By Jehan Perera
The present stability in the country is taken as an indication that the situation is improving. The law and order, fall in inflation, and absence of visible shortages, such as in front of petrol stations, signifies a vast change as compared to the situation a year ago. But shortages continue, a very basic one being Jeevanee (oral rehydration salt drink), which is necessary for those who are undergoing medical treatment for illnesses such as dengue or engaged in sports. The shortage of Jeevanee is said to be due to issues in importing raw materials needed to produce it locally. More expensive substitutes are available at more than double the price. Those who are able to make ends meet, and have a bird’s eye view of the situation, are generally appreciative of the government’s success in ensuring normalcy in the country.
The prevailing stability in the country could provide the basis for its economic recovery, providing money is conserved by reducing corruption, promoting accountability and guaranteeing investors with stable policies. One of the main causes of low international investment in the country is due to investor fears of policy shifts that would impact on the viability of their investments. The claims that the economy is on the mend, regardless of the absence of the above-mentioned factors, have been upset by two intrusions of reality. The first has been the release of economic data by the Department of Census and Statistics that shows the year on year GDP growth rate for the first quarter of 2023 was estimated as 11.5 percent of negative growth. This shrinkage of the economy is on top of last year’s shrinkage of 9.2 percent.
The second statistic that has upset the picture of economic progress is the depreciation of the rupee after a few weeks of appreciation that was claimed as proof that the economy was getting strong once again. Various reasons were adduced for the supposed strengthening of the economy ranging from the skillful handling of the economy by the government to increased remittances by expatriate workers to increases in the numbers of tourists visiting the country. The fact that the apparent strengthening of the rupee was taking place in the context of strict import controls and the continuing failure to repay international loans pending the completion of the overall debt restructuring with the IMF was glossed over.
Those with economic wherewithal and insider knowledge of what was really happening could buy dollars at a lower price and now sell them at a higher price making a formidable profit. Those at the bottom end of society are finding it difficult to live in dignity without selling off the little they own or getting further into debt. Those families who have fallen below the poverty level are now projected to remain above 25 percent in the next few years, having risen from 13 percent two years ago. Two anecdotes will put the human suffering into concrete terms. The first concerns the security guard from a security company who has been assigned to the office I work in. He suffered a partial stroke and has not been able to come to work for three weeks. When I went to see him in his home 27 km from Colombo he was seated in front of a television set that had sound but no picture.
The patient explained that the picture went out of the television set a month ago, before he fell ill. He had taken it for repairs to the nearby town anticipating the cost would be about Rs 2,000, but in fact the cost estimate was Rs 7000. So he brought it back home unrepaired. On the table by the television set was an unpaid electricity bill with a red notice. As he is not reporting for work, he will not be getting his salary which is paid according to hours worked. His wife who works in a nearby plastic factory which gives work to the village people whenever it has sufficient orders pays Rs 800 for a day, but for the past three weeks she has found it difficult to go to work as she has to look after her husband. Their two children are schooling and while I was there the daughter returned from her tuition class with two friends expecting lunch before setting off to their next tuition class. As a child would, she expected her parents to have the needed food on the table.
My second anecdote concerns a road cleaner who came to my door today to ask for money for his wife’s medicine. She had cancer, which was removed surgically from her stomach, but there was some complication and she needed a second surgery. She was in pain and he needed Rs 3,000 to buy her the medicines. On the positive side of this unfortunate situation is that the cost of the patient’s treatment at the government hospital in both cases had been done all for free. The free health service which is an inheritance of the social welfare state that Sri Lanka once sought to be, before the buccaneering spirit overtook its political leaders, is one of the heritages that needs to be protected, even though the people are distracted by more emotive issues such as the fight to protect ancient religious heritages. A good society, as Mahatma Gandhi once said, and all the religious teachers have said in one way or the other, is a society that protects the wellbeing of all, and not the wellbeing of the majority or a minority.
The above anecdotes are the travails of ordinary people, who work hard and honestly, but who cannot make ends meet through no fault of their own and it has become much more difficult for them now that the economy has collapsed. The general population has been quiet for a year since the Aragalaya was suppressed by security forces with their guns and batons and armed with the Prevention of Terrorism Act (and not with the Human Rights Charter as a previous president said about how our soldiers won the war) that can incarcerate people without bail and without trial for long periods. There has also been a shift in the popular mood after the election of President Ranil Wickremesinghe. Both the people at large and the international community are giving the President the time and space to work the miracle of bringing Sri Lanka back to where it was and beyond. Unfortunately, the hopes, aspirations and good intentions of the President and his supporters seem to be confined more to words and passage of laws, and less to deeds.
Apart from economic recovery, the president has been attempting to address the other major fault line in Sri Lankan society, which is the ethnic conflict and mistrust between its ethnic and religious communities. With the UN Human Rights Council in session right now, and with Sri Lanka being subject to its deliberations, the government is pledging to establish a truth and reconciliation mechanism by the end of this year that could answer some of the unanswered questions of the protracted period of violence, war and human rights violations. The president has also been pledging on and off to fully implement the 13th Amendment to the constitution and devolve police and land powers to the provincial councils in the manner that the constitution mandates. He has also given priority to the concerns of the people of the northern and eastern provinces to protect their ownership and cultivation of land in the face of possible encroachments.
The problem is that in most of these areas of the economy and ethnic relations, the masses of people are yet to see change on the ground that would safeguard them. Instead of giving priority to outmaneuvering each other, and winning the next election whenever it comes, the government and opposition need to agree on the basic economic and ethnic policies that will guide the destinies of the country for the foreseeable future. Such a bipartisan consensus will give investors and the international community the confidence to invest in Sri Lanka like never before. The country is stable and at peace partly because the opposition political parties have been responsible in their behaviour and not trying to provoke or enrage the people to confront the government. But negative support in the sense of keeping quiet is not sufficient at this stage. There is a need for the opposition to give the government positive support, educating the people about the current situation and proposing its best thinking as to how to address those problems, so that the government will be empowered to take constructive action to meet the people’s needs and aspirations.