POTS AND PANS PROTEST!
By Shyamon Jayasinghe,
writing from Melbourne
Any and every issue that impacts on the masses appears to be an opportunity
for political football by our Sri Lankan politicians on both sides of
the divide. Last Tuesday, hundreds of UNP supporters took to the streets
with pots and pans (not coffins this time) in order to protest about
the steep rise in the cost of living. This time it's the UNP's turn.
When the UNP had been in government, the PA supporters and JVPers whipped
up public feeling over the cost of living and drove the UNP out of power.
Then also there were massive street protests organized.
The term 'political football' had been popularised for Sri Lankan reference
by Rohan Gunaratne when he referred to the ethnic issue. The innuendo
is that no serious reflection on such issues is being contemplated with
a view to troubleshooting; rather, the issue is being manipulated as
in a game to overcome the opponent and dislodge the latter from power.
The ethnic issue will continue to be political football until doomsday
in Lanka. There is no sign of a statesmanlike approach to solving it
after taking it out of the framework of partisan politics. The issue
of Norway, the facilitator, has also fallen prey to the same football
game. The present leaders in government, when in opposition opposed
Norway and wanted the Norwegians out. In power, it is a different game.
The cost of living (COL) is in a sense a more fundamental problem that
requires a statesmanlike consensus with regard to taking the hard decisions
that alone can help alleviate the issue. The COL is directly linked
with the ravages of a twenty-year war. However, it is more than that:
One of the key triggers to the rise in COL is the fall in the Ruppee's
value in relation to the dollar. The SL Ruppee is one of the worst performing
currencies in the world. We are paying more and more for every imported
item including, petroleum, wheat flour, drugs, imported foods, and imported
inputs of local manufacture etc. This results in what economists call
a cost-push inflation, which ours is. Why does our Ruppee fall? Because
our economy is weak and stagnant so that our exports are falling by
the day while our import bill keeps climbing daily. Structural adjustments
are needed and greater opportunities have to be provided via the liberalisation
of trade. Such adjustments mean a bitter pill that has to be borne with
temporarily. However, oppositions don't allow a government to do that.
They cry foul and rouse the people to revolt by demonstrating with pots
and pans. Remember the rice issue early in the history of the fall of
Sri Lanka's economy? Our politicians promised rice from the moon! Free
rice was distributed via corrupt coops to all and sundry-rich and poor.
Nowhere in the world had the staple food been distributed free by government.
While Singapore, Malaysia etc took the harder decisions and kept surging
ahead, Sri Lanka kept sliding down on the dishonesty and chicanery of
our rotten politics.
Leaders of the UNFPA cried foul at the former government's clamping
of subsidies. The UNFPA government has reintroduced heaps of subsidies
in petrol, fertilizer, wheat flour etc. The cost of these handouts will
soon drive the economy into a severe mess. If, for example, the government
does not allow the Petroleum Corporation to hike petrol prices, the
Corp would be losing to the tune of $7million a day. How long is the
government going to subsidise that? Subsidies don't solve problems;
they postpone them, forcing future generations to bear their burden.
Political leaders know this well as those who know have advised them.
Nevertheless, they continue with their game of political football.
This year, our Budget deficit is 8 per cent of an 18 billion GDP. Our
public debt, due largely to borrowing to pay for our imports, is 114
per cent of our GDP. This would give anybody a clear picture of our
total dependence on global banks. Such dependence would make total nonsense
of any independent solution to our national problem.