By Kath Noble –
As I concluded last week, it is the failure of the Opposition that has put Sri Lanka into its current mess. This political system requires competition between the two main parties, since it is only fear of being thrown out of office that limits the behaviour of the Government. When the Opposition is weak, the Government doesn’t take it as an opportunity to solve the long-term problems of the nation, free from the compulsions of electoral politics – it focuses on its own future and how it can further strengthen its grip on power. It becomes dictatorial.
Ranil Wickremasinghe has been defeated so many times that his name must surely be entered in the Guinness Book of Records. People don’t like his policies, and he refuses to change them.
His economic agenda is no more popular than his conflict resolution strategy. Indeed, they are very similar. He wants to hand over responsibility for the well-being of the Sri Lankan people and the resources that belong to them to unelected individuals with a record of exploitation.
My point was that the country seems to be doomed to undergo more spectacles like the impeachment of the Chief Justice, since the Opposition is apparently determined to remain ineffective. Eighteen years in any position should be enough. But the UNP has agreed to give Ranil another six as its leader, guaranteeing his grip on the party until well after the next presidential and parliamentary elections. (Anybody who thinks that Ranil would run the country more democratically than Mahinda Rajapaksa is an idiot.)
One really begins to wonder whether there is anybody in the UNP who is up to the job. Several of its politicians have been agitating for reforms in the party, but their campaign has now been going on for more than half a decade without any results.
And this week offered a look into the thinking of Sajith Premadasa.
Addressing the media on the floods that have afflicted Sri Lanka in recent days, he attacked the Government for its response. The Security Forces had done a good job of rescuing people, he said, but the relief being provided was condemnable. In particular, he questioned the offer of Rs. 5,000 in exchange for ten days of work, which he said amounted to ‘enslaving’ the victims.
Now, I am sure that the affected people could do with rather more than Rs. 5,000. According to the Disaster Management Centre, by Sunday, 35 people had been killed and 22 injured. A total of 44,901 people had been displaced, while 3,136 houses had been destroyed and 7,693 partially damaged. These problems obviously cannot be solved with such a small sum of money, and they are only part of the burden the victims will have to bear – the Disaster Management Centre has not collected data on the impact of the floods on livelihoods. Since the Government regularly wastes a lot more than Rs. 5,000 on totally useless activities, Sajith was right to be critical.
The people of his own district would surely prefer a bit more assistance to a Rs. 4 billion cricket stadium, for instance!
If that amount had been divided among the 66,299 families reported to have been affected by the floods, they would have each received a little over Rs. 60,000.
This is an important argument, but it is not the point that Sajith was making. He was concerned not so much with the amount as with the way in which it is to be provided – in exchange for labour. Apparently, even if the Government gives Rs. 60,000, it must be a gift.
Of course gifts are very nice. But they limit the amount that people can be given.
If the victims each need Rs. 1 million, it would require a genuinely impossible allocation, taking up the budgets of several ministries.
The idea of offering employment in exchange for assistance has already been used to good effect in this year’s drought, with farmers who couldn’t cultivate their fields due to lack of water being paid to rehabilitate local tanks instead.
The Government claims to have spent almost Rs. 5 billion for this purpose. The advantage is that instead of being cast as victims, unable to do anything to help themselves, the affected people were involved in productive work that should contribute to avoiding a repetition of the drought, or at least to reducing its severity.
Farmers will benefit from their own work, and so will the country.
We should remember that natural disasters are becoming ever more frequent. Climate change is a reality, and Sri Lanka is now facing drought and floods on a regular basis.
It is important to be prepared, and I believe that the Disaster Management Centre has done some work in that direction. But the Government should also have a clear and consistent policy on the assistance that it is going to offer to people affected by natural disasters – their fate shouldn’t be decided according to the whims of politicians.
Of course, the Government doesn’t like to guarantee anything.
In lieu of such a promise, it has started to push insurance schemes.
Mahinda Rajapaksa announced in the budget speech that farmers who receive chemical fertiliser from the Government at a subsidised rate will now have to pay Rs. 150 per 50 kilo bag towards crop insurance. No doubt the motivation behind this move is not what is best for farmers but how to reduce the cost of the fertiliser subsidy, on which the Government spends more than Rs. 30 billion. Instead of providing bags at Rs. 350, they will be given for Rs. 500. This is not very honest, but perhaps one should not complain too much since the fertiliser subsidy is clearly not the best way to support farmers. (In addition to the now widely accepted impact on the environment, and hence on our health and the economy as a whole, the fertiliser subsidy is totally inefficient. To cultivate one acre, farmers use three bags of chemical fertiliser. These are sold to them for Rs. 350, when the market rate is Rs. 6,500. For the amount that the Government thus has to hand over to the manufacturers to support a single individual – nearly Rs. 20,000 – it could have bought them an indigenous cow! And such an animal would have fertilised as many as 30 acres for several years, without any of the disadvantages of chemical fertiliser. Why is it not done? Because the fertiliser companies are enthusiastic sponsors of a whole range of activities of both officials and academics.)
The problem with ulterior motives is that things don’t generally work out as we expect. One would have to see how easy it is to make a claim, since it is well known that the other major intervention in agricultural markets – purchasing at a minimum price –is largely ineffective, with the Government purposely making it difficult for farmers to take advantage.
Better than insurance schemes, or at least as well as them, would be a guarantee of work in exchange for a minimum income.
My advocacy of this idea is inspired by the experience of India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, passed in 2005, which guarantees 15 days of employment at the minimum wage to Indians living in rural areas willing to do manual labour. Despite being plagued by corruption, as most things are in India, it has made a vital contribution to the development of the country.
The situation in rural areas in Sri Lanka is nowhere near as difficult as in India, except perhaps in the former conflict areas, but the country could still think of such a scheme islandwide.
Alternatively, this could also work as a Disaster Recovery Scheme.
It would be the opposite of enslavement, since it would confer on the Sri Lankan people a new right that they do not as yet enjoy, without imposing on them any new duties.
And that is bound to be popular.
Sajith Premadasa had better give it some more thought.
Of course Ranil Wickremasinghe cannot be expected to approve. His neoliberal handbook says that it is only a matter of time before we are all as rich as he, so long as the Government doesn’t try to help the process along.
He must love being in the Opposition!