By Dr Laksiri Fernando
Sri Lanka has come to a decisive political-economic juncture with a big question mark on the present administration. Crisis deepens day by day without any plan for its rescue. It appears that the foreign debt default in April this year has affected the local debt market as well. The defaulted foreign debt is not small. While the country owed $7 billion to foreign buyers this year, the total debt is estimated to be over $50 billion. Proper accounts are not kept on this matter. Different figures are given on different occasions.
On 22 June, the government tried to sell Treasury Bills to the value of Rs. 93,000 million but could sell only Rs. 30,779 million, nearly one third. The credibility of debt resettlement is doubted both externally and internally. Out of Rs 30,779 Treasury Bills the bulk and nearly Rs. 20,000 million must be settled in three months. These are the steps of current management, not so different to the previous one.
IMF and All
IMF officials are now in Colombo asking the government to show a viable macroeconomic plan, among other conditions, before they lend dollars, as Sri Lanka had not heeded these requests several times before. They will assist Sri Lanka to restructure debt, while giving the requested 3 billion in stages. Sri Lanka should have requested a bigger amount as the present foreign exchange crisis is insurmountable.
Amnesty International also has sent a letter to the IMF, emphasizing the unfortunate situation of the ‘poor and the vulnerable,’ among other human rights issues. Sri Lanka has a bad record of assisting political supporters and not necessarily the ‘poor and the vulnerable.’ It is also well known that the debt accumulated through sovereign bonds were largely used for unproductive purposes and to the benefit of certain sections. This was largely the same when Ranil Wickremasinghe was running the previous government (2015-2019). Among other things, Amnesty International has said the following:
“To ensure that the verbal commitments above translate into real and effective protections in these difficult times, human rights must be central to any future economic reform programm, negotiated between the IMF and the Sri Lankan government.”
There are several foreign countries who are willing to assist Sri Lanka within the IMF framework, and Australia has already pledged A$ 50 million. The US has announced $12 million assistance (USAID) and this amount might increase. Britain is another country promising support. Japan has been a traditional donor and a lender who has today become somewhat distant. China will continue to assist.
Since January 2022, India has been generously assisting Sri Lanka through currency swaps, credit lines for essentials, and loan deferments. It is estimated that this generosity now amounts to $4 billion. This is mostly a new debt. This has taken a new dilemma because of the controversy over the Adani deal.
No country or international agency would give dollars to Sri Lanka without any condition or some benefit in return. More pertinent question is whether the present Sri Lankan authorities would be able to manage this assistance properly and prudently. There are undoubtedly prospects in resolving the crisis in Sri Lanka. However, do we have the right administration to do so?
Grievances of People
Not only people’s grievances but also anger is visible in various queues for petrol, diesel, kerosene, and cooking gas. Over 10 people have already died almost all of them due to ill health while in these queues overnight. Now there are food queues, mostly women are forced to attend. Most alarming is the shortages of medicine and medical equipment. The death toll is not properly counted. Inflation is now nearly 50% and the poor are the most affected.
Without fuel for their vehicles, people cannot go for work or run their businesses. Public transport is also not working properly due to fuel shortages. Now the government decision is to limit the working week to four days. Is that a right decision is a question? In addition to all these, there have been power cuts due to the lack of necessary fuel to run some power stations. Reuters and others have reported some of the heart rending stories about queues. The following is one:
‘Lasanda Deepthi, a 43-year-old Sri Lankan woman, plans her day around fuel queues. The driver of an auto-rickshaw on the outskirts of the commercial capital Colombo, she keeps a close eye on the petrol gauge of her sky-blue three-wheeler before accepting a job to make sure she has enough fuel.’
A woman three-wheel driver is a rare sight in Sri Lanka. However, Deepthi is one who has selected the job to support her family. She has stated ‘I spend more time in line for petrol than doing anything else. Sometimes I join a line about 3 p.m. but only get fuel about 12 hours later.’
