“The text is a living tissue of its manifold contexts: the mind that composed it, the language that articulated it, the literature that preceded it, the social moment that conditioned it, the generations that had put their mark on it, and the mind that received it”.
– Morris Dickstein, Literary critic.
By Dr. Siri Galhenage
Literature is about humanity. A good piece of literary art is a living entity awaiting interaction with the reader. The reader who engages in a meaningful interaction with the text is benefited by enhancing their understanding of the human condition.
The discipline of psychiatry demands the understanding of the human condition in its entirety. At a formal gathering of a group of my colleagues, young and old, who meet regularly to discuss matters regarding Humanities [History, Philosophy and Ethics] relating to Psychiatry, an extraordinary piece of literature was presented for analysis. The literary piece is ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener – A Story of Wall Street’  – one of the most noted of American short stories, written by Herman Melville, renowned for his Magnus Opus, ‘Moby Dick’. The aim of the meeting was to make a behavioural analysis of its protagonist, Bartleby, whose character is brilliantly portrayed by the author within the short space of the narrative. [The short story could be read in Piazza Tales, a volume of six stories by Herman Melville, on YouTube or downloaded as an e-book]
The setting is a small law firm in Wall Street, New York. The narrator is an unnamed elderly lawyer, the proprietor of the firm. He manages a team of two scriveners [copyists] – ‘Turkey’ and ‘Nippers’ – allocated with the task of copying legal documents; and ‘Ginger Nut’, the office boy providing a supportive role. The two scriveners, despite their disparities in age and behaviour patterns, are complementary in their roles. Turkey is elderly, and is more functional in the mornings than in the afternoons. Nippers, is young, and is irritable in the mornings but more organised in the afternoons.
Due to an increase in workload, the lawyer employs Bartleby as an additional scrivener. A quiet young man, Bartleby is extremely diligent in his single task of copying legal documents. But, to the lawyer’s dismay, when Bartleby is requested to do anything other than his allocated task, he replies, ‘I would prefer not to’ – a response he repeatedly and stubbornly makes, resulting in him being marginalised by the rest of the team. He begins to live in the office, with a limited intake of food barely sufficient to sustain him. He ‘would prefer not to’ accept the offer of accommodation in the lawyer’s own home. Bewildered, the lawyer moves the office to another building! As Bartleby prefers not to leave the premises, the new tenant has Bartleby arrested as a squatter. His condition deteriorates, and dies in incarceration within a few days, having turned down any offers of help by his former employer.
The lawyer later learns that Bartleby had previously worked in the Dead Letter Office in Washington, and ponders on the relevance of his past employment on his current behaviour.
‘Bartleby, the Scrivener – A Story of Wall Street’ is considered by many to be a fine piece of short fiction which opens itself to be interpreted in a variety of ways – a credit to the literary skill of the author. The ‘abnormal’ behaviour of Bartleby is the focus of attention by many critics, analysing it from an intra-psychic, interpersonal and social viewpoints. Why did this man behave in this manner in this setting at this point in time? Is his withdrawal and negativism a reflection of melancholy? Or, is his rigid adherence to routine a feature of obsessionality? Some see the features of ‘maintenance of sameness’ and ‘interpersonal difficulties’ to fall within the autistic spectrum. Others draw attention to teamwork in the employment setting, highlighting the importance of cohesion and the need for overlap of roles for effective functioning.
Opinion is divided about the lawyer who is the leader of the team: many believe him to be empathic, accommodating and even compassionate, but some see him as authoritarian!
While giving credence to the above observations, I have taken a broader view in examining the text according to the literary-critical practices adopted at the present time. I am guided by the following words of the American literary critic, Morris Dickstein, in relation to literary criticism in general—”The text is a living tissue of its manifold contexts. Everything that went into it – the mind that composed it, the language that articulated it, the literature that preceded it, the social moment that conditioned it, the generations that had put their mark on it, and the minds that received it”—should be considered, as quoted in, ‘Guide to Literary Criticism’ by D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke, one of Sri Lanka’s foremost literary critics.
As a first step, I have attempted to grasp ‘the point of the text as a whole’, prior to taking into account its interlocking parts that together convey the central idea or theme, reminiscent of the Systems Theory, ‘that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’.
The central theme of the text, from my perspective, is an allegorical representation of passive resistance – a struggle for free will – against an established system perceived as hegemonic, while carrying a cautionary tale of a potentially disastrous consequence of such an action. The author employs his favoured literary strategy of symbolism and allegory – with a hidden meaning of socio-political significance – in order to convey his message.
