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To Leave or to Stay? Years of bad economic policy are killing the aspirations of Sri Lanka’s youth

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By Sathya Karunarathne

Overseas migration for work or study, seems a popular option for Sri Lanka’s youth. Central Bank data shows that in 2019 alone the age group 25-29 recorded the highest number of departures abroad for skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled employment. This age group also recorded the second-highest number of departures for professional, middle, and clerical level jobs. UNESCO’s Eurostat data collection on education for 2020 states that the total number of Sri Lankan students overseas is 24,118.

A significant segment of the youth population seem dissatisfied with the available opportunities and choices within Sri Lanka.The above numbers reflect their lack of faith in a better and safer society in the years to come. For decades this lack of opportunity was blamed on the war. However, even twelve years after the conclusion of the war little has changed.It is worthy to explore why.

How did we get here?

The island nation’s predicament was in the making for almost 70 years.Consecutive governments since independence have failed to successfully implement policies to deliver economic growth and better living standards.

Trade is the engine of growth but over the last fifteen years Sri Lanka has shied away from trade led growth. Although Sri Lanka was South Asia’s first to embark on economic liberalisation in 1977 and despite the relatively robust economic performance that resulted even during the war years, Sri Lanka began to move away from international trade and investment.

Starting in 2004 import tariffs were raised in an ad hoc fashion to finance a growing defence budget. By 2009 Sri Lanka had one of the world’s most complex import tax regimes made up of para tariffs, (taxes above custom duties) and customs duties. By 2009 the overall protection more than doubled from 13.4 percent to 27.9 percent. Sri Lanka’s import policies by this time were as protective as they had been 20 years ago. While Sri Lanka continued to miss the boat of economic globalisation our East Asian neighbours such as Vietnam and Thailand have risen to prosperity by successfully integrating with global value chains.

This was compounded by an increase in state spending and increased state involvement in the economy. Much of it is financed by debt. Sri Lanka’s state expenditure has ballooned. Due to excessive borrowing, the central government’s highest recurrent expenditure is on interest payments which were at 36 percent in 2020. The country boasts a bloated public sector. The Ministry of Finance states that 30 percent or the second largest of the central government’s recurrent expenditure is spent on salaries and wages. This amounted to a staggering 794.2 billion in 2020 an increase of 15.7 percent from 2019. The Economy Next reported in June that 86 percent of tax revenue went into salaries and pensions in 2020. Moreover, these salaries are only a part of the problem, much expenditure is wasted sustaining mismanagement, corruption, and negligence within some 527 SOEs whose cumulative losses outweigh profits.

Tax revenues have not kept pace with expenditure and the tax system is weighted towards indirect taxes. In 2020 of the share of Sri Lanka’s tax revenue only 22.1 percent was direct taxes with 77.9 percent being indirect. This is highly regressive as a large component of indirect taxes end up on goods and services consumed by the average Sri Lankan imposing a higher burden on low income earners.

Consecutive government’s reluctance to rectify these economic miscalculations through hard reforms have brought the island to a precarious state of high levels of accumulated debt with exponentially growing interest payments.The country now has a debt to GDP ratio of over 101 percent, while foreign reserves have declined to 2.8 billion- sufficient for less than two months of imports.Fitch ratings have estimated that Sri Lank’s foreign currency debt service obligations until 2026 amount to USD 29 billion. Sri Lanka’s debt is on an unsustainable path.

So what’s at stake for young

people in all this?

Sri Lanka’s youth sit helplessly as bungled policy results in the economy tanking, taking them further away from their aspirations, hopes and dreams. Labour force survey for the fourth quarter (Q4) of 2020 reported a startling youth unemployment (15-25 years) rate of 25.7 percent. In terms of education level, the highest unemployment rate is reported from the GCE A/L and above group. Although the labour force is educated their main source of employment remains in the informal sector. Nevertheless, skills gap and mismatches have been identified as a major obstacle preventing employment. For example, a 2019 survey estimated a shortage of 12,140 ICT graduates.A World Bank study recognised poor English language skills as another impediment.

In addition to this, COVID exacerbated Sri Lanka’s challenge of providing employment. Unemployment as a percentage of the total labour force increased from 4.5 percent to 5.2 percent between 2019 Q4 – 2020 Q4.19 This coupled with the country’s poor economic conditions will lead to more job losses in the coming months.For instance, with banks rationing letters of credit those employed in the import sector are in panic. Additionally, with prices of essential items increasing the demand for other products and services will decline as people are forced to deprive themselves of small luxuries such as ordering a meal from a restaurant to survive.This poses a threat to business operations and employment.

