By M A Sumanthiran –
The opening of the Mattala Rajapaksa International airport in Sri Lanka has been hailed by representatives of the Sri Lankan government as a significant boost to Sri Lanka’s economic development. In keeping with the priority the government clearly seems to be placing in the last few years, on large scale development projects, environmental and even economic concerns about the airport have been summarily dismissed by the unwavering government claim that the Mattala airport opens a new chapter in Sri Lanka’s economic development.
The Tamil National Alliance has repeatedly raised concerns regarding the ‘development’ policy of the government in the North and East. Government boasts of new roads, bridges and culverts in the North and East have done little to ease the desperate needs of those who live there – basic needs such as a return to their lands and property which they are still prevented from occupying, housing with proper facilities, and proper nutrition. These are needs that the government seems determined to ignore.
I have raised this concern many times, in particular following Hon. Gunaratene Weerakoon, Minister for Resettlement’s statement in Parliament on the 21st of March 2013 that 470 houses have been built by the government in the past 4 years. I emphasized that it is important to consider who truly benefits from such development and even more importantly, at whose expense such development takes place.
I have often said that the histories of Sri Lanka’s peoples are connected. The people of the South cannot forever stay unaffected by what happens to the peoples of the North and the East. Today, we see this in relation to the economic and development policies of the government.
Some weeks ago, the government announced the much anticipated revisions in the electricity tariff. The overall hike in the cost of electricity is estimated to be approximately 65%. Economists predict that the revisions in the electricity tariff will further deepen electricity poverty in Sri Lanka.
In addition to the cost of electricity itself, the increased cost in the production of goods and services will lead to a significant increase in the overall cost of living as well, placing an even more crushing burden on the consumer.
The announcement of the hike, unsurprisingly, led to a wave of protests from various groups, even resulting in a furor in Parliament that forced the Speaker to adjourn sittings. Opposition parties and trade unions have announced their intention of resorting to legal action in order to challenge the tariff hike. To date however, no proper response has been forthcoming to public questions relating to the tariff hike.
The Ceylon Electricity Board cites high production costs as the reason for the hike. This is however, amidst widespread allegations, including claims by employees of the Ceylon Electricity Board that the increase in the tariffs is to cover up massive waste and corruption within the Ceylon Electricity Board. Minister for Power and Energy Pavithra Devi Wanniarachchi, responding to questions in Parliament raised by acting Leader of the Opposition John Amaratunge, stated that the proposal to implement the recent power tariff hike had been made by her predecessor, long before she assumed duties. She stated that she had no choice but to continue with the decisions made by her predecessor. Her predecessor, Minister Champika Ranawaka however, is of the opinion that the present Minister’s attempt to blame him for the latest increase is unfair, and that he himself believes that the latest price revision is unfair.
While it cannot be denied that action must be taken to reduce the significant losses faced by the Ceylon Electricity Board, what is unclear is why the government decided to address this by placing the entire burden of it squarely on the shoulders of the consumer. The reluctance of government officials to take responsibility for the proposal clearly reflects the fact that even they cannot deny that this is completely unjustifiable.
Despite the financial crisis of the Ceylon Electricity Board and the resulting rise in the cost of living in Sri Lanka today, the government seems to be willing to spend colossal sums of money on large scale ‘development’ projects, such as the Mattala Rajapaksa International airport, which is estimated to have cost US $210 million. Was a second international airport really Sri Lanka’s most pressing need? If the Ceylon Electricity Board was facing a crisis so serious that the government proposes to address it with unprecedented tariff hikes for the consumer, would it not have been more beneficial to the public if this money was instead invested in alternative strategies to address the crisis within the Ceylon Electricity Board? The crisis is not a new one. The International Monetary Fund has repeatedly emphasized the need for power reforms and a more sustainable model for the generation of the country’s energy needs. Money could have been invested to provide short term financial assistance to the Ceylon Electricity Board, thus eliminating the need for such excessive tariff hikes for the consumer. Investment could also have been made to create and incentivize the generation of alternate sources of energy in Sri Lanka. Steps could have been taken to restructure the Ceylon Electricity Board and address the massive waste and corruption in generating, transmitting and distributing electricity.
A responsible government should not be content with defining development merely in terms of carving its name in stone and concrete; merely in terms of the number of large scale development projects; merely the number of large scale investors. It should not be content with making the rich richer, at the expense of making the struggle of the poor to survive even harder. Real development uplifts the lives of the people it is supposed to benefit. A government must measure development in terms of human well being, and in terms of an increased standard of living for its most vulnerable inhabitants.
I have cited previously, the following statement in a report of the International Crisis Group, titled ‘Sri Lanka’s North II: Rebuilding under the Military’ (dated 16th March 2012), which stated that:
‘A more central defect of the government’s focus on large-scale infrastructure projects is that it has come at the expense of meeting the urgent needs of those most affected by the war’.
It is now clear however, that the government’s focus on large-scale infrastructure projects is not merely at the expense of ‘those most affected by the war’, but indeed at the expense of all its peoples.
With the end of the war, foremost among the government’s promises to Sri Lanka’s peoples was the benefits of economic development. Whatever economic ‘development’ that has taken place however, has only lined the pockets of a privileged few and has required the sacrifice of the economic well being of most of Sri Lanka’s citizenry. The victims of the Sri Lankan government’s ‘development’ are now not only peoples of the North and the East but peoples of the South as well.
It is time the government stopped defining development in terms of roads, bridges, airports and harbours and began defining it in terms of the true well being of all Sri Lanka’s peoples.
*The author, M A Sumanthiran (B.Sc, LL.M) is a Member of Parliament through the Tamil National Alliance, a senior practicing lawyer, prominent Constitutional and Public Law expert and civil rights advocate.