By Anton Fernando –
It is true that countries need plans for progress and embark on projects to create economic opportunities for all citizens. However it is imperative that we carefully study the feasibility of such endeavors and assess their cost versus benefit to the country.
It is widely held by the people of Sri Lanka that ‘Development’ necessarily involves the construction of massive buildings and other structures, the more massive and larger-scale the better. The idea behind this simplistic notion is that giant skyscrapers similar to those in Hong Kong, Dubai or Singapore will deliver unprecedented economic prosperity to the country. This is based on poor understanding of finances, and an inability to see beyond surface appearances, which is a national characteristic of us Sri Lankans. The idea that large buildings and other structures, in and of themselves constitute Development was actively promoted by those who carried out this Development, namely, the Rajapaksa regime. Now, after three decades of such Development, it is clear that it benefited the regime, family and cronies, but not the country. Even after allegations of large scale corruption that lay underneath this Development became common knowledge, Sri Lankans have shown that they are willing to overlook such misconduct and re-elect corrupt politicians, telling themselves that “It is OK, at least they have done Development”. But there is a glaring question: if this Development is supposed to benefit the country, why are we in such dire economic straits?
The vast majority of people of Sri Lanka blindly trust their political leaders to properly manage the affairs of the country. There are many qualified advisors and professional experts employed by the Government as well as the private sector, who the people assume their leaders consult, and make sound judgments. Therefore, when it comes to the new Development projects, they believe that these are based on intelligent choices that will deliver a higher standard of living for the people and prosperity in general. It is also assumed that such decisions would be based on financial affordability, a proper consideration of the environmental impact, and Sri Lanka’s own needs and priorities.
Let us examine two major completed Development projects in Sri Lanka, the Mattala airport and the Hambantota Harbour. These were not conceptualized, planned and initiated according to the needs of the Sri Lankan people. It is evident that proper cost versus benefit projections, and environmental impact evaluations were not made. This kind of Development has yielded the ”world’s emptiest airport” and a “port without shipping”. The harbor has managed to look profitable by shifting cargo from the Colombo harbor.
In addition, the administration of the Colombo Port City, the largest ever financial investment undertaken in Sri Lanka, financed and being built by China, is shrouded in suspicion regarding ownership and sovereignty. The special Economic Zone of the Port City is not subject to local authorities including the Jurisdiction of Courts of Sri Lanka. While many foreign enterprises are expected to operate on the site, there is no clear expectation that it will primarily benefit Sri Lanka. Critics have pointed out that the location could be used as a haven for money laundering. Again, what is the use of the “Lotus Tower”, another high priced, bombastic project, to the people of Sri Lanka?
We must ask who wanted these Development projects? China has enticed a large number of countries in different parts of the world with massive loans for development projects. These projects, mostly dealing with infrastructure, have been envisioned to fulfill China’s master plan to lure as many countries as possible to be indebted to China and become coerced sponsors of a colossal intercontinental Belt and Road Initiative. In short, the Mega Projects in Sri Lanka are part of China’s schemes thrust upon Sri Lanka, to benefit China, and are rightly known as ‘debt traps’.
A common feature that connects these Development projects in Sri Lanka is their secrecy and lack of transparency. No details of the progress of such ventures are divulged to the public. The tactical hallmark of the perpetrators of these projects is obfuscation and deceit, designed to keep the public in the dark. Citizens and civil society are never consulted, while a handful of politicians have made highly impactful decisions, apparently based solely on what is in it for their personal gain.
Considering the above, we are compelled to ask the following questions: (1) Did our political leaders know that these ‘Development’ projects were a disaster to the country? (2) Were they hoodwinked into agreeing to the plans of a foreign power? (3) Or, did they know about the negative impact of these projects, but they did not want to let the people know? (4) Were personal enrichment and the image-boost from these ‘Development’ projects too good to ignore?
The policies and activities of the Rajapaksa clan of which massive and un-repayable Chinese ‘Development’ loans are a central feature, have precipitated Sri Lanka to becoming the worst performing country in Asia. People are suffering from shortages of food, fuel, and increase in price of all goods. The country has achieved the dubious distinction of being bankrupt, and an international beggar state. The foolish embracement of proposals by foreign powers has resulted in financial catastrophe. Currently, the Sri Lankan Government is busy devising ways to handing over tracts of prime land as payments for loans. The entire country is made to suffer from an unprecedented disaster, and the people are living in a state of hopelessness and misery. Moreover, we have reports of further enticements from China to take on more ‘Development’ projects.
Will there be any consequences for making such horrible blunders to make the country suffer an unprecedented debacle? Not a hope! Complete immunity is guaranteed by the total subservience of the entire governing system to the Rajapaksa clan. This has been made possible by their two-thirds majority in the Parliament that enabled them to amend the constitution to grant themselves near authoritarian powers. While severe punishments are meted out to perpetrators of relatively minor crimes, these politicians responsible for the current tragedy, live with nonchalance and enjoy luxurious lives in a parallel world. For them, stupidity and greed pays!
What do we do now? Certainly, we cannot afford to let this pattern of blunders and corruption to continue. As a nation we need a different way of thinking and a different set of leaders with the best interest of the country as their sole focus. It is the patriotic duty of all right thinking citizens, and in particular, the different elites, to organize themselves for electing to power a national government of enlightened, honest and capable political leaders dedicated to the national interest, not to their personal interest. The potential to defeat the Rajapaksas by a coalition of good men and women of all ethnicities, religions, and other groups has never been so pronounced as it is today.