Ex-CBSL Governor Dr. Coomaraswamy:
‘My generation has failed the country…’
By Shmaindra Ferdinando
Former Governor of the Central Bank Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy says the failure on the part of successive governments to manage expenditure since the country gained Independence has caused the current economic instability.
Throughout Sri Lanka had been plagued by a toxic combination of populist politics and an entrenched entitlement culture among the people, Dr. Coomaraswamy told The Island. “Time and again, the electoral calendar has undermined fiscal discipline,” Dr. Coomaraswamy, who had served as the Governor (July 2016 to Dec. 2019) said.
Dr. Coomaraswamy said so when he was asked to explain why he had advised the electorate to be extremely cautious in exercising their franchise during the yahapalana administration at a time when the national economy was in a much better shape.
Dr. Coomaraswamy was testifying before a Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) probing rampant corruption in the public sector.
President Maithripala Sirisena brought in Dr. Coomaraswamy as the Central Bank Governor in the wake of the second Treasury bond scam. Dr. Coomaraswamy who had previously served the CBSL for a period of 15 years in its Departments of Economic Research, Statistics and Bank Supervision. He had also worked at the Finance and Planning Ministry from 1981 – 1989 during the UNP administration.
raised the issues at hand with Dr. Coomaraswamy close on the heels of one-time Auditor General Gamini Wijesinghe lashing out at the Parliament for its failure to ensure fiscal discipline. Wijesinghe, who served as the AG (2015-2019) alleged that the country was paying a huge price today for electing those who pursued destructive agenda. Wijesinghe said that he felt the electorate lacked the political sense to elect sensible people.
Dr. Coomaraswamy explained that for many decades, Sri Lankans had lived beyond their means and got away with it due to generous inflows of concessional loans and grants. However, the situation had changed though those elected seemed bent on following the same policies, he said.
Sri Lanka should not forget that the country had graduated to middle-income country status and was no longer eligible for concessional assistance, the former Central Bank Governor said. “At the same time, there has also been a reduction in the availability of long-term lending from official sources. As a result, since then there has had to be greater reliance on more expensive borrowing from international capital markets. This is an entirely different paradigm. Increased exposure to capital markets and rating agencies requires far greater discipline in macroeconomic policy-making.”
The former CB Governor emphasised that the much-needed discipline could be achieved only if politicians understood the parameters within which macroeconomic policies should be set. “They should also have sufficient understanding to provide leadership in raising the awareness of the people regarding the most urgent need for fiscal discipline. So, it is important that Sri Lankans exercise their franchise judiciously to make sure the right people are in Parliament.”
Commenting on the responsibility of those who manage the economy especially at a time the country was in turmoil, Dr. Coomaraswamy stressed that large budget deficits led to what he called excessive aggregate demand, which fuelled inflation and exerted balance of payments pressure. It would be pertinent to stress that large budget deficits ultimately undermined the value of the currency.
Those were the main negative impacts on the people as a result of politicians not exercising parliamentary oversight of public finance in a responsible manner, Dr. Coomaraswamy said.
“There are challenges on many fronts. My generation has failed the country. It is now up to the young people to chart a new course for the country. I hope a sufficient number of the talented ones remain in the country to do so,” he said.
Dr. Coomaraswamy however expressed confidence in talented youth remaining in the country amidst reports of many seeking to migrate.
Dr. Coomaraswamy and Gamini Wijesinghe demanded immediate remedial measures to restore financial discipline as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa finally confirmed negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to overcome the financial crisis.
Former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank Dr. W.A. Wijewardena has recently said that Sri Lanka should have sought the IMF’s intervention in April 2021 during Prof. W.D. Lakshman’s tenure as the Governor of the CBSL. The government compelled Prof. Lakshman to quit in September 2021 to bring in the incumbent Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal.
Lanka on the brink of economic collapse: Prez seeks international help to overcome crisis
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, addressing the 27th International conference on ‘Future of Asia’, yesterday, called upon the international community to help Sri Lanka overcome its economic crisis.
Addressing the virtual summit, the President said that it was no secret that the last several months had been extremely difficult for Sri Lanka.
“We are currently undergoing a severe economic crisis, which has profoundly impacted the lives of all Sri Lankans, resulting in social unrest. The virtual shutting down of the tourism industry and the sharp decline in inward remittances from expatriate workers due to COVID19 in the past two years and increasing inflation due to other events combined with Sri Lanka’s high outstanding debt obligations to cause a severe financial crisis,” he said.
President Rajapaksa said that in April, Sri Lanka announced a ‘Debt Standstill’ with the intention of restructuring this external public debt through negotiations with our creditors, whilst simultaneously approaching the International Monetary Fund for a suitable programme.
“In parallel to these efforts, we have appointed a new Prime Minister and a Cabinet of Ministers with representation from multiple political parties, and we are fostering ongoing discussions in Parliament towards forming a national consensus on the way forward,” he said.
