by Luxman Siriwardena,
Think Tank and Advocacy Group
The setback due to the pandemic has aggravated some of the perennial macro-economic and sectoral problems in Sri Lanka. For example, borrowing and accumulating external debts has been a practice of successive governments since 1978, which was the year of partial liberalization of the economy. During the early periods, when Sri Lanka was considered a low-income country, we were entitled to substantial grant aid as well as concessionary finances.
This relatively low interest facilities and lenient conditionalities provided incentives for the governments to keep borrowing for many development projects, from bi-lateral and multi-lateral lending agencies, irrespective of inflated costs of many of these projects. In most of these cases, financial benefits also have spilled over to Sri Lankan politicians, bureaucrats, and technocrats. Notwithstanding such leakages, these foreign funded projects increased the availability of more sophisticated infrastructure and utilities in sectors such as, electricity, highways, drinking and irrigation water, as well as the Colombo port and airports. In addition, education, agriculture and health were the prime targets of both Sri Lankan policy makers and donors/lenders.
There was a period when Sri Lanka was termed as “a Donor Darling” (see figure).
Sri Lanka became a darling of the Western donors primarily due its subservience to the West under Jayawardena-Premadasa regime). However, since we attained lower-middle income country status, concessionary funding has not been available and therefore, most borrowings have been at commercial or near commercial lending rates. In this context, the country has accumulated over US$ 34.7bn debt1 up to 2019. These borrowings have been for development projects, import of consumption items and direct budgetary support to meet current expenditure, including debt servicing. The current debt situation.
At the moment, one of the most critical challenges for the Rajapaksa administration is managing or preferably reducing Sri Lanka’s debt while meeting the current level of foreign exchange requirements and hopefully implementing necessary development projects.
While the selected development projects are generally presented to the multilateral donors; World Bank and ADB as well as bilateral lending institutions such as JICA, US-AID and similar institutions in China and European countries, seeking loan financing, the rates of lending are equal or closer to the market rates. Since 2007, borrowing through International Sovereign Bonds (ISBs), which became a common practice, has now emerged as the most serious challenge for the current government to ensure sustainability or reduction foreign debt.
The focus of this article is to discuss alternative methods of managing the debt in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic that has pushed almost the entire world (other than China) into a recession.
In this context, conventional economic policy pandits, academics and consultants recommend that the emerging economies such as Sri Lanka should seek the refuge in International Monetary Fund (IMF) Programmes. Based on the IMF guarantees the countries in foreign debt crisis will be eligible for further assistance from other multilateral and bilateral lenders, while qualifying for accessing the International Sovereign Bond Market. According to this prescription, without the support and blessing of the IMF, we have no way of securing sufficient funding for re-payment of maturing debt, balance of payment requirements or development programmes.
Since the election of the new government all our well-known economists, and many so-called experts have been promoting the above policy prescription as Sri Lanka is, according their assessment, at the verge of a default and economic collapse. Most if not, all these pandits were expecting the government will continue to proceed with the borrowing from the international markets subscribing to Samurai or Panda bonds. Surprisingly our conventional economic advisors are increasingly becoming impatient and critical of the Government for not negotiating with the IMF to enter into a programme which will be entitled and receive loan facility and more importantly in turn qualify for raising finance through ISBs. Does this process lead to a reduction of debt or payback of loans? Of course not, nor reduction of debt burden or the severity of the debt problem.
As an IMF programme is likely to impose conditionalities to meet the Fund’s debt sustainability parameters, the readers may perhaps understand that, this approach is not even to reduce the severity of the debt problem but for reducing the burden over the next few years by extending maturities probably through some form of ‘Grace Period’. The bottom line will be that Sri Lanka will continue to have challenging debt dynamics which I would like to call it as ‘IMF/ISB DEBT TRAP’ as long as we fail to achieve substantial increase of exports and FDI. In other words, we will merely be postponing and aggravating the debt problem unless we can accelerate growth by increasing production of tradable goods and services which will earn or save foreign exchange.