The government and the Energy Ministry should have stopped people unnecessarily joining queues by transparently announcing a scheme how they would distribute the limited fuel to the people. Transparency is something the governments are lacking for a long period. There was no point in using the police or the Army to discipline people when they gather in hundreds or thousands. When you Google on the subject, the following are some news items you come across:
‘Long queues outside gas stations,’ ‘Sri Lanka troops open fire to contain unrest over fuel shortages,’ ‘Clash at fuel queue in Vavuniya – five hospitalized,’ ‘Sri Lanka sees signs of fuel riots as motorists wait for days in queues,’ ‘Clashes reported at gas queues in Kandy.’ ‘Sri Lanka’s poor queue for hours to buy kerosene amid crises,’ ‘Sri Lanka deploys troops as fuel shortages sparks protests,’ ‘Queue for death: Systemic examination of Sri Lankans’, etc.
Roots of Crisis
The crisis that Sri Lanka has been encountering at present is two-fold. (1) Economy is in shambles and the PM himself has named the country as bankrupt. (2) There is an emerging strong opposition, mostly extra-parliamentary, from the youth. It is difficult to distinguish one from the other and that is why it should be called a ‘political-economic’ crisis. If the major problems are not addressed soon, there is a possibility of an ‘uprising.’
The crisis has its roots in decision-making or more correctly erroneous decision-making. That is why people ask particularly the President to resign. Prof Mick Moore (University of Sussex) has uncovered the crisis as ‘manmade.’ Who is the remaining man? Apart from a necessary change of heads, there is a need for a policy change. Some can be outlined below.
Without going or listening to the IMF, the country depended mainly on China and sovereign bonds dubiously sold to questionable foreign institutions and speculators. Amounts were unbearable to the country. There is a possibility that some of the decision-making Sri Lankans had stakes in these institutions when sovereign bonds were sold. Now there is a lawsuit by the dubious Hamilton Reserve Bank against the country for not paying of their sovereign bonds. A former Central Bank Governor is also implicated. Even if they had a clean record, the borrowed money was not used for productive and priority purposes of development. This applies to both China loans and sovereign bonds. These deals should have been transparent.
What was particularly missing was proper financial management in the case of balance of payments and internal budget balances. Most of the budget figures presented were just bogus. Country’s income and expenditure did not match and 2019 budget was a mere disaster. There was no proper transparency. There should be a parliamentary committee, like COPE, to scrutinize past budgets. Or the present COPE should handle it. Lessons can be drawn, or the culprits could be reprimanded. There were huge budget deficits in actual sense and money printing was used as a solution. Local debt also was accumulating throughout the years and as we have noted at the beginning the last Treasury Bill auctions was a disaster.
During 2018, foreign exchange reserves were estimated to be over $9 billion. It came down to $7.6 billion in 2019. This was before the Covid pandemic and with a clear early warning for the policy-makers. However, in the absence of proper measures, the amount came down to $5 billion by the end of 2020. These early warnings were clear enough to go before the IMF. Within the SLPP government and in the country in general there are sections who are opposed to the IMF claiming that the institution is not supportive of developing countries. Even if the IMF was ‘dubious’ during the early period, things have changed over decades. Sri Lanka joined the IMF in 1950. It is one of the important multilateral organisations among other institutions. It is up to the local officials to bargain and deal properly with the IMF.
It is very clear that Sri Lanka had enough time and opportunity to deal with the crisis earlier on. However, this was not done. It is difficult to excuse the President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, on this matter among other things. He has a pathetic human rights record. Since the beginning of the financial crisis, the authorities have not taken measures properly to mitigate the situation. The ad hoc nature of measures is still a liability and would boomerang on the country again and again.
A change of economic policies for Sri Lanka
Millions of Sri Lankans are anxiously waiting to see what actions will be taken to make life bearable again.If we follow the example of successful countries we see them exploit their opportunities, and use the wealth created, not to import cars and go on luxury trips abroad, but to re-invest the money proceeds in further projects to bring in even more money. They proceed in this way until their citizens have good standard of living. Probably, the best example of that compounding of wealth is Singapore.
