How the oil price spiral reaches all the way to a Sri Lankan village

To much of the world, soaring oil prices, up from $2.41 a barrel to nearly $ 40 since the 1973-74 oil embargo, mean a profound change in ways of living. To the world's poorest people it is coming to mean biting hunger and the threat of starvation.

In October the Sri Lanka government, hard pressed to pay soaring petroleum import costs, raised bus and train fares 80 percent.

In Makandana, a remote village of 854 people an hour's drive inland from Colombo and the sea, this suddenly put even a bare subsistence diet beyond the range of most families. The situation was severe, because Makandana is what Sri Lankans call "a new colony," a village established in 1976 when the poorest, landless families from 10 surrounding villages were each given one-eighth of an acre of land on what had been part of a rubber estate. About 70 percent of Makandana's men work as day laborers, planting, weeding, and harvesting rice, picking coconuts, carrying loads, or doing whatever is still called here "coolie" labor.

Except for cassava, jackfruit, papayas, vegetables, and the few coconuts they grow in their small gardens, all the villagers buy their food with cash. Since much of it comes by bus or train from Colombo, it has gone up in price since October, too.

Over and over the villagers ask themselves, "What are we going to do?" Like anyone else numb with depression, they seem unable to see beyond their present difficulties.

Upali, the fishmonger, whose arrival by bicycle each morning with a basket of fresh fish from Colombo is announced by the frantic meowing of the village cats, customarily brings 35 pounds, worth about $10.

Until the bus fares rose, he could count on earning at least 18 rupees, or about $1 a day, the average man's daily wage in Sri Lanka. He would rise at 3 a.m., go to Colombo, and return to the village by 9. Now he gets half of that and must raise his prices.

Wyman, the 38-year-old village chief, is one of eight villagers fortunate enough to find jobs in Colombo; he is a carpenter at the university. Unable now to afford the bus, he is buying a bicycle in installments, paying $3 a month. If he had the money to buy it outright, it would cost only $40; this way it will be $60. The journey takes 90 minutes each way, if he pedals fast in the humid, 80-degree heat.

Mohan Somapala, who has worked as a stevedore in Colombo's port for 28 years, is a little better off. His union guarantees him a minimum monthly wage equivalent to $21, but by working overtime he can usually make $40 to $45. He is too tired after unloading flour all day to bicycle and still takes the bus, though it now costs 50 cents a day round trip.

Somapala's eight children, four of them grown women who are high school graduates, try to help. They have learned to make dazzling batik scarfs depicting snake charmers and elephants. They went to a beach hotel at Mount Lavinia on the coast, hoping to get $5 to $6 per scarf from foreign tourists. (Some 300,000 came in 1980, making tourism Sri Lanka's fastest-growing industry.) But so far they have not made a single sale.

"We need something to employ our youth," Somapala says. "What cost one rupee just a few months ago now costs 2 1/2. How can people live? I want to replace our thatched roof, as it leaks when it rains. But the price of palm leaf has tripled and it would cost 300 rupees [about $16]."

Somapala's wife says it costs at least $15 a week to feed her family of 10. She herself earns about 60 cents a day tapping rubber trees. Most of Makandana's women are engaged in cottage industry, whether making lace to sell for 15 cents a yard or weaving coconut leaf mats ($1.50 for four days' work) or baskets (30 to 40 cents for a day's work). This besides cooking, cleaning, washing, raising fruit and vegetables, and selling them in the market; it's no longer enough.

"To have a decent life in Makandana now," says Jinnasena, the village baker, "a family needs at least 800 rupees [$44] a month." Few make more than half of that.

Worst off is Tissa, who is married and has four children. He is, in his own words, "without expectations or hope." He lost his job as a mechanic, along with 7,000 other railway workers, for taking part in an attempted general strike to demand higher wages last July. Now no one who supports the government will hire an ex-striker. One of his fellow mechanics committed suicide.

Ranmali, a typical village woman, goes to the market these days with a list but finds she can no longer afford everything she needs. One day I met her as she came home with a sack of food. She had spent $1.40, she said, enought for one day. This broke down to: a slab of jackfruit, 5 cents; one coconut, 12 1/2 cents; a fresh fish, 40 cents; salt, 10 cents; beans 7 1/2 cents; dried onions and chilies, 10 cents; fresh chilies, 5 cents; two kilos of rice, 50 cents.

She couldn't buy, as she planned, matches, kerosene, sugar, and soap. Her family would have to go without. Ranmali's husband, like most of Makandana's men, works at coolie labor and often has no job. She herself taps rubber if it doesn't rain. Their 16-year-old daughter earns $12.50 a month in a Colombo shoe factory.

