“You need to pay for every word you speak.”

– A Chinese saying

attributed to Confucius.

And it was time to pay for ours! All the drawing room talk and social sermonising on how we need to think South Asia, discover our region, why our children need to practically be exposed to the history of the subcontinent, instead of merely following that of USA and Europe, came home to roost when we collectively as a family decided to spend our March holidays in Sri Lanka. Last I visited the island state was way back in 1976 and by all recent accounts, the place had changed since then.

Surviving a long and taxing 18 to 23 years stint with terrorism, threatening to break the country, the political situation over the last five years, I was told, had stabilised, the economy was looking up again and tourism was slowly but surely returning to this green paradise on earth.

I, however, was sceptical and as we waited anxiously at the Lahore Airport for our 11 am PIA flight to take off for Karachi (delayed by two hours) in order to catch our onward Sri Lankan Airlines connection to Colombo at 5 pm, I could not help but think that the vacation is going to be laden with problems quite similar to ours.

According to my understanding, the major problems facing Sri Lanka also happened to be economic in nature - poverty, unemployment and an economy in recession. Even though its average per capita national income crossed $1,500/- back in 2008, nearly 40 percent of its population still lives below $2 per day and about 20 percent of it is considered poor with a similar number malnourished. Thankfully, no such signs aboard the Sri Lankan Airlines flight though. It not only takes off a good 10 minutes earlier than the scheduled time, the on-board service was also both courteous and top class.

Monday, March 5, ’13, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka announced its annual report and the results were like a dream read for any economist - a sort of wish list one has been hoping for Pakistan. Inflation down to a single digit to around 7 percent, growth climbing and now crossing 5 percent, fiscal deficit reduced to around 9 percent from a towering 13 percent only a couple of years back and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) flowing in at the highest rate in more than two decades. There are four new five-star and two new seven-star hotels coming up in Colombo alone and China and India (who seem to be competing with each other over Sri Lankan market access) have each committed to invest $2 billion over the next 18 months. So, what has been the secret to their success?

The answer is: regardless of how much the Sri Lankans suffered due to terrorism and a long-drawn separatist movement launched by the Tamils in the north of the country, they single-mindedly kept their focus on education, investing in their people, extending state support to the common man and projection of a soft national image.

The island boasts nearly 100 percent literacy rate based on a sound institutionalised education structure that provides free schooling, a heavily subsidised college education and a well funded post-graduate government scheme available to nearly all high academic achievers.

In addition, the government runs a large network of polytechnics and skill developing institutes that not only train youngsters for acquiring specialised skills, but also help their placement in the job markets. The people are encouraged to enter work areas they are interested in to help optimise both organisational productivity and work satisfaction.

Upon enquiring, from the owner of a leading eatery in Colombo, The Ministry of Crab, I was genuinely impressed to discover that the government runs Services’ skill development institute concentrated on promoting tourism and nearly all staff in the hospitality industry holds a diploma or a certificate of some sort certifying the particular skill and training.

Besides, there is strong emphasis on providing affordable transport and basic shelter to every family. Public transport systems are in exceptionally good shape and work efficiently. On the train journey from Colombo to Kandy, when I asked a local fellow passenger whether our train is going to be on time or not, I could sense the pride in his reply that he times his watch by train arrivals or departures - I did not have to wait long to find out that he was right!

Over the years, Sri Lanka has accomplished a great deal in the health status of its people. Sri Lankan doctors are amongst the most competent in the world and the hospitals within Sri Lanka, both private and state-run, are very well managed. A very high percentage of the GDP is allocated to the health sector and the sustainability of this high budgetary allocation has been made possible due to consistent social policies adopted by successive governments.

The benefits of free education, free health services and subsidies for essential consumer items makes Sri Lanka the highest ranked country in South Asia on the Human Development Index. Time and gain, even in the best of eating places, we were offered table water, a reminder that Sri Lankans can still drink tap water without the fear of Hepatitis C - the government really flaunts this national project of providing clean drinking water to its people, and frankly why shouldn’t it?

This investment in the people and their education is precisely the strength that guarantees a bright future for Sri Lanka, where people from different faiths can gel to progress together. Almost at all places, the food is halal, the menu contains ample vegetarian choices and the ‘drinks’ menu is readily available - every type, is pretty much taken care of.

More importantly, literacy has brought in them a sense of tolerance and responsibility. And this very mature behaviour by an average person to understand the nature of terrorist and separatist threat his country was faced with, allowed him to not only take ownership of the fight, but to also emerge from it stronger and more eager to move on.

History can be cruel or kind depending on how you interpret it. Being comfortable with one’s history comes only through education and little wonder that I found them to be very fond of their past. A visit to a famous antique shop situated on the Peradhenia Street (Colombo-Kandy highway) made me realise that Portuguese, French and colonial era things are in great demand and being professionally assorted, displayed, verified and sold, according to precise period-calendaring.

Old-cum-heritage buildings have been preserved meticulously, streets are spotlessly clean, and the ancient arts and crafts continue to thrive, thus adding to the soft image of a country where tourism over the last three years has been growing at a rate of nearly 20 percent per annum.

Moreover, with a literate mind has come the prudence to keep the population growth under check and to preserve nature. My son and I rented bicycles one morning from our hotel to go cycle-trekking along the Mahaweli River and the forest areas surrounding it. We were told that the river supports more than 10 dams and Sri Lanka generates most of its electricity through the hydel means - by the way, the power didn’t go off even for a single minute during our eight-day stay.

While there were quite a few surprises in the sense that one had not imagined the Sri Lankan state’s affairs and its functioning to be so widely better than ours; in all fairness, one did have an idea that we need to learn a few things from them.

On raising such a notion in one of the rare occasions of being invited to speak to the cadre of our Planning Commission, I was told that the size of our economy is much bigger than the Sri Lankan economy and hence, a comparison may not be in order. We ought to be comparing ourselves with India, Turkey, Brazil, etc and not with ‘minnows’.

Well, the news is that population aside; the minnows in comparison to us today are appearing as giants. They are relaxed, happy, and becoming increasingly more assertive and confident - even Saudi Arabia was recently snubbed on handing death penalty to a young Sri Lankan maid aged less than 18 years and through a government ruling no female worker will be allowed to go and work there anymore.

Sports and fitness, I noticed, has become a passion, which again is a sign of a healthy development of any country. Ironically (in our context), one of the headlines of The Island newspaper on the Saturday morning we were to leave, was about the growing national concern on more than 22 percent Sri Lankans being overweight and on increasing obesity, and in return my mind quickly raced to the recent world health organisation’s report showing concerns that nearly 50 percent of Pakistanis could be suffering from malnutrition.

The writer is an entrepreneur and economic analyst.

Email: kamal.monnoo@gmail.com