Cost of raising funds through International Sovereign Bonds
A sovereign bond is defined as a debt instrument issued by a national government to raise generally foreign currency requirements in case of countries such as Sri Lanka. Sovereign bonds are denominated in foreign currencies such as USD, the Euro, Japanese Yen and Chinese Yuan. The successful issue of ISBs require several steps engaging highly professional individuals and institutions including global banking giants. Under each of these steps many upfront costs are to be incurred by the government. A typical bond issue involves, fees (commissions) and other expenses. Three large components of the fees, according to a World Bank document are for the lead-managers, rating costs and legal expenses. Interestingly those transaction costs are paid at time of issuance (upfront). In spite of the competition among the banks there is little transparency specially with regard to bond issues of countries like Sri Lanka. Another major expense is often for obtaining a rating for each bond which is generally similar to the fee for the lead-managers. There are also expenses for legal counsel, marketing especially road shows, fiscal and paying agents and advisors. Cost will also depend on which markets are targeted for the road shows undertaken in major cities in developed market economies.
Throughout the Sri Lankan history of issuing ISBs people have only learned about the total value of the bond issues and subscribed but not the direct and indirect costs that have been incurred in the process, for example, officials of the Central Bank, Ministry of Finance, etc. will be travelling to several capitals in the world for negotiations, road shows and other associated events etc. incurring scarce foreign exchange of Sri Lanka. Of course it should have provided very tempting incentive for this approach
Some economists who are faithful followers of IMF policy prescriptions prefers to identify the IMF/ISB Debt Trap as the symptom not the cause of the problem. According to them the debt trap was caused by poor fiscal outcomes over many years and IMF/ISB debt was incurred to meet deficit financing.
In this article, the most pertinent and decisive issue to raise is, what should be the alternative policy recommendations of our learned economists. As we all are well aware if Sri Lanka qualifies to receive assistance from the IMF, such funding will be for as balance of payment support subject to certain conditionality which are likely to include; removal or reduction of subsidies, removal of import controls, non-strategic assets privatization, etc. and many such measures of government interventions.
Many, if not all these adjustments will be painful to the ordinary citizens and therefore, make it difficult to sell politically. If Sri Lanka for that matter, any other country in our predicament is not willing to go through an IMF austerity programme with its stringent conditionalities, what options are available for them. Let’s discuss what appears to be the economic management strategy of the current government. With the lockdown of the world economies and disruption of global value-chains, Sri Lankan government was compelled to ‘Close the Economy’ to some degree. Subsequently, the government policy makers seem to be implementing a fairly well-managed import administration scheme and associated measures to ensure enhanced foreign exchange savings. Current import management scheme has selectively targeted non-essential ‘big-ticket’ items.
In order to prevent further deterioration of the debt situation the government seems to be minimizing new borrowings for implementation of numerous development projects with commercial characteristics. Both acceding to IMF austerity programme, as well as, controls imposed by the government will have contractionary impact on the local economy. Of course, second option will reduce the confidence of capital markets, foreign equity investors and even some local enterprises. Generally, IMF programs are sold to a government in-need of balance of payment support on the basis that agreement with the Fund would pave way for the country to achieve a higher sovereign rating and confidence of the investors in ISBs.
Pertinent question here is, as learned economists, professionals and advisors, are they in a position to develop an alternative development strategy for Sri Lanka in order to overcome the current difficulties reducing the severity of the debt burden created primarily through borrowings from ISBs. It appears that the, current administration is developing a strategy that will cause less pain to the people than under an IMF program and have more positive outcomes in terms of output, employment and incomes.
Unfortunately, however, in the past, we have rarely seen Sri Lankan policy makers or even academics develop alternative concepts or strategies instead of repeating what they have learned as classical, neo-classical or Keynesian schools and reinforced by the training programs conducted by multilateral or bilateral lending agencies.
In conclusion, let me quote once again from my recently published article;
“Whatever the reasons are, instead of thinking independently on their own most of our economists parrot their mentors in the west for short-term gains like easy recognition and self-fulfillment PROMOTING THE SAME FORMULA AGRAVATING the vicious circle and perpetuating the misery of our people. Irony is that when a solution is needed the only thing some of our experts are capable of recommending is to seek refuge in borrowing from multilateral or bilateral lending agencies. Most Sri Lankans need to be reminded that, Sri Lanka has already gone under 16-IMF Programs and have reached the current predicament. This reminds us the famous saying attributed to Einstein that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different outcomes’’.
