It was 1956. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike swept into power with Sinhalese as the only official language. They would take over everything, particularly jobs held by Tamils. All Free. Because of language Tamils would no longer be competitive with Sinhalese.
My late uncle worked in Anuradhapura at the time. He described the day of Bandaranaike’s election victory. He was driving on one of the roads there. His path was blocked by a large group of saronged rowdy Sinhalese occupying the width of the road. He honked his horn. They refused to move saying Ape Aanduwa – this is our rule. So he had to drive slowly behind them, respectfully, because the road was declared as belonging to Sinhalese who were in a dangerous mood. It was the beginning of the Sinhalese declaring everything in this country theirs.
The suicidal attitude of entitlement had already been seen in the Citizenship Act that denied many Tamils of their citizenship. It has continued since. Estates were taken over. Tamil labour that knew when to pick the tea buds were displaced and their jobs given to Sinhalese labour wanting a free ride. Since pay was based on weight of tea plucked, buds were picked prematurely and wet, and the quality of tea went down. Government’s gift to the Sinhalese was free to them, but had brought the tea industry down and worked to Sri Lanka’s detriment.
Having plundered the estates, the Sri Lankan state, ever eager to give citizens things free for the sake of votes, was a juggernaut on the move. That subsidy, this subsidy. Subsidies were for everyone, not just to those who were barely surviving. Convicts are freed. The innocent are jailed. If not for UNHRC even the little relief we get, will be no more after the current sessions are over. We then need to wait for the next for the government to begin its show again.
1983 naturally followed. Life in Colombo seemed hopeless. In the panic many Tamils sold their houses for a pittance. The best of the Tamils were driven out of the country leaving behind lots of real estate, essentially abandoned at throw away prices.
We Tamils had been taken care of. Now the Lankan state is on to the Muslims. Power lies with the most horrid people who will tear into minorities to fulfil their need for more.
We were living beyond our means. So we needed loans. The IMF insisted on belt tightening to get our loans so that the discipline would make repayment tenable. I recall from my school days the IMF requirements were seen as loss of independence. We therefore rejected the IMF’s sensible requirements. For example, the IMF advised taxing people equitably and more broadly. No, we would not tax at the dictate of the IMF. So we paid no taxes, not even the best paid of us using more state services. Young graduates needed to be given jobs. So we gave out jobs whether we had the money or not; whether there was work for the graduates or not. Government’s thirst for votes came at the expense of the economy.
Our universities are stuffed with overpaid professors who at the highest levels teach perhaps 3 hours a week, and even for that have an assistant lecturer assigned as helper. To give out positions we approve departments for which there are no student-takers. Then the same people who create the problems by approving departments, pontificate on unemployable graduates. How can someone who does Pali or Sanskrit under Hindu civilization and is taught by professors who themselves are unemployable, ever be employable? Now that the department/faculty is there, students who would have preferred employable areas, are forced into these departments.
Every time we start a department to help a friend be a dean and others to be heads of department rather than to help students study to be what they want to be, we are doling out money we do not have. That money is better used to train more technicians who are employable, even self-employable. But how can we do it when we must cater to producing white collar jobs, whether we have the jobs or not? So long as we routinely hand out white collar jobs as we do, no one will want to be a technician.
Now we are told there is no foreign exchange for essentials. Is it really true? We can go to the IMF and be helped if we tighten discipline. It means stopping all the dishing out of free goodies and taxing more people. We will thereby have the funds and foreign exchange for the essentials. That we will not do because it affects the upper classes who need the chocolates, motorbikes and tax-free car import permits. We, including our well-paid MPs, control policy for the upper classes.
I belong to the upper-middle class. I am privileged. The current power cut does not bother me too much. I have a $2000 (Rs. 500,000) Lenovo Thinkpad Laptop. It keeps its charge for 4 hours. So here I am sitting bare bodied under our mango tree in my sarong, working away on this article, typing away at my Lenovo keyboard. I have internet via my hotspot from my phone. At 1 O’Clock when power comes back, I will get back into my house. The point I make is that these cuts mainly bother the poor. Our neighbour Shanthi, I see, is always out in the compound cooking on a woodfire. I buy gas because even if prices are doubled, I will still find the money for it. So far we have had no milk shortage – my grocer always gets me a packet when I want and I pay him what he asks for. Previously a visit to him cost me about Rs. 7000. Now it is more like Rs. 13,000. I will survive.
Look at foreign exchange. The government says there is a shortage and the rate is Rs. 200 to a dollar (5 March). But if you go to the street, it really is Rs. 260. This is another subsidy, If the government imports a kg of Pakistani rice at a dollar (Rs. 260) it needs to sell it at Rs. 200 because officially that is what the government paid.
