Political solution needed to resolve economic crisis: K.D. Lalkantha

  • Govt. that cannot provide solutions must go home
  • Mismanagement and ill-advised policies caused crisis
  • Transparent, people-centric governance system needed
  • Better utilisation of existing social safety network needed
  • This year can be a turning point in Sri Lankan history
  • Reform process should be ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’
  • Everyone invited to join island wide hartal on Friday

By Asiri Fernando

As Sri Lankans mark another Labour Day, there is a marked difference in the streets. Today, the worsening economic and political crisis has spurred the urban youth and middle class to take to the streets, demanding change.

The protest or ‘aragalaya’ that has taken root at the Galle Face is a rare display of synergy among the different strands that make up the social fabric of Sri Lanka. Around this ecosystem of anti-Government dissent, the traditional ‘trade union’ movement backed by the major leftist groups have found common ground in the desire to evict the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa-led Government and enact significant changes to the governance structure of the island. The convergence of interest between the different strands of the Sri Lankan fabric may offer an opportunity to push through meaningful change.

The impact of Covid-19, challenges to global supply chains, growing disruptions to industry, tourism and agriculture, and the rising cost of living have seen many communities struggling to get by.  

In an interview with The Sunday Morning, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) Trade Union Wing Head and National People’s Power (NPP) Member K.D. Lalkantha said that political and social stability was a prerequisite to moving toward economic recovery, which was essential to address the issues faced by many State and private sector trade unions.

Following are excerpts of the interview: 

Over the last two years, trade unions from the education, health, port, petroleum, and transport sectors have protested over pay and administrative discrepancies. Have those demands been met and the issues resolved?

It is very clear to us that the current Government is incapable of providing solutions to the issues raised by trade unions. The Government has not been able to provide significant solutions to any of the concerns raised by any union.

Therefore, the trade union movement has now evolved its approach, knowing there is no point seeking relief or changes from this Government. Today the trade union cry has evolved to ‘send home the Government that cannot provide solutions’. The economic crisis, the ongoing political crisis, and resulting social crisis in this country have taught the trade union movement that without political stability, finding solutions for their issues will be near impossible. Therefore, we understand that political stability is needed to find relief for the issues we face.  

Given the significant rise in the cost of living over the last year, will the trade union movement be pushing for a State and private sector wage hike in the coming months?

In general, the issues faced by the working class are largely dependent on their pay. Other issues persist, but income remains a foundation to many of the core issues. Today, the pressing issues faced by the working class is the high cost of living. Therefore, we are constantly worrying about how to keep our children fed, how to keep them in school, and manage our families.

As the trade union movement, we understand that there is little scope to seek a pay raise during this economic crisis. It is clear that this Government cannot give the workers a pay raise due to the current economic crisis. They cannot also correct any wage discrepancies that exist. So now we need a political solution to bring about an economic climate which will help us to get some kind of relief. Therefore, the slogans of the trade unions and even the slogans of the farmers have changed this year. Until recently, the trade unions only had demands about their own issues; now they are seeking stability which will help solve everyone’s issues.

The Labour Day commemorations this year will see a marked difference in cross-sector public participation. As a trade union leader, how do you view this unprecedented change?

We think the hartal movement of 1956 had some similarities to what is happening now. The 1956 movement also had broad public support. What was organised then went beyond trade unions and political party politics. However, the 1956 movement had some political leadership from the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party (CP).

At present, we as the NPP have been trying to find solutions to the problems faced by the public. However, the recent foreign currency crisis induced fuel, energy, food, and pharmaceutical shortages that exist now are affecting the middle class and the urban communities, more than it affects the rural masses. There has not been a chain of events that has shaken the Colombo and city centric middle, upper-middle, and the affluent classes like what is happening today.

This Government, through its mismanagement of the State and ill-advised policymaking created an atmosphere that has pushed youth and middle-income persons to the streets for the first time. The impact of power outages, lack of LP gas supply is felt less by the rural folk who had traditionally taken to the streets with their issues. So, what we see now is a change where all communities, irrespective of class, are frustrated and have been pushed to protest. We have not seen a crisis that affected the upper-middle and upper classes of Sri Lanka before. Therefore, this year has signalled a significant change.

This can be a turning point in Sri Lankan history. We need to work towards it. We need to accept that the political culture in Sri Lanka has deteriorated to an unthinkable level. Today, the public has lost faith in the State apparatus, the Public Service, and the Foreign Service. They are also disappointed about the independence of the Judiciary. We need a major change in Sri Lanka to rebuild public trust in national institutions. We should use this opportunity to rid ourselves of the cursed Executive Presidency and revive the 19th Amendment with some modifications.

The elites of this country must realise that it can no longer be business as usual; significant change is needed.

What plans do trade unions have for today (1 May)? Will you join hands with the protestors at the ‘GotaGoGama’ at Galle Face?

Some of our unions and associations, student movements, and associated artists have already assisted the struggle at Galle Face. We know there are others who will join them. Although the movement at Galle Face began as a disorganised movement, at present the above-mentioned organisations are helping them sustain the movement. So, even though we are not present there as the NPP or the JVP, groups affiliated to us are involved in the movement. 

This struggle needs some form of leadership. It needs to be able to stop at some point when significant demands are met. Even if an interim government is formed, going for a General Election soon is inevitable. Whether we like it or not, the real change that is sought and the stability we need can only come after another election. So the trade unions will have to understand that too. On 22 April it was decided to hold a one-day strike on Thursday (28) which was very successful. 

