In order to put the records right, it is necessary to state emphatically at the very outset that the creation of the economic, political and social crises, which pushed the present Rajapaksa family lead government into submission to China’s tempting rescue offer, was not only the creation of the present and previous Rajapaksa regimes but principally the creation of the UNP lead governments since 1977.
The transition from essentially a democratic, independent, stable and largely inclusive country to the present ‘democratically’ elected but dictatorially run, subserviently China dependent and ethnically, religiously and socially divided country, can be attributed to the following governance choices taken since 1977.
1. Introduction in 1978 by JR Jayewardene of a constitution providing an Executive Presidency System with draconian powers vested in the President without checks and balances. This has been made even worse under the present President. Experience everywhere shows that once you go down this road return to democracy is a far cry although that is what we should aspire for.
2. The adoption again by JR Jayewardene of a western imposed neoliberal market driven economic policies in place of the previous essentially sound socio political economic system, which served the needs of Sri Lanka better
3. Again it was JR who actively engaged in ethnically and religiously divisive policies alienating, repressing, discriminating and provoking the minority ethnic communities into taking unwisely of course arms against the state. Ethnically biased standardization policy in university admissions, state instigated violence such as burning down of Jaffna Public Library, 1977 riots and 1983 riots against the Tamils, can be cited as examples of such alienation and provocation.
4. Allowing this war to prolong for 30 years and ending the war in 2009 without even addressing the very causes of that war, leaving Sri Lanka again vulnerable to ethnic unrest cannot be considered as good governance. Sri Lanka was subjected to Sinhala youth uprising in the South in the seventies and then unwisely an armed struggle for a separate Eelam from late eighties, which consumed nearly 40 years out of the 71 years of post-independent Sri Lanka. So the country was misgoverned and could not progress from 1977 onwards.
5. The so called accelerated post-war infra structure reconstruction and economic development since 2009 also spelt disaster. Endless and reckless borrowing and spending on badly chosen priorities with no return for the borrowed capital invested coupled with unprecedented and widespread corruption at all levels of government bankrupted the country, precipitating in the present crisis.
The government was thus forced into passing the Port City Legislation. This would have happened even under a UNP Government. The aim of the author at this stage is not to pile up allegations against the government over the spilt milk but to explore how to limit or minimise the damages and more importantly how to reclaim and regain Sri Lanka for the present and future generations of Sri Lankans.
Although the size of the Port City Development is area wise miniscule (2.69 Sq.km) in comparison to Sri Lanka’s size (320,000 Sq.km) and the lease period is limited only to 99 years, the scale of economic and other operations that will take place in the Port City will simply dwarf everything else in Sri Lanka put together. This is where the danger lies for Sri Lanka.
We need to pay attention to two important areas. Firstly we must agree with China to control and manage the operations within the Port City in ways mutually advantageous to both Sri Lanka and China. Secondly we must have a new strategy of governing Sri Lanka in the long term interests of Sri Lankan people and this strategy must be discussed publicly, openly and transparently and popularly accepted.
Now let me dwell upon the key areas of my concern from Sri Lanka’s perspectives.
Foreign investments in the Port City must not be aimed at bleeding the country using our cheap labour without technology transfer and at least with a small share of profit for investing in the rest of Sri Lanka. This is one way to avoid more borrowing. At least a small number of Sri Lankans should be in the board of directors of all companies operating within the Port City. This will assist the smooth transfer of the Port City back to Sri Lanka after 99 years. We must remember this is how India developed their industries, particularly their M/C and car industries and other heavy industries, through collaboration agreements for up to 20 years with British and Japanese companies with joint management and board of directors, permitting almost unrestricted technology transfer.
Neither private universities nor medical tourism must be permitted within the Port City to prevent brain drain from mainland to Port City. Otherwise all our university professors, lecturers, medical consultants and specialists, educated from primary school all the way up to university and beyond at public expense, will cross over to the Port City to work at twice or even 3 times their current salaries thus destroying our highly esteemed free university education and our free National Health Service, the two jewels in the crown of Sri Lanka. This will be nothing but treachery to our own university students who will receive inferior education and to our people needing healthcare who will only receive low quality service because our best academics and professionals have been drained away by bribing.
We are an agricultural and fishing country and because we have failed to invest and develop these very lucrative areas we were importing our food needs rather than being a net exporter. The current corona epidemic has also taught us the need to be at least self-sufficient in food. Any money borrowed must be wisely spent in increasing our agriculture and fishery production to satisfy our food needs and for exporting. This is our top priority. We can easily do this because we have the human resources, water resources (good rainfall, perennial rivers, tanks and irrigation canals), fertile agricultural lands, University Agriculture Faculties, Department of Agriculture, Agrarian services departments, and Agriculture Research Stations all idling or under-utilized and we have unlimited marine resources as well.
No more borrowing to spend on prestigious projects like Hambanthotta Port, Cricket Stadium, Expressway, none of which are generating revenue for the country, not even enough revenue to pay back the interest on loans secured! This is almost planned bankruptcy of the country!
Develop our public transport system and make it into an integrated transport system connecting bus, rail, water, sea, air and bicycle transport plus of course safe walking.
CTB presently has only 5600 buses, private bus operators have only 20,000 clapped up buses for the whole country of 21.7 million people. This is disgraceful to say the least. But we have foolishly and lavishly spent huge amounts of our Dollar reserves to import 7.3 million private vehicles and clog up our roads, import all the fuel needed to burn and drive those vehicles and pollute our atmosphere. Why are we giving car permits to MP’s, doctors, university lecturers etc. and making the country bankrupt?
We have only 1450 km of railway lines, 323 railway stations in the entire country, more or less what was left behind by the British Colonialists in 1948 even after 72 years of independence! This again is shamefully disgraceful.
Our economy cannot grow without efficient public transport. More time spent by working population to travel from their homes to their work places means less production for the country and less work-life balance for working people. We must build this into our economic modelling.
Skilled and unskilled work opportunities in the Port City for our workers with an element of technology transfer must be negotiated with China. This will cut down the number of men and women desperately seeking low paid jobs in the Middle East under slavish working conditions, leaving their family and children unattended and go astray.
The government must negotiate with China or India or Japan to set up a few solar panel manufacturing factories outside the Port City under collaboration agreements, enabling technology transfers as well. Similarly Dairy farms and other food processing industries can be started. These will create many jobs for our men and women and our economy and GDP will grow.
So we must think positive and work towards developing agriculture, fishery, light industries, food processing industries, IT industry, public transport, education and technology transfer and root out corruption in the public as well as the private sector.
For a start clean up all the corporations (CTB, CGR, Petroleum Corporation, SriLankan Airline, Gem Corporation, Sri Lanka Cricket Board etc. into profit making corporations, following the COPE recommendations. The Government must start governing without wasting time and public funds. They must create well trained and disciplined workers and staff, who should all be given their job descriptions, duties and responsibilities to abide by as well as paid satisfactory living wages and good working conditions with union rights. Civilized employment practices must be put in place. Otherwise economy cannot grow. This article is aimed to encourage public discussion on vital issues of survival and to constructively engage and influence those in power.