THE POLITICS OF ENVY
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2010). The politics of envy. LMD. March 2010. Page 137. Volume 16, Issue 8. ISSN 1391-135X.
On the need to allow the Galle Literary Festival to succeed with support and not taxes.
I remember an observation made some time ago to me by one of the world’s foremost bio-diversity explorer’s. He wryly suggested a test to determine if the nationality of a person is Sri Lankan. “Give a man a gun” he said. “If he then promptly turns it upon himself and shoots himself, we can be sure that he is a Sri Lankan”. Time and time again my thoughts have returned to this comment. Why can’t people in less developed countries like Sri Lanka see the value of collaboration? Why can’t they cheer on someone who is trying to do some good without trying to throw a spanner in the works? Why is myopia and jealousy so much of a problem in less developed countries. I suppose anyone, especially sociologists can conjure up a number of plausible reasons for this. Let me discuss my most recent encounter with this syndrome of shooting oneself in the foot.
During one of the ‘conversations’, a panel discussion between the Festival Director Sunila Galapatti and critic Rajpal Abeynaike the issue came up as to why the Galle Literary Festival (GLF) does not pay a tax of 25% on revenue which is charged on carnivals and other acts of entertainment. The GLF has sought a court ruling claiming an exemption on the ground that it is an educational event. When this discussion opened, Anthony Beevor, one of the festival’s star-billed authors offered an opinion from the floor. He pointed out that all of the other leading Literary festival receive support from the local or national government. This is because literary festivals are recognized as events of art and culture with an educational value as well as being good for tourism and the corporate brand of the host city. He said that the idea that a state agency should seek to tax the GLF rather than support it with funding was opposite to that taken elsewhere in the world. In fact he dismissed the idea as ‘preposterous’.
I listened with a sinking heart even more convinced that I may never see this country reaching its full potential because it is mired in the politics of envy. I know eventually it will be a technical decision of a court of law. But why has is gone this far? Why can we not see the dividends for Sri Lanka from this event? The benefits are manyfold. In economic terms, the country receives international publicity we simply cannot afford to buy. I remember last year seeing a copy of the magazine issued by the British supermarket chain Waitrose. It had an illustrated article several pages long written by TV chef Sophie Grigson who had been one of the celebrity guests at GLF. I had lunched with her at the Amangalla and never realised that she would repay the invitation by the GLF with such fabulous publicity. Many other authors and journalists who attend the event give us publicity in a similar vein.
Another angle is the development of literature in Sri Lanka. Thanks to the GLF local authors have an opportunity to meet some of the finest authors from around the world. They also met international publishers. All of this is funded by corporate sponsorship and no fancy donor funded projects for developing literature come into play. Sometimes we are unable to appreciate the benefits from a low cost initiative which deliver maximum results.
As Joe Public I have benefited from the GLF as well. It has widened my horizons and stimulated a wider interest in literature. The GLF has spawned book clubs and it must help a nation if its people are investing in their own education and creating a more cultured population.
It would be so nice if people could see the wider benefits of events such as the GLF and support it. One other point also arose during the ‘conversation’ between Sunila and Rajpal. Was it somewhat elitist because it is in English? This issue is easily addressed. Others can take inspiration from the GLF to run a Literary festival in Sinhala or Tamil. Should Tamil and Sinhala be included in the GLF? I am not so sure. If there is a five day cricket festival, should one throw in a game of Badminton or Elle to give them a voice? Not really. Each must do their thing and do it well. There may also be an ill feeling that the event should not be supported because it is English. But bear in mind we support heavily another very English activity which soaks up a fair amount of time and money, including tax payers money. Cricket. If we are to be consistent in our resentment towards things English, we should give up cricket. Or sanity can prevail and we should embrace the game and especially the language because the latter will be key for Sri Lanka’s economic development.