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Life Under Sirimavo

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Himal Kotelawala

Himal Kotelawala

Staff Writer

‘During her first ten months in office as the world’s first woman Prime Minister, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, 45, has a record of more trouble than accomplishment. She has alarmed foreign investors with continual threats to nationalise foreign oil companies, and foreign diplomats by her close relations with the Communists and Trotskyites who supported her election. She dismayed the island’s 800,000 Roman Catholics by nationalising their schools. Last week she had to call out the army before she could quell the latest wave of opposition.’

Thus began a 1961 Time magazine piece on the world’s first female Prime Minister. The article goes on to discuss the controversial Sinhala Only Act dreamt up by her late husband S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike in 1956, and defiantly enforced by his “weeping widow” at the turn of the decade. Much has been written since then about her undeniably significant role in the fast-deteriorating relations between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities which eventually led to amped-up Tamil militancy, the repatriation of estate Tamils to India, the nationalisation of key economic sectors, and the takeover of foreign-owned businesses that led to a souring of relations with the West. And that was all in her first term.

Much, too, has been said about the 1971 insurrection that began in the early days of Bandaranaike’s second term. In the wake of the failed attempt at a bloodless military coup in 1962 (a fascinating story that deserves an article of its own), an increasingly paranoid Bandaranaike had disbanded the country’s intelligence service, fearing it was colluding with the UNP to remove her and the SLFP-led United Front coalition from power. When the armed JVP youth came calling nine years later, the country’s stupendously underprepared security forces didn’t know where to turn.

The April 1971 insurrection that took place on Bandaranaike’s watch shook the country to its core. – Image courtesy Sri Lanka Brief

Despite her many mishaps on the domestic front, Mrs. B, as she was affectionately known, was renowned for her skillful foreign relations. It was her acumen for diplomacy that saved her Government in the end from the marauding JVP forces, when military aid from India and Pakistan helped the hitherto small Sri Lanka Army thwart the insurgency before the bloodletting could escalate to 1988/’89 levels of unspeakable horror.

It was under Sirimavo Bandaranaike that Ceylon became a republic in 1972, changing its name to Sri Lanka as a result. The high regard bestowed upon her by the international community earned her the Chair of the Non-Aligned Movement (the country was host to the 1976 conference of the movement), and as far her friends in the global arena were concerned, Bandaranaike was an exemplary leader. Unfortunately for her, however, her own people back home had already been disillusioned, thanks largely to the prohibitively arduous economic conditions imposed on them by the United Front Government in the face of an unprecedented economic crisis that had threatened to cripple the nation.

A Look Back

Sirima Ratwatte weds Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike. Image courtesy Daily Mirror

Reported the New York Times on May 13, 1974:

“At dawn hundreds of people wait in bread lines. Elderly men and women pick through garbage. Thieves harvest vegetables and rice in the countryside. Although the earth is bountiful in Sri Lanka, which was formerly Ceylon, the nation of 13 million has a critical food shortage. Moreover, it is going broke, jolted by inflation, torn by internal dissension and plainly alarmed about the future. Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, a tough politician and a Socialist, said recently that the economic crisis had “almost squeezed the breath out of us—we are literally fighting to survive.” Mrs. Bandaranaike, who is the target of bitter attack, repeatedly pronounces a single, stark slogan for her nation: “Produce or perish.””

The economic hardships faced by the people during the latter years of her second term (not counting the stifling of journalistic freedom by way nationalising Lake House as well as postponing elections, among other things) had made Mrs. B, who had once caught the public’s imagination, a derided figure towards the end of her term. Though her socialist economic policies had arguably led to industrial growth (implemented with the salient objective of increasing self-reliance), it backfired spectacularly, with food shortages, rations, “haal polu” and long queues becoming her true legacy (though, needless to say, it was more complicated than that – more on that later).

Recalls Mano Ratwatte, a nephew of Bandaranaike, writing to the Island: “I remember going to see ‘Poseidon Adventure’ at the Savoy with my brother in 1975. As soon as the government film unit newsreel started playing a clip from one of her many foreign trips, the entire audience started jeering, inclusive of balcony patrons. Such was the dislike and anger people felt. Indeed, even upper class people felt a lot of resentment because they could not educate their children abroad even if they could afford it. There was a double standard there.