To curb the outflow of dollars the country has resorted to increased import restrictions.These unsustainable policy responses have robbed the Sri Lankan youth of the luxury to dream and to aspire. Purchasing a car and housing are two such aspirations that are slipping through the fingers of the average Sri Lankan. Vehicle Importers Association of Sri Lanka (VIASL) stated that the price of certain vehicles in the local market has increased by around Rs.10 million due to import restrictions.20 A 2017/2018 Wagon R which was sold at Rs.3.5 million is now being sold at Rs.6 million. Those building or repairing houses face difficulty as cement importers have limited the release of cement to the market due to partial suspension of imports and price controls resulting in severe shortages. This coupled with high tariffs on construction material will further contribute to making the construction of a house an illusion to the middle-class Sri Lankan.

Even the escape routes of Sri Lanka are closing. Students aspiring to leave the country for higher education fear banks may not issue dollars to finance their stay. Migrants are unable to take their savings with them meaning they face a much harder start in another country- last month the Central Bank issued a new order under the Foreign Exchange Act declaring limits on migration allowances26. Social media is swamped with infuriated complaints on price hikes and scarcity of essentials such as medicine in midst of a pandemic.

It is safe to conclude that young people have found themselves in a perilous socio economic fabric with looming uncertainty.

To leave or to stay?

If the government is to retain young people they must be provided with indications of stability and hope. Excessive reliance on import restrictions as a policy solution to the foreign exchange crisis at hand exhibits the government’s reluctance to implement painful but necessary reforms. Stability and hope lie in reforms the politicians are resistant to.

Increasing sources of government revenue, re-prioritising government expenditure, limiting intervention, relying on markets and recognizing the vitality of trade in a globalised economy is Sri Lanka’s road to prosperity. It will not be easy or painless, the accumulated policy mistakes of the past two decades require some very hard reforms but it is the only sustainable way out of the current mess.

Sri Lanka faces a serious crisis but it presents an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past and to rebuild the island’s institutions along with the hopes and dreams of the young.

Sathya Karunarathne is the Research Analyst at the Advocata Institute and can be contacted at sathya@advocata.org. Learn more about Advocata’s work at www.advocata.org. The opinions expressed are the author’s own views. They may not necessarily reflect the views of the Advocata Institute, or anyone affiliated with the institute.



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Eravur Fabric Park could transform sustainable textile manufacture in Sri Lanka

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Since the first announcement in June 2020, expectations have been high on the potential of the Eravur Fabric Processing Park to catalyze a new era for Sri Lankan textile and apparel manufacture.

Supported through the Ministry of Industry and Commerce and the Board of Investment (BOI) of Sri Lanka, working in close collaboration with the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF), the apex body of the apparel industry in Sri Lanka, the vision for Eravur is beginning to take shape.

Of the allocated approx 300 acres of land, fifty have been allocated for the Park’s maiden investment of US$ 35 million to establish a state-of-the-art fabric mill. Negotiations are also underway with two international companies to infuse mega investments for the remainder. The Park is estimated to attract a cumulative investment of US$ 300 million. The zone is also seeking further investments towards Dyeing, Washing, Knitting, Weaving, and other associated and ancillary activities.

Cabinet approval for the Zone’s classification under the Strategic Development Projects Act was also secured, enabling the extension of tax and other relief and incentives to investors.

Rapid progress towards vertical integration

“We would like to see the first company commence commercial operations in the next 6 months to 1 year,” stated BOI Chairman Sanjaya Mohottala. “We have been very aggressive on timelines because of the clear consensus on the nationally significant value that the Park can generate. At present, all land has been demarcated, and water and electricity supply are being finalized. In excess of half the commercial land has been allocated or reserved, and we are seeing great demand. There is clear recognition locally and internationally as to the immediate potential. If necessary, we are able to expand the zone even further.”

Leveraged in support of Sri Lanka’s highly developed apparel manufacturing sector, which has steadily benchmarked itself on global standards for ethical, sustainable production and high levels of technical and technological expertise, Eravur’s promoters also see the project as an opportunity for Sri Lankan-made apparel to take global leadership on sustainability in its most holistic sense.

Mohottala explained further that the most immediate benefit from the Park’s establishment will be in the cost advantages and enhanced economies of scale gained through capacity expansion and vertical integration of domestic supply chains.

Currently, Sri Lanka has approximately 300 apparel manufacturing facilities across the country. By contrast, it has only 7 textile and raw material factories capable of producing fabric for export, and for conversion into garments for export. At its peak, Sri Lanka imported over 250,000 MT of fabric both for export-oriented apparel manufacturing and for local consumption in 2019, at a cost of US $ 2.2 billion.

