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Sri Lanka’s economy in the first 10 years

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By Uditha Devapriya

Assessments of Sri Lanka’s history often depict the period from 1947 to 1956 as an Eden before the Fall. Partly, this was owing to how independence had been secured. Freedom was seen as being granted, not won; unlike the multiclass bloc that had prevailed against British dominion in India, in Ceylon independence had amounted to a transition from the colonial bureaucracy to a comprador elite. Independence became a top-down affair, led by those who emphasised cooperation with rather than resistance to Britain.

Moreover, unlike in India, where ethnic tensions led to the partition of the country into Hindu and Muslim sections, in Sri Lanka similar tensions between the Sinhala and Tamil communities did not erupt until a decade later. Until they did, a belief sprang up that the country had secured independence without “dropping a shed of blood.”

Though these sentiments bolstered optimism over the direction the colonial bourgeoisie intended to take Ceylon, they also symbolised the bourgeoisie’s failure to consolidate a multi-class identity. Multiethnic though the composition of the leadership may have been, this was not reflected in the country’s population, which bifurcated between an English speaking elite and a Sinhala and Tamil speaking majority. The elite’s failure to address these concerns eventually led to previous calls for the replacement of English by two languages being replaced by calls to enthrone one, Sinhala.

Yet writers, politicians, even historians depict the first 10 years of Sri Lanka’s independent statehood as one of high prosperity. Two reasons are cited: the elite’s consolidation of a multiethnic identity, and favourable economic conditions which, had the UNP-allied elite continued in power, would have taken Sri Lanka ahead. I have addressed the first of these assumptions above. The second requires more scrutiny and examination.

Commentators who note that we could have done better contend that the colonial office handed over a highly developing country to local elites, and that the latter, particularly those elected after 1956, squandered the opportunity. Implicit in this assumption is the belief that the Ceylonese economy had fared well under British rule.

It goes without saying that this was far from the case. The claims of these commentators, that the country possessed the best road network, railway service, and harbour in Asia, in addition to being “second only to Japan in terms of per capita income”, under British rule, are hence suspect: “The fact of the matter,” Avocado Collective notes, “is that nobody has calculated with any degree of accuracy Sri Lanka’s per capita income in 1948.”

The UN’s, World Bank’s, and IMF’s estimates for Ceylon’s per capita figures in 1950 stood respectively at 311, 326, and 331. As the Avocado Collective writers correctly observe, these numbers could not have been different a mere two years earlier.

The situation was thus more complex, and less rosy, than what these commentators would have one believe. Sri Lanka’s first five years of independent statehood were dominated by problems of rampant poverty, widespread landlessness, inflationary pressures, trade and budget deficits, and declining terms of trade. These reflected the limits of an economy that had been catered to commodity extraction to the exclusion of industrial and productive activity. They eventually came to constrain the country’s potential.

Contrary to those who think otherwise, the country’s plantation sector did not do much to improve the situation. In 1950 the Indian economist B. Das Gupta pointed out that with a per capita monthly aggregate national income of Rs. 30, the development of tea and rubber sectors had “not necessarily meant general economic development of the country.” Simply put, the country remained “extremely underdeveloped.” To top these problems, “only some 10 percent of the population” earned monthly incomes in excess of Rs. 50, no better than the situation in the 1920s. That in turn had opened up a huge savings deficit.

Trade prospects were even worse. The balance of payments fell from a surplus of Rs. 314 million in 1945 to a deficit of Rs. 196 million two years later. The recession in the US had been partly to blame – US imports made up around 45 percent of the total in the country – but so too had Ceylon’s forever precarious terms of trade situation.

Sri Lanka’s terms of trade had risen from 103 to 138 between 1938 and 1947. By 1949 they had come down to 131. Fluctuations in commodity prices contributed to these declines: a decrease in rubber prices from 60 cents a pound in 1948 to 54 cents a pound a year later, for instance, contributed to decreases in the terms of trade of around five percent and in the balance of payments of more than Rs. 52 million.

Making matters worse, by independence the population had been locked into consumption patterns which favoured imports. One economist estimated the country’s propensity to consume in 1956 to have been 0.8493, with a constant of Rs. 20.03. Marginal propensity to import, on the other hand, stood at 0.2516, with a constant of 11.74.