On 6 May the Trade Union Collective will invite all Sri Lankans to join our all-island hartal campaign.  All these efforts taken outside by the public will be reflected within the Parliament. Currently, the legislation is in a fluid state, we need to closely observe and react to what is happening there.

What key demands are being sought by the trade union movement this Labour Day?

This year, we plan to have concurrent Labour Day marches and gatherings in four districts. The rally for Colombo District will be held at Kirulapone, while the rally for Anuradhapura will end with a public meeting at the Harischandra Grounds. Two other rallies will be held in Jaffna and Matara. We want to change the Colombo-centric approach to our activities and take the issues to regional centres too. 

The key national demand for this Labour Day is ‘let’s evict this ineffective Government and establish a more transparent, people-centric governance system’. I think this year may be a first where we have a singular demand that overarches all others. This is a special occasion. 

In addition, each trade union that will participate will bring their own demands to the Labour Day rallies.

How confident are you that an all-party interim government can be formed to stabilise the economic situation in the country?

There is talk of an interim government. However, the President and PM will remain by the looks of it. Therefore, the demand of the masses has not been answered. 

With President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa holding power, Sri Lanka cannot achieve the stability we need to bring about the economic recovery needed. Both the President and PM must resign. The current talk of keeping Gotabaya as President and moving on with an interim government is pointless. Even if the Parliament removes the PM, the President remains. I doubt that an interim government will work at this point.  

There are a number of constitutional changes that are being discussed at present. What changes will the trade union movement support?

The trade union movement will support a move to remove the Executive Presidency and to re-establish a parliamentary system which is accountable to the citizens.  

It is clear that some representations made about constitutional change are an attempt to buy time for the PM and President. Why not revert to the 19th Amendment with some changes? If the Parliament is serious about resolving this problem, it can meet more frequently and expedite the process.

Sajith Premadasa is trying to bring in a No-Confidence Motion, but their momentum is slow and therefore may not see the results they want. From what we can see so far, the proposed 21st Amendment process may be used for Mahinda Rajapaksa to keep his premiership for a little longer.

The question is why the parties within Parliament are not expediting solutions to bring about political stability which will be the base for a recovery programme. Why drag it out?

Sri Lanka stands at a fork in the road, with debt unserviceable and significant structural changes needed. As a trade union leader and a member of the NPP, what is your view of what needs to be done to bring economic reforms?

Today, the State sector and the country are facing consequences of ill-advised actions of successive governments. These are results of politicians acting in an unaccountable manner, in violation of the mandate given by the voters. The current economic crisis is the long-term product of such self-serving politicians. 

The newly-appointed Central Bank Governor Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe said that Sri Lanka needed political and social stability to move towards some form of economic stability. So, we need to first get those two in order and build credibility with investors and lenders to manage our progress. As soon as the rejected politicians vacate their post, social stability will begin to come about.

Based on the stability archived, Sri Lanka can look at enacting economic reforms. A new, stable government may stand a better change to negotiate a good plan with the IMF. Streamlining local processes and good transparency will be very important.

Many State enterprises are overstaffed. If the IMF programme recommends restricting, there may be job cuts. Will the NPP support such restructuring?

There is no doubt that the entirety of the Public Service needs to be restructured significantly. We must turn loss-making State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) into profit-making SOEs. Even the IMF will not question or interfere with profit-making, efficient SOEs. The IMF will call for ineffective SOEs to reduce the workforce or be restructured. 

This Government recruited thousands of degree holders, almost nine per Grama Seva Wasama (divisions). But they sit at the city and town council and do nothing. They are paid thousands of rupees, but they wait aimlessly at city councils doing nothing. So where is the efficiency in that? 

We need to ensure that our Foreign Service is given a proper plan to revive the State sector. Firstly, we must stop paying State employees their salaries based on the hours they work. We need to pay them for the work done or targets met. This is how we can make the State sector and State enterprises more efficient.  

At present, many State workers know that if they sign in and sign out, they will get their pay, so some do just that. We need to build an ethos that promotes a work ethic that empowers them to drive towards efficiency. The State worker must understand that they will be paid for the work they do, not for the time they spend at a location. If we enact such a system, the IMF and others will not have any issues with State enterprises. 

Another approach is the better utilisation of the social safety net. We have the Samurdhi scheme. Taxpayers’ funds are distributed amongst them, but what does it generate? Nothing. Those on Samurdhi will remain in the system if they are not motivated and pushed to pull themselves out of poverty.

Why not give training, life skills, or upskill persons in Samurdhi families instead of just giving them money? If one person from a Samurdhi family can be trained to get a skilled job overseas, they will join our expatriate work force and send home much-needed remittances.

The example for the State employees must be set by the political leadership. They must first depoliticise, be more efficient, end corruption, and be transparent. 

It is because the political leadership wished to keep the corrupt status quo going that they have not enacted the necessary reforms needed to streamline the State service and make it more productive.

The public outcry is for meaningful change in Sri Lanka. What key changes do you think need to be made to get Sri Lanka back on track to recovery and growth?

The public must be given an opportunity to vote into power a group of persons who are capable of eradicating corruption, malpractice, and waste of public funds and resources; to bring into power a group with sound policies and the will to implement them.

Such a group, once in government, should move to bring all stakeholders together, particularly the Foreign Service, and focus their efforts on improving Sri Lanka’s image and broadening economic diplomacy. The Foreign Service and Public Service should be depoliticised and competent and experienced persons need to be tasked with the key responsibilities.

Further, the full spectrum of the Public Service will need to be reformed significantly. This reform process should have both a ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ programme to ensure compliance and efficiency.

Lastly, we need to introduce our public SMEs to local and international markets aimed at export of goods and services.

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