By Jehan Perera –
The country appears to have reached a position of stability. But this is deceptive. Every day the price of food increases. Less can be bought with the wages earned that day. The anticipated food shortages have manifested themselves though the sufferings and deprivations are private and personal for the most part. They come out into the open when an office worker may say that they have no money to go back home on the bus at the end of the working day. Or it manifests itself in the statement of the UN representative Hanaa Singer-Hamdy who has said that 22 per cent of the Sri Lankan population or 4.9 million people live in need of food assistance at the moment. She said there is a 40 to 50 per cent reduction in paddy crop harvest in this period.
The sense of dissatisfaction within the general population with regard to the lack of economic progress continues to seethe. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Country Representative for Sri Lanka Vimlendra Sharan has said in a recent interview that the Sri Lankan farmer is one of the best he has seen, highly-educated and very receptive, so he did not think there is any blame lying with the farmers. FAO understands that some fertiliser, through bilateral sources like India, is reaching Sri Lanka, but it is still in the pipeline and yet to come to Sri Lanka, while the season has started. This disaster alone for which the Rajapakse administration has to take full responsibility justifies the call of the Aragalaya – Gota Go Home.
Ironically, the appearance of stability in the political domain has increased in the aftermath of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appointment as prime minister. Under him it appears to be business as usual. He has stolen the thunder of the Aragalaya. The promise of an all-party interim government with a core team of 15 ministers to reboot the country’s economy has become a mirage. The government has continued to add to the number of ministers, the latest being Dhammika Perera, who is a businessman of wealth and repute as financial counsellor to the ruling politicians. The expectations of a collapse of the government, which were heightened with the breakdown of law and order and mob attacks a month ago, seem to be no longer considered a threat. But the fly in the ointment is that the economic situation continues to worsen by the day.
The causes that gave rise to the Aragalaya protests continue in full force. The main demand of the Aragalaya protestors has consistently been that the president should step down on account of the serious errors of judgment he has made using those powers. The worst of these was to ban the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides overnight in pursuit of a utopian vision of organic farming found nowhere else in the world. At the UN General Assembly, he stated that Sri Lanka would be the first country to become fully organic in farming. There is no evidence this folly was highlighted to him or his team in the halls of the UN, which could have prevented this catastrophe.
The Federation of University Teachers (FUTA) has issued a statement demanding that “The government must acknowledge its loss of legitimacy. A credible interim government should be established. The President should immediately resign. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe working on the basis of support from the SLPP is not a viable option.” Seeing the attitude of business as usual in their colleagues, some more percipient political party leaders in the government coalition have warned that unless the situation improves fast there could be a worse outbreak of violence than took place a month ago. Former minister Wimal Weerawansa has said, “Last time the attackers set only the politicians’ houses on fire. Next time they would target affluent and rich families too. They will attack everyone using luxury vehicles and those living in luxury homes. That is the inevitable future if the government keeps playing games with the crises.”
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe may have successfully eroded the support base of the protestors by negating the need for them. There has been no crackdown on protestors since his ascension to the premiership. But the practices of the past that have spelled ruin such as the appointment of political favourites and rigging of contracts continue. In these circumstances, the civil society focus at present has shifted to the promotion of political reform through the 21st Amendment to the constitution. But notably, it does not significantly reduce the president’s powers in the manner that was originally anticipated. This makes the entire debate and hullabaloo about the 21st Amendment a moot point.
The FUTA statement observes that “The current economic crisis is the combined outcome of the failure of long-term economic policies and economic mismanagement of successive governments. The current regime’s alleged corruption, their preoccupations with familial and dynastic rule, and their disregard for democratic and participatory governance coupled with their colossal failures in policy and implementation are also to be blamed. Any attempt to pull ourselves out of the crisis therefore, requires that we treat the spheres of politics and economics as connected. Politically, we should hasten to transform a system where the centralization of power enabled corruption at all levels of governance.”
Civil society needs to focus on economic issues also. The government is seeking to get an IMF loan that would give it breathing space to get the economy back on track. The IMF in turn expects the government to come up with a plan in which its revenues correspond to expenditures. This would require downscaling of government expenditures. At present the government appears to be targeting social welfare for reduction. The health sector is the clearest example. Doctors in the state sector are appealing for medical supplies. The supplies are available with the private sector but at an unaffordable price to most people. These medical supplies are unavailable to them, as the government has not provisioned for them. Its priorities lie elsewhere such as building new houses for parliamentarians.
The ruling party continues to enjoy a comfortable majority in parliament which was demonstrated in the course of the controversial vote on the Ceylon Electricity Board bill. With a comfortable majority, parliament decided to do away with the need for competitive bidding when it came to renewable power projects. The atrocious practices of the past that brought the country to its present plight continue. Elections and a fresh mandate are needed. The economic crisis and the way forward need to be discussed with the people. There is a need to wipe clean the slate, and also hold provincial council elections that devolve power to a level closer to the affected people. Elections need to take place sooner rather than later to provide people with the government and sincere problem solvers they deserve.