There are manifold contexts that contributed to the shaping of the text. In my view they include the symbolic meaning of the chosen venue of Wall Street; social concerns and the philosophical musings of the era; and the personal mindset of the author at the time.
I invite the reader to examine the text in the light of the following elaborations of the contexts.
The story carries the subtitle, ‘A story of Wall Street’. In the 19th Century, Wall Street was [and still is] a symbol of American Capitalism. To those who advocated the rights of ordinary people, Wall Street was seen as a centre for greedy robber barons who allegedly exploited farmers and labourers. The financial hegemony of Wall Street persists.
THE SOCIAL and PHILOSOPHICAL MILIEU
The nineteenth century saw the emergence of the philosophical concept of Nihilism or extreme pessimism – that life has no purpose or intrinsic meaning, and that all values are baseless. The term was popularised by Friedrich Jacoby [1743-1819] and was further explored by Friedrich Nietzsche [1844-1900], both German philosophers and literary figures. The latter recognised its negative impact on human existence resulting in existential despair. He identified it as a barrier to advancement and creative possibilities, and emphasised the need to work through it in order to avoid annihilation of the human kind; but warned that such action may incur a heavy cost. It was during this period that the anti-slavery movement was gathering momentum in the United States.
THE MIND THAT COMPOSED IT
The mind that composed this literary piece belonged to Herman Melville [1819-1891], a novelist, short-story writer and a poet of the American Renaissance. Melville was well known for his philosophical speculation and social activism, and the use of allegory as a literary device.
Melville was born into an established merchant family in New York. His father faced bankruptcy, suffered ‘insanity’, and later died when Melville was 12. He was forced to leave school at 15 and worked for several years as a bank clerk, a teacher and a labourer, before travelling to Europe and subsequently embarking on several sea voyages. During a whaling trip in the south Pacific, he jumped ship and lived briefly among the Typee cannibals in the Marquesas, finally ending up in Hawaii. He is known to have expressed strong opposition to the imposition of western values and practices on pagan societies.
On returning to the United States, he acquainted himself with a wide range of Philosophers and writers. He was particularly inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne [1804-1864] due to his radical innovation in writing, harsh satire of American life and allegorical representations. Melville’s life with primary cultures and his maritime experiences were reflected in his early writing. In 1851 he published Moby Dick, his Magnus Opus, which he dedicated to Hawthorne, and considered by many to be one of the finest works of American fiction. It recounts the vengeful voyage in pursuit of a killer whale depicting the power balance between man and beast, ending in disaster. To his intense disappointment, the work was not a commercial success and he felt that the readers did not pick up the allegory. It was five years later that he wrote, Bartleby, the Scrivener. He suffered bouts of depression. A few years later, his woes were compounded by the suicide of his son and he turned to alcohol for solace. His reputation as a writer faded into insignificance, to be revived only after his death.
It is interesting to note that Herman Melville was a contemporary of the Great Russian author, Leo Tolstoy [1828 – 1910], who opposed the autocratic Tsarist regime and its collusion with the aristocracy and the Orthodox Church. He advocated passive resistance which influenced Mahatma Gandhi in his struggle for independence. ‘Satyagraha’ [Satya: truth; graha: holding onto the truth] was a peaceful/ non-violent protest advocated by Gandhi. Nevertheless, there is no evidence to suggest that Melville was inspired by Tolstoy.
The allegory of the narrative, I propose, carries a hidden meaning with a socio-political significance. Bartleby offers passive resistance to a system that is hegemonic, yet fragile, as represented by the law firm – a microcosm of Wall Street culture. From the limited information available about his background, Bartleby seems to have arrived in Wall Street from an environment of nihilism where he had the task of sorting out ‘dead letters’ which had no recipient. The letters had reached a dead end and served no purpose and were discarded. Bartleby paid a heavy price for his rebellion: he ‘stood his ground’, in an attempt at breaking through his nihilism, finally to be marginalised, evicted and incarcerated, leading to his demise. He arrived in Wall Street and ended up hitting his head against a brick wall!
Over one and a half centuries have passed since Bartleby, the Scrivener was published, and it was after the author’s death that its literary value was recognised. It was perhaps written to covertly express views consistent with the times. Since then, many generations have held it up for scrutiny and made their mark on it through varying interpretations of it. Today, an era of nihilism has re-emerged with disease and death, economic hardship, and much talked about corruption and inept governance, sparking premonitions of the fate of Bartleby, absit omen, dragging this lesser known piece of literary artistry to the present time.
