The formal New Year ceremonies may have largely ended last week, but the fireworks still get lit at some family evenings while loudspeakers broadcast fun and frolic at Avurudu festive events. The traditional New Year is the oldest and most widely celebrated Sri Lankan festival that marks a traditionally significant moment of seasonal change in our social life.
The changes in the positions of the most visible heavenly bodies are interpreted in consonance with the coinciding harvesting season for the most important food crop. And the rice harvest phase is governed by the seasonal shift in weather patterns. It is a time of bounty to the community, a most important bounty of life: food. The gathering up of food crops is, traditionally, a moment of hope for our collective future, a stepping into a new phase in life, a time of change - hopefully for the better.
Thus, the traditional New Year festival is the moment when most Sri Lankans, especially, of the two main ethnic communities, customarily celebrate change in their lives and their collective hope of change for the better. ‘Happy New Year’ is a wish offered by Sri Lankans to each other during the traditional New Year period in full awareness that we are continuing a practice of our forebearers over a very long period of social history on this island. The affirmation of this lengthy communal memory is, in turn, an affirmation of our sense of identity and strength as a society.
While today, ‘culture’ is the theme of celebration – in the religious ritual, the family festivities, community fun – in pre-modern times, the end of the harvest season and the assessment of the community’s food prospects were decisive moments in socio-economic life.
Today, Sri Lankans have prospered by their own efforts to achieve something beyond simple survival as humans. Our attainment of middle-income country status means that production systems have reached a level where national food supplies are assured far beyond a single crop cycle – as long as climate change does not interfere.
Life is no longer simply a struggle. Although our society remains divided by serious economic cleavages, those at the lowest economic rungs still live well above the physical survival level. While some economic challenges do remain, it is at the social and cultural level that public discourse today focuses.
Even a slight increase in inflation, did not daunt New Year shoppers in recent weeks. True, the cost of living is a challenge for many people at lower income levels, but to an increasing number of citizens, the efficiency of governance, the proprieties of governance and the enhancement of finer aspects of civilization like the arts, leisure and intellectual life are, today, as important as the cost of living.
When change is to occur, there is an expectation for the future, a search for prospects and a hope for the best. Changes, therefore, imply a promise of new things.
After over a decade of repressive and shamefully brutal, corrupt rule during the previous regime, and over several decades of internal wars, Sri Lankan sought political change in 2015, and the current regime is now being called on to fulfil its promises of change.
While the recent UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva did provide Sri Lanka with more time to navigate the difficult terrain of the ethnic conflict, the governing leadership has many other major challenges at the political and social planes.
The promise of political reform of our battered democracy is yet awaited by a citizenry that is tired of authoritarianism and nepotism. Social policy, especially, in the areas of education and health services remains wholly unclarified with much confusion and obfuscation left behind by the Rajapaksas barely addressed. In education alone, there are numerous areas of administration and development that are needed if our ‘lower-middle-income’ status is not to go higher.
Most urgent is the huge debt crisis and the need for international solidarity for Sri Lanka to scramble out of it.
Sri Lankans wishing each other a ‘Happy New Year’ must surely be wondering how ‘happy’ the new year would be.
The SAITM issue is somewhat resolved, with a slight assurance that such problems of education can, indeed, be addressed and resolved in a fair manner minus the jackboot and white vans of a previous era. There are indications that anti-corruption probes are making some headway while recent arrests also indicate that investigations of assassination and political violence are also progressing.
Economic policy has been made clear, but the lack of immediate success has exposed the lack of homework being done by policy makers to further policy goals in a practical manner.
Meanwhile, the public awaits a comprehensive awareness-building about what exactly is this ‘new constitution’ that is being formulated. While various parliamentary committees and commissions are reportedly at work, there seems to be lack of public interface mechanisms to enable more public knowledge of current proceedings and real public participation.
As the country and its government last week stepped into a New Year with numerous symbolic acts of faith and hope, it is to be hoped that the auspicious signs bode well for our collective future.