“I also remember standing in queue at the ‘samuupakaara samithiya’/cooperative store with the ration cards (where the current Anderson flats are) because I loved to go to sense how people felt. I remember being blackguarded by one of the clerks in a sari, because she too was frustrated at the policies that led to that sort of queues and rationing only prevalent in communist nations during that time.”

Food Rations

Bandaranaike addressing the NAM Summit in 1976. Image courtesy Daily News

Speaking to Roar, Barbara Kanathigoda, a mother of two living in Mount Lavinia at the time, recalled the severe shortages in food and other items that made life rather inconvenient even for the relatively well off.

“There were shortages of almost everything. But what impacted the people most was the shortage of staples like rice, bread, sugar, and chillies. There was also a shortage of material for school uniforms. I remember having to stand in queues for tetron cotton material for school uniforms for my daughters. The other alternative cottons were unusable,” she said.

Even bread was an exclusive item, says Kanathigoda, adding that on the rare occasion that bread was available, it had been of low quality.

“One would find bits of coir and other debris in the loaf of bread which never weighed the pound it was supposed to. Sugar was a luxury!  Even in offices when the usual cup of tea was served both in the morning as well as the evening it was accompanied with a date. During this period I went to Australia, and when I came back my suitcase was full of packets of sugar.  That was all my friends asked me to bring,” she says.

Dried, red chillies cost Rs. 40 a pound – an exorbitant amount for that period.

“Mrs. B stopped the import of chillies and wanted us to be self-sufficient by growing our own.  At that time I sympathised with that policy, because I thought it was time that we did grow our own food and not have to depend on imports. But unfortunately it takes time to be able to reach a state of self-sufficiency and the people were impatient,” she says.

Though Kanathigoda and many middle class individuals like her had to endure, she can see why the policies were necessary.

“We had rice ration books and we had to go to the cooperative stores to buy rice. Even then we could only get a certain amount of rice per ration book. If one went abroad, one had to surrender the ration book and get it back on return to the island. It was  a tough time for Sri Lanka, but not all of her policies were bad. She was trying to attain self-sufficiency but that takes time and the people were burdened and could not wait,” she says.

A Youth’s Frustration

Sirimavo Ratwatte Bandaranaike, Prime Minister of Ceylon, (now Sri Lanka), arrives at London Airport with her daughter, Chandrika, to attend the Commonwealth Prime Minister’s Conference. Image courtesy Getty Images

Dr. Mohan Perera, who was an undergraduate at the Colombo University between 1973 and 1977 recalled how his days as a student were marred by disruptions in the higher education system.

“Every examination I took was postponed for some reason or other. Once, the university was closed because there was a shortage of rice in the country, and students living away from home had to undergo immense hardship. Another time, there was a shortage of sugar and I recall sipping plain tea with a piece of jaggery (as a sugar substitute) in the university canteen. Then again, there was a lot of student unrest in those years, in large part stoked by the recently defeated militant movement, leading to university closures. So over the duration of my undergraduate course, I would have lost over a year due to campus closures,” he told Roar.

The Government’s decision to restrict imports hit the middle-class hard, and university students were not spared.

“The population had to manage with locally-produced food. This resulted in serious shortages of even essential foods, because local produce was not augmented by imports. During my undergraduate years, I remember walking half a kilometre at 5:00 a.m. every day to queue to buy two pints of Milk Board milk and two loaves of bread. If I didn’t make it on time, I would get just one pint or no milk at all. The bread supply was no better. So up at 4:30 – if you didn’t want to face the family’s ire, and subdue a rumbling stomach at the 8:00 a.m. lecture,” reminisced Dr. Perera.

As part of the overall austerity imposed by the government, Dr. Perera went on to say, wedding receptions were allowed a maximum of 200 invitees, if food was to be served.“One could not purchase air-tickets with Sri Lankan Rupees. One had to ask a friend or relative abroad to send a ‘pre-paid’ ticket, on the understanding that the foreign currency would be reimbursed somehow. Nor could one buy foreign currency in Sri Lanka for overseas travel,” he added.

Had To Be Done?

Prime Minister Bandaranaike with her Indian counterpart Indira Gandhi. Image courtesy Getty Images

While it’s true that Bandaranaike’s years in power aren’t exactly recalled fondly and a lot of the criticism levelled at her is more than justified, the fact of the matter is that socio-economic and geopolitical realities prevalent at the time did force her hand to an extent.