JRJ’s racism, cold war posturing and the Indian debacle
In addition to his political biography of J R Jayewardene, Godage & Bros published last month another book of travel by Rajiva Wijesinha. Around and About the Mediterranean covers journeys over half a century to Southern Europe, Northern Africa, and the Levant from Jordan up to Turkey. It also includes travel to the Balkans, Yugoslavia in 1972 and then the separate countries of the former Yugoslavia in the last five years.
Bringing together the Classical and the Christian and the Islamic cultures of the region makes for a fascinating read for it shows the intermingling that has made the Mediterranean so productive of ideas as well as artefacts. In addition, the book shares with readers the sheer joy of travel, the wonders seen and the pleasure of strenuous exploring followed by relaxation in scenic surroundings. There are several colour pictures as well as black and white ones to illustrate each section.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
An opportunity to peruse Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha’s critical biography of Sri Lanka’s first executive President (not elected), titled ‘J.R. JAYEWARDENE’S RACISM, COLD WAR POSTURING AND THE INDIAN DEBACLE’, couldn’t have been received at a better time.
The country is in turmoil with a wave of protests, with farmers’ now leading the way over the SLPP government agricultural policy, a simmering dispute with China regarding a ship carrying allegedly contaminated carbonic fertiliser consignment entering Sri Lankan waters, unprecedented balance of payment crisis, and a deepening disagreement with SLPP constituents over a deal with the US company New Fortress Energy, as well as foreign policy issues.
Can Sri Lanka’s current predicament be blamed on the executive presidential system, failure on the part of Parliament and the judiciary – the three pillars on which the country’s political system is based? Academic, administrator and ex-lawmaker who had represented the utterly corrupt SLFP and UNP-led political groupings (2010-2015 in Parliament), Prof. Wijesinha has launched this devastating attack on the late UNP leader JRJ but, overall, the JRJ biography seemed an extremely harsh critique on the political setup he established. But, the irony is the author himself had been part of the two major political groupings after having performed an immensely valuable role as the Secretary General of the Secretariat for Coordinating Peace Process (SCOPP) in addition to being the Secretary to the Disaster Management and Human Rights Ministry.
The writer really appreciate an opportunity to review ‘J.R. JAYEWARDENE’S RACISM, COLD WAR POSTURING AND THE INDIAN DEBACLE’ against the backdrop of The Island celebrating its 40th anniversary at a time the country is experiencing an unprecedented financial crisis. Prof. Wijesinha has basically dealt with the period The Island and its sister paper, Divaina played a critically important role.
Before delving into Prof. Wijesinha’s quite useful analysis, it would be pertinent to mention that as a UPFA National List MP, the academic, in spite of strong opposition from a section of his Liberal Party, voted for the dictatorial 18th Amendment to the Constitution that was passed on Sept. 18, 2010. The 18th Amendment that had been brought in at the expense of the 17th, introduced during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s tenure as the President, literally placed the executive, the legislature and the judiciary under the President’s thumb. The judiciary cannot absolve itself of the responsibility for protecting and nurturing the Constitution if/when the executive or Parliament violated the Constitution, or both did, simultaneously. The UPFA initiated impeachment proceedings, close on the heels of the Supreme Court having deemed actions taken against then CJ Shirani Bandaranayake constitutional. Bandaranayake was accused of financial impropriety and interfering in legal cases among other allegations- all of which she denied, but her husband was involved in some banking shenanigans and he was convicted.
Wijesinghe, as an MP, however abstained from backing the impeachment motion against then C J Bandaranayake in early January 2013. A year later, Prof. switched his allegiance to a high profile yahapalana political project, spearheaded by the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera and Ven. Atureliye Rathana, MP (now NL MP of Ape Jana Bala Pakshaya) that facilitated the break-up of the powerful UPFA and the emergence of long standing SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena as the Opposition presidential candidate.
With Sirisena taking over as the President in January 2015, Prof. Wijesinha received appointment as State Minister of Higher Education. However, Prof. Wijesinha resigned on Feb 17, 2015 opposing the then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe’s move to secure executive powers for himself as the Prime Minister. Prof. Wijesinha declared the move to gazette the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and transfer of executive powers to the Prime Minister was both ill-timed and a wrong decision, thus, he could no longer be a part of the yahapalana government.
Prof. Wijesinha alleged in Parliament the transfer of executive powers to the Prime Minister was extremely dangerous when one considered the way the UNP leader was conducting himself. Prof. Wijesinha certainly didn’t receive public appreciation for shifting of allegiances from various political alliances within a very short period, first to the short-lived Sirisena–Wickemesinghe combination, and then declare support for Sirisena, at the expense of Wickremesinghe, and finally ending up with those who he abandoned in 2014. Sirisena, who led the charge against the Rajapaksas, had ended up among the same group whom he accused earlier of planning to assassinate him.
