BY CHANDRASENA MALIYADDE
Photo courtesy of La Prensa
While the country was on a celebrative mood, I turned the pages of a dictionary that defines independence as the “Freedom to make laws or decisions without being governed or controlled by another country, organization, etc. Wikipedia, as if reading Sri Lankans’ minds, elaborates, “Independence is a condition of a person, nation, country, or state, in which residents and population, or some portion thereof, exercise self-government, and usually sovereignty, over its territory. The opposite of independence is the status of a dependent territory. The commemoration of the Independence day of a country or nation celebrates when a country is free from all forms of foreign colonialism; free to build a country or nation without any interference from other nations.”
While rulers celebrate the independence with pomp and pageant and gun salutes at crowd-less Galle Face, the ruled in crowded cities and villages complain that our laws and decisions are being governed and controlled and our fate is decided by foreign countries and organizations. Spokespersons of both the government and the opposition joined by the learned economists declare that the independent Sri Lanka has to depend on IMF assistance and get some breathing space to continue celebrating the independence a few more years. So, rulers make laws (fiscal and monetary) and ruled take the bitter pill to meet terms and conditions laid out by the IMF. Medical doctors do not prescribe lifesaving pills as they are neither available nor affordable. A non-medical doctor (Cabinet spokesman) prescribes the bitter pill of IMF. Learned economists are now silent on IMF pill as it has hit their take home pay.
The Presidential Media Unit disclosed that “Pre-discussion was held this morning (January 26) at the Presidential Secretariat under the patronage of President Ranil Wickremesinghe regarding the Independence Day celebration being held in a grand and proud manner, but maintaining minimum cost.” Expressing his views further, President Wickremesinghe said, “We must celebrate the 75th Independence Anniversary, otherwise, the world will say that we are not capable of celebrating even our independence. Similarly, we need to attract tourists and investors to our country. We need to build a positive image of our country. Therefore, let us minimize our expenditure and celebrate our Day of Independence.”
Recently the cabinet decided to downgrade Sri Lanka from a middle income country to a low income country. In other words, we qualified for begging status. Then the Central Bank Governor declared the bankruptcy status of Sri Lanka and its inability to retain the image as a credit worthy country.
Many were not in favor of a grand celebration at a time like this by a cash strapped government. They claimed that total direct expenditure would run over Rs. 200 million in addition to many other hidden expenditures. The Presidential Secretariat has denied this and declared that the total expenditure was only Rs. 11 million. Does the secretariat know that this is the cost of 11,000 packets of milk powder for starving children suffering from malnutrition or 55,000 loaves of bread?
A republic is a state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives, and which has an elected or nominated president. Our president is neither elected nor nominated. Yet we are a republic.
Democracy is a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives. We are bribed to elect our representatives. When votes are manually counted, the opposition candidate is elected. When counted by computer, the government candidate is elected. Yet we are democratic.
The percentage of households with an income less than Rs. 36,000 is rising steadily. On the other end of the spectrum is an affluent minority who possess inherited wealth and other forms of capital. When the rate of growth is low, as it has been over the last three decades in Sri Lanka, wealth accumulates more quickly and within the top 10% or top 1%, thereby increasing inequality. Yet, we are socialist.
In granting independence to Ceylon 75 years ago, the colonists left us an economy with:
- Aggregation of many self-sufficient economic enclaves
- Surplus in both balance of payments and national budget
- No marked unemployment, poverty or unbearable inflation
- Satisfactory decent quality of life
- Co-existent dual economy
- A prosperous model economy ahead of many others
In exercising the independence over 75 years, we all collectively created an economy for our next generations with:
- Integration to global trade
- Staggering deficits in both balance of payments and budget
- High under employment and unemployment
- Sky rocketing inflation
- Widening disparity and inequality in distribution of growth benefits among individuals and regions
- Lopsided development
- Begging economy behind many if not all economies
The following table tells the whole story.
Per Capita Income of Selected Countries
2021 1980 1960
China 12,562 307
Germany 50,802 11,110
Hong Kong 49,661 5,704
Israel 51,430 9,463
Japan 39,285 9,659
Rep. of Korea 34,866 1,715 152
Maldives 10,366 413
Netherlands 58,003 13,750
Singapore 66,176 5,005
Vietnam 3,757 231 (1985)
Sri Lanka 3, 815 334 152
Source – World Bank
China carries 25% of the world population; Germany was devasted by the war and divided; Hong Kong was handed over to China by British in 1997; Israel is the tongue between 32 teeth; Japan was reduced to dust; Korea was divided and filled with slums; Maldives was a collection of tiny scattered islands with hardly any natural resources; Netherlands is below the sea level; Singapore, a slum city became an independent republic in1965 and today is a world class city; Vietnam was liberated in 1976; and Sri Lanka?
Our economists provide all non-economic reasons for failures and economic reasons for successes. Our policy makers, promotional agencies (BOI, EDB, SLTDA) and Central Bank conduct post mortems and live with expectations and wishful thinking. Our engine of growth is full of businessmen and wheeler dealers sans entrepreneurs. Our academics live in theory and are away from ground reality. Researchers conduct research to stack in shelves after presenting at international conferences. Our bureaucrats keep memorising rules and regulations introduced by colonials in the 20th century. Our technocrats carry on with a tunnel vision. Our people wait for the next bag of free goodies to fall on their lap. Our politicians lead us from sick bed to mortuary.
We celebrate independence with begged money and imported guns and gun powder to receive the gun salute in western attire to cover the nudity of our begging status. The growth was driven by the non-tradable sectors, which the World Bank warned to be both unsustainable and inequitable. Sri Lanka was re-classified as a lower middle income nation by the World Bank from a previous upper middle income status. Back to base after 75 years.
This is why president had to admit in his address to the nation on the 75th anniversary of the independence day, “Today, I will not be delivering a traditional Independence Day statement. I am not going to dwell on the freedom we gained. While honouring those who were dedicated and worked hard for the country’s freedom, including the late Mr. D.S. Senanayake, I will focus on regaining the freedom that we have lost today.”
This would have been the speech of a leader made on the day Ceylon gained independence from foreign colonials. The president in his policy statement delivered to a half empty Parliament has stressed that he was going to make unpopular decisions to save the nation by 2048. All unpopular decisions are not the right decisions. All popular decisions are not wrong either. Before the ink of his written text dried off, the cabinet spokesman put the cat out of the bag. “The Government could renegotiate with IMF on personal income tax”. Now we know why the President makes unpopular decisions; to please whom?