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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.


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