Jeyaraj’s arrest in the wake of Indo-Lanka Accord
Prof. Wijesinha dealt with how the JRJ government arrested the then The Island journalist David Buell Sabapathy Jeyaraj over the reportage of the Indian Army offensive in the Jaffna peninsula. The former parliamentarian reproduced an apt section of Jeyaraj’s report that discussed the ground situation in the peninsula. Having joined The Island, in June 1987, the writer remembers the subsequent developments that paved the way for Jeyaraj to leave for the US. The versatile writer ended up in Canada. New Delhi continuously interfered with print media coverage of the violence in the Northern and Eastern parts where the Indian Peace Keeping Force waged a bloody campaign to tame the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after it turned its wrath against them.
Once the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) sleuths visited The Island editorial to question Norman Palihawadana over his coverage of atrocities committed by the Indian Army in the Eastern theatre of operations. Jeyaraj left the country in Sept 1988, two years before after India ended its disastrous military mission here. The prolific writer for the first time returned to Sri Lanka in Oct 2013 – four years after the military eradicated the LTTE completely.
The section on the Provincial Council legislation, when examined with how JRJ handled the judiciary, is thought-provoking and is evidence the legislature lacks the strength to counter overwhelming executive (dictatorial) powers, regardless of opposition by some lawmakers. The resignation of the late much respected Gamani Jayasuriya over the passage of Provincial Council legislation is a case in point.
‘J.R. JAYEWARDENE’S RACISM, COLD WAR POSTURING AND THE INDIAN DEBACLE’ published by S. Godage and Brothers should be made available in the library of the Parliament .The author should consider getting the book translated to Sinhala and Tamil, too, for the benefit of lawmakers unable to make use of the JRJ biography. The writer brought the new book to the attention of the Chief Librarian of Parliament and the pivotal importance of making it available to the lawmakers, over the last weekend.
Prof. Wijesinha discussed how JRJ brazenly amended and manipulated the Constitution, suppressed internal dissent and if the dictator had his way he would have deprived Ranasinghe Premadasa of an opportunity to contest the 1989 presidential election. At the onset of his new book, Prof. Wijesinha pointed out how JRJ brought in his first amendment to the Constitution to subvert a judgment of the courts.
Corruption becomes way of life
Prof. Wijesinha boldly discussed the impact the absolutely corrupt political system in place as a result of deterioration of parliamentary norms is having on the country. The latest JRJ autobiography has contradicted those who published hagiographies of the former President. Prof. Wijesinha compared the late JRJ with Ranil Wickemesinghe whom he described as JRJ’s spiritual heir. Having referred to their strategies in dealing with Tamil speaking people, Prof. Wijesinha repeated his long standing claim of Wickremesinghe bribing SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem in 2014 to win over his support ahead of the 2015 presidential election. Wijesinha first made the accusation in a widely watched Sirasa ‘Pathikada’ programme anchored by the late Bandula Jayasekera, one-time presidential spokesman and the writer’s colleague at The Island editorial. Prof. Wijesinha says Muslim politicians continue to cross up and down, depending on what they are offered.
Prof. Wijesinha publicly alleged years before the launch of JRJ biography how the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) sat on his complaint on the bribery accusation. The academic declared that the UNP received money to engineer a crossover of over a dozen People’s Alliance lawmakers in 2000 from businessman Nahil Wijesuriya.
Referring to the Rubber-Rice pact with China finalised in 1952 and the despicable role played by JRJ, Prof. Wiejsinha briefly examined the 99-year-old lease on the strategic Hambantota port in 2017. Prof. Wijesinha blamed the then President Sirisena, Premier Wickremesinghe and International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrema for the Hambantota sell-out to varying degrees. The author quite rightly faulted an influential section of the media for continuously attacking the Rajapaksas for selling family silver to the Chinese whereas the UNP-led administration pushed through the deal.
The incumbent government has had no option but to accept the controversial Hambantota deal. Interestingly, the government is now under fire for giving into the US strategy to take over Sri Lanka’s energy security. The author of the JRJ biography may not agree with the writer, but the undeniable truth is all governments since the advent of UNP at the 1977 parliamentary election contributed to the deterioration of democracy and sovereignty. The 20th Amendment enacted in Oct 2020 with a 2/3 majority is a case in point. With the advent of the 20th Amendment, the much discussed abolition of the executive presidency or curbing of its powers will not be subject to discussion though some may make some statements opposed to the executive presidential system.