In the context of unprecedented disruptions across global supply chains in particular and persistent commodity and currency volatility, increased availability of high quality raw materials will enable an immediate and drastic reduction in raw material costs, while also conserving foreign currency.

Increased domestic production of textiles also translates to a higher percentage of domestic value. If that threshold increases from its current 52% to 65%, it qualifies for a larger proportion of Sri Lankan exports for zero-duty benefits under GSP Plus1.

The culmination of a pioneering national journey in sustainability

The economic argument in favour of investing in Eravur is bolstered by its potential to also be the most sustainable venture of its kind in the entire Asian region, with local stakeholders having already committed to establishing extensive renewable energy facilities, water recycling facilities, science-based targets, and circular business models.

At a macro-level, increased local production capacity will contribute significantly to all these targets by reducing the end-to-end length of Sri Lanka’s apparel supply chains. This in turn enables tighter backward integration and lower carbon emissions.

Taking a cue from the Sri Lankan textile and apparel’s industry’s outstanding achievements on environmental sustainability to date, the Zone is being designed from the ground-up to facilitate and incentivize sustainability in every facet of its operations. In terms of fabric processing, the main focus is on wastewater treatment.

Mohottala continues: “Sri Lanka’s environmental standards for industries are quite stringent, especially compared with regional competitors. A key feature of the Zone will be its central wastewater treatment facility with a sea outfall, which will require a high standard of treatment. Fortunately, we already have strong expertise available locally, with many of Sri Lanka’s textile producers having established facilities on par with global best practices on wastewater treatment. We have used this to our advantage by calling in the local industry’s technical experts and drawing on their pioneering experiences to optimize wastewater treatment protocols at Eravur.”

Adding that this will be one of many positive attributes all stakeholders downstream of the textiles produced at the Zone can lay claim to, Mohottala says, “With the greater localization of production, we also gain improved oversight and control over environmental standards within the Zone. This also enables greater transparency, traceability, and accountability across the supply chain, which in turn will confer preferable competitive advantages to Sri Lankan apparel exporters. In addition, this will empower brands and retailers to make clear and credible claims to genuine sustainable sourcing.”

An end-to-end opportunity

Another significant advantage for Eravur is that it is purpose-built with the most advanced environmentally friendly technology available. This will also promote efficiency in energy and water consumption, as well as additional infrastructure for recycling and recovery of water used in production, for which the BOI aims to provide investors with additional incentives.

Notably, Eravur also enjoys a high level of solar irradiance and consistent high-wind conditions, making any manufacturing facility established in the area, ideally suited for solar and potentially, wind turbine power generation.

“Augmentation of the Zone’s energy requirements with plentiful renewable energy will enable cost savings on the energy-intensive aspects of wastewater recycling. Given the consistent annual reduction in the cost of solar and wind energy, the conditions at Eravur are another unique attraction for investment into the Zone, and potentially enables the entire supply chain to utilize global incentivizes around responsible and sustainable production,” Mohottala said.

In addition to the wastewater treatment protocols, the Zone will also include a sludge treatment facility, with further trials already underway for responsible disposal. These include tests using micro-algae to breakdown sludge, as well as utilizing sludge to fuel furnaces and as bricks with a bio-mat mask.

The final and potentially most vital contribution which the Eravur Fabric Processing Zone is the empowering impact it will have on the lives of Sri Lankans in Batticaloa. At present, the district has an estimated population of 621,887, of which, an estimated 60,912 individuals are below the poverty line. As at 2019 – prior to the pandemic – unemployment in the region stood at 6.4%

“With the development of the Zone, we will be able to create thousands of stable, well-paying direct and in-direct jobs. This could prove to be one of the most transformative developments to take place in the Eastern Province in recent history,” Mohottala concluded.

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‘The insurance industry continues to drive the message of safety and optimism’

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The Insurance Association of Sri Lanka has been working overtime to ensure the smooth operation of the insurance industry with the objective of spreading awareness and inculcating knowledge on the importance of insurance. Similar to multiple other industries, in global and local contexts, the insurance industry has experienced its share of fluctuations with the onset of the pandemic and displayed its resilience to the resultant challenges.

Dinesh Yogaratnam, the Chairman of the Marketing and Sales Forum (MSF) of the Insurance Association of Sri Lanka (IASL), shared his perspectives on the marketing of insurance during these tumultuous times. He expounded on the ways in which the MSF of the IASL adapted to overcome the hurdles of the circumstances that arose during 2021, while promoting insurance penetration.