Given below are excerpts of his speech: “Sri Lanka is Asia’s oldest democracy. It is crucial that the solutions to our present national crisis are supported through our nation’s democratic framework.
“As we work through such solutions, however, we urgently require the assistance of our friends in the international community to ensure that our immediate needs in terms of the importation of essential medicines, food supplies, and fuel are met.
We are also in urgent need of bridging financing to restore confidence in our external sector and stabilise our economy until the debt restructuring process is completed and an IMF programme commences.
“Sri Lanka is grateful for the support provided by India, our close friend and neighbour, which responded with generosity in our time of need. The support extended by our other neighbours and development partners, as well as regional and global institutions, is also deeply appreciated.
“Japan remains one of Sri Lanka’s key development partners, and we hope that the negotiations now underway regarding bridging funds from Japan will conclude soon, and support Sri Lanka as we try to stabilise our economy and our nation.
“I appeal to the other friends of Sri Lanka present here today, to also explore the possibility of extending support and solidarity to my country at this very difficult time.
“A positive aspect of recent events in Sri Lanka has been the increased engagement of our youth in the nation’s politics.
“We have seen similar activism in other countries too, where the loss of confidence in prevailing systems has led to strong displays of opposition against governments.
“It is important to ensure that these systems undergo the reforms that are essential to their improvement so that future generations will benefit from better opportunities in education and employment, leading to an increase in their productivity.
“The grave difficulties facing Sri Lanka are an early indication of the long tail effects of the COVID19 pandemic, made worse by the ongoing conflict in Europe that may affect other vulnerable nations too.
“Supporting such vulnerable nations through these difficulties is essential for regional as well as global stability.
“It is therefore earnestly hoped that nations able to do so, lend a helping hand to these countries as they seek to overcome the very serious threats they face. An even more widespread problem that the world will face in future concerns food security.
“The shortages of food items and sharp increases in food prices likely to occur in the months ahead will place considerable strain on many countries.
“It is therefore essential that we pay attention to this crucial problem and prioritise agricultural production locally and improve our resilience in the face of this coming issue.
“Increased cooperation amongst nations will also be necessary to ensure that we overcome this issue.
“As we look to the future, it is no secret that even more widespread challenges caused by human induced climate changes lie ahead for the Asian region as well as the world.
“The adverse impacts of such climate change, including loss of biodiversity, water scarcity and pollution, degradation of air quality and ecosystems, will all contribute to significant challenges for many nations including in food security.
“Maritime security in Asia is another thorny issue that require serious policy attention. In addition to traditional security concerns involving the projection of naval power, many non-traditional issues including piracy, human trafficking, drug-smuggling, and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing continue to pose challenges in this region.
“Sri Lanka has a great interest in the security of the Indian Ocean region, and the protection of the sea-lanes has established a strong relationship between Sri Lanka and dominant regional players including Japan.
“Sri Lanka has responsibility over protecting sea routes, maritime resources and combating maritime crime over a significant region of the Indian Ocean, and we look forward to partnering with the Asian community as we seek to expand our capacities in these areas in future.
“Another enduring regional concern has been civil unrest, conflicts, and communal violence. Sri Lanka too has been marred by sectarian tensions throughout its history. I am of the view that policymakers must come together to devise collaborative regional mechanisms on such issues.
“Exchanging expertise and experience to build capacity in the fields of peacebuilding and reconciliation is essential. So too is the empowerment of the underprivileged, because this is one of the root causes of unrest.
“In this context, I respectfully submit to this forum that the core objectives and functioning of some existing regional bodies are presently affected by conflicts of member countries on matters relating to economic, political, or strategic interests.
“It is my hope that member countries will be able to overcome such impasses and work together in the true spirit of Asia to fulfil the region’s priorities.
“In concluding, I once again thank Nikkei for having organised this conference, and the Government of Japan for hosting this event.
As Sri Lanka overcomes its present difficulties and starts rebuilding for tomorrow, we look forward to constructively participating in future such events too, for the betterment of Asia.”
BASL, Opposition reject 21-A draft
The Bar Association has rejected the 21st Amendment to the Constitution that has been presented by Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, to the Cabinet recently.
The main Opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), too, has rejected the 21 A in its present form.
Addressing the media at the Opposition Leader’s Office in Colombo, SJB spokesperson Eran Wickremaratne explained why the SJB wouldn’t support the proposed law as it would further enhance the executive.
A spokesperson for the BASL told The Island that they pointed out serious shortcomings in the draft and the need to rectify them. According to him, the BASL, in letters dated May 23 explained their position to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Ranil Wickemesinghe and Justice Minister Dr. Rajapakse.
The JVP and TNA too have rejected the 21 Amendment in its present form.
The following is the text of the BASL letter addressed to the President, PM and the Justice Minister: “On the 23rd of April 2022, the Bar Council approved the “PROPOSALS OF THE BAR ASSOCIATION OF SRI LANKA (BASL) TO RESTORE POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC STABLITY IN THE COUNTRY”. In the 13-point proposal the BASL proposed the introduction of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution by repealing the provisions of the 20th Amendment and restoring the 19th Amendment, and the re-establishment of the Constitutional Council and the Independent Commissions which existed under the 19th Amendment whilst enhancing their financial independence, transparency, and accountability.
