Working class in Sri Lanka caught between Hamu serfdom and Samurai graduates

The attempt to block less-affluent youth from entering the three wheeler taxi business shows a deep problem in society, a tendency toward authoritarianism, and general disregard for liberty and freedom

Sri Lanka’s toiling workers in the private sector who stand on their own feet are an unfortunate lot, caught between a neo-feudal ‘Hamu’ elected ruling class who want to block their entry to the services sector and Samurai unemployed graduates who have created an entitlement culture and are skimming off the fat of the land.

The shameless attempt to block less-affluent youth from the three wheeler taxi business shows a deep problem in Sri Lanka’s society,a tendency toward authoritarianism and general disregard for liberty and freedom that will hold back progress in this country for decades.

When Japan started its modernization and industrialization during the Meiji restoration, one of the most important steps was to break the feudal entitlement system of the Samurai that had sucked the blood off the people during the period of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

There were an estimated 1.9 million Samurai, in a general population of 34 million people in Japan, in the late 19th century. In Sri Lanka today, there are 1.9 million state workers getting lifetime pensions, though many are in fact doing useful jobs.

The real ‘Samurai’ who do not do any useful job are the unemployed graduates, for whose benefit tens of thousands of non-existent state jobs are created. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is spearheading the latest drive. Another group of prominent neo-Samurai are the development officers of the Samurdhi Department, who together with Basil Rajapaksa, a member of the hereditary elected ruling class, converted an authority with EPF to a department with lifetime pensions. The Samurdhi development officers, who came to alleviate poverty of the poor, have certainly alleviated their own at the expense of the rest of the society. Like the Samurai, they do now have the slightest qualm about fleecing taxpayers. They take it as their due.

Rajapaksa’s late father, three brothers and nephew are members of the elected ruling class, at the same time. But this family is hardly unique, though it is an emblematic case at this time.

It goes without saying that, in all major parties, the elected ruling class is now hereditary with brothers, cousins, wives becoming members, and their fathers and uncles before them.

It is in this context that attempts by the elected ruling class and policymakers to stop the youth from buying and operating a three wheeler come into play. Their excuse is that factory owners are complaining there are no workers and jobs are going a begging. There are also complaints of a shortage in construction workers and manual laborers to work in their own homes.

First, blaming three wheelers for the reluctance of people to work in so-called 3-D jobs is ridiculous and makes no sense. It is made without evidence. According to the census department, unemployment within the 20-29 age category is 15.7 percent. Of this, within the 20-24 category, it is 21.2 percent. Within the 25-29 year category, it is 10.7 percent. The fact of the matter is that these girls and boys have no jobs even after counting three wheelers.

Unemployment above 30 years is 0.8 percent for men. So people will have to leave some other employment and become a three wheeler driver, while younger people are waiting without a job, creating further distortions in the economy. The so-called experts brought three wheeler regulations with all this evidence in plain sight. They do it because it is in the nature of bureaucrats to regulate. in the conceit that they know better than anyone of what society needs. This type of unthinking interventions of course is typical of all state interventions. However, from the point of
view of three-wheeler associations who originally came up with the suggestion, it makes perfect sense. Stifle competition and maintain their customer base. This is exactly what the Government Medical Officers Association is doing. Interventions going against the wishes and needs of society to fulfill the vicious vicarious desires of an authoritative ruling class are bound to produce negative effects.

At the moment, three wheelers are filling a valuable gap in the economy created by a regulated bus service, which has been put in a straight jacket by an allegedly corrupt route licensing system and regulatory framework.

Three wheelers are exporting services taking tourists around. Because of three wheelers, many out-of-the-way tourist spots are opening up. Hotels and home stays quite inland and off the main roads have become accessible and viable due to three wheelers. Three wheelers are one of the most dynamic sectors of the economy. There is a lot of innovation because there are no regulations to stifle it. Call centres have come up, which offer anything from three wheelers to goods transport trucks. Ride sharing apps have been set up. PickMe is giving Uber a good run for its money. Unfortunately, a lot of bureaucrats and ‘experts’ who do not use evidence are bringing these regulations.

Uber was highly successful in regulated markets in the West where taxi driver unions and the state had set up licensing systems, making it difficult for new taxis to enter. Uber was essentially arbitraging this regulatory premium. That is why, in Asia, they had a harder time. In East Asian countries like Vietnam, Grab Taxi had already bought Uber.

The ruling class in Sri Lanka is prepared to halt all this because they do not have manual workers to serve them. Similar complaints were made when apparel factories came up in the 1980s and girls found EPF-paying jobs. Suddenly, for the Hamu Mahaththayas and Nonas, it was difficult to get a ‘servant’.

Why then are the Transport Minister and other ruling class members behaving like Hamu Mahaththayas blocking entry into the service sector of less-affluent workers?