Six years earlier, H. A. de S. Gunasekara had pointed out that three-fourths of total national expenditure was being spent on imports. Very little was diverted to gross capital formation: while the figure stood at seven percent in most developing countries, in Sri Lanka it stood at a paltry four percent, even in 1948. This meant that the country lacked investment capacity, without which growth could simply not be sustained.

Industrialisation was the only feasible and viable answer, and that obviously required heavy State intervention, as was happening in South-East Asia. But all three UNP regimes from 1947 to 1956 dismissed such an idea. The first Finance Minister, J. R. Jayewardene, had been entranced by Keynesian prescriptions, but his high regard for Keynes blinded him to the fact that aggregate demand policies were, as H. A. de S. Gunasekara noted in a critique of the government’s policies, relevant to industrialised countries suffering from excess capacity. In Sri Lanka, by contrast, the problem wasn’t an excess of capacity, but a lack of it.

To give the first two UNP regimes credit, though, they differed from the laissez-faire, non-interventionist position that Jayewardene’s successor, Oliver Goonetilleke, would adopt. Moreover, right until the withdrawal of food subsidies in 1953, which sparked the Hartal, the government continued the social welfare policies it had inherited at independence. The latter, in particular, became a sine qua non of democratic governance in Sri Lanka, a legacy of the Donoughmore reforms: thus, while expenditure on welfare had absorbed 16 percent in the 1920s, by 1947 it was absorbing a more impressive 56 percent.

Generous as these schemes would have been, however, the government’s economic plans were seen as less than stellar, in need of much improvement.

In a critique of the 1950 Budget, G. V. S. de Silva accused the UNP of transferring wealth to the rich even while expanding welfare measures. The government’s attitude to the question of local industry, which had by then become a priority across South-East Asia, also came for criticism: according to one observer, the tariff structure privileged the filling up of coffers “at the cost of irrational treatment for home industries.” The situation was such that while tariffs on areca nuts stood at 100 percent, those on brushes and rat traps did not exceed 50 percent, though the latter items could be manufactured locally.

Historians like K. M. de Silva dismiss the Opposition’s regard for industrialisation as a much-exaggerated panacea for all ills. Yet, it was industrialisation, led by the State in conjunction with private players, which had spurred growth in South-East Asia. Regrettably enough, Sri Lanka’s elites did not pursue such a strategy, even in the long term.

Instead the first three UNP governments prioritised full employment, which meant focusing on aggregate demand. On the one hand, they oversaw huge land resettlement schemes, which Tamil politicians alleged were a cover for mass Sinhalese colonisation. On the other hand, they embarked on large-scale projects like the Gal Oya scheme, which the Left lucidly critiqued: S. A. Wickramasinghe, for instance, described Gal Oya as a white elephant that benefitted American experts and local elites rather than the people.

The government’s focus on demand policies distracted it from other considerations. It also compelled it to promote if not entrench unproductive sectors, rather than urging reforms on them by way of taxation or nationalisation. Indeed, as H. A. de S. Gunasekara correctly observed, demand policies could not work in a context where land and labour were being channelled for such sectors, prime among them the estates. As S. B. D. de Silva noted in The Political Economy of Underdevelopment, for over a century these sectors had been driven by neither science nor technology, but rather by labour exploitation, profit repatriation, and absentee landlordism. This was hardly a productive combination.

Not surprisingly, the UNP endeavoured to appease these interests. Disregarding Marxist demands to nationalise estates, the government went about imposing higher taxes on them. Yet this hardly endeared the UNP to estate owners: Das Gupta noted that the latter began repatriating their assets soon after independence, fearful of the State “lessening their prospect of profit.” Later, Finance Minister J. R. Jayewardene realised, rather dismally, that planters did not necessarily prefer his solution of taxation to the Marxist alternative of outright nationalisation. They dreaded both options, and wanted out. In its own way, that was as much a tribute to the regime’s failures as to its economic ideology, which reflected the elite’s preference to cooperate with, rather than antagonise, British interests.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com



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Features

Glimmers of hope?

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The newly appointed Cabinet Ministers leaves Cass un-uplifted. She need not elaborate. She wishes fervently that Dr Harsha de Silva will leave party loyalty aside and consider the country. Usually, it’s asking politicians to cast aside self-interest, which very rarely is done in the political culture that came to be after the 1970s. Thus, it is very unusual, completely out of the ordinary to appeal to Dr Harsha to forego party loyalty and do the very needful for the country by accepting the still vacant post of Minister of Finance. We are very sorry Eran W too has kept himself away.