Signs are that the current administration is deviating from the orthodoxy and searching for innovative and pragmatic development path.
(Article is based on a key-note address delivered by the writer at the 08th International Research Conference conducted by the department of Economics and Statistics, University of Peradeniya)
Record breakers in a Covid disaster
Sri Lanka has certainly scored another world record.
Just look at the number of vehicles on the streets every day at a time when the country is in a lockdown. The Police Spokesman is pleased to tell us how many thousand vehicles were on the streets each day. They have moved to the pasting of stickers – from a single sticker to different coloured stickers to give different messages, and then to stop all stickers!
Just think about how the streets of all major cities were virtually empty when lockdowns took place in other countries, when the Covid pandemic began spreading. We are not like that. Why should we take examples from other countries – East or West? We must have our own traditions, with our Presidential Task Forces to handle Covid-19 and the Economy, and a celebration uniformed Army Commander to give us contradictory messages.
Sri Lanka is truly proud of having more vehicles on our streets than any other country amidst a Covid pandemic lockdown. Who will ever break such a record?
This is certainly in keeping with that other huge record of having 25 violations of the Constitution in the Bill to establish the Port City Economic Commission. Who would get the prize for this record – the Legal Draftsman and/or the former Attorney General, or either or both of them and the Minister of Justice? The Podujana Peremuna must be planning a special prize day to celebrate this.
The Media people in the President’s Office must be having a special delight in telling us matters that are wrong and uncertain about foreign responses to requests by the President. Can we forget how the WHO contradicted the report that the Sinopharm vaccine had been approved soon after the request made by our President?
We have another such situation now. Japan has refused to confirm reports that it is considering giving Sri Lanka 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.
The President’s Media Division reported this week that Japan was considering a request from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. This request had been made by President Rajapaksa to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
What the Japanese Embassy had told the local media was that Japan will allocate around 30 million doses of vaccines manufactured in Japan to other countries and regions, including through the COVAX Facility.
Is this another record for the President’s Media Division?
The six lakhs of Sri Lankans who received the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, must keep hoping against hope, about getting the next dose. Looks like even the President or his office cannot do much to get those vaccines.
All of this uncertainty is in the midst of the supposedly unavailable AstraZeneca vaccines being used with other Chinese or Russian vaccines in the vaccine exercises in many parts of the country. The 600,000 plus citizens waiting for AstraZeneca must be thinking if they can form a Citizens Vaccine Trade Union, like the GMOA, to get the vaccines to themselves, as well as members of their families, friends, relations and catcher’s too.
While on the subject of vaccines, it is interesting to read that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, so thoughtful of the people and their needs, has instructed the officials to order a batch of vaccine for a third dose, taking the ongoing global situation into account and based on the recommendations by the medical experts.
He is said to be following the pattern of leading countries that have already ordered vaccines for the third dose. This is great. Ensure a third dose is ordered, while we are not sure what will be done about the missing 600,000 plus of the much-needed AstraZeneca.
Are we moving to a Third-Dose record?
Is this not the time to make a special request to the US to get the vaccines we urgently need, from the vaccines that President Biden has announced will be given to the world? Or from the other millions that the G7 countries will soon give to the world? Have we gone too close to China to make such a request from the western world? Is this moving away from the Cheena Saubhagyaya that is the motto of Rajapaksa Rule?
We are now told that the lockdown will be lifted from June 14, with new rules to be introduced. Let’s see what these new rules are. Will they help to bring down the rates of infection from Covid-19? Will it help bring down the deaths from this pandemic? How many more people will be infected, taken ill with all symptoms and die at home, or while being admitted to hospital, as the records keep showing?
We are now in the midst of increasing tragedies bringing alarm to the minds of the people, whatever the planners of the lockdowns or its relaxations may be thinking.
We are also in the midst of contradictory quarantine rules imposed by the Police. The people, including two foreigners, who had a party at the rooftop of a Colombo building, have been ordered to quarantine at home. But the beauty and cosmetics names and models who were partying at the Shangri-La Hotel, were sent to a special guesthouse far away from home, with plenty of good food too, to spend their quarantine. Looks like we are dealing with a double-angled Police. Or, could the Police be even triple-angled seeing how they have been enjoying the huge traffic amidst a lockdown, and looking on as politicos and agents send their catchers to beat the public at vaccination centres.