I went twice to the US recently to be with my children. Tickets that usually were $1800 near Christmas were $950. We do well in bad times like COVID because there are no passengers! That is only half the story. The government says (or said even in December) that it is Rs. 197 to a dollar. This they say to keep imports cheap, to give free goods again to feed the insatiable Lankan appetite to have things free. So, for ease of arithmetic, a $1000 roundtrip ticket that should have cost me Rs. 260,000 I bought for Rs. 200,000 as subsidized by the government. Where did this Rs. 120,000 (the other 60,000 being for my wife’s ticket) come from? It came from a hundred people like Shanthi who have had to switch from gas to firewood to keep people like me flying cheap. Anyway, for the government to go on foreign trips, dollars are always there, including for the liquor that flows on board.
That is merely a part of the story. We were allowed $3000 for our expenses on our recent trip. This was at Rs. 197 to a dollar that was already going at Rs. 250 on the street. (Theoretically it is possible to bring it back and sell it on the street with a tidy profit.) I was told that we could buy another $100 at the airport. I bought $100 from one bank. Another airport bank said they had $1000 which too I was able to buy by getting rupees at the ATM. My daughter’s fees of some Rs. 2 million were coming due at Cambridge. Instead of letting her pay it from her scholarship funds, I covered it from my rupee account. Who wants rupees nowadays?
While in the US I was told there was a limit of $250 on a credit card per week. In these times of shortage, this facility is for us, the better off. The government is destroying the rupee and it is in my self-interest to get as much of my rupees as possible out of this seemingly god-forsaken country before the rupee loses all its value. So I used 2 credit cards from different banks and bought things to the limit every week, even groceries for my daughter. At the end of our journey, I had dollars left. I could have sold them on my return at Rs. 260 and made a clean profit. But who wants rupees today? So I left my dollars with my daughter, far safer with her than in my rupee account.
All these privileges are an artificial part of the Lankan penchant to give out (and get) things free. Only the upper classes can draw on these privileges. At the actual market-based exchange rate, government cannot allow free imports so they have an artificially high value (that is low exchange rate) for the rupee that makes purchases cheap. Somehow our politicians seem to feel good about throwing away public money with zero responsibility. So the dollar shortage is only for the poor – unless the government finds the guts and will to make people pay for what we buy at the real exchange rate, and spare the Shanthies of Sri Lanka the agonizing prospect of having soon to go without gas, petrol, medicines and food, we are done for.
Our leaders have their mansions in California to run to if the country folds. It really is time for more sensible and disciplined people to take over the government who have an interest in the survival of the people. But are there such people left any more?
When our government should take up the cause our lost human rights, it is the Human Rights Commission and the INGOs we berate so much that are doing the job our government should be doing. Michelle Bachelet’s recommendations are spot on – calling for targeted sanctions on Sri Lankan rights violators, pursuing justice for international crimes committed in Sri Lanka through universal jurisdiction, providing asylum for Sri Lankans at risk of persecution, and supporting the UN Accountability Project mandated by the Human Rights Council in 2021. I thank God for MPs Manusha Nanayakkara and Harin Fernando who despite the risk of incurring the wrath of our crazed government, left for the United Nations Human Rights Council on 1 March to speak up for my friend MP Ranjan Ramanayake, who is currently under a sentence of rigorous imprisonment over a vaguely defined and harsh contempt of court conviction. Harin Fernando is a rare Sinhalese to speak of minority rights while most speak of their own rights but not of others’.
All this is happening because we kept doling out free things in the Lankan way. The upper classes look after themselves. They throw free things at the poor to keep them quiet. In the process the rich too get things cheaply. We buy tickets and food and pay foreign university fees at a subsidized exchange rate when we really have to pay a lot more with a realistic exchange rate.
The Lankan need to get things free is voracious. Like Oliver Twist in the movie Oliver, we sing “I want more.” But there no more is more any more.
This lifestyle can no longer be sustained.
An expatriate Tamil said he loves to read Facebook pages where Sinhalese are grouching about their economic woes. Unfortunately for us Tamils, it is the Sinhalese who run the Tamil economy as well after the best of us were chased off. The Tamil future is tied up with the Sinhalese’s for now. When they sink the boat, we too sink with them and their boat. Complete devolution seems to be the way for Tamils to redeem ourselves from Sinhalese follies. And then we need to ensure that we get a government that is better than what we elected for the North last time.
We need to help UNHRC fight for our lost rights.