Some of Cassandra’s readers may ask whether she is out of her right mind to see glimmers of hope for the country. She assures them she is as sane as can be; she does cling onto these straws like the dying man does. How else exist? How else get through these dire times?

What are the straws she clings to? News items in The Island of Tuesday 24 May.

‘Sirisena leaves Paget Road mansion in accordance with SC interim injunction.’ And who was instrumental in righting this wrong? The CPA and its Executive Director Dr Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu. It is hoped that revisions to the system will come in such as giving luxury housing and other extravagant perks to ex-presidents and their widows. Sri Lanka has always lived far beyond its means in the golden handshakes to its ex- prezs and also perks given its MPs. At least luxury vehicles should not be given them. Pensions after five years in Parliament should be scrapped forthwith.

‘Letter of demand sent to IGP seeking legal action against DIG Nilantha Jayawardena.’ Here the mover is The Centre for Society and Religion and it is with regard to the Easter Sunday massacre which could have been prevented if DIG Jayawardena as Head of State Intelligence had taken necessary action once intelligence messages warned of attack on churches.

‘CIABOC to indict Johnston, Keheliya and Rohitha’. It is fervently hoped that this will not be another charge that blows away with the wind. They do not have their strongest supporter – Mahinda R to save them. We so fervently hope the two in power now will let things happened justly, according to the law of the land.

‘Foreign Secy Admiral Colombage replaced’. And by whom? A career diplomat who has every right and qualification for the post; namely Aruni Wijewardane. If this indicates a fading of the prominence given to retired armed forces personnel in public life and administration, it is an excellent sign. Admiral Colombage had tendered his resignation, noted Wednesday’s newspaper.

‘Crisis caused by decades of misuse public resources, corruption, kleptocracy – TISL’.

Everyone knew this, even the despicable thieves and kleptocrats. The glaring question is why no concerted effort was made to stop the thieving from a country drawn to bankruptcy by politicians and admin officers. There are many answers to that question. It was groups, mostly of the middle class who came out first in candle lit vigils and then at the Gotagogama Village. The aragalaya has to go down in history as the savior of our nation from a curse worse than war. The civil war was won against many odds. But trying to defeat deceit power-hunger and thieving was near impossible. These protestors stuck their necks out and managed to rid from power most of the Rajapaksa family. That was achievement enough.

Heartfelt hope of the many

The newly appointed Cabinet Ministers leaves Cass un-uplifted. She need not elaborate. She wishes fervently that Dr Harsha de Silva will leave party loyalty aside and consider the country. Usually, it’s asking politicians to cast aside self interest, which very rarely is done in the political culture that came to be after the 1970s. Thus, it is very unusual, completely out of the ordinary to appeal to Dr Harsha to forego party loyalty and do the very needful for the country by accepting the still vacant post of Minister of Finance. We are very sorry Eran W too has kept himself away. As Shamindra Ferdinando writes in the newspaper mentioned, “Well informed sources said that Premier Wickremesinghe was still making efforts to win over some more Opposition members. Sources speculated that vital finance portfolio remained vacant as the government still believed (hoped Cass says) Dr Harsha de Silva could somehow be convinced to accept that portfolio.”

Still utterly hopeless

Gas is still unavailable for people like Cass who cannot stand in queues, first to get a token and then a cylinder. Will life never return to no queues for bare essentials? A woman friend was in a petrol queue for a solid twelve hours – from 4 am to 4 pm. This is just one of million people all over the country in queues. Even a common pressure pill was not available in 20 mg per.

Cassandra considers a hope. We saw hundreds of Sri Lankans all across the globe peacefully protesting for departure of thieves from the government. The ex-PM, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s answer to this was to unleash absolute terror on all of the island. It seems to be that with Johnson a younger MP stood commandingly.

Returning from that horror thought to the protesters overseas, Cass wondered if each of them contributed one hundred dollars to their mother country, it would go a long way to soften the blows we are battered with. Of course, the absolute imperative is that of the money, not a cent goes into personal pockets. The donors must be assured it goes to safety. Is that still not possible: assuring that donations are used for the purpose they are sent for: to alleviate the situation of Sri Lankans? I suppose the memory of tsunami funds going into the Helping Hambantota Fund is still fresh in memory. So much for our beloved country.

