No niche, no advantage | Sunday Observer

No niche, no advantage

30 April, 2023
Sri Lankans, who are doing very well with a myriad of specialised exports, are the silent contributors to our economy
Sri Lankans, who are doing very well with a myriad of specialised exports, are the silent contributors to our economy

Our giant neighbour to the North, India, is a BRICS nation that works together with other powerhouse economies such as Brazil, China and Russia to change the world order. It is also now the most populous nation on earth pipping China to second place in the head-count.

India is a huge, respected giant of a nation. Then there is India’s and our mutual neighbour Bangladesh, which has carved a niche for itself as an emerging economic powerhouse, slotted to be one of the ten most powerful economies in the world by 2033.

Bangladesh is also a very populous country with a population count at the last census of some 169 million people. With those types of numbers, the country had heft because it also has a surfeit of labour. The country’s positioning slap-bang next to India also brings advantages in terms of markets.

Therefore, the nation’s niche is already carved on the map. It is an emerging giant with tremendous potential or so we are told most of the time by the experts.

South-east of us is the Maldive Islands. The archipelago with literally thousands of islands is a tourism magnet. Its resorts are legendary and even though the country has nothing to offer except the beaches, the way the island’s resorts have been packaged, its niche is already carved. The Maldives are a sort of rich-brother nation that is independent of the giants in the region by most yardsticks. The country’s population is manageable and though its politics can, sometimes, be volatile, its place is assured among SAARC nations as an irrepressible star.

It is a tourism hub for all comers and has put Asia on the map in that sense even though countries such as India and Sri Lanka together have much more to offer, because of variegated terrain, and in the case of India, sheer geographical size which accounts for a myriad of diverse tourist attractions.

There is also Pakistan, a longtime actor in various international conflicts, some involving neighbour Afghanistan. Pakistan is nuclear powered, and though a poor country that is essentially struggling, it is known to hold its own amidst all types of influences and pressures.


The country may have a long way to go and may lack the prospects of say much-applauded Bangladesh, for instance, in terms of future possibilities. But they are still rich in traditions and are regarded as South Asia’s other giant, due to sheer population numbers what with nuclear-capability factored in.

As is seen, each country has its niche, its own unique place on the map. There are also smaller South Asian countries such as Bhutan, for instance, which has created an image for itself as an essentially Carbon-neutral paradise, ostensibly with a seriously upbeat Happiness Index, whatever that means.

But not just in this limited South Asian context but in any general context, all this begs the question — what is our niche?

There was a time Sri Lanka was seen as that island with great potential that even the Singaporeans wanted to model themselves on. But those days are long gone now, and compared to the examples given earlier, we do not have a niche at present. We are not the gorgeous paradise with an ancient and interesting history even though that history cannot be erased. But that historical narrative went with the image of a formidable island which was economically outperforming some of the most powerful countries in the region.

But that image is woefully dated and unlike the giant neighbour India, or even the tiny Maldives or the late-developer Bangladesh, we do not occupy any particular niche at all and is a country that is in a quest for its own identity.

Where do we fit in these days? As an example of a nation that had all the potential but crashed its economy? A country that was witness to an extraordinary amount of egregious violence and was defined in certain periods by its wars?

Those are not niches they are caricatures; but, of course, like all caricatures, with some truth that is conveyed through them. But, even as our quest for substantial recovery unfolds, we would have succeeded at least for the most part in that pursuit if we tried carving out our own niche, or our own new slot.

It should be a search for a new niche because the old descriptions are all threadbare. Of course, the country would always have its stunning tourism attractions and its natural beauty, but that is not going to complete the picture.

Bangladesh carved its niche because the leadership had the confidence that the country can persevere. They tapped into advantages such as the availability of cheap labour, but once they got that economy going, it was unstoppable.


Our problem is that we are a well regarded nation that lost its way. If we are to establish a niche of our own, we have to offer something new and strive not to be all things to all people.

We cannot be a ‘hub’ of this that and the other, we can only be a hub of one or two things that we are very good at. The Maldives is the go-to example on that score.

They are the sales-people for the most picturesque islands ever. They are not trying anything else and they do not have to. Of course, if we carve a niche, it does not mean that we would have to drop all our myriad exports and our various specific pet projects.

There are Sri Lankans doing very well with a myriad of specialised exports. They are the silent contributors to our economy, and are grossly under-rated and greatly underappreciated.

But carving our own niche does not mean that we suddenly decide to throw these wonderful people overboard. But we need to be known for something and something very good — certainly not something as inconsequential as the provider of cheap labour to rich West Asians.

One reason we have not carved a niche is that our policy goals keep changing. That is true to Sri Lankan character. No Government wants to be identified even infinitesimally with the other, and so no policy survives.


Someone quipped that it is the island of a thousand travails, but it is more as if it is an island of a thousand different five-year plans. How many have we had in our history? Nobody cares because all new plans are treated the same way i.e., as ephemeral projects that sputter out even before they get off the ground.

But a truly great idea can always take hold and it depends on how much its authors believe in it in the first place. None of our leaders truly believed in the projects they introduced. Instead their plans were mere placeholder projects; something they did until the next thing happened or the next election came around. That is no way to build a niche.

It seemed in the early 80s at least that we were building a niche as a liberalised economy first out of the gate along with Margaret Thatcher’s UK, with the great experiment of the untrammelled open market. Of course, that was a flawed vision because there were several aspects that were wrong with that presumption in the first place: that the free-market so-called, would rescue nations.

Small wonder that the idea of creating our own niche unravelled. It unravelled spectacularly because there was mayhem too with a war that broke out, along with an insurgency.

It is sometimes said apocryphally that our people cannot hold a thought in their heads for too long. Just look at the chaos of those talk shows, with everybody venomously trashing the other person’s ideas.

So, it is moot whether we can build our own brand, leave alone carve our own niche, because we are not basically a united people. Not (dis)united simply in terms of racial unity or religious tolerance, but as in working towards one cause, something as fundamental as making this nation a better place for our grandchildren if not our children. But yet that idea of a niche should someday soon emerge from somewhere, even from the strewn and splattered confetti of our chaos.