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Why do all governments ignore middle class issues?
The plight of the emerging middle class as votes and vaults get the attention
LBR,Tuesday 25 October 2011

By Chanuka Wattegama

I assume the LBR club is predominantly bourgeoisie. Some of us might have made fortunes at the stock market and drive BMWs but wealth is not the only factor that differentiates us from the rich and poor. We are professionals; educated, we work hard for our bread and butter (using our brains, not muscles) and we like our offspring to be educated and cultured than rich and mighty. Our aspirations are different from those of the classes financially above and below us.

Middle class, no doubt, is better off than the poor. We don’t have to struggle to make ends meet on daily basis. We certainly enjoy better health facilities compared to rural and urban poor. Our livings standards are higher. This does not mean perfection as our expectations too, have augmented.

The bourgeoisie problems are unique. Let me cite just two: transport and education issues. Others too face the same, but the impact on us is critical. At least we feel so.

On a Sunday evening I drive to my office in 15-20 minutes. On the week day mornings I spend one to one and half hours on road covering the same distance. That is 2-3 hours productive time per day. Those who use Galle Road may waste more time. We arrive at our offices late and exhausted. Fortunately the private sector does not impose strict hours. Still, a rushed morning costs us. It certainly has a negative impact on our productivity.

If transport is the short time worry, education is the long time one. We don’t like to send our children to any school; we aim for particular ones. Not because they are popular, but because the rest don’t offer our choice.

I know a school at Borella that could not send a single student through G.C. E (O/L) in the past ten years. Those are not the ones we like to send our children. We spend money and time looking for better options. We change addresses or spend our hard earned leisure on old boys/girls activities, with no guarantee of success. Some of us may even consider bribing.

If primary education issues are a nuisance, with higher education it is a nightmare. The near state monopoly offers few acceptable choices. A student from Colombo or Kandy, unlike his/her rural counterparts, has to be extra smart to enter a university. Even a score as high as 60%-70% does not guarantee a entry while ‘rural students’ from ‘remote areas’ who interestingly attended the same tuition classes just walk in with much less marks. The system is harsher. The rejects by state universities have few options in higher education. The left and the so-called nationalists have so far been able to keep the doors of higher education closed even on fee levying basis. Free education? My foot!

None of these issues are new. They burdened the middle class for ages. Still little has been done to address them. Traffic now on the same road is heavier than what I encountered as a school boy. Education opportunities have effectively dwindled with rising population, despite the numerical growth. Why?

Successive governments have shown no interest in the middle class. Sad but true. Not without a reason. The rich financially support the political campaigns. The poor constitute vote banks. What do we offer? Nothing. Middle class is not rich or large enough to make an impact in a political change. So the issues felt by others are high on the priority list while our issues are neglected. One of the best examples was the recent Colombo Municipal Council elections. While the poor were promised houses, better sanitary facilities and play grounds, neither party promised a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system - a dire need in Colombo, which could have partially solved our transport issues.

I guess the only way the middle class can earn the attention of the policy makers is to act as a special interest group. Not the ideal way for policy intervention, but if these issues remain ignored there is no choice. The middle class in Sri Lanka, like in most emerging Asian nations is growing. Unless we find more room it will soon be inconvenient.

Comments in Chronological Order. Total 4 Comment(s)

Rohan Samarajiva
2011-10-26 11:22 AM

Pity the middle classes. They got Independence Square; they got Galle Road traffic flowing smoothly. Go to Colombo North and see what they got. Nothing. Peculiar that self pity is anchored on words, not on deeds. On MRT not being promised. We need to think long and hard about MRTs. It is an Indian fashion, but Indian cities are much much larger than greater Colombo. The economics of MRTs that may make sense when serving areas with 20 million people (National Capital Region/Delhi and Mumbai) will not make sense for puny Colombo (0.8 million population in the city; perhaps 2-3 million in Greater CMB). Buses properly configured are what are likely to make sense for us. See the debates in India. We should not repeat mistakes others have made.
2011-11-01 3:26 PM

If 20 mn population makes it viable to make MRT or any form of mass transport work, should Sri Lanka start looking at a system for the entire island. Especially connecting the large population hubs. Recently a former transport official mentioned that MRTs were not viable for Sri Lanka due to the number as prof. says and that we needed to improve railways and bus services to resolve the issues. But haven't we tried a few options there too and failed. MRT, light rail, underground, unirail, whatever, it is time Sri Lanka overhauled its transport system and infrastructure fast if it is keen to achieve the US$4000 per capita
Chanuka Wattegama
2011-11-04 2:54 PM

Well, those who hate MRTs, please settle it with the President and government leaving me alone. It is Mahinda Chinthana 2010 (which I understand the key national level policy document) that says [quote] The feasibility study for constructing a metro rail system in the City of Colombo and in the sub-urban areas will commence in 2010. Accordingly, the use of electric trains and metro trains in the capital city as the main mode of transport will lead to increase the efficiency and productivity thereby improving the environment and public health. [unquote] (page 50) I only observe that Singapore MRT was started in 1987 when its population was less than 3 million. Yes, that includes visitors, but Colombo too. But forget MRT. What else has been done to ease the Colombo traffic? One suggestion I have made (which I think fair) is to introduce a compulsory meters for three wheelers. Both leading candidates for CMC conveniently ignored this as their only intention was to win votes, instead addressing these perennial issues. So we have to live with these issues and even in another 10-20 years we will be making the same complaints. These are problems of our political system, not with individuals.
2011-11-21 12:04 PM

We agree with Chanuka, it is true that very little is done for middle class. Mainly transport system. We now have better roads and other roads are in the process of widening with carpets - which is really good, but have they introduced comfortable buses is the issue. I had to travel to office in Fort from Battaramulla for a few days when my car went in for a repair. Then I felt how inconvenient it is to travel in a non-A/C bus in the morning to work (not that I was going in cars from childhood, but it actually reduces the efficiency due to exhausting experience in the morning). How comfortable can it be if government can introduce A/C buses from Malabe to Fort so that most of the people will be willing to go in those buses leaving more room on the roads. (City Liner on Galle Road is used by most of people as I heard) They will save heavy parking fees and waste of fuel in heavy traffic. Then all will be able to travel quickly. So all of us should try to get these working and use every opportunity to communicate.
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