The ancient curse – “May you live in interesting times” – has never been more apt than now.
Our times are not only interesting, but also bewildering, exasperating and sometimes rather unnerving. Yet, I won’t trade it for any other time in history.
I was born exactly half a century ago as our island was grappling with challenges of self-rule, self-sufficiency and multiculturalism. That year, in April 1966 to be precise, National Geographic magazine did a full-length photo feature on Ceylon. Leafing through it, we catch glimpses of what seems to have been an idyllic island and a laidback people.
That innocence was shattered in 1971 and again in 1988-89 and lost irrevocably during the prolonged-civil war. Traumatised and polarised, we are struggling to rebuild peace and regain our multicultural identity.
National Geographic has featured our island once again, in its November 2016 issue. Their story titled “Can Sri Lanka Hold On to Its Fragile Peace?” captures the post-war challenges of dealing with the ghosts of our own brutality while we pursue a healing acceptable to all.
[Read online: www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/11/sri-lanka-tamil-peace-civil-war/]
That quest for durable peace takes place amid multiple transitions. Several fundamentals are changing, which in turn are redefining our economy, society and polity slowly but surely. Here is an overview of the most important ones:
• Economic transition: A few years ago, Sri Lanka moved out of being a low income country (defined as having a per capita gross national income of US$ 1,025) into being a low middle income country (economies with a GNI per capita between US$ 1,026 and US$ 4,035). According to World Bank data, Sri Lanka’s GNI in 2015 was US$ 3,800. Of course, per capita income is a misleading measure in a country where, government statistics reveal, 60% of the population (around 12.6 million people) live on less than US$ 4 a day. This means income inequalities are starker than ever: in 2012, 38% of national income was enjoyed by the top 10% of population while the bottom 10% received only 1.5%.
• Demographic transition: For decades after independence, Sri Lanka’s population was predominantly children and youth which yielded both benefits and demands. The young still have the highest head count, but as a percentage, they add up to less than they used to. In their place, there are more middle aged and those over 60 (officially older persons). The latter accounted for 12.4% in the last census of 2012. By 2031, projections say, one in four Lankans would be over 60 – posing many challenges but also opportunities. The big worry: collectively as a nation, we are going to grow older before we get richer (unlike Western European countries and Japan).
• Epidemiological transition: Thanks to decades of public health investments, Sri Lanka has contained most infectious or communicable diseases (and even eliminated polio and malaria). But even before that battle fully ends, there is now a steady rise of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, asthma and mental illness. Currently, treatment for NCDs accounts for nearly 90% of the total ‘disease burden’.
• Digital transition: We are also in the midst of moving from analog media and devices to digital ones (currently having elements of both). Sri Lanka’s total active mobile subscriptions (SIMS) surpassed total population in 2012. By early 2016, it stood at 122 subscriptions per 100 persons. With 30% of population using Internet – over 80% of them via mobile devices – going online is no longer a pursuit limited to the elite or city folk.
As a chronicler of information society for over two decades, I have been especially interested in the digital transition. I have argued that information and opinions accessed by those going online spreads to a much greater segment of society through ‘multipliers’ like teachers, students and activists. The web casts a long shadow on society.
The online and offline spheres constantly reshape each other. It is at once fascinating, bewildering and exasperating.
Join me as I share dispatches from where the two intersect.
(Nalaka Gunawardene is a science writer, blogger and development communication consultant. He tweets from @NalakaG)