By Jehan Perera
The situation in the country, particularly with regard to the economy and politics, can be described as stable but stagnant. The economy is stable in that it has not experienced further collapse in comparison to the kind witnessed last year when international bankruptcy was admitted. But the economy still continues to contract, with a contraction of over 11 percent taking place in the beginning part of the year. The shortages of goods and power sources that brought the people on to the streets in angry protest have not recurred. This has come as a relief as in other parts of the world international bankruptcy has been accompanied by successive rounds of economic collapse. The government’s ability to bring down the rate of inflation and eliminate shortages is recognised, though the shrinking demand due to price increases is continuing to debilitate living standards.
Accompanying this economic stability has been stagnancy. The much appreciated economic stability has taken place at a much reduced standard of living. A year after the worst of the crisis, the salaries of wide swathes of the population have not increased anywhere near the cumulative impact of the inflation in the economy. Wide swathes of the population are therefore much worse off after the economic crisis. Even though the inflation rate has fallen, prices continue to rise without salaries being increased. In these circumstances, the standard of living of the vast majority of people continues to decline. According to a recent UNICEF study, 85 percent of grade 3 children in Sri Lanka are not achieving minimum proficiency in literacy and numeracy. UNICEF said also noting that the country ranks the lowest in South Asia in education spending at a mere 2 percent and well below the international benchmark of 4-6 percent of GDP.
When the country went bankrupt last year, it had reached upper middle income status. The economic crisis that accompanied the declaration of bankruptcy caused prices to double and treble. The government estimated the inflation rate to have reached over 70 percent. But the prices of basic foodstuffs and fuels doubled and tripled. With the exception of a few notable sectors, such as the finance and banking sectors, salaries remained stagnant for the most part, and even declined in some cases. The country is still sliding down with the politicians making mega plans for recovery, while basic agriculture, fisheries and small and medium enterprises are still a long way from recovery. In these straitened circumstances, departures for foreign employment recorded a shocking growth of 154 per cent last year, according to the 2022 Annual Report of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka.
The hope of change for the better is not proving to be adequate to stem the flight abroad of the country’s most capable and professional workers. This continues without any sign of abating. The absence of skilled personnel is going to make the country’s upward climb back to where it was before the economic collapse a more difficult one. The loss of medical personnel, in particular specialist doctors, has received much publicity in the media. Their depletion is making some medical services difficult for people to access. The loss of Information Technology (IT) specialists is restricting the expansion of this high income sector as companies cannot take on jobs that they obtain from the international market. Teachers of English, Mathematics, and Information Technology are among those who are migrating in large numbers with around 5,000 teachers leaving the country during the past nine months alone.
A similar gloomy situation prevails in the political arena. There is an appearance of stability but with stagnancy. A year ago, when President Ranil Wickremesinghe took over the helm of government there was chaos with street protests and the prospects of strikes by trade unions motivated by economic hardships and the desire to effect regime change. The government had lost control and there was uncertainty about the future. But with the coming to power of President Wickremesinghe, government control was speedily re-established and the likelihood of a further descent into chaos and un-governability came to an end. The problem is that the use of security forces to bottle up the pent up frustrations of the people is not going to be viable in the longer term.
The restoration of political stability has taken place through the use of national security laws to arrest large numbers of protest leaders and by breaking up public protests through police baton charges, tear gassing and water cannons. These were justified as necessary due to the possibility of the protests escalating to the point of anarchy even as the main state buildings, including the parliament, were threatened. However, strong arm methods have continued to be used to quell any public protest. Even middle aged social and civic activists were set upon and run to the ground by contingents of heavily armed riot police when they attempted to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the anti-Tamil riots in front of the general cemetery in Colombo. This is an indication of the apprehension within the government that permitting small protests will pave the way for a second round of mass protests like occurred last year.
The protest movement of last year that attracted people from every walk of life and cut across ethnic and religious divides had the demand for a change of government. But apart from the president, the rest of the government continues to be much the same. Reports of corrupt practices continue to flood the media and the anti-corruption measures do not seem to be taking effect. The practices of lack of transparency, lack of accountability and unbridled impunity continue to remain the same today as it was under the previous president. Examples range from the purchase of emergency power without calling for bids, flouting of citizenship rules and to gold smuggling involving members of the government. The scandal in the purchase of medicines that have caused deaths of patients indicate that little has changed for the better. Putting an end to these corrupt practices and holding some perpetrators to account would instill more trust in the promises of government leaders.
In a democracy, the way to change a government is through elections. The government has switched off this engine of change. Where people have been united in their opposition to force a government to resign, there should be early elections held as soon as possible. This did not happen. On the contrary, the local government elections have been postponed even after they fell due to “lack of funds” according to the government. This has given time and space to those whom the people wanted out of government to come back to the centre stage. The stability in the polity has come at the cost of democratic elections, with the local government elections being postponed outside of the law. If the present stability and stagnancy in the country is not to become the calm before the storm, there is a need for the government to begin to deliver change to the people.
In recent days, President Wickremesinghe has been emphasizing the need for national integration and reconciliation. He has proposed implementing the 13th Amendment and setting up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to this end. But these are still far from being implemented. The implementation plans appear to be a year or two in the future. In the meantime, they generate controversy and exacerbate the differences among the people who are cynical that this is all eyewash for elections. The President recently went to the Catholic shrine in Madhu in the north and announced his desire to launch several development projects. However, the Catholic newspaper Gnanarthapradeepaya in an editorial said, “The first citizen of the country should know that political speeches full of electoral promises are not suitable for religious places.” Trust between the government and people is necessary for recovery to take place.
Rather than making promises for the future, the government needs to implement changes in the present. Where reconciliation is concerned, it need not go as far as the provinces to make a start. It needs to start at the centre, to de-ethnicise the centralised state apparatus so that it serves all ethnicities and religions with equal commitment. A study being conducted on the attitudes of schoolchildren and their teachers at the community level has revealed that there is a live and let live attitude among them with regard to those of other communities. Significantly, the research also showed the lack of trust in the political order with those surveyed indicating their belief that those in politics used the differences in ethnicity and religion for their own political purposes rather to create national integration and reconciliation. There needs to be actions on the ground by the government, even small ones such as ensuring that translations of official documents are readily available to those accessing government services, to build trust that the government is sincere in doing what it says.