Saturday 6th May, 2023
One of the main reasons for Sri Lanka’s current economic crisis is that successive governments have invested borrowed money in white elephant projects and enabled their leaders to pocket kickbacks at the expense of the state coffers. The situation took a turn for the worse, on President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s watch, with Chinese loans being utilised to build the Hambantota Port and the Mattala airport among other things. These projects worsened the country’s debt crisis, as is public knowledge. The incumbent Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe regime is under pressure from the IMF to restructure Sri Lanka’s domestic debt as well even at the risk of some local financial institutions going belly up in such an eventuality. It says it is so broke that it cannot grant any relief to those who are complaining of unbearable pecuniary woes caused by huge tax and tariff increases. But it does not seem to care to rationalise its expenditure even during the country’s worst-ever economic crisis.
It has been reported that the government is planning to build an international airport at Hingurakgoda, of all places. The existing domestic airport there is to be upgraded for that purpose, we are told. The government believes that the project will help develop tourism, according to media reports. One wonders whether the ruling party worthies have taken leave of their senses. Otherwise, they would not have behaved in this manner.
It was only the other day that Minister of Highways Bandula Gunawardena told journalists that there was no money for road development, and World Bank assistance had been sought for urgent projects, and if the ongoing efforts to raise funds failed, Sri Lanka would face the same situation as Lebanon, where its road system was concerned. He revealed that the Maga Neguma company, which carried out road development projects, had been disbanded under the government’s state-owned enterprises restructuring programme.
Strangely, the government, which insists that it is too broke to carry out even minor road development projects, has undertaken to build another international airport, of all things! It has reportedly said that a field study will be conducted on developing the Hingurakgoda airport to handle A330 aircraft! It is reportedly planning to extend the current 2,287-metre runway up to 2,800 metres, construct an access way to the airport runway, set up an air navigation system, and build an Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower and a passenger terminal.
Will the government reveal the cost of the proposed project, and how it proposes to raise the required funds?
Hospitals are experiencing shortages of essential drugs; schools are also facing unprecedented resource squeezes and the midday meal programme has been scrapped in most provinces for want of funds. Most roads are in a state of disrepair. All efforts to sell the Mattala airport, which is a massive burden on the state coffers, have failed, and how bad the situation will be in case of another international airport coming up in another far-flung area is not difficult to understand. Shouldn’t the government sort out the Mattala airport before thinking of another airport project? Most of all, shouldn’t it get its expenditure priorities right? A mega airport project will benefit only government politicians and their cronies because it will yield a lot of kickbacks.
It will be interesting to see the reaction of the Opposition to the government’s plan to create another white elephant.
DON’T MISSGoaded by greed
Goaded by greed
Friday 5th May, 2023
The Vesak Full Moon Poya Day falls today. It is usually celebrated on a grand scale in this country, but this time around there has been a noticeable decline in festivity owing to the prevailing economic crisis. Pandols and danselas, where food and beverages are given away, are few and far between unlike in the past. Exorbitant electricity tariffs and the very high prices of decorative materials have made this Vesak less colourful, but decorations, etc., are only mundane frills that can be done away with. What should be of concern to us instead is the widespread moral decadence, which is reflected in the ruthless exploitation of the public during an unprecedented crisis in this predominantly Buddhist country.
Politicians, especially those in power, draw heavy flak for furthering their interests at the expense of the public, and they, in fact, deserve all the sharp barbs they receive. Thanks to them, this country, which was once known as the ‘Granary of the East’, is begging for loans and food aid among other things. Decades of economic mismanagement, corruption, abuse of power and theft of public funds have left the people struggling to dull the pangs of hunger. Survival is the biggest challenge most people are facing.
The self-important politicians never miss an opportunity to make a public display of their religiosity. Gotabaya Rajapaksa took oaths as the President, in 2019, within the precincts of Ruwanweliseya, and his Cabinet was sworn near Sri Dalada Maligawa the following year. But they made a mockery of their much-advertised commitment to upholding Buddhist values; corruption thrived on their watch; the theft of people’s money continued; misfits were elevated to high posts, the economy was mismanaged, and the country became bankrupt. Worse, they have not cared to mend their ways. They continue to line their pockets while clinging on to power like limpets. The only thing they allocate, with a generous hand, for the consumption of the public is tear gas.
Politicians are however not alone in thriving on the misery of the public. Most members of the business community are no better. They are fleecing the hapless people, who are struggling to make ends meet. Eatery owners jacked up the prices of their products exponentially when cooking gas prices went up. Gas prices have dropped considerably and so have those of vegetables, flour, etc., but the eatery owners callously refuse to pass the benefits of these price reductions on to the public. In this country, the so-called price stickiness is always disadvantageous to consumers.
It is not only the producers of goods who fleece the public in this manner; those who provide ‘services’ also do likewise. Bus and taxi operators increase fares when fuel prices go up, but they do not effect corresponding fare reductions when fuel prices drop. Ironically, private buses and taxis in this country look like mobile shrines with all kinds of religious symbols being displayed.
‘Loudspeaker sermons’ that Sri Lankans are treated to on a daily basis, and other such religious practices do not seem to have made any contribution to improving the moral and social behaviour of many people. Otherwise, the ordinary public would not have been exploited in this manner.
Following the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, we witnessed some tragic scenes, where savage elements sprang into action and stripped the victims of the killer waves of their valuables while they were battling death. One wonders whether there is any difference between those acts of savagery and the ongoing exploitation of the unfortunate people who are struggling to feed and clothe their children amidst the worst-ever economic crisis the country is facing. This is something that religious leaders, especially Buddhist monks, ought to take cognisance of and do something about, urgently. The need for a robust social reform movement cannot be overstated. Political or economic reforms alone will not do.