Gravitas Plus: Can Sri Lanka fix itself?

the president has resigned the state
machinery has crumbled the political
order has collapsed these are the
makings of dystopian fiction for the
people of sri lanka it’s their reality
all thanks to one family a dynasty that
once striked fear controlled all strands
of power and ruled like the gods of
olympus today they’ve been driven out of
power by the very people who elected
them this is what the week looked like
government offices were overrun the
state broadcaster was hijacked the
presidential palace was ransacked the
prime minister’s house was set ablaze
it resembled an episode of black mirror
a paid straight out of orwell’s 1984. so
what’s next in this lunken tragedy and
what will it take to pull this country
out of the crisis
hello and welcome to gravitas plus ampal
ki sharma padhyaya sri lanka is in a
mess
there is no government no accepted
leader no food and no fuel
let me show you some numbers 70 of sri
lankans are missing a meal every day
12 of poor households are at crisis
level 4.8 million children are skipping
school more than 3 million people need
humanitarian aid and 400 000 sri lankans
have lost their jobs
the headlines are scary
doctors are telling people to not fall
sick because they don’t have medicines
people are ditching cars and bikes for
bicycles because they don’t have fuel
hundreds have been caught fleeing to
australia because they don’t see a
future in sri lanka and can you blame
them
on the 7th of july a court refused a
plea to halt the protests it ordered the
police to not disrupt them the army is
being forced to pick a side a former
army chief has joined the protest he has
asked the armed forces to not follow the
government’s orders and to use their
weapons against quote-unquote corrupt
politicians exact words spoken
the situation is going from bad to worse
so two questions here how did sri lanka
drive itself into this and how can it
come out sri lanka’s biggest industries
are tourism and agriculture the wuhan
virus killed tourism the president
ruined agriculture he banned chemical
fertilizers and crop yields fell so sri
lanka ran out of money forex reserves
were depleted this is an import
dependent country they get almost
everything from outside
it’s the only country where i’ve seen
cooking gas washing machines and
refrigerators being sold in duty-free
shops at airports
so they were spending more than they
earned the government did not respond
with corrective measures it kept taking
unsustainable loans from sharks like
china earlier this year it ran out of
resources to import oil
there were massive power cuts
that’s when the protests began and the
rest as they say is history their
president was once called the terminator
is on the run
now we come to the second question what
happens next sri lanka’s crisis is
multi-dimensional it needs a
multi-pronged solution
first a political solution a stable
government acceptable to all sides
second an economic solution reforms and
reducing the debt burden third social
stability and fourth tackling internal
threats like ethnic tensions that could
amplify the chaos that’s very much a
worry
the starting point has to be a stable
government there’s talk of an all-party
government in sri lanka it’s expected to
be formed on the 20th of july
it will be a caretaker government with
lawmakers from all political parties
they will elect a president a consensus
candidate the problem is the numbers are
still in favor of rajapaksa’s party the
slpp it’s the majority party it controls
114 out of 225 seats in the sri lankan
parliament so the next president could
be another rajapaksa nominee
will he be acceptable to the people
we’ll have to wait and see so far
they’ve not named anyone the opposition
though has declared its peak sajith
premadasa
right now he’s the leader of opposition
the son of rana singh premadasa former
president of sri lanka basically yet
another dynast but this one enjoys
public support
in fact many wanted him to be prime
minister in april but he refused
two months on he’s the frontrunner for
the president’s post another top
candidate is anura kumara sanayaki a
young and fiery politician who is
willing to take the mantle he played an
active role in the protest and now he
hopes to be the president of sri lanka
what about the prime minister’s post who
will take that reports say the speaker
of the parliament will nominate the
prime minister someone who is acceptable
to all sides next question how long will
this interim government rule the speaker
says until stability is restored this
government will not have the people’s
mandate but at this point it is sri
lanka’s best bet and i say this for two
reasons one the parliament cannot be
dissolved according to the constitution
a sitting president can dissolve the
house only after he has held office for
two and a half years which is not the
case right now
so there is no constitutional provision
to dissolve the parliament and even if
there were it’s an expensive proposition
and that’s reason number two the cost of
an election sri lanka’s poll panel says
a new election will cost 5.7 billion
rupees sri lankan rupees which is almost
15 million dollars
and sri lanka frankly does not have that
money
so for now they’ll have to trust the
interim government to restore order and
the economy and it’s going to be a
herculean task sri lanka’s economy is in
the icu external debt stands at 51
billion dollars foreign reserves at 25
million dollars 25 million that’s
nothing inflation has spiked to 80
percent food prices have risen 60
percent gas cylinders are selling for 16
the currency has slipped to 361 lunken
rupees against the dollar
and 5 billion dollars are needed to
secure essential supplies for the next
six months so economic recovery will be
a long and tough process the world bank
has suggested three steps for sri lanka
the first is boosting agricultural
productivity
like i told you in 2019 srilanka shifted
to organic farming it banned chemical
fertilizers the shift happened overnight
and it proved to be disastrous domestic
rice production fell by 20 cash crops
like rubber and tea were devastated to
reverse this the world bank suggests
rolling back the manure policy and
investing in fertilizers that are less
damaging to the environment solution
number two is diversifying the economy
creating more non-agrarian jobs
investing in non-farming sectors apart
from agriculture tourism has been the
mainstay of sri lanka’s economy
their third biggest industry the wuhan
virus put it on a ventilator it
disrupted the flow of tourists the
government’s policies made it worse it
reduced funds for the hospitality sector
and redirected the money to unviable
projects the world bank says reviving
tourism can help
the tourism ministry has taken note it
plans to hold road shows in india to
attract more tourists
solution number three implement reforms
that boost productivity and create jobs
informal employment is widespread in sri
lanka seventy percent of their workforce
is informally employed meaning seventy
percent of the people do odd jobs
ending up as hawkers or tailors or
gardeners they don’t make a lot of money
and this leads to less productivity and
more poverty sri lanka needs reforms to
change this
and finally social stability and
internal threats
you see there’s a power vacuum that
could be exploited by radicals and
extremists
any insensitive step can open up old
wounds and flare ethnic tensions
it can also make sri lanka vulnerable to
external threats
remember the easter bombings happened
barely three years ago a series of
attacks by the islamic state in colombo
they killed 270 people and crippled sri
lanka’s economy the government has to
make sure something like this is not
repeated
so what is the world doing to help
rajapaksa’s friend china is conspicuous
by its absence their embassy told people
to not join the protest india has sent
aid worth 3.8 billion dollars but india
is treading cautiously it wants to
respect public sentiment without getting
involved in the political mess
because history has some lessons the
last time india sent forces to help
colombo fight insurgents it got sucked
into lanka’s civil war and that did not
end well
so this time india is focusing on
economic recovery making sure it keeps
the lights on in sri lanka
global bodies are pitching in with
bailout packages
but that money will take time to come
sri lanka’s suffering will continue in
the immediate future
i want to end with what this means what
this crisis means for us for countries
for leaders for individuals
there are lessons for everyone here
leaders who treat their country’s wealth
as their own who ignore the needs of
their people are doomed even the
mightiest of them the rajapaksas had
brute majority in parliament look where
they are now the lesson for countries
beware of chinese investment and the
lesson for individuals don’t spend more
than you earn you’ll end up broke
as we wrap this our thoughts are with
the people of sri lanka they’ve been
through hell
and they’ve shown restraint and civility
through most of it

 

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