Minister Mangala Samaraweera hit the nail on the head when he said all complaints are against poor people. If similar acts are done by the upper society, there is no blame. The current administration is giving taxpayer-funded jobs to unemployed graduates. These graduates will go on to become coercive bureaucrats who may well put more and more regulations on the people. It is ok for unemployed graduates to get non-existent state jobs at the expense of society, but it is not good for less-educated kids to buy a three wheeler with their own money, paying massive import and excise taxes, and use petrol, paying taxes for every kilometer they run.

How is this vicious double standards of a feudal serfdom possible?

Serfdom (Wedasawam system), where people were placed in specific jobs based on land tenure, was ended by the British. In Japan, the system was broken during the Meiji Restoration by granting free hold and ending service tenure with taxes.

The ending of Serfdom creates a free society where people can change the job from what their fathers did and move to another.

The ending of Serfdom creates a free society where people can change the job from what their fathers did

It is not only in traditional serfdom that jobs were pre-decided by the ruling class. Authoritarian regimes tend to follow the same trend. It was the same in communist and fascist state, as Frederic von Hayek explained so eloquently in ‘Road to Serfdom’. Planning is a sign of authoritarianism, much worse than the relatively benign serfdom during monarchies.

In fact, some of the people who are complaining against three wheelers say that it is ‘unplanned’ growth. But the fact is that no bureaucrat has ever been able to plan. That is why planned societies across Russia and Eastern Europe collapsed. China and Vietnam prospered after they abandoned planning and allowed private initiative. How then is Nimal Siripala de Silva and other members of the ruling class so willing to engage in such acts to maintain a privilege (cheap labour) for their business cronies and themselves?

One explanation is that the elected ruling class considers these privileges routine and takes them as their due, just as French and other aristocracies did, until the revolution. In Sri Lanka, there has been no struggle for tax justice. Both the elected ruling class and their servants enjoy a number of privileges, many of which were in fact given to them by the United National Party and President Premadasa. One privilege of having tax-free salaries was ended by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which every second class citizen in the private sector must appreciate.

The practice of giving tax-free cars started during the 1980s. President Premadasa gave not Japanese cars, but BMWs to members of parliament. Provincial Councilors were given the so-called ‘Pala Baba’ Mitsubishi Pajeros tax-free.

They promptly sold the cars and pocketed the tax. Now, getting a tax-free car has become an institutionalized privilege of the ruling class, violating the fundamental principles of laws, that of being equal before the law. State workers of all kinds get tax-slashed cars, while ordinary serfs pay massive taxes. The elected ruling class gets pensions after 5 years. Many of their relations are in their personal staff, so they also get pensions.

All this shows that the elected ruling class behaves as a super class of privileged persons, for whose benefit ordinary people in the private sector must toil and pay taxes. This could be the reason that they see no wrong in a despicable authoritarian proposal to ban young people from owning a three wheeler.

It is not the first time that the elected ruling class had tried to recreate Serfdom, and succeeded to a great extent. While in the West capitalist societies emerged with the ownership of land by the sovereign (king) passing on to the people through free hold, Sri Lanka restricted freehold almost as soon as the British left.

The British themselves took over as crown land, property that people could not prove ownership through the waste land ordinance, which blocked the development of freehold. Land ownership had barely started to develop during the Dutch period and this was a low blow. However, the British did release state land for many purposes, giving crown title.

After independence, the remaining freehold was expropriated from the people and given to the new king, the state. This is why communist states failed and their agriculture collapsed.

Service tenure was re-introduced through the Paddy Lands Act, tying people to the land, medieval style. Farmers are not only prohibited from putting land to more productive activities, but even from growing anything other than rice in paddy land.

There are also laws preventing coconut farmers from putting their land to better use.

Plantations Industries Minister Navin Dissanayake (generally a pro-market person), whose father was also a member of the elected ruling class, has proposed a rule to stop the fragmentation of tea and rubber land.

The reason? To preserve land for large industrial projects.

From another side, the Central Bank is depreciating the currency permanently and robbing real wages in bid to push people on to the factory floor. But young people do not want to go. The Central Bank has also placed credit restrictions on three-wheeler purchases. So it is also complicit in killing the aspirations of society.

When industrialization caught up in the West, nationalist reactionaries opposed it saying agriculture was better. That agriculture is superior is a part of agrarianism, which is a subset of nationalism.

Why then are the Transport Minister and other ruling class members behaving like Hamu Mahaththayas blocking entry into the service sector of less-affluent workers?

Sri Lanka’s Paddy Land Act, restrictions against better use of coconut and other plantation are all results of agrarianism. The proponents of agrarianism did not see that industrialization brought far more benefits.

In the same way, today, moves are afoot to block the less-affluent from moving to the service sector in a bid to provide manpower to factory owners and construction companies.

Preventing people from moving into the service sector and the worship of industry is just as illogical today as agrarian-nationalists opposing industrialization. What all this shows is that Sri Lanka’s society has a long way to go to gain freedom and prosperity. The biggest price will be paid by the aspirational poor who are less educated, who find their advancement blocked at every turn by regulations, Hamu-Samurai neo-feudals, who are intent on preserving their privileges and industrialism.