9/03/2010

Essay: A friend indeed (How moral is profit?)

By Ajith Perakum Jayasinghe
He was my childhood friend. In fact, we are relatives. It is normal that most of us in the village are related to each other in some way. We lived in a beautiful, traditional village in tropical Sri Lanka. There is no hill top in our village surrounding that our explorative young feet missed to climb. No stream was shy to provide us a pool to quench our sweat soaked naked bodies.

He is before me now. The boy who used to wear a pair of cotton shorts with all sorts of stains is now in a neatly ironed suit. His long sleeved light blue expensive shirt and the tightly knotted red and black patterned tie prevent the cool comfortable evening breeze to kiss his chest that was bear all the time except the few hours he was in school in the past.

“This is not mere insurance policy. This is a way you perform your duties towards your offspring,” he explains to my unenthusiastic ears. In sweet words, he says that if I am killed in some way, the insurance company will pay my family a handsome dividend. But, I don’t want to die soon since my children are small and also because I have many stories to write one day. The topic of death is appalling. But he speaks nice words targeting to sell an insurance plan to me.

“By the way, what happened to Sira, the guy of the village doctor, who used to play with us?” I ask. I lost contact with the village ever since my father passed away since my mother decided to go back to her parents in her home village together with her children, although father’s family provided us security and welfare. Until we left the village, my uncles and aunts looked after us well. Uncles cultivated our rice field and stocked our barn for the season. Aunts took my younger sister and brother that were twins to our father’s ancestral home and looked after them so that mother could pay her full attention to the baby. For the New Year, they even painted our house. But my mother was somehow compelled to go back to her village and to live with her people. We enjoyed a similar life full of love there as well. But I still remember how all my uncles and aunts were looking with tearful eyes at the train slowly picking up the pace taking us away from them. Time departed us. But still the love blooms once we meet occasionally. The times have changed. Amidst so many changes that I do not mention here, my childhood friend is an insurance agent who wants to sell a life insurance to me.

Here he talks about our friend Sira. “He could not get adequate marks at Advanced Level to enter university. But he learnt his father’s traditional medicine and astrology. You know, he is one of my long time customers. Last year, he withdrew a bonus of……” Insurance again. Business. Profit. His car glitters golden in setting sunshine.

He is trying to terrify me to buy a life insurance for the sake of my children. His company is trying to replace the security, love and affection we, as a family of a prematurely died father, had from our extended families with insurance. It is a thriving business with huge profits not only to the owners but to the sales representatives like my friend as well. I looked at his brightly polished expensive pair of shoes. In his right calf, just above his ankle, now covered with light blue comfortable socks, he has a scar of deep cut. He tripped down from a rock as we were bathing near a waterfall. We tied a piece of cloth torn from my sarong above the laceration and carried him to the village doctor who gave him first aid and sent for a bullock cart to be made ready to take him to the hospital. One hoot awoke the boatman from his after lunch nap and before his boat touched the shore of the river bank of the other side several able bodied youth snatched him to be laid on the bullock cart made ready to take him followed by a whole array of relatives and friends. His injury was a common issue for the village. A group went to the jungle to fetch a kind of woody creeper that is good to cure lacerations. My friend talks about hospital cash of the insurance policy. A private hospital ambulance is ready for the clients of the insurance company. Health is business too. Business for profit.

He opened his James Bond bag to take some pamphlets out. He carries a blue labeled water bottle too in his bag. It was quite extraordinary for me. Why? He sensed my feelings. “I am a man from village. I cannot drink the chlorinated water of urban supplies. This is pure bottled spring water.” Water too is business. Business for profit.

Business will not spare air. Recently, the world environmentalists discussed about the quotas for polluting air. Less polluting countries can sell pollution permits to highly polluting countries that exceed the permitted limit. Instant profits to less polluting countries. But the highly polluting countries would not mind the loss. They will start more industries that would ultimately find profits from the less polluting third world countries.

How moral is this kind of trade? Is it ethical? My childhood friend and present sales rep is trying to monetize my love to my children. They call it marketing. What is this market?

Money and market are two of the most wonderful creations of the mankind. When we were small children, I used to visit the village fair with my mother once in a while. My friend’s father used to collect the surplus production of the village like vegetable, fruit and green leaves etc. He took them in a hired cart to the Sunday fair in the town. Most of his goods came from his own garden. He earned a reasonable profit from the items he collected from others. He settled money to his suppliers in the evening. One can tell my friend’s father to buy something for him or her from the fair. He willingly carried a heavy bag made of coconut leaf on his shoulder in the return journey. At a house he stops to give something he rests a while sipping a cup of tea with palm sugar and chews a betel leaf. The villagers did not have much money. But, they managed to be content with their needs that were lesser than today. People need money and markets to sell their surplus production and to buy or barter other needs.

Profit is the driving force of the market. No market will exist without profit. Markets need professional traders. They depend on the profit. Profit is not unethical or immoral. As same as money and markets are real, so does the profit too. Blaming profit for human agony is like criticizing science for innovation of nuclear bomb. It is the greed for power to be blamed for nuclear armaments. In the same way, not the profit but the greed for profit created the present human agony.