This is the land of the record breakers in lockdown travel and the misuse of Covid vaccinations. Will we soon have new records on the Covid infected and deceased, possibly even beating India in under reporting of Covid tragedies?
Luxury cars for MPs; floods, disease and death for electors
Never has Cassandra been so downcast and heart-sick. It certainly is not what she terms lockdown fatigue like metal fatigue that was identified after parts of planes just snapped off. This was long ago. Now in the third week of lockdown, we could break under the stress of being shut in but we Ordinaries are made of sterner stuff. We have our support system – friends and relatives whom we keep close in touch with via telephone and electronic media. We have our safety net – our several religions. Speaking as a Buddhist, Cass can vouch for the strength of this safety net and how beneficial it is. Just being mindful most of her waking hours she keeps away depression and a sinking of her heart each time she reads news on-line or sees TV news broadcasts. If meditation is attempted it is even more efficacious. Mercifully Cass and her ilk order veggies, fruit and groceries on-line. Most certainly bare essentials in consideration of those many near starvation. We are totally sorrowful about the plight of daily wage earners, but cannot right wrongs such as poverty and impecuniousness of the less well to do. That is what governments are elected to achieve.
Reasons for deflation of spirits
We are battered and bruised by the pandemic; inundated by incessant rain and floods, some suffering landslides too. And we had an acid leaking ship sneaking to our waters, catching fire, and being made welcome as a money earner through claimed damages. Now we are told marine pollution will last a hundred years. Can you imagine that – our beautiful blue seas with shining sand now a death dealing home to marine life? Turtles have been washed ashore, dead. Dr Anoja Perera in her heartfelt speech in which she let the present leaders have it, said that the nitric acid that leaked into the sea will destroy even the cartilaginous bones of fish. Their gills have been suffocated by plastic pellets let loose from the burning ship. In all the debris there is a stinking rat or rats too – rousing suspicion. The Sri Lankan Agent of the parent company that owns the ship has proved himself elusive; secrecy reeks. MPS and Ministers who claimed SL would be rich with compensating dollars are sure to lose their parliamentary seats next time around, of course that is if the Sri Lankan indigenous malaise of short memories does not afflict us four years hence and we vote the same rotters in to govern us.
Those who are card holders testifying they received the first A-Z shot in February/March are in the blues wondering when the second jab of A-Z will be given to them. The US, thanks to Biden’s mercy, promised to include Sri Lanka in its list of beneficiaries to receive the A-Z vaccine from what it stockpiled. Prime Minister Wickremanayake’s daughter in England appealed to Boris Johnson to donate vaccines to us. Not only the government but even individuals have started begging for vaccines. We heard Mangala Samaraweera was another. Cass is surprised that fair play on the part of these rich countries supersedes the fact that we are obviously open-armed supplicants to the Chinese. Surprises Cass their mercy prompts then to help us. They hear the cry of the Ordinaries.
The final straw that breaks our spirit
Unbelievable, implausible, impossible such crude greed and feathering their own nests, this time not with money but with luxury cars. Cass did not believe it when she heard that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa had ordered a whole fleet of cars for MPs, not just ese mese vehicles but most luxurious and thus very, very expensive. Cass not realising such greed and injustice could prevail, especially at this very bad time for Sri Lanka, surmised the news of the Cabinet passing the proposal to import 399 luxury cars to be fake news. But it turned out to be true and nearly kicked the life out of Cass, she finding it difficult to breathe – not asthma or C19 but through sheer disbelief of such selfish, unthinking, gross act of importing cars for MPs and other favoured persons while the majority of Sri Lankans suffer and many near starve. I quote Shamindra Ferdinando in his article titled LCs opened before Cabinet rescinded its own decision in The Island of Wednesday June 9.
“In spite of the Finance Ministry decision to withdraw an earlier Cabinet paper for the import of 399 vehicles at a cost of Rs 3.7 bn, the cash-strapped government was not in a position to unilaterally cancel what Media Minister and co-Cabinet spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella called a tripartite transaction. (Why did the govt place the order in the first place, Cass asks).