Perhaps Prof. Wijesinha should have discussed how Wickremesinghe received the premiership in January 2015 in the aftermath of Sirisena’s victory. JRJ’s political strategy has been exploited by interested parties to deceive the public that victory at the presidential election provided a mandate for them to take over the government. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe did exactly that. If not for the manipulation of the system, Wickremesinghe wouldn’t have received the premiership in January 2015. Prof. Wijesinha wouldn’t have to resign in Feb 2015 and Treasury bond scams would not have been perpetrated.
JRJ biography in three parts
The civil society, the diplomatic community, the media and the general public can benefit from Prof. Wijesinha’s incisive thinking. In part I, the author discussed (a) overview of JRJ’s political perspectives (b) Tamil parties (c) much amended Constitution (d) election and having ministers at his whim and fancy (e) 1982 Referendum. Basically, part 1 dealt with the building up of the colossal power base. Part 11 discussed (a) alienation of Tamils (b) riots after killing of 13 soldiers in Jaffna (c) slide towards concessions (d) Indian interventions and (e) Indian military deployment. This section was aptly titled ‘A slow but relentless decline.’
The final part titled ‘And the Fall’ dealt with (a) Indo-Lanka Accord (b) India’s war against the LTTE (c) elections and increasing violence and (d) a new President.
The writer found Chapter 5 that examined the 1982 Referendum meant to prolong the life of Parliament regardless of consequences. JRJ introduced the 4th Amendment which Prof. Wiejsinha described as the worst of the then UNP leader’s constitutional amendments that paved the way for his party to rule the country from 1977 to 1989. The JRJ strategy ruined the country. The second JVP inspired insurgency, India inspired Tamil terrorism and trade union disputes wrecked the country during this period. Prof. Wijesinha lucidly explained how the then Attorney General Siva Pasupathy, who subsequently threw his weight behind the LTTE and Chief Justice Neville Samarakoon reacted to the controversial move.
Prof. Wijesinha called Pasupathy an obsequious man who had no qualms in his ‘pernicious bidding’ and Samarakoon as JRJ’s handpicked man was truly forthright. Prof. Wijesinha coverage of the judiciary’s response to a despicable move to extend the life of Parliament provides an opportunity for those interested in contemporary history to understand how the executive, the legislature and the judiciary collectively caused irreparable damage to the democratic system.
The assassination of actor-turned politician Vijaya Kumaratunga in Feb 1988 should be examined taking into consideration Prof. Wijesinha’s comment on the UNP strategy meant to politically destroy the much loved man. Having had categorised Kumaratunga as a Naxalite, the UNP imprisoned him during the dubious 1982 Referendum campaign. Let me reproduce verbatim what Prof. Wijesinha stated on alleged Naxalite plot: “Gamini Dissanayake, who was then firmly under JR’s thumb, also got in on the act and claimed that ‘the leader of the Naxalites is Vijaya Kumaratunga’ and his assistant Chandrika. Meanwhile, The Sunday Times, which was then fully controlled by the government, with the easily intimidated Rita Sebastian as its editor, published a list of eight Naxalites, namely, in order (1) Vijaya Kumaratunga (2) Chandrika Kumaratunga (3) Ratnasiri Wickramanayake (4) Hector Kobbekaduwa (5) T.B. Illangaratne (6) K.P. Silva (General Secretary, Communist Party), (7) G.S.P. Ranaweera (Editor, Aththa) and (8) Jinadasa Niyathapala.
Prof. Wijesinha commented on the media, including the birth of the Upali Newspapers Limited (UNL) and the disappearance of its founder Upali Wijewardene in the wake of Ranasinghe Premadasa thwarting JRJ’s move to field the top entrepreneur to contest the Kalawana electorate. The UNL received Prof. Wijesinha’s appreciation for opposing the Referendum, though mildly, whereas the state-owned media and Dawasa Group threw their full weight behind JRJ’s despicable move. The government engaged in violence in support of its political project. The author discussed how JRJ unashamedly used sections of the media and selected journalists for the project that gave his party the opportunity to govern the country for a period of 13 years, sans parliamentary elections.
A bizarre strategy
Prof. Wijesinha explained how JRJ adopted bizarre political strategies. Having undated letters of resignation from his MPs is one such shameful tactic. JRJ played politics with the system to restrict the number of by elections (remember, this was before the introduction of the PR system in 1989). The section titled ‘Flexing muscles in 1983’ under Chapter 5: Referendum underscored how JRJ consolidated unbridled power at the expense of Parliament and the Judiciary. JRJ ruined institutions at will. Parliament was among them. During a recent interview on ‘Siyatha’ , one-time President Maithripala Sirisena explained how successive Presidents brought in Amendments to consolidate their power at the expense of the people. Sirisena, quite rightly claimed that he was the only President to give up power by way of introducing the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 2015. However, the irony is Sirisena, in his capacity as the SLFP leader, allowed his parliamentary group to vote for the 20th Amendment that neutralised the 19th. Lawmaker Sirisena quite conveniently refrained from voting for the 20th Amendment having explained his predicament to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Having accused the Rajapaksas of planning to bury him, Sirisena, who has been named in the Easter Sunday Commission report for possible prosecution for dereliction of duty, ended up as an SLPP lawmaker.
