Monday 24th April, 2023

‘The Land of Cockaigne’, the English translation of a 13th Century French poem, tells us about an imaginary land of plenty, where houses are made of cake and other such delicious food items; rivers of milk are flowing and everything is available free of charge. But on reading recent news items in the local media, one wonders whether ‘Cockaigne’ is real and found on a manmade eyot in the Diyawanna Lake.

Sri Lanka is facing the worst-ever economic crisis, and the people are undergoing untold hardships. But the elected are free from such trouble; in fact, they are living high on the hog. They and their kith and kin move about in super luxury vehicles, junket and occupy palatial houses that fit Coleridge’s description of Kubla Khan’s Xanadu. Besides, there is no end to the expansion of their bulging waistlines, a sign of gluttony.

Parliament has decided to stop serving mutton in its restaurants, according to some media reports. We are not in a position to vouch for the veracity of these news items. If they are not true, Parliament should issue a denial fast. Otherwise, one should not be faulted for concluding that the MPs have been relishing subsidised mutton, among other delicacies, at Parliament, while the ordinary people are struggling to dull the pangs of hunger, or keep the wolf from the door. Mutton is so expensive in this country that it has become a luxury that only the super-rich, politicians included, can afford. The public cannot consume even eggs, whose prices are soaring.

A survey conducted by the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute has revealed that due to the crippling economic crisis and the resultant increase in food inflation, the ordinary public has cut down on the consumption of food items such as beans, carrot, brinjal and leafy vegetables, and the demand for relatively affordable kohila has been increasing. The survey report, titled, “Economic Crisis and Household Food Security in Sri Lanka – 2022,” paints a bleak picture of the food situation in the country, as we reported three weeks ago. It says many people have opted to consume fewer food items or skip meals or reduce the amount of victuals.

One may recall that, in the late 1980s, the JVP coined a pithy slogan to mobilise the rural youth by highlighting the high life which the urban elite used to live at the expense of their less fortunate counterparts elsewhere—kolombata kiri, gamata kekiri (‘milk for Colombo and melon for village’). Curiously, the Reds in the House at present have not raised any objections to expensive meat reportedly being served at subsidised prices in the Parliament canteen while the people are being urged to tighten their belts for the sake of the country. Will they come up with something like ‘unta elu mas, apita kohila’—’mutton for them and kohila for us’?

It has been quite a struggle for even middle-class citizens to make ends meet. Professionals who were lucky enough to enjoy some middle-class comforts earlier are also experiencing pecuniary woes now; they are up in arms, unable to pay extremely high taxes and loan installments. They are leaving the country in droves to prevent themselves from being reduced to penury. The government does not seem to give a tinker’s cuss about the unprecedented human capital flight, which has taken a heavy toll on many institutions, especially the state-run hospitals. Even fresh medical graduates are leaving the country, we are told. Malnutrition is rampant among children, some of whom faint in schools. It defies comprehension why heavily subsidised meals should be made available to the elected while the electors are experiencing all kinds of shortages and deprivations and skipping meals.

It is only natural that some professionals migrate and others protest when they see politicians, who are not eligible to secure employment in the state sector even as labourers, living like Citizen Kane. Here is the meat of the matter: public anger is welling up and anti-politics is on the rise. Unless the elected stop getting the electors’ goat, they will be in shtook. They will have to do much more than stopping the consumption of subsidised mutton. They must adopt the same austerity measures as the public. Pork barrel politics won’t do.