Singapore exploited its geographic advantages. It provided cruise ships with bunkering services and repair, later they provided airlines with refueling and expanded that to one night free stop- overs for passengers to buy luxury goods at their glamorous, tax-free shopping malls. The Japanese were making wonderful new gadgets: cameras, music players, portable radio cassette players, binoculars, all available in the malls and sold tax free!! Lee Kuan Yu forbade the ladies to wear denim jeans, and to wear dresses with hem lines coming down two inches below the knee! He even instructed the ladies to smile! No man could have long hair for fear of arrest. Littering was prohibited, so was chewing gum and smoking butts on the roads and pavements. The place was kept clean!
They used the proceeds arising from all this commercial activity to build housing blocks, develop new roads and other beneficial projects. (Individuals were not allowed to walk away with the profits, just to fritter them away.) Sentosa Island had installed a communications dish antenna connecting it with New York and the financial markets. This was an example of intelligent seizing of opportunities. I account for this intelligent development as due to the high educational and knowledge of Singapore’s progressive management. The result is a firm currency, holding its value.
Something similar has happened to Russia. Russia is rich. It is under progressive intelligent management. Stalin had developed the railway network across the full eleven time zones. But many areas remained to be connected. Putin found the finances to develop coal mines, develop oil and gas deposits and build railway bridges and tunnels for better access to markets and their demand for Russian products. Even as you read this, trains of 70 plus trucks, each with 70 tons of coal are grinding their way to China, day and night. Gas is flowing through an extensive network of pipelines, both east to China and west to friendly countries in Southern Europe. Mr. Putin and his men have succeeded in getting Russia fully functional. And the more Russians there are to spend money, so the more demand for goods and services: shops, etc., providing multiplying employment in Russia.
Mr. Putin wants to build a road and rail link south through Iran to India. A design plan is in the works. It is being discussed with Iran and India. Putin is displaying initiative for the benefit of Russia and its citizens. Putin cares for the citizens of Russia and is creating both wealth and jobs too. Architects are designing attractive living spaces and buildings which provide a better environment for Russians and contractors are building it. Education of Russian citizens is playing a big part in Mr. Putin’s thinking, too. Russia needs a talented workforce.
The result is that the currency, the Ruble is strong and does not devalue. It keeps its value.Belarus, Russia’s neighbour, can also be praised for outstanding development. The population in the big towns is cossetted with amenities and facilities which provides a luxurious way of life for townspeople especially those with industrial jobs. However, it must be admitted, the standard of life for the minority 30% population living in the countryside has yet to catch up. The administration is strict and everyone is law abiding. For example, you can leave your hand phone at your seat while you visit the toilet conveniences and it will remain undisturbed until you return.
Belarus, being a mostly agricultural country has a big tractor manufacturing plant, it has a fertiliser mining and producing plant, it has a commercial vehicle plant, DK MAZ which produces industrial trucks such as fire extinguishing trucks and also produces the most comfortable, bright, low step buses and so on, and of course, Belarus makes its own industrial vehicle tyres. The towns are prosperous and clean and Minsk, the capital is a beautifully laid out city. Town apartment blocks are multi-storied living spaces, but are so well designed and fitted as to provide pleasant living spaces for its people. These reduce urban sprawl across the wooded countryside.
What are Sri Lanka’s strengths? It is a small island thus making communications short and sweet. Its location in the Indian Ocean is a plus, its scenic beauty is a plus allowing a thriving tourist trade for people from colder climates, and its soil and climate allows almost anything to be grown. Therefore its agriculture is a great strength. Its long coastline can provide fish if the fisherised. It has deposits of graphite and phosphates which can be exploited to produce profits for further investment in development projects. It has its illiminite sands which are an extremely valuable asset but need to be controlled and exploitation expanded. It has a whole gem mining industry which need to be managed in way beneficial to the government. It has several government owned businesses which need to be overhauled and modernized to convert losses to profits. The rupee in 1948 was equal to the English pound, now it is around 450 rupees to the Pound. That gives a good description of Sri Lankan past governance.
Profits from projects need to be ploughed back into further projects to bring about a higher standard of living for all its inhabitants. Then the Lankan reputation of being a paradise island with happy people will be restored.