Can Budget 2022 resolve national crisis?
By Dr. Laksiri Fernando
It is extremely unlikely that the present budget could resolve the evolving national economic crisis, not to speak of the political disorder emerging out of it. In fact, during the Parliamentary debates on the second reading, the main oil refinery at Sapugaskanda was shut down due to non-availability of crude oil supplies. This is a result of the foreign exchange crisis, which the present Budget has unfortunately not even attempted to resolve.
Instead of obtaining crude oil and refining them to fulfil the fuel requirement of the people, now the Ministry of Energy is ready to import petrol, kerosene, and diesel at higher prices. At present, there are severe shortages of all these items in addition to gas, in the country.
To obtain crude oil from Nigeria, as previously agreed, the Ministry required around $ 2.5 billion, from May until December. The Central Bank understandably has not been able to offer these dollars as foreign reserves were limited to around $ 3 billion. The government, however, has allowed the Minister of Energy, Udaya Gammanpila, to obtain refined oil (crude oil perhaps later) from Oman (3.6 b) and India (.5 b) on foreign loans and deals amounting to $ 4.1 billion.
Unplanned and haphazard obtaining of foreign loans is not a solution to the fuel crisis or the foreign exchange crisis. These are the results of indecision, wrong decisions, or reversal of decisions, perhaps a reflection of differences or rifts within the government. It is primarily for the foreign exchange crisis that the Budget 2022 does not offer any solution, although it boasts of ‘challenging the challenges.’ For example, the following is the view of the Minister of Finance, Basil Rajapaksa, on ‘foreign exchange reserves’.
“The government of HE the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, expects to create apart from a foreign exchange reserves a number of other reserves. The first of which is the reserve of water, food, and energy, which are created through the land, water, and the renewable energy which are gifts of nature.”
He states the above just before the section on ‘Identifying Potential Exports’ on page 15 of the Budget speech. Does he think that creating foreign reserves is like reserving water, food, and energy? Perhaps he is correct, considering the shortages of food, fuel, energy, or even clean water in the country, at present.
Requirements of a Budget
A Budget in a country like Sri Lanka should address three main balance sheets in the economy. This is common to many countries, but given the crisis in all three spheres in Sri Lanka, the balance of state’s income and expenditure should not be the only focus.
The three requirements are as follows: (1) the balance of payments to mean the country’s foreign (dollar) income and expenditure, deficit, debt, aid, and loans. The exchange rate is also important. (2) The balance of trade to mean the country’s exports and imports, trade deficit, nature of exports (primary, secondary, or tertiary). In the case of Sri Lanka, the status of tourism and export of labour. (3) The state expenditure and income in detail with proper breakdowns on capital and recurrent expenditure on social welfare, investments promoting development, direct and indirect taxes and profits and losses of state enterprises.
It is customary for all of us to call a budget, the ‘budget of the government.’ But it is of the state, the people being the main stakeholder. In a democracy, the government is merely the officeholder or the servant.
When one goes through the ‘Budget Speech’ or the ‘Annexes,’ the necessary information on the above three aspects of a proper Budget, the identification of problems in all three areas, and genuine proposals to resolve them are absent. That is another reason why the present budget is far from being able to resolve the present national crisis. The Budget speech of the Minister was like a ‘Throne Speech,’ more rhetoric than a genuine analysis. The balance of payments or the balance of trade are not properly covered. There are obvious structural defects in the Budget, Budget planning and presentation.
The attached annexes are limited to four, titled; ‘Summary of the Budget (2021-2022),’ ‘Gross Borrowing Requirements,’ ‘Revenue Proposals 2022,’ ‘Expenditure Proposals,’ and ‘Taxation.’ Most of the tables are quite callous and some do not even give the totals! These are compiled by the Department of Fiscal Policy among others. The ‘Summary of the Budget’ itself proves the main criticism of this article, no data on balance of payment or balance of trade. The summary is mainly limited to (government) ‘revenue’, ‘expenditure’ and proposed ‘financing.’