“The Island yesterday (8) sought an explanation from Minister Rambukwella regarding the status of the high profile leasing arrangement pertaining to 399 vehicles. Minister Rambukwella said that he was not aware of how the state bank that had opened the Letters of Credit handled the issue at hand. However, as the opening of Letters of Credit meant guaranteed payment, Sri Lanka faced the prospect of being blacklisted if a unilateral decision was taken on the matter. The minister explained the difficulty in reversing the original decision.”(Fine howdy)
Later in Ferdinando’s article is this even more damning statement which really hits us a second whammy. “None of the Opposition political parties have criticised the government move on vehicles made at a time the country was struggling to cope with Covid-19 fallout.
“SLPP’s 2019 presidential election manifesto, too, assured that vehicles wouldn’t be imported for members of parliament for a period of three years.”
“After the change of government in 2019, the SLPP put in place a much-touted project to expedite repairs to state-owned vehicles as part of the overall measures to meet what co-cabinet spokesmen Ministers Rambukwella, Udaya Gammanpila and Dr. Ramesh Pathirana called immediate shortfall.” (It all sucks!)
The roads are choc-a-block with posh cars which give the impression we are far from being Third World, but one that is rich, prosperous and with no short falls or poverty anywhere within it. When one sees those in the legislator convene for meetings at the old parliament building down Galle Face road, one is shocked at the luxuriousness of the vehicles that shed the VIPs – all local – from within. Are we a poor country, one asks. The sight of most of the alighting VIPs confirms that question – so well set are they: obese in simple language. Sri Lanka had no money to buy vaccines for its people and went begging hither and thither. But on the quiet the PM himself, approved by his Cabinet, orders 399 luxury cars. Are royal kids and pets to be given cars too? While the hard-working farmer cries, some with tears, for fertiliser; the village mother moans her husband dead from Covid 19 and all beg for inoculation. No wonder Kuveni’s spirit is active at present, and her curse is heard and experienced. We are cursed with totally unnecessary luxuries for some; inoculations given entire extended families and friends of those with clout; floods devastating the country; a sure forecast of a poor rice harvest and starvation staring us in the face; tea prices falling due to lack of needed fertiliser, caused by a sudden, stubborn, trigger decision to ban imported chemical fertiliers. Disease and death pile up because vaccination was not carried out en masse. This could have been done.
That is Free Sri Lanka of now, that once resplendent isle, touted to be like no other. Yes, it is unique in its mismanagement and obvious contrasts between those with political clout and us Ordinaries.
How to gamble with floods
by Eng. Mahinda Panapitiya and
Eng. Wasantha Lal (PhD)
(Two residents from Attanagalu Oya Basin)
Flooding during heavy rains and water pollution during normal time in natural streams is a common problem all over the world when human settlements are located near flood prone areas. For example, about 7-10% land area, in the US, under human settlements, are prone to flooding. In ancient cultures, flooding was perceived as a blessing in disguise because it was the main transportation method of fertilisers, free of charge, for agriculture activities in temporary submergence areas called flood plains. After moving people into flood plains because of shortage of space for settlement, floods have become a curse for humans. Deciding to settle down in flood prone area is a gamble. However, there are modern technologies called flood modelling available for us to overcome this problem.
For an example, it is now possible to simulate different flood conditions that may arise due to heavy rains, before it actually occurs, using satellite and survey data. This is called “modelling” in engineering. Any area prone to floods can be modelled and divided into zones so that land users will know in advance how deep their lands will get submerged. This type of performance-based methods also evaluates how an existing or newly introduced flood mitigation effort, performs under different flooding events.
Hidden reasons behind frequent flooding and water pollution of natural streams
* Unplanned real estate development by clearing local tree cover resulting in impervious areas (roofs, carpeted roads, etc.,) prevents water infiltrating the soil. This increases the runoff rate, causing flash floods during heavy rains. On the other hand, during droughts, all the natural tributary streams and wells in those areas dry up soon after the rain. This is very common in basin such as the Attanagalu Oya.