Among Makandana's 122 families, only Ranjit, a carpenter, is prosperous. He has just returned from a six-month contract with a German construction firm in Saudi Arabia and has $1,250 in the bank. Ranjit is the only vilager to own a watch or a pair of trousers, a status symbol in rural Sri Lanka.Among all the lean, hard-muscled village men in their loincloths or sarongs, he is also the only one who looks overweight.

"We ate much meat, chicken, and rice," he explains. "But it was too hot and much sand. There were Germans, Turks, Pakistanis, Koreans, Thais, Indonesians, Egyptians, Africans, all kinds of foreigners. The Saudis pay no regard to foreigners. If there's an accident, the foreigner must pay the damages even if he's the victim. They like Muslim people, but not others." Still Ranjit hopes to go back soon so he can save enought to open a furniture workshop.

Makandana's grim predicament is taking place in one of the most beautiful natural setting on earth. The village, though only four years old, seems timeless: mud huts, thatched with braided coconut leaves, earthen floors, often bare except for sleeping mats and a few cooking utensils and oil lamps. The gardens are lush and green. There are naked children with beautiful brown faces. The lithe, graceful women wear stunning if cheap cotton in splendid greens, yellows, purples, and reds.

A Sri Lankan village is utterly tropical. It lacks the crashing surf and sumptuous sunsets by the sea, and there is the smother of heat, heavy with the smells of exotic spices and flowers; there is the sudden purple sky, thunder, downpour, and then the sun again. Coconuts, bananas, bamboo, and papayas give false promise of abundance (though Sri Lanka's farmers, owning an average of 3 acres each, are more cushioned against rising prices than the landless).

There's a vivid, opaque color to Sri Lanka; you get an immediate impression of flow and warmth. But along with its friendly, open people, its deserted white beaches, ancient Buddhist temples, its sapphires and amethysts, peacocks and cobras, there is the grinding poverty (wages run $20 to $30 a month, with per capita cross national product a low yearly $160). The Washington-based Overseas Development Council gives Sri Lanka a generously high rating on its "quality of life" index, chiefly because of its 80 percent literacy, hig life expectancy (63, though some claim 68), and free universal education and health care. Against this one must measure the terribly low wages, comparatively high prices, and the crumbling faades of the most buildings, the decrepit motor vehicles and ancient machinery, and the aura of genteel but crushing poverty.

Sri Lanka well deserves its Arab name, Serendibm (from which Horace Walpole invented the word serendipity: the making of pleasant discoveries by chance). You can suddenly come upon a flappy-eared elephant, tired from hauling timber, spraying itself with cooling brown-green water. Or glimpse a white crane flying low over a plunging, terraced hillside with high black cliffs and jungle in the distance. There are waterfalls, women washing clothes or bathing in fast-rushing streams, squawking black brows, red earth, pink orchids, stone Buddhas in damp caves, dances, monsters, myths. Away off in the jungles and mountains are fabulous ruined cities and moldering temples, mysterious relics of a forgotten time and vanished race.

Mark Twain, when he came i n 1896, exclaimed, "Dear me, it is beautiful! And most sumptuously tropical," though adding, "unspeakably hot." The late Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, observed in 1968 how "the people, pleased with one another and happy dancing with children in their hands, dwelt with open doors."

Legend has it that the island, then known as Taprobane, exchanged ambassadors with the Roman caesars. Down through the centuries most foreign visitors have been captivated by Ceylon, calling it "an Eden" and writing that its villages possessed "a magic aura" and "an echo from the remote past." British science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke (author of "2001: A Space Odyssey"), who came for a visit in 1956 and has stayed ever since, titled his latest book, set in sri Lanka, "The Fountains of Paradise."

In villages like Makandana it is a paradise lost. Rice is now eaten once or twice a day, not three times as before.Yet early 19th-century missionaries describe even harder conditions among the "heathen." Lower castes were not allowed to wear clothing above the waist, and Harriet Winslow, a boston missionary, wrote home in 1820 that "only a few are able to live on rice. Most of the natives have only one full meal a day. . . . They look thin." (A peculiar characteristic of this era, from the missionaries to Somerset Maugham, is the odd sense of detachment on the part of the colonial rulers toward the "natives," as if they were just part of the exotic backdrop; rarely did anyone go up to them and ask them about their lives and problems.)