Let us take the ‘summary of the Budget’ on face value. The table also gives ‘estimated’ figures for 2021, correct or not. The figures are given as if the deficit is already fixed. That cannot be the case and any burden from this year would go to the next year of the present Budget.
Optimistically, the table gives the revenues first. Accordingly, the (estimated) revenue for 2021 is Rs. 1,561 billion, and for 2022 it would be 2,284. An increase of Rs. 723 billion. This could be the case, hopefully, given the new taxes introduced, and taxes of the last Budget not implemented, reintroduced. The estimated expenditure of the last budget was Rs. 3,387 billion and this budget is 3, 912. Of course, it is not a big increase, given the present crisis, but it is doubtful whether it would be sufficient to alleviate the stagnating economy. On the other hand, the Keynesians might argue for increased spending to stimulate the economy.
For example, in the last budget, the domestic deficit was Rs. 1,826 billion. In the present budget it is Rs 1,628 billion without a big difference or a purpose. The most important in a developing country is not so much the budget deficit, but how you plan to finance the Budget deficit, and more importantly how you plan to spend public funds. It is important that expenditure on provincial councils is increased from Rs. 1,085 billion to Rs. 1,218 billion. While this is marginal, these go like other expenditure to recurrent matters such as salaries, wages and necessary goods and services.
Sri Lanka is within this vicious cycle of subsistence budgeting. Public investment was limited to Rs. 581 billion in the last budget, and to Rs. 931 billion in this Budget. Considering the inflation, this increase is nothing much, and most important is how even these amounts are spent, and for what.
The way the deficits are financed is also dubious or problematic. In the 2021 Budget, Rs. 978 billion was expected from foreign sources as gross borrowings and loans. In the present Budget, Rs. 1,016 billion is expected from the same sources. The table also (not so clearly) reveals the amounts that the country must pay back, Rs. 536 billion in the last budget and an expected Rs. 866 billion in the present Budget. The same goes for domestic obligations in borrowings, although not of that gravity.
The main crisis Sri Lanka is facing is in respect of what I would call the ‘external budget.’ This means the trade deficit, balance of payment deficit, depleted foreign reserves, exchange rate and the external debt. On these matters, no tables or accounts are given in the annexes. Even in the Budget speech very little attention is given to these; nonetheless unbelievable targets and figures are attached. This is limited to two pages, 73 and 74.
It may be correct to say, as the Minister has stated, exports of the country reached $ 10,028 million by last month (October). This undoubtedly shows the potential. Therefore, his target of $ 11,900 million for the whole year can also be reasonable. However, his target of limiting import bill to $ 18,900 million for the year is an underestimation given the present ‘open’ policies of the government. Thus, the estimated trade deficit of $ 7,000 million for the year is also an underestimation.
Most questionable are his predictions for 2022 and beyond. He says, “In 2022, a trade surplus is expected amounting to around USD 1,000 million, including from tourism, ports, and IT export services and I have spelt out policies and measures in this Budget speech to increase it to USD 8,000 million in 2027.” (p.74).
Even if the trade deficit could be limited to $ 7,000 million this year by some luck, how come in 2022, a trade surplus of $ 1,000 million be achieved? It would be a miracle. It is true that the Minister has ‘spelt out’ some policies and measures promoting tourism, ports, and IT export services. Revenue from foreign employment also could be added. Yet a trade surplus of $ 1,000 million next year would be unachievable, realistically. A budget should be realistic and not idealistic.
It is customary in contemporary budgets to formulate projections for the future beyond the budget year (2022). However, these projections should be realistic based on data, careful analysis and realistic estimates. Increasing the trade surplus therefore to $ 8,000 million in 2027 appears just rhetoric to deceive the people. Under the circumstances, it is difficult to believe that the present Budget could resolve the present national crisis outlined in my previous article
(Sri Lanka Heading for Serious Crisis)
in the areas discussed, among others.
The brain drain disaster: Where are we heading?
by Rasanjalie Kularathne and Dr.Manoj Samarathunga
“I’m not happy to live in Sri Lanka” – a housewife
“I can earn more money if I go abroad” – a doctor
“I want my children to have a better future” – a school teacher
“Sri Lanka is on an economic bomb” – a university lecturer
“Many of our politicians and government officers are corrupted” – a social activist
Brain drain reflects multiple underlying socio-economic problems. While we expect to see a better country after the natural disasters, wars, terrorist attacks and pandemics, a more serious threat looms; it may appear insignificant to the majority of the people, especially to the politicians and policymakers, yet it is something we should counter immediately as a national priority. Therefore, based on a series of interviews with professionals who have either migrated or are planning to do so we present some important facts about Sri Lankan ‘brain drain’.
