Much is being said these days about traditional industries, but is our definition of “traditional” limited by orientalist stereotypes?
Much is being said these days about traditional industries, and the need to protect and nurture them. But, what is a “traditional industry”?
In the Sri Lankan context, the imagery conjured by the term is that of downtrodden rural craftsmen, working with their bare hands, competing against all odds, with a slew of cheaper machine-manufactured alternatives imported from across the world.
This mentality has been amply reflected in the creation of two State Ministry portfolios, one held by Dayasiri Jayasekara for Batik, Handloom and Local Apparel Industries, and another by Prasanna Ranaweera for Cane, Brass, Clay, Furniture and Rural Industry Promotion.
While Colombots have lampooned the naming of these State Ministries as absurd, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has defended them, arguing that “traditional industrialists were worried due to the lack of state patronage”. Fair enough.
Proposals have been made to compel state workers to wear batik once a week, and to replace glass water bottles with clay ones. Crude. But, in all seriousness, these reflect an intuitive understanding of the need to carve out a home market for “traditional industries” to grow.
Still, one cannot help but wonder if our imagination of so-called traditional industries is limited, held back by orientalist stereotypes of the backwardness of Asian hydraulic civilizations, and by the “Barefoot” mentality, which has turned underdevelopment into an aesthetic.
The historical record shows that pre-colonial Sri Lanka was no mere peddler of cloth and clay, but a major producer and exporter of steel, production of which peaked between 700 and 1100 AD. During these years, Lanka may have produced at least 10 tons a year.
With furnaces powered by the monsoon winds, Lankan craftsmen forged high-carbon “Wootz steel” ingots which were exported to West Asia, where Damascene swordsmiths would hammer them into blades that were twice as hard as their European counterparts.
Some even speculate that the Muslim armies which fought off the first European crusades in 1095 AD, may have been armed with Lankan steel. In other words, Sri Lanka was exporting the high-tech military hardware of the time.
When the Anuradhapura civilization fell to South Indian invasions, these technologies were lost. What was left of iron and steel production was likely wiped out by the British after the Uva Rebellion of 1818, as was later done in India after the Rebellion of 1857.
We had to wait until the 1960s, when the Soviet Union gifted us with the technology to establish Lanka Sanstha Wane (Ceylon Steel Corporation), before Lanka could start making steel again. By the time we became a republic in 1972, our entire domestic requirement for steel was locally manufactured.
Unfortunately, the Steel Corporation never advanced to Stage 3, which would have substituted imported iron billets with billets made from the millions of metric tons of iron ore that can be mined locally in districts like Kurunegala, Ratnapura, and Moneragala.
In 1996, the Steel Corporation was privatized, and the Soviet machinery now belongs to a UAE-based group. So, we have gone from exporting military hardware to West Asia, to exporting tea (and the servants to pour it), while a West Asian country owns our means of producing steel.
In 2017, Sri Lanka imported over 80 million U.S. dollars’ worth of iron and steel. Clearly, here is a 2000-year-old “traditional industry” in urgent need of state patronage.
So, yes, let’s have State Ministries for batik and for clay, for potato and onion, for the whole Sunday grocery list, and the avurudu shopping list too. But let’s also have a State Ministry of Steel, so that someday, we can build the machines that the sons and daughters of our farmers, fishers, potters and weavers will operate.
A state, after all, is only as strong as its steel.