“The Insurance Association of Sri Lanka (IASL) is the industry body comprised of all the Life and General Insurance companies that operate in the market. The Marketing and Sales Forum (MSF) is a subcommittee thereof and as the name implies, addresses matters pertaining to the sales and marketing of insurance products and services. Further, the MSF also carries out various initiatives to increase insurance penetration in the country via education and knowledge-sharing. One of the major efforts of the MSF this year is to help the public better appreciate what insurance is. In addition, helping them understand how, when, and why they should purchase a policy, so that they may provide themselves, their loved ones, their assets, as well as their enterprises with the financial protection required, are key objectives.

“The MSF has resorted to using mainly digital and print media for its insurance promotion activities. Employing a two-pronged approach, whereby, the MSF under the IASL banner is carrying various pieces of communications on social media channels and is working with the country’s print houses and their digital arms to disseminate information and educate the public, the individual companies too have been encouraged to promote their products and services, as well as to carry knowledge building pieces of communication on their own platforms. Through this, we are witnessing a heightened level of activity and dialogue across social media channels.”

Giving further insight into the current insurance marketing landscape prevalent in the country, Dinesh Yogaratnam stated, “The insurance industry has grown in 2021 by approximately 14% in terms of Gross Written Premium as of the end of the 1st quarter; while long term insurance has seen significant growth, general insurance has contacted very marginally. As an industry, we are confident that the growth trajectory we have witnessed in the first half will continue to the end of the year.

“With the pandemic impeding movement, insurers had to very quickly realign themselves to front the customer both for new business acquisition as well as for premium collection, equipping themselves with various digital assets and recalibrating their sales teams to embrace a new hybrid model of interacting with and engaging the customer. From a servicing perspective; industry players have infused many digital interventions as part of their customer touchpoint strategy so that customers are able to seamlessly interact with them and obtain whatever services they require, regarding their policies. On the customer’s side, the pandemic has made people appreciate the need for a meaningful health insurance plan and they have also begun to appreciate the need for long-term insurance. The Sri Lankan insurance industry has always stood by society not only during times of normalcy but more so during times of widespread calamity and dire need. In this respect, the industry has come forward to pay COVID-related claims, irrespective of the fact that pandemics are excluded as part of insurance contracts.”

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SL’s Kithul-based treacle and jaggery for Gulf markets

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By Hiran H.Senewiratne

A local company is now in the process of venturing into the lucrative export Gulf market through its flagship product, Kithul based treacle and jaggery. Initially, the company will target the UAE market and afterwards other Arab countries.

“Both our products were introduced to the local market as niche products one year ago and are already exporting to Australia and several other countries, chairman, C-lon Kitchen & Healthy Foods, Rohan Wijeweera told The Island Financial Review.

‘The Gulf region is a lucrative market and there is a big demand for pure Kithul treacle among Arabs, which could be harnessed if we supply quality products, he said.

Wijeweera adds: “Now we have secured an order from a Gulf online sales company to market these products under the tag, ‘Made in Sri Lanka’ under the “Deegayush” brand and initially two containers will be exported to Dubai most probably next month. After that we will be targeting Canada and the UK markets.

“Kithul treacle and jaggery are made from the sap harvested directly by tappers living in border areas of the Sinharaja forest in the Rathnapura district. We have come to a forward buying agreement with around 250 tappers in this region, whom we also support by paying a premium price and also by some other CSR initiatives.

“The sap is then brought to our processing plant in Piliyandala where we process it. Kithul treacle is known to contain polyphenols, which are antioxidants, organic acids which are bioactive, amino acids that have many functions, beta carotenes that produce vitamin A and ascorbic acid or vitamin C that improves immunity.

“Thus, it is known to yield as many health benefits as Kithul jaggery. It prevents arthritis, improves complexion, alleviates constipation, aids weight loss and combats blood sugar. For nearly the same reasons as Kithul jaggery, Kithul treacle or syrup is witnessing massive demand locally as well as internationally.

“Today the demand for pure and natural Kithul products far outstrips the supply and due to lack of sap many local manufactures add sugar and other artificial sweeteners to the products thereby diluting the health benefits of it. However, we ensure not to add artificial ingredients and due to this our products are sold at a premium price from leading super markets under the brand name, “Deegayush”.

“Behind the scarcity of Kithul products there are several reasons, such as the shortage of tappable jaggery palms, fewer people being engaged in this industry due to the inherent risks and the profession not being accepted among the youth.

“Also less numbers are involved in jaggery palm planting since the tree takes around 7 years to mature before being fit for tapping.

“I am also looking at making Kithul treacle and jaggery from sugarcane, once again, targeting the export market as well.

“We are also manufacturing several immune boosters from locally sourced material. We next plan to introduce a curd to the market. More details could be obtained from, ceykitchen@gmail.com”

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