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Ban on agrochemicals and fertilisers: Post-scenario analysis

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By Prof. Rohan Rajapakse

(Emeritus Professor of Agriculture Biology UNIVERSITY OF RUHUNA and Former Executive Director Sri Lanka Council of Agriculture Research Policy)

There are two aspects of the ban on agrochemicals. The first is the ban on chemical fertilisers, and the second is the ban on the use of pesticides. Several eminent scientists, Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha (formerly the Soil Scientist of RRI), Prof OA Ileperuma (Former Professor of Chemistry University of Peradeniya), Prof C. S. Weeraratne (former Professor of Agronomy University of Ruhuna), Prof D. M. de Costa University of Peradeniya, Prof. Buddhi Marambe (Professor in Weed Science University of Peradeniya) have effectively dealt with the repercussion of the ban on chemical fertilisers which appeared in The Island newspaper on recently.

The major points summarised by these authors are listed below.

FERTILISER ISSUE

1. These scientists, including the author, are of the view that the President’s decision to totally shift to organic agriculture from conventional could lead to widespread hunger and starvation in future, which has become a reality. Organic farming is a small phenomenon in global agriculture, comprising a mere 1.5% of total farmlands, of which 66% are pasture.

2. Conventional farming (CF) is blamed for environmental pollution; however, in organic farming, heavy metal pollution and the release of carbon dioxide and methane, two greenhouse gases from farmyard manure, are serious pollution issues with organic farming that have been identified.

3. On the other hand, the greatest benefit of organic fertilisers as against chemical fertilisers is the improvement of soil’s physical, chemical and biological properties by the former, which is important for sustained crop productivity. The best option is to use appropriate combinations of organic and chemical fertilisers, which can also provide exacting nutrient demands of crops and still is the best option!

4. Sri Lanka has achieved self-sufficiency in rice due to the efforts of the Research Officers of the Department of Agriculture, and all these efforts will be in vain if we abruptly ban the import of fertiliser. These varieties are bred primarily on their fertiliser response. While compost has some positive effects such as improving soil texture and providing some micronutrients, it cannot be used as a substitute for fertiliser needed by high yielding varieties of rice. Applying organic fertilisers alone will not help replenish the nutrients absorbed by a crop. Organic fertilisers have relatively small amounts of the nutrients that plants need. For example, compost has only 2% nitrogen (N), whereas urea has 46% N. Banning the import of inorganic fertilisers will be disastrous, as not applying adequate amounts of nutrients will cause yields to drop, making it essential to increase food imports. Sri Lankan farmers at present are at the mercy of five organizations, namely the Central Department of Agriculture, the Provincial Ministry of Agriculture, the Private sector Pesticide Companies, the Non-Government organizations and the leading farmers who are advising them. Instead, improved agricultural extension services to promote alternative non-chemical methods of pest control and especially the use of Integrated Pest Management.

Locally, pest control depends mostly on the use of synthetic pesticides; ready to use products that can be easily procured from local vendors are applied when and where required Abuse and misapplication of pesticides is a common phenomenon in Sri Lanka. Even though many farmers are aware of the detrimental aspects of pesticides they often use them due to economic gains

We will look at the post scenario of
what has happened

1. The importation of Chemical fertilisers and Pesticides was banned at the beginning of Maha season 1 on the advice of several organic manure (OM) promoters by the Ministry of agriculture.

2. The Ministry of Agriculture encouraged the farmers to use organic manure, and an island-wide programme of producing Organic manure were initiated. IT took some time for the government to realize that Sri Lanka does not have the capacity to produce such a massive amount of OM, running into 10 tons per hectare for 500000 hectares ear marked in ma ha season.

3. Hence the government approved the importation of OM from abroad, and a Company in China was given an initial contract to produce OM produced from Seaweed. However, the scientists from University of Peradeniya detected harmful microorganisms in this initial consignment, and the ship was forced to leave Sri Lankan waters at a cost of US dollar 6.7 million without unloading its poisonous cargo. No substitute fertiliser consignment was available.

4. A committee in the Ministry hastily recommended to import NANO RAJA an artificial compound from India to increase the yield by spraying on to leaves. Sri Lanka lost Rs 863 million as farmers threw all these Nano Raja bottles and can as it attracts dogs and wild boar.

Since there is no other option the Ministry promised to pay Rs 50000 per hectare for all the farmers who lost their livelihood. It is not known how much the country lost due to this illogical decision of banning fertilisers and pesticides.

