A transformative plan | Sunday Observer

A transformative plan

4 June, 2023

Sri Lankan leaders rarely take the public into their confidence. Transparency and accountability are two words that are not usually found in their vocabulary. But at least, Sri Lankans have found a leader who excels on both these fronts.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose Presidency will mark the one year milestone next month, has kept the public abreast of the latest developments every few weeks, ever since he became Prime Minister last year.  He has continued this practice after becoming the President. Remarkably, at no time did he try to hide the truth or take popular decisions just for the sake of collecting some potential votes.

On the other hand, he always told the people how difficult it would be for Sri Lanka to emerge out of the debilitating economic crisis. And he has maintained transparency in all the actions he took for uplifting the economy. And there is no doubt that he has achieved a remarkable turnaround in just one year from the dark days of mid-2022.

Most Sri Lankan politicians rarely think beyond the next election. Again, President Wickremesinghe has made a difference by presenting a roadmap that would make Sri Lanka a developed nation by 2048, which is around 25 years away. It is not impossible to reach developed status in just one generation, as shown by several countries in our region. However, it is vital that these policies stay in place in spite of any change in Government. The President has addressed this issue as well, by proposing a solution that would ‘seal’ such national importance policies and projects, regardless of who or what party is in power. If such a mechanism existed previously, the Light Rail Transit (LRT) cancellation fiasco could have been avoided.

The President addressed these and other myriad challenges facing Sri Lanka in a wide-ranging speech he made on Thursday, presenting the National Transformation Roadmap (NTR), with 2048 (the 100th anniversary of Independence) as the due date. This will be based on four primary pillars: fiscal and financial reforms, investment drive, social protection and governance, and State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) transformation. Sri Lanka has also gained the trust of the international community on the financial front even ahead of the debt restructuring process, judging by the aid extended by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) etc.

As the President rightly said, some reforms may not be popular. However, it is only by pursuing policies that are right and difficult that Sri Lanka can uplift her economy once again. For example, there is no question that the tax net has to be widened – that measure alone has added an extra Rs.210 billion to the coffers so far.

Likewise, there were protests and agitations over the proposed restructuring of a number of SOEs including the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC), Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), and SriLankan Airlines that continue to drain the Exchequer. But the public purse can no longer absorb their massive losses.

Unfortunately, this reform effort is being labelled by some groups as “selling off the country”. It is time to end such petty politicking, in the larger interests of the nation. As the President said, if we fail to align our economy with the modern world and the latest trends in technology, we will regress.

Thus the proposed economic reforms are essential since rebuilding a bankrupt nation cannot be achieved by using traditional methods. We must adopt a fresh approach and embark on a new journey of transformation. It is also vital that corruption be eliminated in this journey, through the proposed Anti-Corruption Bill and other steps. After all, it is well-known that corruption is rife in SOEs and many other institutions.      

Although not mentioned specifically, the President hinted at a circular economy which will make maximum use of our existing, locally-sourced resources without relying too much on imports.

We have to increase the local production in terms of agriculture and industry. It has been observed that Sri Lanka is far too dependent on imported fossil fuel and renewable energy, as mentioned by the President, could be a long-term answer. Once car imports resume perhaps next year, only electric cars should be permitted to reduce the demand for fuel. He also alluded to Green Hydrogen, which is gaining traction worldwide.

In fact, during another discussion held after this speech was delivered, the President has stressed the importance of “Green Growth” for a sustainable future. Every initiative taken for economic growth must also align with goals that would ensure environmental protection and minimise Climate Change, which poses an existential threat to coastal nations such as Sri Lanka and the Maldives with a projected sea level rise if Global Warming continues at current rates. Sri Lanka hopes to be a centre for global studies on this subject with the proposed Climate Change University, to be established in Colombo next year. Through the University’s research activities, Sri Lanka can hope to be a focal point to bring the world together as it lays a firm foundation towards 2048.