The burden of our wellbeing: Seeing class within narratives of blame

By Shamala Kumar

Any type of protest, today, is met with brutal force and a campaign that systematically attacks its leaders and uses fear tactics to dissuade others. Perhaps, the biggest weapon is psychological, however; separating those who can endure the economic crisis, or even thrive during it, from those who struggle to survive. By pitting the haves against the have-nots, with firm commitments towards the more powerful former, at the expense of the latter, the government has chosen sides. This campaign includes the silencing of sources of organization, such as trade unions, and student and civil society groups, that would otherwise collectively and forcefully demand for justice.

The state’s relegation of its responsibility to protect economic justice, and its attack on any form of collective action, affects all aspects of the country, including our wellbeing. As educational reforms are proposed and speedily enacted, the framing of the problems within the sector, discordance between the proposed reforms and the actual problems, coupled with familiar narratives that delegitimize and effectively silence democratic opposition, leave me with a sense of hopelessness. It seems that education, too, will soon become even more inaccessible to those that most need support during these trying times.

A crisis placed on the shoulders of the poorest

Education, educational reforms, and the public’s engagement with these reforms, cannot be discussed separately from the hardship that we face and the sense that we alone must find solutions to our hardships. According to a Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report, released in September, by mid-2022, nearly 40% of Sri Lankan households were consuming an inadequate diet, with 25% stating that they had fewer meals and 50% reporting reductions in portion size. These statistics vary by who we are. For instance, within the lowest income quintile, one in eight households had eaten no protein at all in the preceding week. By June 2022, nearly a fourth of families had resorted to crisis-mode “livelihood-based” coping strategies, such as selling productive assets, reducing health expenses, and withdrawing children from school. These behaviours would affect not only the wellbeing of families at present, but also their capacity to sustain themselves in the long run as their source of livelihood, their health, and their ability to achieve education is retarded.

The 2023 budget allocations indicate little relief compounded by cuts to health and education. Public hospitals can no longer provide some laboratory services and medications that were previously provided. I get a running commentary from Swarna (name changed), the department’s cleaning staff member, who must cope with her mother’s uncontrolled diabetes. As she is employed through an outsourced service provider, a trip to the hospital is very difficult. She must forgo her daily wage, pay exorbitant three-wheeler charges to get her mother to the hospital for her check-up, and use private services for blood work as the hospital is out of supplies. She must, on a regular basis, therefore, decide whether she can truly afford to take care of her mother, a decision that nobody should have to make. Each of her costs can be attributed to decades of short-sighted national policies; those that have destroyed worker rights to decent work, failed to provide quality affordable public transport, defunded public health and welfare, and ignored elder care. Now all of this is Swarna’s problem, not ours or the government’s.

As I drive to work each day, a luxury that I can still afford, I regularly see women with huge stacks of firewood, balanced on their heads, walking home having taken on the burden placed on them. The government imposed a regressive revision of electricity tariffs, with those at the lowest consumption levels experiencing the greatest increases in tariffs, from around Rs. 50 to around Rs. 500. This move was made while the country heatedly debated corruption, within the CEB, and the complicity of CEB trade unions, in the wastefulness and inefficiencies, within the CEB. At a time when trade unions could have played a pivotal role in bringing attention to the unjust nature of these tariff revisions, they were left defending themselves, weak and unable to address the government’s moves to attack the most vulnerable of the country’s citizenry. These tariffs, combined with the exorbitant cost of other fuel sources, have meant a transition to firewood.

University students have their own worries. Some students must now support themselves and even their families who seem to be grappling with a range of financial difficulties, health concerns, and worries regarding the education of younger siblings. Universities do not have the funds or resources to run academic programmes, much less support students through their many crises, including the epidemic of mental health issues that seems to afflict them. Their stories, much like the stories of those who remain hungry, involve ailing family members or loss of income, and seem disconnected from government policy.

Education and mis-education

University students, the biggest force in protecting public free education and a source of strength, within the Aragalaya, have been speaking out, but are attacked, and silenced, much like the CEB unions. Several student leaders are currently incarcerated, labelled as ungrateful of free education and useless. Others, who participated in the Aragalaya, are regularly called for “questioning” involving 10 to 12 hours of interrogation. Many students, and their families, live in fear, not knowing when they may be called upon.

A second line of attack involves the discourse surrounding ragging that has been successfully co-opted by the government. Ragging is a serious problem. Solving it requires dedicated resources, including staff, addressing hierarchies, within the university system, and shifting the mindset of students, staff, and the general public, and, perhaps, most importantly, the political will to sincerely effect change. However, the present discourse on universities and students tend to provide simplistic and unhelpful analyses of education problems and does little to solve them. They do, however, manage to put staff and student groups on the defensive, and conveniently overlook how government policies (ones they continue to follow) have served to politicise the functioning of universities, underfund education, and forcibly impose other neoliberal reforms, all of which have contributed to ragging. Instead of providing universities with resources and support to address problems, including ragging, in a meaningful way, orchestrated narratives conflate these many problems into one solely about ragging and student unions.

As I listen, frustrated, to students speaking of their problems, and sometimes crying, I can’t help but wonder at the Government’s insensitivity. Recently the President publicly discussed expanding private education to increase higher education opportunities. Such solutions offer little to address the soul crushing crisis that is particularly hurting the poorest amongst us. Do they not see or care that fee levying education has sucked up so much of the meagre resources allocated to public education through subsidy schemes, loans, and human resource depletion? Do they not understand that these policies will do little to support those with the greatest needs at a time when these needs are dire? These interventions may provide some students with educational opportunities, but they come with huge social costs, as disparities between the rich and the poor increase and the state education system gradually disintegrates; a cost that must be borne by those who can least afford to.

Against this backdrop, collective action seems to be the only path to some form of salvation. The government, sadly but predictably, is attacking all forms of organisation that might facilitate democratic engagement. We must, however, challenge the government and reject narratives that both tap into our sense of class-based privilege (if applicable) and cruelly frame collective social problems as those of individuals and families. Let’s start by recognising the collective nature of the economic crisis that we are experiencing and protecting the right to dissent.