The development of any country depends on its human capital. Similarly, the success of any organisation hinges on the performance of its competent workforce. The question is whether this qualified workforce will remain in Sri Lanka, a few years hence? All the professionals,we interviewed, are desirous of leaving the country due to many reasons, including, but not limited to, economic turndowns, coups and political instability, human rights violations, thoughtless bureaucracy, the absence of national policies aimed at development, bribery and corruption.
In this context, there is an ever-increasing number of youth who desire to pursue professional careers and expect attractive remuneration packages. Then again, the question is whether there are enough opportunities available for them in the country, or whether there are any policies in place or actions being taken to create them. If not, the youth, opt for foreign employment.
Migration is triggered by push factors, including adverse/unfavourable economic conditions, lack of employment opportunities or the general low wage levels, abusive marriages, domestic violence, lack of social freedom and unstable political governance, and pull factors, such as the host country’s favourable salaries, better quality of life, freedom/or independence, and the growing need for workers in the destination country.
Sri Lankan youth view migration as an opportunity for better employment prospects. The migratory mindset is widespread among the Lankans today, as can be seen from the winding queues near the ‘passport office’. Migration for a “better future” is a dream of many educated youth from urban and rural backgrounds. Most of the migrants, in Sri Lanka, are between 25 and 39 years.
Sri Lankans, who study overseas, return home only to find that there are no jobs available for them in their chosen disciplines. The only choice they are left with is to leave the country in pursuit of employment that is relevant to their disciplines, and better pay. After migrating to the countries of their choice, many Sri Lankans become permanent citizens, and their families also migrate. As a result, many who benefited from free education in Sri Lanka are now employed abroad. Therefore, the human resource capacity within the country, is low.
The skilled job seekers, especially carpenters, bricklayers, masons, drivers, technicians, and mechanics, have a high demand in the Middle East, European and Pacific countries. Many young women, living in the peripheral areas have no choice but to work as housemaids in the Middle East because they find the living conditions, and the cost of living, unbearable. Many people have become virtual slaves. Many others fall prey to human traffickers. Illegal migration troubles Australia, which is working with the Sri Lankan authorities to prevent it. Illegal migrants face sexual harassment, human rights violations, among other things.
Sri Lanka is experiencing a shortage of skilled professionals in many disciplines such as health, apparel, manufacturing, IT, business process outsourcing, tourism, and jewellery. As per the World Bank, in Sri Lanka, only 1.004 doctors are available and 2.18 nurses and midwives were available per 1000 patients in 2018. Every year, around 60 doctors leave for the UK, Australia, Canada, and other developed countries to undergo their one-year compulsory training, but only half of them return, exacerbating a growing crisis in healthcare services. Similarly, many university academics who leave the country to pursue higher education overseas, never return. Ekanayake, Anoji and Amirthalingam (2018) conducted a study on ‘Impact of Migration of Sri Lanka Professionals to Qatar” and they found that 70% of Sri Lankan professionals prefered to stay in Qatar far longer than they anticipated. They are also less likely to return to Sri Lanka for work in the near future. Around 39% did not prefer to return to sri Lanka. Nearly 30% of these professionals aim to secure new jobs in Qatar or other Gulf nations after their present contracts expire, while nearly 21% seek to migrate to countries like Australia, Canada, New Zealand, etc. without returning to Sri Lanka.
If this trend continues, Sri Lanka will face a problem where the nation’s ‘brains’ aren’t contributing to the country’s future and there’s a tremendous flow of money going outside. To discourage international migration and stimulate ‘brain gain’ instead of ‘brain drain’, Sri Lanka needs to take appropriate measures as follows:
* Ensuring political stability in Sri Lanka;
* Introducing policies to enhance economic conditions and stimulating development;
* Discouraging bribery and corruption by enforcing the law strictly;
* Focussing on formulating strategies to keep skilled employees within the country by offering suitable employment opportunities and better facilities, realising that migration is caused by push and pull factors.
* Controlling inflation and increasing national productivity
* Strengthening the existing lawss, rules and regulations to avoid human rights violations, harassments, and discriminations;
* Attracting expatriate Sri Lankan professionals by offering them suitable positions and competitive salaries;
* Encouraging more multi-national companies to invest in Sri Lanka so as to create international level job opportunities to Sri Lankans;
* Forecasting the future human resource needs of the country and developing the existing workforce to meet future needs;
* Encouraging the professionals who have migrated to contribute to Sri Lanka’s development through different development and social responsibility projects.
(The writers are attached to the Faculty of Management Studies, Rajarata University of Sri Lanka. They could be contacted at email@example.com )
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