The BASL is concerned that whilst the 21st Amendment will restore the provisions of the previous 19th Amendment to the Constitution as regards the Constitutional Council and the Independent Commissions, there are several vital provisions which were found in the 19th Amendment which are not incorporated into the draft 21st Amendment.
The provisions of the 19th Amendment precluded the President from assigning to himself any subjects or functions. However, the 21st Amendment does not incorporate such a provision and as such the President will be able to continue to retain Ministries and assign to himself any subjects and functions and take over subjects and functions of any Minister. The BASL is of the view that the 21st Amendment must include a provision amending Article 44(2) of the Constitution removing the power of the President to retain Ministries and assigning to himself any subjects or functions. Such provision must be made operative as soon as the 21st Amendment is passed.
In addition, the BASL observes that the President’s powers to prorogue and dissolve Parliament are left intact, in contrast to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution where the President could dissolve Parliament only after four and a half years following a Parliamentary election. The BASL is of the view that the provisions in the 19th Amendment relating to dissolution of Parliament should be restored. In addition, the BASL recommends that the following matters which were contained in the BASL proposals be included in the 21st Amendment:
1. A provision for the members of the Monetary Board to be appointed with the approval of the Constitutional Council (in addition to the Governor of the Central Bank);
2. A provision for the appointments of the Secretaries to the Ministries, Governors of the Provinces, Ambassadors and Heads of Missions be done on the advice of the Prime Minister in consultation with the Cabinet of Ministers;
3. A provision to require Presidential Pardons to be done according to the recommendation by a body established by law, appointed by the President on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council;
4. A provision to enhance the financial independence, transparency, and accountability of the Independent Commissions.
The BASL further recommends that the number of members of the Constitutional Council who are not Members of Parliament be increased from 3 to 5 and conversely the number of Members of Parliament on the Constitutional Council be reduced from 7 to 5 as was found in the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. This is consistent with the position taken by the BASL in 2015 when the 19th Amendment was enacted.
The BASL calls on the Government to ensure the early enactment of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, as it is a necessary step towards achieving stability in Sri Lanka.”
Plea for debt moratorium to rescue drowning SMEs and saving millions of jobs
Around 4.5 million Sri Lankans employed in the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) might lose their jobs in the coming months unless the government stepped in and assisted businesses, Chairman of Sri Lanka United National Businesses Alliance (SLUNBA), Tania Abeysundara told the media in Colombo on Wednesday.
She warned that a lot of SMEs might collapse in the next month unless the government arranged a debt moratorium.
“4.5 million people work in SMEs. When we asked the Central Bank Governor, he said that he can’t assure a debt moratorium. He was worried about the banking sector. I would like to ask the governor, wouldn’t the banking sector collapse if the SME’s can’t pay their loans,” Abeysundara said.
She said that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had approved money printing to pay the salaries of government employees.
“When the government has no money to pay their employees, they can always print the money. What about us? Are we also to print money? Unless we receive a debt moratorium we will have to close our businesses,” she said.
Meanwhile, Treasurer of the SLUNBA, Lakmal Perera said that “once people lose their jobs, it is likely that they would come on to the roads and that will lead to a chaotic situation.
“We asked the government about this and they have no answer. There is no way that we can pay our loans with this contraction of the economy. We need an answer soon, when these people are on the roads the 225 MPs won’t be able to stop them,” he warned.
Vice chairman of the Association and President of the Vehicle Importers Association, Indika Sampath Merenchige also insisted that the government should talk to the business owners and give them a moratorium. If that did not happen, SMEs would be compelled to stop repaying loans.
“We give the government two weeks. We have employees that have been working with us for 10-15 years. They are a big part of how we have succeeded and survived. So, we can’t send them home. We have to somehow pay them. So, we have to stop paying loans,” Merenchige said.
Deputy Chairman of the SLUNBA, Susantha Liyanarachchi, who is also the Chairman of the National Construction Association of Sri Lanka (NCASL) said that there was a danger of a large number of garment factories leaving the country and as they couldn’t expect the cabinet that had been appointed to navigate the country out of the economic crisis.
“If garment factories leave, what will happen to foreign currency earnings?” he asked.
Governor of the Central Bank, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe said that the minimum economic activity would be experienced in the country in the next six to eight months.
“That means the economy will contract. We estimate that the economic contraction this year will be greater than any other time in post-independence Sri Lankan history. No one can bring down inflation below 30-40 percent in the next six months. People who are poor and vulnerable will be severely affected. Unless the government provides some support, the poor will find it hard to live,” he said.
Dr. Weerasinghe said that poverty levels would increase and when an economy contracted there would be a lot of unemployment, especially in the SME sector. (RK)
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