Growing up in the ‘hal-polu’ days

Chanuka Wattegama, a 70s child, narrates the socio-economic impact of the closed economy on the middle class of the day

Responding to a signal, my father stops his old 2 Sri 6536 Ford Escort station wagon. Two police officers search the vehicle. No, not for firearms. Neither for smuggled goods. They only want to make sure we don’t transport rice to the South of the island. “Are you on a pilgrimage?” one even opens our pots of cooked rice and vegetables. “Yes, mahattaya… We left Colombo early morning. We are innocent. We do not smuggle rice. We have cooked food to eat on our way…” That was my grandmother. She typically likes to narrate stories in full.

After an unsuccessful operation lasting a few minutes, they shut the boot.

“It is our job, mahattaya….” says one constable. “Otherwise, who would be silly enough to transport rice to Kataragama from Colombo?”

That was the first ‘hal-polla’ we encountered on our way. I counted two more ‘hal-polu’ and two ‘miris-polu’. We were stopped  nd searched at each. It was the law of the land. The government had banned the transport of more than two pounds of rice or chilies without a license.

Such entertainment was part of the life of a five-year-old kid in 1973.

Yes, I belong to that unfortunate generation. In a way, the government even robbed our childhood. No other government I know, post-independence, had let children suffer like that. My younger sister lives a normal life today because a black marketer sold imported powdered milk to us. Milk food was rare. The co-operative shop, the only place that sold powdered milk, received a stock once in a while, which disappeared fast. We were not members of the ruling political party, so we were low priority. We had little option. Either you buy fresh milk, again rare in the cities, or feed young kids other food. People sometimes stood two hours in a morning bread queue to purchase one loaf. The desperately poor sold their sugar rations and accompanied their tea with jaggery.

At social gatherings, I have noticed what food folks from my generation select. Usually, they love apples, grapes, cheese and chocolates. Pity us. As a result of exchange controls, we were a generation deprived of these foods. When I went to India as an undergraduate, my friends there were perturbed by my love for apples. I described to them how our whole family once shared just one apple brought by a relative from overseas. Elders say that was the time we started the very Sri Lankan habit of bringing presents for family and friends when returning from overseas. This was also the era of manioc. In the tropics, yams are the third-largest source of food carbohydrates, after rice and maize. As a crop, they are also drought-tolerant and can be grown on marginal soil – a major staple food in the developing world, providing important calories for over half a billion people. However, forcing it as an alternative to a population used to eating rice three times a day wasn’t wise. Then came prohibition: No rice could be served at restaurants twice a week. This was while rulers feasted on super luxury basmati rice.

With imports limited, we wore locally made garments. They would have been alright had they not smelled of kerosene. My mother washed them separately, as their soluble colours otherwise ruined our white school uniforms. The poor had to depend on the few yards of cheap, low-quality material distributed through co-operative shops.

These were perhaps tolerable compared to the difficulties we faced in learning. No imported materials were available. Locally manufactured pencils were of low quality. They had to be sharpened a number of times a day as the tip broke often. As a result, a pencil would last a week if used carefully. Coloring pencils somehow didn’t color. Packs of felt pens, for an unexplained reason, always missed the yellow colour. Fountain pens, of which only two locally made brands were available, were of poor quality. Local watercolor sets were simply pathetic. You just couldn’t paint with them.

At least two works of local fiction (both semi-autobiographical) I have read describe the severe difficulties we faced. The first one is Manuka Wijesinghe’s Monsoons and Potholes (2006). From her narration, I guess she is of the same age. In her story, the protagonist (coincidentally a girl named ‘Manuka’) takes ‘mukunuwenna sandwiches’ to school, as that was what her parents could afford. She once makes friends with a classmate she hates just for a bite of a chinese role – a super luxury then. If you replace ‘mukunuwenna’ with ‘pol sambol’, it was my own story. Even though they were available (only local brands), our middle class parents could not afford jam and butter frequently.

The second one, Amma (2014) by well-known writer Upul Shantha Sannasgala narrates a more poignant story. The protagonist is the tenth child of a poor family in the Central Province. He is so undernourished that the villagers call him ‘the boy with a big head’. The famine and economic policies leave him and his siblings no choice other than living on innutritious food – the only stuff they could find in their village. He steals a tin of powdered milk from a relatively well-to-do neighboring family. He faints on his first day at school. He works as a child laborer, carrying sacks of tea leaves too heavy for his age and size for 50 cents a journey.

Yes, our generation was one of the most malnourished ones. Incidents of Kwashiorkor were frequently reported during the period. I still cannot understand why our government made us suffer like that. Did it help to increase GDP per capita? No. Did it make Sri Lanka a developing nation? No. The only positive impact was the development of a few domestic industries. These may have contributed towards growing GDP by 2%. Should a nation take all that trouble for such a tiny transformation? I don’t think so.

The funniest part, in retrospective, is that the government could have done all that with good intentions, firmly believing that it would be the best for the people. Dr N M Perera, the legendary minister of finance at the time, has been one of the cleanest politicians in Sri Lankan history. He never seemed to have a personal agenda. This was his genuine agenda for the country – to make it prosperous and self-sufficient. It’s interesting what it brought to the people in reality