* The obstruction of natural stream and their tributaries due to poor maintenance. This is very common along the Kelani River basin
* Illicit encroachment causes the filling of wetlands in the flood plains. As a result, rain water has no designated place to collect before flowing out gradually. Most of the floods in Gampaha, Ja-ela and Wattala are due to this issue.
* Deposition of sediments washed down from upland areas due to lack of tree cover and also the erosion of stream banks whose reservations are encroached on either for agriculture in rural areas or for settlement in urban areas
* Inadequate flow capacity in local streams due to invasive weed growth associated with polluted water and lack of riparian tree cover. (Wattala)
* Lack of awareness among officials who manage water resources in natural streams about the role of riverine environments in flood plains which act as kidneys in our ecosystem while preventing flash floods.
How the community could face these challenges
Those who are already living in flood-prone areas or are planning to do so should be aware of the different risk levels in the areas concerned. For that, there is a need to do an exercise called Flood Hazard Zoning, This approach is very common in the developed world. This exercise will also enhance the community participation for government intervention such as canal cleaning and discouraging further encroachment on flood plains by land fillings.
A sketch above extracted from a technical guideline adapted in the US shows a typical flood zoning map, which could be used by a community to decide whether they should or should not build houses in a particular location.
For example, in this map, people who are in Zone A are in a high-risk area subject to flooding. Zone C is a low risk area. A person who wants to build a house in Zone A, which is designated as “100 Year Flood Zone”, will have a 26% chance his house being submerged once in 30 years, which is the normal bank lending period of a housing loan. For the next 70 years, which is the normal lifetime of a building, the chance of being flooded is 50%. For a person who wants to build a house in Zone B designated as “500 Year Flood Zone” will have 18% chance of his residence being submerged once in 70 years. By knowing in advance through these flood zoning maps, people themselves become aware of flood danger before it occurs and, therefore, they prepare themselves for the challenges during flood situations. When there is no such initial warnings, governments will have to bear the whole responsibility.
This type of mapping would also be a useful guide for land valuation as well as for insurances against flood risks. With flood zoning, flood insurance becomes an option that adds a financial component in designing buildings to address those future risks. For example, people can build their houses at elevated levels on columns to suit predicted flood levels. Also the sewerage systems can be introduced to suit the wetland environments.
Lessons from the US
Every state in the US is required by law (water policy) to demonstrate that (a) the public is protected from floods; (b) the public has sufficient water available for drinking and farmin, etc. (d) there is enough water to support the environment. Computer models simulating the year-round hydrology are used for the purpose. Those models show how water from the rains could be saved for use during the dry season. Government agencies in the US do not use the models currently in use in Sri Lanka. They have developed their own models to simulate flooding. Models used in Sri Lanka are bought primarily from two European countries. They are normally used only to study individual flood events. The fundamental ideas used in these models have not changed since 1980s in Sri Lanka, and these models are still sold primarily to developing countries like Sri Lanka. On the other hand, teams of senior engineers are employed for developing those models used in the US, before permits are issued for new development projects. There are also Sri Lankans engineers among those teams in the US, as primary developers.
Opposite of flood
Wetlands of flood plain are the interface between aquatic and terrestrial areas. Plants in those wetlands play a very vital role in cleaning water biologically before it falls into the main streams. Wetlands are in fact the kidneys of ecosystems. Over the years, due to the so-called development, the environmental features of flood plains have undergone changes, causing not only floods during heavy rains but also malfunctioning natural water cleaning process, especially during droughts.
Note that those new technologies address not only flood situations but also help face drought situations, too, by identifying areas suitable for temporary water storages within flood plains. For example, during a previous drought situation there was a water shortage in the Attanagalu Oya basin, and the people had to purchase water from trucks, though annually the Oya releases into the sea a volume of water equal to that of the Parakrama Samudraya! Severe drought situations are even worse than floods, especially in view of the current pollution levels of natural streams bordering urban areas. To address this issue also, technologies could be used to identify naturally available water cleaning wetlands to be preserved.
King Parakramabahu’s famous quote about water conservation and utilization—“Do not release even a drop of rain water to the sea without using”—applies not only to our dry zone but also to the west zone.
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