Generational-debt conundrum | Sunday Observer

Generational-debt conundrum

11 December, 2022

If the Paris Club is discussing a debt-moratorium for Sri Lanka should China discuss one too? When Shanakiyan Rasamanickam an ITAK politician is claiming he would conduct a China-go-home protest until that country restructures Sri Lanka’s debt, it’s seen that this debt issue has becomes more politically loaded than we would have ever imagined.

However, we do not want to be the international football that’s dribbled between competing interests, and the last thing we need is for our fate to be decided through proxy battles. If a country is discussing debt-moratoriums for us of course we will take it to be a good tiding any time, and there should be no second guessing that.

But we wouldn’t want to be the object of an international tug o’ war. The Paris Club debt-moratorium for Sri Lanka, if it materialises, would be a boon and even if we do not know the details of what’s envisaged, it does sound good as a sign of hope.

If we can leave less debt for the next generation of Sri Lankans, that would be this generation’s great achievement. It is sad that we have come to this.

It is sad that debt is the final gauge by which we determine how much we are assisting the next lot that would follow us. It shouldn’t have been like this. The next generation should have been left a fantastic legacy that we could be proud of. Instead we are happy if we leave a fraction less debt that they have to repay other countries.

But this has become the norm in Sri Lankan politics. Each succeeding generation has left progressively less for the next one. How did this become the acceptable practice?


Post-independence, in those immediate halcyon years after 1948, the analysis was that politicians were idealists who did nothing and squandered the chances we had.

We say now while looking in the rear view mirror, that they were great folk who had a vision for the days ahead, except that the idea they had for the future was never achievable because it was too much pie in the sky.

They say that about the politicians of the Left, the NMs, Colvins and others of that time who were educated and seen as the emerging stars in their time, but were eventually a huge disappointment in terms of whatever they achieved.

But there is also this refrain about each generation that preceded the one that’s calling the shots at a given moment in time. Sri Lankans always say ‘those were the days, because they were honest’.

The Colvin era politicians are seen as having been too idealistic as to leave nothing in terms of legacy, but they are also seen as being totally incorruptible and perfect exemplars for good governance.

So was it that those who came after them thought idealism doesn’t pay and took several more chances, and became corrupt in the process? That’s being far too charitable, but there is something to be said about a set of politicians that were trained to think that idealism doesn’t pay.

This was a legacy, and call it good or bad, the lesson inculcated by the honest politicians of an earlier era was that hoping for utopia and setting about achieving it through all the flawed means doesn’t work. So the generations that followed took their chances and when they did, there was more room for corruption as well. Or maybe they were just corrupt and took their chances because being corrupt meant they had to take more risks to continue their habit of making money from politics.

But either way it’s high time this pattern changed. The next generation cannot and should not always curse the one before it while curiously also calling the previous generation at least a little less corrupt. The first-post independence generation was referred to as being squeaky clean for instance.

The generations that followed were seen as becoming corrupted progressively but each preceding generation looks back with satisfaction to say “at least though we didn’t leave them anything in terms of legacy, we were less corrupt”.

If a given generation doesn’t leave much by way of legacy it’s hardly possible for those of that time to expect the next generation not to be corrupt. It could be argued that things became so bad that there were some who saw corruption as the only way out for themselves and their lot.

Of course that’s a dangerous way to see things. Corruption is rotten and there is absolutely no way in which it could be justified. But if corruption is taken to be the norm at a given time and if a generation feels it’s outdoing it’s forerunners in terms of corruption and graft, that’s not the model generation that ought to be complaining that their fathers left them no legacy.

But that’s precisely what’s happening time and time again in this country. Those who follow are often seen as more profligate, more corrupt and more self-centred.

But they are also seen as being entitled to roundly slander the previous generation for being ineffectual.

What’s sad is that there is more than a modicum of truth to the way in which each generation perceives the other. If our forerunners feel that we as a generation have spawned more corruption, then of course those folk who feel that way are right. But if this generation feels the previous one did nothing worthwhile and squandered their chance at nation-building, then probably any current lot that feels that way is correct in their estimation too.

What’s obvious is that we as a nation are set in a pattern. It’s up to the politicians of today to get us out of this chokehold that we have got used to so that this can be the first generation since independence that those who follow would be able to look up to.

Maybe we could begin with debt-restructuring. Truth be told, as things stand the children of today would be extremely glad if we do just one thing, and one thing only, which is to reduce the quantum of debt they have to honour when they are in charge.

Just this one accomplishment — if it can be called an accomplishment — of reducing debt would be enough of a legacy that the next generation would be grateful for. We may be morally indebted to the Paris Club or any mix of nations that reduce our debt component, but that’s far better than our being in debt up to our gills to countries in dollar terms.


Let the debt-moratorium talks begin in earnest. Notice that moratorium is the operative word and not ‘restructuring’. Shanakiyan Rasamanickam says he will get on the streets if China doesn’t restructure debt. Someone may say there are enough people protesting in the streets in China these days for the Chinese to bother about people competing for their attention in other countries. The reader’s stand on what Shanakiyan wants to do may differ according to his or her approach to issues, but this much is certain no matter who wants to protest, irrespective of the different stands taken by nations with regard to debt — be it a moratorium or a strict no restructuring policy — we are essentially at their mercy.

Therefore, the generations that got us in debt would be the ones that would be cursed the loudest. The ones that one way or the other would reduce that debt burden would be the heroes of today’s children who would be the leaders of this country one day.


What’s the guarantee that the next generations would not get us in debt? It doesn’t mean that not one dollar would be borrowed — it means simply that our debt component should be sustainable, or that in future we cut our coat strictly according to our cloth.

If this cannot be done and if next generations cannot be trusted to do it either, we would have to legislate it. That’s another legacy that this generation could bequeath — a policy that requires strict parliamentary control over the incurring more debt.

It’s curious that in this country no politician seems to think in terms of legacy. There are nations in which legacy is very important to policymakers. Politicians and public servants want to look good in the eyes of future generations. Ours has been a policy of ‘let them curse us, because we are looking after our own for the next eight generations to come.”

If there is another legacy we can leave it’s to change this thinking of seeing legacy issues as being unimportant. Let politicians and a nation’s other elders be aware that if they are cursed by future generations their immediate progeny would also be cursed, and worse. Let them know therefore that legacy is indeed far more important than they now seem to think it is.