was a hitch: the people of Sri Lanka didn’t buy into all that. Eventually they (the people) did it their way; not because of what such people did but in fact in spite of them.
It was an easy term to throw around. In fact such terms are useful for those who object to a given regime. It is part of a game of vilification. It misleads and even compromises legitimate objection on account of silliness, pettiness and mischief-intent. But let us not lock ourselves in the rhetorician’s tool cupboard. Let us instead talk of our nation and its national interest, conceding of course that ‘national interest’ is also a close relative (in rhetorical sense) of ‘failed state’.
We have to acknowledge that children are not safe in our country, that women are vulnerable, that we have agreed by consent or silence to be poisoned and inflicted with all kinds of diseases, and that we have opted for a development paradigm that yields serious natural disasters that destroy property and lives.
What kind of nation are we if we cannot protect our children from preventable horrors, if we allow our waterways and soils to be poisoned and if we destroy our forest cover? How sustainable are we as a nation, if we consume more than we can afford, waste what we can reuse or recycle, and let a garbage problem literally erupt before our eyes? Is this also not a nation with a constitution that does not protect the citizenry but in fact encourages wrongdoing, celebrates arrogance and ignorance, and shields the wrongdoer? What kind of longevity can we reasonably expect as a society if the various communities living on this island treat each other with suspicion, feel insecure and vulnerable, and if their leaders privilege rhetoric and emotion over fact and reason?
What kind of nation are we if ‘sustainability’ (in practice) is about the continued exploitation of the poor, the humiliation of the weak, the fixation with moment, the non-factoring of future in strategy and implementation, and the pursuit of and indulgence in pampered lifestyles that cost among other things, the environment that is common to all citizens? Why is it that crisis of one kind or another is portrayed as an anomaly and not symptom of system failure? Why does it seem that politicians need crises for its distracting potential, the one making us forget the one that came before only to be erased from recollection by the one that follows?
Children. Water. Trees. We could reduce it all to these three factors. If we want to go further, we can factor in ‘the health of 4 generations down the line’.
We can also have a timeline with specific targets such as ’30% of agriculture to be organic by such and such a date’ with that percentage going up by specific degrees in specified time periods. We could do this for renewable energy. But all this requires holistic approaches when formulating economic and social policies. We can keep the concept of ‘growth’ but we must ensure that it is the servant of sustainability.
A sustainable nation will be a political and social collective that does not leave anyone behind. It will see difference as something natural and not as an aberration or threat. It will see people standing without fear within slapping distance because that is the very distance that makes for embrace.
A sustainable nation will put out new branches, push itself upwards and seek the cross-pollination offered by all the winds from all the directions, but it will also take care of its roots which, if severed, means death. A sustainable nation will appreciate history, learning from both the glory and the ignominy, and will have space for each generation to write its own chapter.
A sustainable nation will recognize failure and even as it does will look for solutions. The true question then is not whether Sri Lanka is/was a failed state but whether or not it is a sustainable nation. If the answer is ‘it is not’ then the only relevant political question is ‘how do we make Sri Lanka a sustainable nation on all counts?’