by Anura Gunasekera
A few days ago President Gotabaya Rajapaksa(GR), the first military man and, unarguably, the most ignorant in the ways of governance to occupy the presidential seat, celebrated the completion of two years as the eighth president of the Republic of Sri Lanka. The salutation coincided with the formal vesting with the Sangha, of the “Sandahiru Seya” in Anuradhapura, a project commenced during brother Mahinda’s last term as president. A towering stupa rising above the Jetawana and the Abhayagiri, ostensibly to honour the services rendered by the armed forces and the police in our ethnic conflict but, in reality, a monument to the Rajapaksa delusions of grandeur, aligns the Rajapaksa Family dynasty with the Sinhala Kings. A tribute to the heroic is justified but the supreme incongruity of conflating the quintessential Buddhist symbol, with success in a bloody military campaign, is inconsequential to a hegemonic mindset. The incompatibility was also ignored by the Rajapaksa-adoring Sangha, including the Anunayake Theros of both Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters, who participated and enthusiastically endorsed its purpose.
Notwithstanding a grandiose commemoration, as Rajapaksa’s second year in the presidency ends and the year 2021 draws to a close, the country stands mired in calamities on every public front.
The economy is in disaster mode. Foreign reserves which were at USD 7.5 Billion in November 2019, when GR took office, had declined to USD 2.8 Billion by August 2021. Despite Central Bank Governor Cabraal’s blithe assurance that the economy can be restructured without IMF assistance, and that wildly reckless money-printing has no impact on inflation, banks are unable to provide importers with forex to import essentials, whilst prices of basic commodities are placing them beyond the reach of ordinary consumers. According to most economists, in the real world, when money printing increases in a background of stagnant or declining national output, all other factors being equal, hyper-inflation is the certain outcome. Recent historical examples are too numerous to quote here. However, Cabraal, who is one of the architects and, also, a highly privileged inhabitant of the Rajapaksa Dystopia, is obviously reading from a different text!
For the last few months, in every village, town and city across the island, for the first time since the Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime 50 years ago, desperate citizens have been waiting in queues to buy the most basic items. There are frequent shortages of sugar, rice, milk powder and cooking fuel; very recently, suppliers ran short of kerosene oil, the only convenient and affordable alternative to cooking gas. Gathering firewood is not an option, especially for the four million urban population of Sri Lanka.
The government has responded to the foreign exchange shortage by imposing drastic regulations to limit dollar usage, declaring over 600 imported items, including mobile phones, clothing, household appliances and a range of foods, as non-essential. Vehicles imports are also included in the restrictions.
Prices of essential foods, vegetables and staples have seen an astronomic escalation during 2021, due to low supply, either because of import restrictions or, in the case of locally grown items, a result of poor harvests due to denial- through unavailability- of basic nutrient inputs, and disruptions in the supply chain from distant growing areas.
The pandemic has contributed to the crisis, dismantling livelihoods with some of the monthly paid subjected to wage cuts or layoffs, whilst daily paid workers are denied earnings through inability to access places of work or, because the lockdown has compelled the closure of many small establishments, which rely mainly on casual labour. As in many countries in the developing world, in Sri Lanka, the informal, small and medium scale entrepreneurial sector collectively supports more livelihoods, than either the State or the corporate sector. However, the Covid pandemic is only a contributory factor to an escalating socio-economic disaster. The government, through the implementation of a series of imprudent and ill-conceived policies, has aggravated the situation to a degree beyond retrieval.
Immediately after assuming the presidency, GR ordered sweeping tax concessions, which resulted in the diminution of government revenues by about 30% in 2020. These concessions were beneficial to a minute proportion of the population, which actually needed no such relief. They did not cascade to the ordinary citizen. Soon thereafter, to bridge the cash supply deficit the money printing spree commenced, according to some sources injecting as much as an additional 35% – 40% in to the economy, by mid-2021.
The pandemic Task Force was led by a retired army commander, appointed by a president unable to distinguish between the scientific complexities of fighting a virus, and the tactical requirements of assaulting an enemy garrison. This mindset was also compounded by an inherent insensitivity to the suffering of ordinary people. The mismanagement of the project in its early, critical stages led to an escalation of infections and deaths, especially amongst the elderly who were denied vaccinations at the outset. Successive waves of infection even led to embarrassing State sponsorship of miracle cures- the ridiculous “Dhammika Elixir” and the casting of holy water pots in to flowing water!!
Whilst people were desperately scrabbling around to sustain themselves in a setting of loss of income, essential item scarcities and other privations, overnight, the president decreed a ban on the use of inorganic fertilizer and agro-chemicals. All professional agriculturists in the country (the writer was one for over 50 years) and scientists in related disciplines, have pointed out the certainty of the disastrous outcomes from the implementation of this irrational, unscientific and impractical policy; the adverse consequences are already visible in the case of short term crops, especially rice and vegetables, whilst the impact on the long-term plantation crops, particularly tea, will very soon be evident in the form of crop declines, diminished exports and shrinking foreign exchange earnings.