Sapugaskanda: A huge challenge for RW
It will be interesting to see if anything fruitful will come of the so-called “investigation” announced by the Minister-in-charge, about what seemed like an outrageous overtime payment to the petroleum refinery workers.While waiting for the outcome of that investigation, I thought of highlighting again the real and central issue that cuts across all loss-making government undertakings in Sri Lanka, such as the CPC, CEB, SriLankan Airlines, etc. that have been mercilessly sucking off tax-payer’s money into them like “blackholes”.
These organisations have been typically sustaining a mutual understanding with corrupt or inept politicians. “Sahana milata sewaya” (service at a concessionary price) was the catchphrase used by them to cover up all their numerous irregularities, wanton wastage, gravy trains, jobs for the boys and massive corruption, mostly with direct and indirect blessings of the politicians.
Here, I’d like to bring out just one example to help readers to get an idea of the enormity of this crisis built up over the past few decades. You’ll only have to look at what seemed like gross over-staffing levels of the CPC’s Sapugaskanda refinery, compared to international standards as shown below:
* Sapugaskanda Refinery – 50,000 Barrels Per Day (BPD); 1,100 employees Superior Refinery, Wisconsin, USA – 40,000 BPD; 180 employees
* Louisiana Refinery (including a fairly complex petrochemicals section), USA – 180,000 BPD; 600 employees
* Hovensa Refinery (now closed) – US Virgin Islands; 500,000 BPD; 2,100 employees.
These are hard facts available on the Internet for anyone to see, but I’m open to being corrected. I doubt if any sensible private investor would even dream of allowing such a level of gross over-staffing in their businesses.
As everyone knows, this is the position in all government business undertakings, as well as in most other government agencies in Sri Lanka. One can say that Sri Lankans have been willingly maintaining a crop of GOWUs (Govt Owned Welfare Undertakings), primarily for the benefit of the “hard-working” employees of these organisations, but at an unconscionably enormous cost to the rest. Obviously, this “party” couldn’t have gone forever!
Will Ranil be up to this challenge? I doubt very much.
UPULl P Auckland
Edward Gunawardena: ‘The IGP the country never had’
On a seemingly fine Friday afternoon, day two of the England v India second Test of the LV Insurance Series (that turned out to be a day five thriller), oblivious to how his day would tragically pan out, our dad, retired Senior Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police, Edward Gunawardena, was glued to his television enjoying the contest between the two cricket giants. As time passed by that afternoon, he felt uncomfortable, weak and had minor discomfort in breathing. Our family doctor, Dr Lakshan Fernando, swiftly visited home and on strict instructions to bed rest, our dad enjoyed his chicken soup for dinner that was prepared by his beloved wife, our mum.
Later that night tragically he took the last breath of his life, and he completed the last heartbeat of his life in the presence of two of his most trusted people, our mum and our family doctor.
This day was that dreaded “Friday the Thirteenth” – in the month of August last year. Our tragedy was upon us.A year has passed, by but the loss is still deep rooted, although it was comforting that his passing was peaceful knowing that he had the assurance of having Dr Lakshan beside him, who in fact rushed him from our home to Central Hospital in Colombo that night in his own vehicle in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, ever so determined to save our dad’s life. It was a blessing to know that our dad had our mum and Dr Lakshan beside him as much as it was possible.
Edward Gunawardena had a successful journey starting his early years through St Joseph’s College, Colombo, Peradeniya University, Michigan State University, USA through sheer determination to succeed, despite him and his three brothers losing their mum when he was at a tender age of just four years. He served our country for nearly three decades in the Police Service in various capacities, including as the Director of Intelligence, Director of Presidential Security, DIG Metropolitan and Senior DIG Administration; and continued his services as the Special Advisor to the Chancellor at the University Grants Commission, Chairman of the National Lotteries Board and in the Board of Directors at the Lake House Newspapers Corporation.