It is often argued that the 13-nation Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries has been merely a catalyst for inevitable global economic changes as demand for oil rises and the supply falls. OPEC's policies, designed to exploit the opportunity and earn a higher profit, are often in this way justified. But profits for the oil producers cannot be justified when, as in Makandana, they are causing the poorest people to go hungry, even to face starvation. The oil-rich Arab countries announced in December what will be a new, $260 million fund to channel help to the poorest countries. Spread over 130 developng countries, that is $2 million each, a drop in the bucket, considering the oil-consuming countries have paid the OPEC producers $370 billion since 1973-74.

Sri Lanka, led by President J. R. Jayewardene, badly needs two or three years to develop more hydroelectric power to reduce the country's dependence on OPEC oil. Elected by an unprecedented 51 percent of the popular vote in 1977, Mr. Jayewardene's government with generous economic aid of about $1.4 billion a year , is trying hard to throw off the mix of bureaucratic socialism and nonrevolutionary Marxism that has so long stagnated progress on the Indian subcontinent. Economically crippling food subsidies have been abolished, except to families with monthly incomes of less than $15, who get food stamps. Most investment is going into three major projects :

1. A huge irrigation-hydroelectric project to harness Sri Lanka's main Mahaweli River so as to attain rice self-sufficiency double the land under irrigation, and settle more of the landless.

2. Establishment of a free trade zone north of Colombo to attract foreign investment. "Let the robber barons come," President Jayewardene has said. And he means it.

3. Urban renewal in the Greater Colombo area (an emphasis that can be questioned).

Asked what were Sri Lanka's three main problems, Mr. Jayewardene recently replied, "Jobs, jobs, and jobs." His open, export-oriented economy is a valid strategy for a small country of 15.4 million people on 25,322 square miles of land, with an educated and extremely low-pad labor force. But continued oil shocks may wreck it.

Immediate help to Makandana has come from another source, Sri Lanka's unique Sarvodaya movement for village self-development. Operating on a tiny $1.6 million budget contributed mostly by West European volunteer agencies, the movement has spread like wildfire to 4,000 of the country's 23,000 villages in the past few years.

Sarvodaya (which means "awakening") first reached Makandana in 1978 when thousands of young volunteers came for three days to build its first road. A preschool children's center was set up and a mothers' club formed to run it. Soon a new 15-member village council was elected with Wyman, the village chief, as its head, to plan the village's own self-development. With building materials, four trained carpenters and masons, and tools and equipment supplied by Sarvodaya, the villagers built 13 new brick and tile-roofed houses in 1980 and plan to build 20 more this year.

Also coming up is a new community center, where a low-priced cooperative store and food market will be opened. Most important in the construction are the skills and confidence it gives Makandana's youth, and the sense of community.

Sarvodaya, which has increasingly attracted world attention (everybody from World Bank consultants to film star Liv Ullmann visited headquarters near Colombo in 1980), was started in 1958 by a Colombo college instructor, A. T. Ariyaratne, who, inspired by the work of Mohandas Gandhi and others in India, wanted to create a movement so Sri Lanka's poorest villagers could better help themselves. Ariyaratne, a pragmatic, well-read, and well-traveled one-time Marxist, aims at very practical things.

In each village where Sarbodaya goes, volunteers and a few paid skilled people, together with new village councils, work for a clean and beautiful environment, pure water, minimum clothing, adequate food and housing, basic health care, an access road, energy (to boil water, cook food, and light homes), continuous education. What makes Sarvodaya especially attractive is that the movement encourages traditional Sinhalese culture.

In Makandana this means that a professional musician, a young man named Siridiyas, was hired for $7.50 a month (Sarvodaya workers get salaries ranging from $5 to $15) to teach the village youth and children classical dance, poetry, folk drama, and song. Siridiyas even makes the costumes (Sarvodaya supplies the cloth and a sewing machine) to revive an ancient tradition of all-night dance performances given before the local Buddhist temple on nights of the full moon.

One morning, to my surprise, I was greeted in Makandana, not by the usual ragged if cheerful children, but by a crowd of little gods and goddesses in fantastic, brightly colored costumes, glittering headdresses -- some shaped like cobras -- and bells tied to every ankle. One of Somapala's daughters was transformed into the resplendent Hindu goddess, Pattini, and the fishmonger's boy, usually clad in a rag, was a dazzling Lord Vishnu, his face radiant.

Siridiyas and another villager began to beat the surface of their tall cylindrical drums with the palms of their hands. The youngsters burst into dance, moving, twirling, stamping, and gesturing with unimaginable grace. They swept by in ever-quickening rhythm, costumes and shining faces flashing in the sun. For a moment, as they danced with jiggling bare feet in the village dust, Sri Lanka lived up to the most extravagantly romantic praise. One forgot the hunger and the desperation and saw only the splendor and the dream.

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