The island-wide uprising of despairing farmers, beating and burning effigies of senior ministers and demanding a reversal of the fertilizer ban, was met with the promise of organic fertilizer as an alternative. The imported organic nutrient, apparently a mixture of sea weed and faeces- a second virus from China after Corona- was found unsuitable, leading to imports from India of “liquid nitrogen”, a product untried on a large scale in that country. One of the President’s responses to the anguish of the farmers was to declare at a public meeting that he could, if he considered it desirable, use the army to seize the farming community by the scruff of its collective neck and compel them to use organic fertilizer!!
The ban on the slaughter of cattle is a similarly ill-considered directive. Alleviating animal suffering is a noble cause but the consequences of the ban will be dire for several hundred thousand people. The cattle rearing industry is multi-faceted and interconnected. Milk production, beef supply and the supply of animal skin to the tanning industry go hand-in-hand. Dairy industry, which is essentially a small farmer collective enterprise, becomes unviable unless unproductive animals are converted to meat. This ban will disempower around 200,000 individual farmers island-wide, many of them Muslims in the Eastern province. The certain consequences will be the decline of local milk production, scarcity of allied dairy products and the unpreventable escalation of illicit cattle slaughter. That proverb of unknown origin, that ” The Road to Hell is Paved With Good Intentions,” is an apt commentary on both the fertilizer and cattle slaughter ban.
Younger brother Basil, hailed by Rajapaksa acolytes as an economic genius of Einsteinian proportions- despite the absence of previous experience and known academic background – has produced a budget reinforced by bloated statistics and unrealizable dreams. His disgracefully incoherent Budget speech, delivered in Sinhala, justifiably lampooned in multiple forums, was not improved by his rambling, garbled contributions in a subsequent English language interview on the same subject, with Ms Indeewari Amuwatte on Ada Derana. The questions were intelligent, precise and designed to elicit clarity. The responses were vague, evasive and inarticulate, by a man struggling to defend the indefensible in a medium clearly unfamiliar to him; at best a cringe-worthy performance.
A frustrated electorate propelled GR in to power in justifiable disgust at the dysfunctional governance of the Sirisena- Wickramesinghe regime, only to be confronted, in less than two years, with an ineptitude of colossal proportions. The enormous parliamentary advantage of a two-thirds majority and a presidency with unlimited power, the two moving in parallel rather than in unison, has paved the way for an economic and social disaster. It is an inevitable consequence of the 20th Amendment, which has expanded the powers of the President, whilst encroaching on the authority of the parliament and the judiciary. When the individual so elected believes that he is the sole repository of wisdom in governance – despite a total lack of experience in the field and a wretched absence of ordinary commonsense – chaos ensues. That is what we see everyday, in mass protests against moronic directives.
The only visible success in governance in Sri Lanka today is the inexorable onward march of the Rajapaksa project, which commenced during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first term and, after a slight hiccup during the abortive Sirisena regime, has gathered a terrifying new momentum since end 2019. It is conservatively estimated that about 64% of the country’s economy is directly controlled by the Rajapaksa family and those connected to it. In a country rapidly sliding in to an abyss where lies the bleak certainty of food and other essential item scarcities – including pharmaceuticals – widespread malnutrition, loss of employment and livelihoods, declining foreign exchange earnings, disruption to education at all levels and the disintegration of the society, the only glow in a leaden sky comes from the Rajapaksa comet. The State will surely fail but the First Family will surely prosper.
Unless a disoriented and vacillatory opposition quickly gathers its wits, firstly jettisoning the toxic Ranil Wickremesinghe and then rallying round Premadasa – not necessarily the best of men but the only possible alternative – the Rajapaksa dynastic succession, from elder brother to younger brother and from uncle to nephew, and thereafter to another sibling or relative, is a certainty.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected President by the convergence of normally divergent political forces. But, once elected, by-passing the legislature and other democratic institutions, he has chosen to govern through the armed forces and a collection of “Task Forces”, staffed or led by ex-military men, and other disciples and profiteers, answerable to only him. A spineless, collusive and essentially corrupt legislature has become a rubber stamp to his will. A reading of the two year performance report establishes beyond doubt that the “Viyathmaga” is the road to certain ruin, and that the “Eliyamaga” will condemn this country to economic darkness before the Gotabaya presidency ends.
Very recently, parliamentarian Kumara Welgama delivered a speech at the Diyawanna assembly, amusing, but brutally frank, in its exposure of the venality of recent regimes and the familial considerations which overrode national interests in decision making at the highest levels of governance, whilst highlighting the aberrant mentality that pervades the current dispensation. It was also prophetic in the warnings sounded to the ruling regime. Not one of his statements were contested. It must now be clear to all that when madmen are allowed to run the asylum, lunacy becomes institutionalized and insanity infiltrates governance.