Profit is one aspect of human life. It drives the market that is essential for the economic life of the modern man. But market is not everything and so is the profit too. Traders need profit for their existence. But it is not everything. It should remain in its place without invading and dominating all the other parts of the life. For instance, profit should not prompt the market to interfere the relationship between a mother and a child like in advertisements of some milk powder companies. Profit should not target to monetize my emotional life of love, affection and duties towards my children, my dear insurance agent friend. I feel jittery, Machang. (A colloquial Sinhala and Tamil word used to address friends)

Free profit from greed! Then profit will stand for market without affecting the human life. Market is the gun that fired profit into the guts of life. It is not the market that the man invented to exchange the needs for life. It is the present day sophisticated market that exists for profit. That market crawled into the human society like a virus and spread rapidly. It ate into each and every vein, blood cell and gene of the social structure. Man to man relationship was reshaped and restructured by market during the last one or two centuries. Greed for profit became the basis of this new market economy.

Market seized all hiding shy elements of human life out of their safe heavens and threw them to the market counter to be bought and sold. The rose that bloomed in wilderness to be plucked by a lover that earned to gift it to his fiancée was ‘harvested’ and ‘transported’ to the market so that the market could hold the flower in between the lover and fiancée on Valentine Day.

The point is not against the modern marketing principles or its science. It is so simple; we should not put everything into market. You can argue that everything can be marketed. Our attempt is not to defeat you theoretically. Do not market everything although you can do so. There are things that should never be put into market. Love is one example. Greed corrupts profit and the profit corrupts the market. Life must not be made naked to corruption.

We cannot get rid of the pursuit of profit in the present day society. However, pursuit of profit must be tolerated only until to the extent of a clearly demarcated line of morality. Greed for profit must not be allowed to kill humans, make them ill, starve them and fool them. Do how many people die in this world since greed for profit stands between their basic needs like food, water, medicine and the access to resources to fulfill those needs?

World Food Programme (WFP) says that there are 1.02 billion undernourished people in the world today. That means one in nearly six people do not get enough food to be healthy and lead an active life. WFP further says, “As well as the obvious sort of hunger resulting from an empty stomach, there is also the hidden hunger of micronutrient deficiencies which make people susceptible to infectious diseases, impair physical and mental development, reduce their labor productivity and increase the risk of premature death.” (http://www.wfp.org/hunger)

Proportion of children under five years of age suffering from under-nutrition (according to the WHO Child Growth Standards) was 20% in 2005. An estimated 112 million children are underweight. Undernutrition is an underlying cause in more than one third of child deaths.

So much people are affected by hunger in a time the world leaders are spending lavishly for armaments in their struggles for superiority. Meanwhile the world business communities that fund the states are thriving with huge profits. Agriculture, food processing, distribution and marketing are among the most successful big businesses in this world where so many people are affected by hunger.

By the time I am writing this essay, rice harvesting of the major season is underway. The government registered average price for a kilo of unprocessed rice is around US $ 30 cents per kilo. The same rice is sold in the market after processing around $ 80 cents a kilo. Average Sri Lankan rice farmer is a small industry poor man that lives hand to mouth. According to the Ministry of Social Security and Social Welfare, there are 350,000 recipients of concessions provided to extremely poor people of the country. This allowance is yet to be raised to Rs. 1000 a month. These people are subjected to live with 1/3 of a dollar per day. Sri Lanka government provides 'Samurdhi' poverty concessions to low income groups. The Deputy Minister of State Revenue and Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya said in the parliament on May 05, 2009 that the number of Samurdhi recipients was 1,672,159 in 2008. He further stated that by 2007, there were 452,000 families that earned less than Rs. 6283/= per month. This is well over 5% of the population of Sri Lanka. They are unable to afford the price of a kilo of rice today.

How can more than 150% increase of price occur in between the rice field and the retail department store? Food procession and distribution costs do not amount so much. There are big businessmen that grab huge profits from rice walking between the farmer and the consumer. They block our hand moving to mouth to feed us with our traditional staple food. How ethical is gaining massive profits through keeping others hungry.

Most of Sri Lankans are Buddhists. Lord Buddha analyzed profit in one of his preaching called Mahachaththareesaka Sutta. Lord Buddha does not deny profiting. Instead, he states that targeting mere profiting is a wrong livelihood. When one focuses only to profiting he tends to be a cynic and does many other offences as well, according to Buddha’s teaching.

Many of the pre-modern cultures of the world like the small Sri Lankan village where I and my insurance agent friend spent our tender ages had economic models that sustained the man’s life in the societies where money, market and profit was not prominent.

Profit is not an offence but a phenomenon that is essential for the economic life of the man. But greed for profit is a crime that should be avoided. It should not be accepted as a positive principle of economy. Pursuit of profit must be bound with social responsibility. We have to reconsider the economic models in the past, especially the micro level people’s initiatives to start a dialogue to find ways to save the mankind and nature from the evils of the modern market that is driven by greed for profit.

Tomorrows markets need to be free from greed of profit. I have a dream of a socially responsible profit. It is not a profit that generates massive disparity. It is a profit that drives a human market. We cannot go back to the village we lived in our childhood my friend, even if we want to do so. But I have a dream of a world in which my kids explore the beauty hand in hand with my childhood friend’s kids.


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