Ifs and buts of inflation | Sunday Observer

Ifs and buts of inflation

6 August, 2023

People raise funds for good causes, such as providing wheelchairs to the differently-abled. Then they’d make a big show — maybe a song and dance — at a wheelchair presentation ceremony. They end up taking dozens of photographs with the recipients, and disseminate same through social media.

After the event, they would retire to a massive repast at the nearest five-star hotel or resort. That’s empathy, and it goes for situations such as soup-kitchens that benefit the poor, and wheelchair presentations and so on.

Corporate entities are reputed to have budgets that run into the tens of millions for CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) projects, but who has monitored which percentage of the money for these activities accrues to the beneficiaries and what percentage goes for purposes of publicity, and for the tamashas connected to the actual event?

It’s one thing to ensure that targeted groups such as the physically impaired or the terminally ill qualify for certain benefits. These folk have traditionally been helped by organisations and individual philanthropists dedicated to their causes.

But it’s an entirely different matter when entire communities fall below the poverty line.

To what extent is it happening in Sri Lanka today? The increased tariffs on electricity and now the impending water-tariff hike and general inflation have all radically interfered — and will interfere — with the purchasing power of the average worker or the average professional on a company’s payroll. How do such people survive?


They say the economy has improved and no doubt economic activity has visibly picked up. It means more jobs are being created and at least jobs lost due to pandemic-related inactivity are coming back. Though this is certainly an improvement, it hasn’t stopped families from sliding below the poverty line. More jobs doesn’t necessarily make a dent in inflation, and is no answer to jacked-up utility rates.

Who is keeping a tab on any of this? Globally there is no poverty alleviation agenda. There is a push towards preventing global warming, and of course it may be true that the poor are impacted unfairly from the repercussions of catastrophic climate change. But, poverty or its prevention is not spoken about with the same zeal.

On the contrary, the so-called neo-liberal agenda has ensured that poverty alleviation is mostly a dead letter. In most countries, their politics have congealed over a certain position, which is that poverty alleviation allows for freebooting on the State and should therefore be discouraged as a matter of official national policy.

The UK is the best example of this situation. For years now Conservative governments in particular have made it a political article of faith to make cuts to social welfare.

Politicians in the country have therefore taken the scalpel to everything from support for the arts, and healthcare, with aspects such as mental-healthcare suffering in particular.

Families that have depended on social welfare due to breadwinners being disabled or facing temporary loss of jobs for instance, have had State support cut off in some instances, and stories of such drastic action amounting to social-engineering and radical social reform, have been legion.

There has no doubt been more than a modicum of truth to the fact that some bone lazy opportunists had made use of social welfare to make a livelihood courtesy the generosity of the State.

This not only has an impact on the economy — though not very significant — but also has had the effect of making social polarisations and resentments rather pronounced. Middle-class taxpayers in England grew resentful of the fact that they had to ‘pick the tab’ for those who had chosen to make a living off welfare benefits.


But if cuts are made, these incisions — in sum effect — should not walk away with the safety net that’s in place to protect down-at-luck citizens from having to bear the brunt of adverse circumstances, sometimes not of their own making.

But safety nets are off the agenda in most so-called far right countries these days. But that perspective is unfair from a right-wing perspective too, because right or leftwing, all governments in many parts of the world have tried substantially to dismantle the social safety net.

In Sri Lanka, it’s not so much a question of institutionalised social safety nets being meddled with, as it is a case of the poor getting sidelined — ignored is a harsh word, but accurate — in the race for recovery from an economic meltdown.

Nobody talks of poverty, and everyone talks of recovery. The seminar-room experts speak of a quick-recovery, replete with figures, and they may be right that such a turnaround at least of sorts has happened perhaps faster than most expected.

But like the soup-kitchen social reformers, they prefer to briefly dwell on the figures and not talk about the people who all this is supposed to be impacting. The rich talk about their own perspective on poverty — and frequently lament about Scotch they cannot savour now, as they used to.

Real poverty figures are rarely looked at in real time. Of course a lot of the rich have seen their fortunes decline, and a lot of them are also dealing with debt mostly as a direct result of the fallout from the meltdown of 2022.

But the Social Responsibility (CSR) types have lapsed onto the default position of most capitalists.

They may have initiated any amount of CSR programs, but most businessmen from the Kade Mudalali to the top-echelon entrepreneur have refused to pass on the benefits of some of the recent price reductions to the consumer.

The price of gas came down serially, but most consumers do not see food prices reducing.

The authorities cannot easily enforce price-reduction benefits. But if they have depended on the good sense of capitalists to pass down the benefits of price-reductions that came after last year’s meltdown, that has not happened. They see some brands of biscuits having their retail prices reduced with the manufacturers making a massive big deal of it with price-reduction labels emblazoning their products.

But that’s about it. Consumers don’t see many other capitalists either in the food industry or elsewhere passing down benefits of price adjustments to the consumer.

The capitalist may argue that there are no benefits to pass along. They have to pay exponentially raised taxes and in turn have to pay more for everything from electricity, to office rentals due to increased charges resulting from general inflation.


But is there anyone checking? The most recent report is that headline inflation has decreased significantly in the past month or so. Headline inflation declined to 12 percent in June from 25 percent in May, but coming after months or over a year of high inflation in 2022, the decrease in headline inflation, though a good portend, doesn’t either change the reality or the prospects of many ordinary people, who still substantially feel the squeeze.

Of course, the decrease in headline inflation is really good news for everyone who wanted to see a turnaround, and wanted to see it fast.

But therein in a way, lies the paradox. The more the news gets better the more the elites rejoice with their hurrahs, which brings on a natural tendency to ignore those who have been grappling with serial hits, with months and months of headline inflation peaking, or hitting all- time highs serially in the not so distant past.

It may be cliché, but this is where it can be said with some conviction, ‘statistics, damn lies and statistics.’ It’s not to suggest in any way that the headline inflation numbers are wrong or tampered with. They are very probably spot-on accurate. But the unfortunate ‘misrepresentation’ is the fact that these stats indicate a reality most ordinary people, middle-class or below, can hardly relate to.

It’s as if you’ve gone to the poverty-seminar for which no poor people are invited, and are now enjoying the wine and the finger-food at the after-party, while everybody is bustling about for the all important selfie.

It’s always easier to draw the curtain and conceal those pesky underprivileged types, eh what? However, at best, for the elite and the important, the hoipolloi/rabble are an inconvenient truth, ignored at the former’s peril.