During her second term, Mrs. B continued many of the import substitution economic policies initiated by her late husband since 1956 with the stated objective of fighting inequality, with a special focus on free education, healthcare, and development of the rural economy. As left-leaning economist Ahilan Kadirgamar points out, many of those policies (such as the Comprehensive Rural Credit Scheme that provides low interest loans to farmers) continue to this day.

“What the United Front Government between 1970-1977 could not predict or did not expect, was the reaction of the West to their left-leaning policies and the tremendous global economic downturn of the 1970s. The capital strike by the West, resulted in the foreign investment from 1970 to 1977 being a mere Rs. 17 million but from 1977 to 1984 it was Rs. 5,448 million.

“Next, the global economic downturn during the 1970s after the collapse of the Bretton Woods arrangements and the oil crisis, as well as global downturn, led to a serious crisis in Sri Lanka which was beyond the control of the United Front Government. The landslide victory by the UNP Government in 1977, however, was not only a consequence of these economic problems, but also the political unraveling the United Front coalition in the years prior to 1977,” Kadirgamar told Roar.

Tinted Glasses

Mrs. B with first Ceylonese Governor General, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke. Image courtesy Daily News

It is tempting to lay all blame at the feet of an individual, forgetting context and inevitably falling into the all too irresistible trap of historical bias in the process; but when taking into account the period of uncertainty that was Bandaranaike’s second term, some crucial factors need to be taken into account. While there is no denying that her policies had the people in a stranglehold, certain sociopolitical and economic realities prevalent at the time did have a role to play. Academics ‒ at least those with a soft spot for the left ‒ concur.

Social Scientists’ Association (SSA) researcher and co-editor of Pathways of the Left in Sri Lanka, B. Skanthakumar, says that while there cannot be many who would defend the economic policies and record of the United Front government in the first half of the 1970s, it’s not the same as denouncing all the measures undertaken to address the problems of the imbalance in trade, tax evasion, the problem of un(der) employment, land hunger, low income, and the exploitation of producers. “There are three problems with contemporary evaluations of the 1970-1977 regime. Firstly, this period is invariably viewed through the lens of the ‘Open Economy’ that followed and its ideologists. Secondly, little or no attention is paid to the consequences of exogenous factors beyond the control of the government on its domestic strategy, as well as internal political developments. Thirdly, the legacy of the 1965-1970 United National Party-led coalition government is glossed over in accounts of the period that followed,” Skanthakumar told Roar.The narrative of queues, rations, and deprivation has been constructed, he opines, to legitimise the structural adjustment package that was introduced by the UNP government after 1977, and to create consensus on its desirability and indeed necessity (“there is no alternative to the market”), as if this was the only reality of all sections of the people in Sri Lanka.

“Which government would have been able to foresee and manage the external sector developments such as the 400% increase in the price of oil between 1973 and 1974; the 300% hike in the price of imported essentials such as rice, wheat, and sugar; adverse climatic conditions, as well as internal crises such as the 1971 JVP insurrection and tensions within the ruling coalition between its left and right?” says Skanthakumar.

The researcher argues that the United Front government inherited from what he calls its right-wing predecessor a crippling burden of external debt and subsidies for (imported) chemical fertilisers to sustain the ‘green revolution’ initiated by the latter.“None of the foregoing is intended to excuse the mistakes made by the United Front government. However, it is intended to remind us that neither the benefit of hindsight nor preparedness for the unforeseen nor an economically healthy inheritance from its predecessor was available to it,” he told Roar.

Whether one blames Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike for the hardships endured by the populace at the time or not (many do, perhaps rightly so), what cannot be discounted is that her policies did have a lasting effect on the country. To this day, people recall with disdain the quality of life (or, indeed, lack thereof) during her tenure, and the choices she made in economic, ethnic, and other fronts that have changed the course of this nation irrevocably. However, with her 101st birth anniversary fast approaching, it is worth examining and reflecting on the realities that led to her taking the decisions that she ended up taking ‒ not to apologise for her costly mistakes, but rather, to see what lessons can be learnt from them ‒ lest we allow history to repeat itself.

Featured image courtesy: delas.pt

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