By Ameer Ali –
Freedom adds more value to the freed when it is taken from the master instead of given by him. While India fought and won its freedom Sri Lanka received it in a platter. When the British, the then super power, discovered oil under the sands of Persia and the Arabian Desert, and when Winston Churchill decided to switch British naval power from coal to oil, India lost its economic and strategic value and even became a financial liability. Gandhi’s demand for independence and Jinnah’s demand for Pakistan turned into mob violence and bloodshed. The British were in a mighty hurry to cut and run. India won its freedom and along with it Jinnah won his Pakistan. With India, the jewel in the crown, gone, of what use to the British was Ceylon? Thus, independence was a gift to the island without any struggle. This may be one of the reasons why the nation’s post-independence leaders became so lackadaisical towards and non-committal to build up the spirit of nationalism to unite all communities in the country but allowed it to be fractured into competing ethnic nationalisms and provincialism. This mismanagement of the country’s pluralism is the most glaring and enduring item on the debit side of Sri Lanka’s national balance sheet after seventy years of independence.
On the credit side, the country can indeed feel proud of its economic transformation from an open export economy narrowly dependent on three planation crops on the eve of independence to a more diversified export-import economy thereafter. The sectoral composition of GDP in 2015 shows that agriculture has declined to around 8% while industry and service have increased to 26% and 57% respectively, depicting a trend common to other economies in similar stage of development. Although the published unemployment and inflation rates have to be accepted with some reservation because of questionable methodologies of estimating them these rates are however, not at worrying levels. The informal sector is absorbing significant numbers of otherwise openly unemployed.
On the social side, 74.9 years of life expectancy and 93.2% of average literacy rate are commendable achievements on any comparison. However, the quality of our educational institutions particularly at the tertiary level, the deterioration of the public environment, and sky rocketing cost of medical treatment do bound to impact those rates negatively. Education to drive out illiteracy is one thing but educating to enhance the nation’s skill stock is another. It is in the latter that the balance sheet shows gaps.
On the economic front, the country’s national debt based on IMF, Eurostat and CIA data stood at 77.1% of GDP in 2016, increasing from 76% in 2015 which is a worrying sign. The burden of servicing this debt will be passed on to the next generation of innocent Sri Lankans. A substantial part of this debt was the financial cost of fighting an unwanted civil war engendered by the mismanagement referred to earlier.
The credit side of the balance sheet is further devalued by the economic and social cost of corruption that is now endemic in the country. The bond scam saga in which the Central Bank Governor and leading members of the government are alleged to have been involved demonstrates that corruption has been institutionalised. The only way to arrest this evil is to bring the corruptors to books and punish them without fear or favour. The wealth accumulated illegally and through corruption must be confiscated and credited to the treasury. To do that, the judiciary must be independent and rule of law should be upheld. Here again there is a lot to be desired in the current political environment. When ministers, their deputies and even politicians at regional levels behave like warlords and treat their electorates as petty fiefdoms what hope is there for honesty to prevail in public administration and for ordinary people to get their grievances redressed?
An even more serious item on the debit side of the balance sheet is the erosion of the country’s sovereignty. This again is the ultimate cost of the civil war which made the rulers to look desperately for assistance even from a devil as long as they could achieve victory in a war with their own people. Those shylocks who provided this assistance are now demanding the pound of flesh. That flesh is the increasing foreign control over chunks of Sri Lanka’s commanding heights. Given this situation can one really claim that the country is independent? As a result of the civil war, the country, having been pushed into the vortex of a geopolitical swirl in the Indian Ocean, is paying a very high price for its political stupidity.
What about the distribution of wealth? Here again the picture is not reassuring. According to one survey Sri Lanka’s per capita income is higher than that of her neighbours India and Pakistan. However, being the 119th wealthiest nation among a total of 180 it is still almost in the bottom third as part of the Third World. What is growing faster than the total wealth is the wealth gap between the rich and poor. While the richest 10% holds 40% of the total wealth the poorest 10% holds just over one percent. This gap is set to widen given the global climate of economic neoliberalism. According to a UN estimate 45% of Sri Lankans are living on less than $2 a day or Rs.225.
A large part of the debits and credits in the balance sheet is the product of the twins born in 1977. One was political and the other economic. The Jayewardene constitution and the neo-liberal economy which were introduced simultaneously in that year has produced a civil war, enduring ethnic nationalism, brain drain, institutionalised corruption if not kleptocracy, yawning wealth gap and erosion of sovereignty. As long as employment opportunities in the Gulf countries persist and foreign investment continues to flow there is some amelioration for Sri Lanka’s economic and social woes. Yet, after seventy years of independence the national balance sheet shows too many fundamental worrying items that need critical auditing and correction before the situation reaches calamitous level.
Sri Lanka is a resourceful country and its people are highly innovative and enterprising. They certainly deserve a better management system than prevailing now. How to bring about that change after seventy years is the sixty-four thousand dollar question.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia