As Sri Lankans brace themselves for 5-hour power cuts and line up for essential commodities at yet another queue, we hear that the President after visiting the Railways workshop in Ratmalana has ordered a commission to look into staff problems. In Parliament, some opposition members flourished flash lights inside the exceedingly well-lit Chambers, to protest power cuts. Government MPs erupted in fury and claimed that their security has been seriously compromised as the torch batteries contain elements used for explosives. If you have been thinking that the Sri Lankan Parliament looks increasingly like a playground filled with petulant, spoilt bullies and that we are being governed by a set of leaders who seem to be occupying an alternative reality, you may not be very far from the truth.
There is enough data to show that Sri Lanka is in the throes of an economic crisis of unprecedented proportions. Dangerously low foreign reserves, mounting debt payments, sky-rocketing inflation, increasing fiscal and trade deficits – you name it, and we are experiencing every indication of a severe economic crisis. But let’s be clear on the causes: the crisis we are experiencing is a direct result of poor decision making by our political leadership over several decades. Decisions that led to an excessive reliance on imports for our survival, heavy borrowing and speculation in opaque financial markets; an unrealistic and ad-hoc local tax regime, preposterous levels of corruption and waste. The crisis was inevitable – the global economic downturn as a result of the COVID pandemic and spectacularly irrational and damaging policy decisions particularly in the agriculture, financial and energy sectors simply precipitated the crisis. But it is important that we recognise that these damaging decisions are not simply incompetence and sheer stupidity – they are wilful and deliberate and a direct product of our current political culture.
The decision to ban chemical fertilisers was an attempt to save dollars. Possibly, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was encouraged to do this by being fed myths about the harmful effects of chemical fertiliser. It is now evident that he also does not have the smallest clue about agriculture. But, the decisions that followed – importing untested organic fertiliser for instance, belligerent statements from members of the Government on their determination not to reverse this policy and claims of success of the policy show a leadership unable to admit failure (and thereby correct itself), a culture of ego massaging in corridors of power, complete insensitivity to the hardships of people and an inability to listen to reason. At a more sinister level, this is a deliberate effort to force people off agriculture and their lands and profit off their misery.
Years of moving away from conventional lenders to borrowing from financial markets was influenced by the need to escape loan conditions, scrutiny and oversight – essential for facilitating massive corruption. Ad-hoc changes to tax policy were made to gain electoral benefits plus to allow cronies to benefit. The idea that printing money, easing taxes and low interest rates would pump money into the economy is standard economic thinking. Yet, how do you keep an economy ticking during a global pandemic when people are in lockdown? Standard economic thinking does not work in such a context. However, if your idea of a healthy economy is a stock market boom, the decisions of the Governor of the Central Bank become clearer.
Environmental as well as economic concerns suggest that Sri Lanka needs to systematically shift towards renewable energy. But this policy was not pursued. When it was clear that an energy crisis was looming, the government refused to face facts. Instead, the crisis was managed (or rather hidden) by excessive use of hydro power, thanks to a particularly good monsoon season. Now, with water levels dropping (predictably) plus lack of dollars to purchase fuel, we are looking at a serious crisis in the power sector. Naturally, the burden of power cuts is being disproportionately experienced with VIP neighbourhoods spared the worse! For many years, the rest of the country had to pay the price for Colombo’s excessive energy demands and now, even at a time of phenomenal crisis, the country’s powerful, well-heeled, and well-connected citizens can continue their lives of privilege. Never mind that thousands of schoolchildren preparing for exams are literally in the dark. Never mind that farmers who are reeling from the fertiliser fiasco are now also having to deal with increased threats from elephants due to non-functioning electric fences. Never mind that thousands of small and medium entrepreneurs – who make a significant contribution to the economy – are being put out of business.
What we need to remember is that the particularities of the crisis we are facing are a direct consequence of a corrupt, wasteful political culture and a pack of powerful decisions makers who are not simply incompetent, but who are only interested in looking after their own. Many of them live in bubbles, protected by their minders who only let them hear what they want to hear. After entering direct politics myself, I became quickly aware of how easy it was to enter this bubble. Sri Lankan politicians achieve a celebrity status that is completely unnecessary. They automatically enter a world of privilege and preferential treatment ranging from Police who salute you to access to a life of luxury, if you so choose.
Thankfully, the culture of the political movement I represent places many restraints on entering this bubble. It taught me how essential it is that the choice of entering this bubble or not is not left simply to the good sense, ethics and integrity of individual politicians but that there is a culture and system that prevents you from doing so. And that this is only possible if the party or movement you represent insists on a code of ethics, conduct and restraint by which you are expected to abide. But imagine those who have lived in this bubble for so long that they no longer even know what is outside? What do you do when the bubble normalises corruption, wastage and privilege? And it is not only those politicians who live in these bubbles – it includes their families and their cronies. How can we expect such leaders to be anything but completely out of touch and therefore to make decisions that are detrimental to the welfare and wellbeing of the majority of people?
It is important, we realise that this is the political culture we currently inhabit and that is the main cause of the crisis we are experiencing. Citizens need to demand a change of this culture and of the way in which politics is conducted currently. Instead, for the longest time, we have been told that changing people – pinning our faith on individuals, will effect change. Worse, we have been told to reject politics and politicians and to find our solutions individually or outside the system. We need to recognise that the solutions also need to be found politically because societies need to be governed and we need to elect people to govern on our behalf. What we need is the right kind of politics and the right kind of politicians who can govern on our behalf. But that can only happen if as citizens we are organised to demand such a change and to hold our elected representatives accountable.
It is so essential that we learn the lessons that are being taught to us during this time of crisis and that we understand our own culpability. This time the crisis the country is experiencing will spare a minority. Very few of us can afford to be disinterested. Hence, each one of us has a part to play in getting us out of this crisis and on the long, hard road to recovery. An essential aspect of that, in fact a precondition must be the end to the era of corrupt, wasteful and privileged politics. The era of the armchair critic (and Sri Lanka is blessed with many!) must end – it is time for people of this country to take charge of their politicians and their own destinies.
By Harini Amarasuriya