Most would consider retirement in the ripe old age of sixties, but our dad was blessed to have joined JF&I Printing and Packaging Company, an international company with the head office close to our home. This enterprise was owned and led by renowned late Dr Neville Fernando and his son Neomal Fernando. Edward Gunawardena found his renewed passion and purpose of working with such a talented and committed group of colleagues, where he thrived in making a significant difference to a spectrum of many individuals with a common goal. There was a family atmosphere with abundance of gratitude whilst professionalism was being maintained. The feelings were mutual, and this was evident at a time when our dad was unwell and required a blood transfusion – seven of the junior colleagues at JF&I showed their willingness and donated their blood with heartfelt love and gratitude towards him. Knowing that such generosity and love existed in a working environment was a sincerely humble attitude. This is a true reflection of our dad’s character and personality of giving where reciprocation was demonstrated.
Patriotism and loyalty were two of his strengths. His dedication and professionalism in the Police Service were commendable. This was once clearly expressed by the late Professor Carlo Fonseka at the launch of our dad’s second novel “.. Edward was the IGP (Inspector General of Police) that the country never had”. A truly inspiring and a remarkable Officer and a Gentleman.
His generosity and care extended way beyond his professional arena. One of his many philanthropic contributions was the resurrection of the village Buddhist temple’s school ‘Daham Pasala’ with the support from the late Deshamanya H K Dharmadasa well known as ‘Nawaloka Mudalali’, the founder of the Nawaloka Group. Our extended family and many thousands of youth in the Battaramulla area have benefited and continue to imbibe the doctrine of Buddhism, thanks to the dedicated committee led by it’s Chief Monk, Jinarathana Himi.
As an enthusiastic writer and a passionate citizen, he wrote many thought provoking and fearless articles to the newspapers, which were very well received by the readers. He was not afraid to speak the truth and to stand up for those who did not have a voice, and he became a respected contributor maintaining honesty and integrity. One of his most poignant articles we recall was days after the tragic Easter Sunday bombings, titled “The Unpardonable Blunder” bravely challenging the chain of command and with deep sorrow on the devastating destruction, loss of lives and many innocent people maimed and scarred for their entire lives.
Today, we are relieved that he didn’t have to witness the dismal state of affairs our country is going through as a consequence of decades of poor leadership, mismanagement, and most of all, unprecedented levels of corruption in the recent era of respective governments.
As our dad, we are immensely proud of who he was, his achievements and most of all for how he has bettered many lives throughout his life, with his generosity, professionalism and willingness to help, advise, guide, nurture and mentor all with a selfless attitude. We believe that his legacy has been passed on through many who he has had close connections with. We are thankful that his writing legacy would also continue through his creations of the two novels “Blood and Cyanide” and “Memorable Tidbits…”.
Even until his last days and hours he was sharing his experience and wisdom with everyone around him, that was the calibre of the gentleman. His humble stories of meeting President Nixon at the Fulbright Scholar Dinner at the White House, meeting the 124th Emperor of Japan, Emperor Hirohito at the Akasaka Palace, and his conversations with the great Arthur C Clarke, will always be fondly remembered by us. One of the famous quotes that our dad hilariously shared was the quote from Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom about his political nemesis, the former and the predecessor Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone. “The difference between a misfortune and a calamity is this: if Gladstone fell into the Thames it would be a misfortune, but if someone dragged him out again that would be a calamity.”
Our dad was and will continue to be our hero and mentor. Today, we wish to extend our utmost appreciation to each and every one of you who had a close bond with him and made his life purposeful, joyful and complete. We thank them sincerely.
His last day of life was instrumental to the creation of the Edward Gunawardena Memorial Trust that is being organically grown, currently sponsoring medical students at the Rajarata University who are striving to become medical professionals, and as with Dr Lakshan, who was taking care of our dad, these students will have the opportunity to potentially treat and care for many deserving people and make their lives better, and also save many lives.
Whilst we take this opportunity to once again thank all those who were in his life,we would love to hear and treasure all the memories they shared with him. We welcome your recollections, your thoughts and your appreciations of Edward Gunawardena and please do send them via the email
My sister and I would value and appreciate the stories that you have had the pleasure of experiencing with him and of him.
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