By Siri Gamage –
Sri Lanka’s New Directions after the Parliamentary Elections: National Needs vs. International Dimension
Leaving aside the ongoing horse-trading going on for positions in the new ministries, appointment of defeated candidates to the national list by the party secretaries, and the concept of national government mooted by both the UNP and the SLFP leadership, there is no doubt that the country will experience a new direction in political, economic, diplomatic and other arenas in the near future. Political and civic forces that were behind the change initiated on January 8th and strengthened with the results of the parliamentary elections held this month –though at present are in a state of flux- are potent enough to introduce and implement policies and programs that are different from those implemented by the previous regime led by former President Mahinda Rajapakse. We are yet to get a feel for these new policies and programs. It is early days. However, it is possible to imagine the nature of foreign policy to be adopted by the new government and some of the policies as well as challenges facing the country and the new government. Election manifesto of the UNFGG led by the UNP provides some ideas in this connection.
Questions can however be raised about the directions in economic policy to be adopted by the new government. Is it going to be full-blown neoliberal, free-market driven policies similar to the Open Economy policies adopted by JR since 1977? Or is it a combination of a nationally focused policy with some encouragement given to indigenous industries, manufacturers, farmers and other entrepreneurs while pandering to the multinational corporations from the US, Europe, Australia and the Asian region? Is it going to be a Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysian style economic development where the local and international capital run the show or is it going to be an economic policy oriented toward a more sustainable development with a firm foot on the natural environment, local culture, needs of the population at large rather than the well-to-do segments of society- including those with close links to the Sri Lankan diaspora?
When we look at the tourism sector for example, many who work in its five star establishments including resorts, hotels are simply earning a ‘living wage only’ once they leave out their food, transport, housing and other costs. They have a job but it doesn’t give much surplus on a monthly basis when the costs are left out. The same could be said about those working in factories set up in Free Trade Zones and similar enterprises with foreign capital, ownership and know-how. Colombo and other cities in the country are already becoming a too expensive place for mum and dad visitors. Many hotels and resorts seem to be catering to high-end tourists with fat pockets. These places of entertainment, relaxation and are beyond the capacity of many Sri Lankans to afford. So are the high-end shops that are selling designer products. If the needs of country’s population are at heart, the new government needs to develop policies and programs that can on one hand provide job opportunities for the young in various sectors where they can earn ‘a real wage’ to fulfil their life aspirations rather than a living wage alone. Similarly, it has to develop policies and programs to offer products and services for those living in the rural sector, working class and middle class in a reasonable cost-benefit framework. The balance of emphasis has to be turned up side down in some ways compared to the policies and programs of the previous regime, which created the basis for a ‘synthetic’ and ‘corrupt’ economy. Creating conditions for ‘economic democracy’ is as important for a small island nation like Sri Lanka for its long-term vision and growth.
Going back to the roots of Sri Lanka freedom Party’s economic policies, particularly those implemented during early to mid 70s under Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike, one may even speculate that there could be some emphasis on supporting local entrepreneurs, farmers, industrialists, professionals etc. to develop their respective fields and compete in the world and regional markets. This is where one can expect, rightly or wrongly, the new government to orient its economic policies in such a way that it gives priority to improve local food production, manufacturing, service and other fields with an eye for the regional and global markets – instead of making the local population just imitative consumers of imported products and services. In the globalised world where Sri Lankan diaspora is spread over many countries, this challenge may be met with its cooperation and good will. However, the competition Sri Lanka faces from the countries in the region and elsewhere will be fierce. Therefore, while emphasising the national focus in economic field, it is also important for the newly elected PM, Parliamentarians, ministers, as well as key bureaucrats and policy makers to understand the current state of play in the region in their respective fields of activity.
One consideration ought to be the improvement of quality of life. This is where the notions of sustainable development, environmental protection, quality education, health and nutritional services, transport options, and import policy etc. can be a catalyst. Taking for example the fume produced by diesel and petrol operated vehicles on the country’s roads, one can only hope for policies to reduce such harmful fumes. The congestion on roads contributes to ill health, as are imported products with artificial additives. Smoking, alcohol and drug consumption are other areas of concern. Commercialisation of the medical profession/sector without promoting ‘services with a social conscience’ is eating into the very fabric of society, particularly its vulnerable segments. Those with money and resources are able to access private health facilities but the vast majority depend on state sponsored health services. In this connection, recent introduction of an ambulatory service in two districts with the assistance of Indian government need to be appreciated.
A society’s soul is measured by how its members take care of the sick, old, vulnerable and the weak. Charitable and voluntary organisations play a crucial role in this regard by complementing services offered by the state. However, such organisations need the support of the state to some extent in financial terms also.
If the new directions adopted by the national government is simply to cater to foreign interests in economic and other fields, Sri Lanka runs the risk of becoming a satellite state of regional and global big powers who have their own agendas. A policy re-think is also necessary in almost in all fields at this juncture. This is because there could be policy conflicts between the two election manifestos of the two main political camps on one hand and policy vacuum in other areas. The new government has to hit the road running and it does not have much time to waste before getting to business of government. While those in various political camps are busy trying to sort out positions, responsibilities and privileges, the majority of people yarn for some relief for day-to-day living on one hand and a better future on the other. It is for creating necessary conditions for good governance as well as sensible economic and other policies that are nationally focused but regionally and internationally integrated that a good opposition is needed in the national parliament. Policies of the new government need to be founded on an articulate social, economic and political philosophy also. Yet the features of such a philosophy are not commonly known, especially in the context of the national government being mooted at present! The MOU signed between the two main political camps does not provide enough information in terms of the overall direction of the new government.