By Shyamon Jayasinghe –
“Sri Lanka today lives for the moment. No money for petrol.No money for gas. No money for other essential imports including food. No money for essential medicines and, of course no money for Covid”
Failure, Doubt and Despair
The government of the Pohottuwa and Gotabaya Rajapksa should not waste anymore time. It must dissolve itself, since every day of its rule lengthens the dark shadow of failure, doubt and despair hovering over the population. It cannot plot a course as it doesn’t have a clue about where it is heading. Bereft of a vision the government is living on a day-to-day basis trying to handle problems, like the Fire Brigade, as and when they arise.
To some extent, no doubt, the Covid pandemic is a major catalyst and government cannot be wholly blamed for a global disaster reflecting a national disaster. Looking at it in another way, the pandemic has only served to expose the tip of the iceberg, namely, a deepseated inherent dysfunctionality of a government system that cannot work because it is structured not to work.
Our failure in the handling of Covid is very really stemming from an unsustainably structured economy. Had we had the money we could have gone for the wherewithal-vaccines, ventilators, test kits and so on at the inception. Looking down at the deep and yawning hole in the Balance of Payments leaders of this government gave that early preparation a miss.
When someone seeks divine intervention that means that person is absolutely helpless. This is what happened to this government. So it went for fake syrups that were concocted by individuals who hadn’t the slightest credibility even for us to take a look at what they were saying. Dhammika became a ‘Vedamahattaya,’ when he hadn’t the skills to do even a car wash. The minister in charge of health, Pavithra Wanniarachchy, who was mercifully moved from her portfolio recently showcased Dhammika Vedamahattaya to the public in what turned out to be a classic superstitious market mover. Pavithra persuaded the Speaker also to do a similar gimmick and thus parliamentary honour had been bestowed on “Dhammika Vedamahattaya.” In the country where I live this man would have been hauled up before court.
The rest of the ministers and government MPs supported all these crazy moves at least implicitly in their silence. However, one minister in the health area, Channa Jayasumana, defended the quack moves with eloquence. This Channa is a Professor and I wonder how he is able to engage in the onerous task of teaching at university while working as a minister.
We do not have dollars to meet unexpected events like Covid. What our dollars can do the divinity can do without dollars. So we found Pavitra floating clay pots in the river! Despite all her dark arts this lady got the Covid herself. Oh my God!
No Reserves in the Central Bank
The government had brought down the reserves to a dangerously low level. The previous Yahapalana government also contributed to debt but to do that government justice it had been up-to-date on debt settlement and comfortable about the reserve requirement.
The deficit had been largely the accumulated result of ten years of Mahinda Rajapakse rule where all sorts of mad infrastructure schemes were done on Chinese loans. Some good highway construction had been achieved but the creation of huge debt to finance dead projects like the Mattala International Airport, which is still waiting for use, and the similar Hambantota Port in addition to an International Sports Stadium at Hambantota that has no demand whatsoever, had been disatrous to the Sri Lankan economy that was already inherited a chronic and acute debt economy.
The problem of Highway construction on this scale is that the projects completed don’t bring a foreign exchange flow. When dud projects are added, it compounds a further danger.
For decades the island has had a debt economy and World Bank had warned successive governments to make structural changes or face danger. With the above Rajapaksa projects matters worsened.
In order to make the structural changes new investments on non-traditional lines especially in agri-based programs should have been planned. Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had touted finance services, IT and and services sector expansion. Instead of pursuing such productive pathways Sri Lanka governments were relying on tourism development only. Tourism was doing very well and should form a part of the economy restructure that the World Bank had insisted on. On the other hand, tourism is the first to impact when external shocks like the Covid pandemic breaks. Ten Years of Rajapakse rule would have been enough to get experts and plan a proper economy to restructure our economy away from a debt-dependent one. Mahinda Rajapaksa had all the clout during that time but his attention did not go there. With the unprecedented popular support he had Mahinda Rajapakse could have performed an economic miracle; alas that was not to be. Corrupt elements within the family and out in the government ranks of parliament managed to divert attention.
In this way, Sri Lanka today lives for the moment. No money for petrol.No money for gas. No money for other essential imports including food. No money for essential medicines and, of course no money for Covid.
The government has been compelled to stop imports in many areas. The ban on chemical fertilisers has also been due to this, although the government is trying to camouflage that reason. Were it not for this compulsion this isn’t the time to drag in an extraneous issue like like fertilisers. There is a time and place for everything. The repercussions of the ban is not far away for the people to face in the way of food shortages. The prospect of famine is not an exaggeration.
It would be an interesting academic exercise to assess what Sri Lanka’s economic situation would be had there been no worker remittances. Here, again, the government can do a lot to encourage those seeking overseas employment and those engaged in overseas employment. Instead ,what can be observed is that workers’ remittances are encashed at a stupid official rate and sold at much higher rates, thus leaving our foreign sweaters an exploited lot. Our embassies in the Middle East in particular must be entrusted with the resources and policy to assist socially and emotionally, workers in those lands. At their homes, the government can set up a team of social workers who can visit the homes of these workers and see to their needs.
The medieval mindset that some leaders in government possess has compounded problems. The Rajapksas run to the divine far too often. Imagine Gotabaya who has been long exposed to the American Western and modernised thinking and styles of living going to the human divinity Gnanakka at Anuradhapura for frequent consultation! The joke in social media is that Sri Lanka has a Holy Trinity comprised of the Army Commander General Shavendra, Gotabaya and Gnanakka.
The story doing the rounds is that Gnanakka had advised Gotabaya to have the Kandy Perahera this time. The perahera wasn’t held last year but it was done this year. A ten-day lockdown was enforced but the perahera was held. Sans the people no doubt but thousands of artistes took part and we had a report that 45 artistes were infected with the dreadful disease. What does this mean? The Perhera developed a dangerous cluster because all the other artistes who took part would have exposed.
The trouble in Sri Lanka is that there is no social discipline to pursue lockdowns. Any social restriction imposed is being violated in different regions in order to let powerful people show their might. The other day, it was reported that the minister in charge of the police and law and order had violated a lockdown in order to accommodate his son’s wedding party at Shnagri-La and also to accommodate a friend to have his party there the following day.
*The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org