Recommendations

1. Judicious use of pesticides is recommended.

2. The promotion and the use of integrated pest management techniques whenever possible

3. To minimize the usage of pesticides:

Pesticide traders would be permitted to sell pesticides only through specially trained Technical Assistants.

Issuing pesticides to the farmers for which they have to produce some kind of a written recommendation by a local authority.

Introduction of new mechanism to dispose or recycle empty pesticide and weedicide bottles in collaboration with the Environment Ministry.

Laboratory-testing of imported pesticides by the Registrar of Pesticides at the entry-point to ensure that banned chemicals were not brought into the country.

Implementation of trained core of people who can apply pesticides.

Education campaigns to train farmers, retailers, distributors, and public with the adverse effects of pesticides.

Maximum Residue Level (MRL) to reduce the consumer’s risk of exposure to unsafe levels.

Integrated pest Management and organic agriculture to be promoted.

1. To ensure the proper usage of agrochemicals by farmers

All those who advised the Minister of Agriculture and the President to shift to OM still wield authority in national food production effort. The genuine scientists who predicted the outcome are still harassed sacked from positions they held in MA and were labelled as private sector goons. The danger lies if the farmers decide not to cultivate in this Maha season due to non-availability of fertilisers and pesticides the result will be an imminent famine.

The country also should have a professional body like the Planning Commission of

India, with high calibre professionals in the Universities and the Departments and

There should be institutions and experts to advise the government on national policy matters.

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Thomians triumph in Sydney 

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Nothing is happening for us, at this end, other than queues, queues, and more queues! There’s very little to shout about were the sports and entertainment scenes are concerned. However, Down Under, the going seems good.

Sri Lankans, especially in Melbourne, Australia, have quite a lot of happenings to check out, and they all seem to be having a jolly good time!

Trevine Rodrigo,

who puts pen to paper to keep Sri Lankans informed of the events in Melbourne, was in Sydney, to taken in the scene at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition. And, this is Trevine’s report:

The weather Gods and S.Thomas aligned, in Sydney, to provide the unexpected at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition, graced by an appreciative crowd.

Inclement weather was forecast for the day, and a well drilled Dharmaraja College was expected to go back-to-back at this now emerging competition in Sydney’s Sri Lanka expatriate sporting calendar.

But the unforeseen was delivered, with sunny conditions throughout, and the Thomians provided the upset of the competition when they stunned the favourites, Dharmaraja, in the final, to grab the Peninsula Motor Group Trophy.

Still in its infancy, the Sevens Touch Competition, drawn on the lines of Rugby League rules, found new flair and more enthusiasm among its growing number of fans, through the injection of players from around Australia, opposed to the initial tournament which was restricted to mainly Sydneysiders.

A carnival like atmosphere prevailed throughout the day’s competition.

Ten teams pitted themselves in a round robin system, in two groups, and the top four sides then progressed to the semi-finals, on a knock out basis, to find the winner.

A food stall gave fans the opportunity to keep themselves fed and hydrated while the teams provided the thrills of a highly competitive and skilled tournament.

The rugby dished out was fiercely contested, with teams such as Trinity, Royal and St. Peter’s very much in the fray but failing to qualify after narrow losses on a day of unpredictability.

Issipathana and Wesley were the other semi-finalists with the Pathanians grabbing third place in the play-off before the final.

The final was a tense encounter between last year’s finalists Dharmaraja College and S.Thomas. Form suggested that the Rajans were on track for successive wins in as many attempts.  But the Thomians had other ideas.

The fluent Rajans, with deft handling skills and evasive running, looked the goods, but found the Thomian defence impregnable.  Things were tied until the final minutes when the Thomians sealed the result with an intercept try and hung on to claim the unthinkable.

It was perhaps the price for complacency on the Rajans part that cost them the game and a lesson that it is never over until the final whistle.

Peninsula Motor Group, headed by successful businessman Dilip Kumar, was the main sponsor of the event, providing playing gear to all the teams, and prize money to the winners and runners-up.

The plan for the future is to make this event more attractive and better structured, according to the organisers, headed by Deeptha Perera, whose vision was behind the success of this episode.

In a bid to increase interest, an over 40’s tournament, preceded the main event, and it was as interesting as the younger version.

Ceylon Touch Rugby, a mixed team from Melbourne, won the over 40 competition, beating Royal College in the final.

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