Daily Mirror editorial, Colombo, July 14, 2021
Somewhere after defeating separatist terrorism in 2009, Sri Lanka missed a glorious chance of turning a destructive era on its head.
In the aftermath of the near 3-decade-long separatist war, instead of pursuing a cherished dream of reconcilliation, our political leaders acted like Don Quixote who went tilting at windmills. Our politicos via their sycophant followers attacked members of the Christian and Muslim communities. Rather than reconcile, the actions tore SL community further apart and is today as disunited as during the days when terrorism stalked the land.
To be fair, Quixote was stark, raving mad. Our politicians have no such excuse. Having squandered the chance for reconcilliation, the then rulers were rejected at the polls. But the situation worsened with the new government imposing a huge bond scam on the country which led to divisions among the governing partners, and resulted in an inability to govern.
It was into this witches brew Islamic terrorists struck on the Easter Sunday of 2019 killing over 250 people, injuring hundreds of others and effectively killing off the tourist trade – the third largest foreign exchange earner in the country.
In June 2019, exchange reserves stood at US$ 8,865 million. By November 2019 in the aftermath of the terrorist attack resulting in falling tourist arrivals, when President Gotabaya took over the presidency, reserves had fallen to US$ 7,520.5 million. By March 2020 the Covid-19 which had assumed pandemic proportions totally killed off international tourism, effectively taking out one of the main pillars of the country’s economy.
To control the spread of the virus the country was forced into lockdown, which while reigning in the spread of the virus, meant over half-a-million the country’s workforce who are daily paid workers lost employment. It also adversely affected livelihood for these workers and their families.
According to the Household Income and Expenditure Survey of the Department of Census and Statistics, Sri Lanka’s average household expenditure per month is Rs. 54,000. On average in Sri Lanka, food expenditure is over Rs.19,140 per month. Yet average salaries hover between Rs. 22,000/- to Rs 23,000/- per month!
The lockdown also adversely affected the country’s second largest foreign exchange earner – the apparel industry – which was forced to be closed, in turn affecting the country’s foreign earnings needed for debt servicing, repayments and imports.
By May 2021, foreign reserves had dropped to US$ 4,032.8 which included gold reserves as well. ‘A popular Radio/TV channel in its news quoting the Central Bank, reported in June ‘21 the country had to repay US$ 1 billion loans taken from foreign markets and added, another US$ 2.4 billion in foreign loans needed to be settled later the same year.
Apparently waking up suddenly to its growing debt servicing, cum repayment needs as well as to its dwindling exchange reserves and drop in foreign exchange earnings, government’s reactions to the crisis, seemed to be knee-jerk ones.
It suddenly banned imports. Raised the price of petroleum astronomically. Banned import of petroleum-based fertilizer; among a series of other price increases. It also permitted mercantile sector employers to halve their employees’ salaries. Government also permitted a burning tanker carrying tons of leaking chemicals and large volume of furnace oil into Sri Lankan waters.
The rise in fuel costs meant an all-round price increase at a time large sections of employees have lost their jobs or have had their salaries halved.
It has banned chemical fertilizer claiming the use of fertilizer was endangering the population, but widely seen as a move to stem imports.
Banning of agro-chemicals while in itself praise-worthy, the ban without alternative provision, will only result in a shortfall of agricultural produce and a further increase in the cost of living. It also leads to the destitution of the farming community.
The sinking of the chemical laden tanker has resulted in not only polluting our shores and doing untold harm to ocean marine life; it has made around a hundred thousand or more fisher families destitute. These people can no longer ply their trade as the sea creatures are now unfit for human consumption.
The country is still to be let in on the secret of who permitted this ‘burning vessel’ into our waters or for what reason it was brought here, especially since it was known that India and Qatar refused the ship permission to enter their ports.
Was it a ‘Quixotic’ attempt to replenish dwindling exchange reserves?
Perhaps it would be better if professionals are given a hand in seeking solutions to economic and medical problems.