Thinking outside the box | Sunday Observer

Thinking outside the box

5 February, 2023

Sri Lankans celebrated the 75th anniversary of their Independence from colonial powers yesterday, with the main ceremony at the Galle Face Green. It would have been inappropriate not to celebrate this landmark event as some quarters suggested, because this is the best time to inculcate a sense of belonging to the Motherland among people belonging to all communities and religious groups in a country yearning for peace and reconciliation.

Indeed, as President Ranil Wickremesinghe stated in his Independence Day message, the 75th Anniversary of Independence from colonial rule was observed during an extremely critical and challenging time in the country.

The country went through a socio-political upheaval last year that resulted in a leadership change amid an unprecedented economic crisis. “It is, indeed, a decisive moment. However, it presents an opportunity for us not only to review our strengths and gains as a Nation but also to rectify our errors and failures.”

Contrary to the recriminations of the pessimists, Sri Lanka has many strengths to its credit. We are a very resilient nation that bounced back from two Southern insurrections and one Northern insurrection, quite apart from the immensely destructive Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004. We have achieved Middle Income Country (MIC) status and our health and education indices are among the best in the world, sometimes on par with those of the developed world, thanks to free education and free healthcare. Our very diversity in terms of ethnicity and religion could be a major asset as we seek to move forward in the journey towards 2048, the Centenary of Independence.

Unfortunately, our failures too are legion. The biggest failure was failing to capitalise on our status as the second richest country in Asia in 1948 after Japan. The nationalisation program of the 1960s was an unmitigated disaster for the economy that drove capital out of the country. No action was taken to rein in corruption, which was rampant under almost every Government. And instead of uniting all Sri Lankans one under one national identity, our politicians on all sides sought to exploit the differences among communities and religious groups for their own political survival, which ultimately led to a war that pitted brother against brother. We are still trying to emerge from the embers of that war 13 long years after it ended, with extremist elements still striving to divide the communities.

One major factor that led to the current economic crisis is that as a nation, we have always lived beyond our means. We imported much more than we exported and our expenditure was way more than the income. Thus an economic crisis was imminent one way or the other. Alluding to this state of affairs, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as the Finance, Economic Stabilisation and National Policies Minister recently stated that the Government revenue for January 2023 was far below the monthly expenditure for January 2023. The same scenario could be repeated in the next few months of 2023 if we do not mend our ways.

As a result, the President said that the General Treasury finds it challenging to meet all expenditures at this moment, except for the payments for salaries, pensions, welfare, pharmaceuticals and debt servicing. The President said that Government expenditure will have to be curtailed or further postponed at least until the planned revenue to be raised from the recent tax revisions is realised.

For the first time, Sri Lanka has a leader who explains the truth and the reality to the public. This is essential, for the public could be in for even more difficult times ahead as the country slowly recovers from the present economic malaise. It is better to take the public into confidence at this critical juncture rather than telling fairy tales to them.

Indeed, we cannot be truly independent – at least from a financial perspective - unless and until we extricate ourselves from this economic quagmire. To do that, we have to boost income levels and reduce expenditure. This could lead to some painful policies and decisions in the long run. Local agricultural and industrial production as well as exports have to be increased while reducing our reliance on imports. As a country that imports everything from paper pins to cars, the time has come to seriously think of import substitution. We cannot completely ban imports as we live in a world that runs on free trade and some products cannot be manufactured here in any case, but our scientists and economists must identify products that can be manufactured locally.

Pruning our huge annual fossil fuel bill (US$ 6 billion) alone will help save a substantial quantum of dollars. While the fuel queues are gone thanks to the QR code system, the underlying problem of securing foreign exchange for fuel purchases remains. This can be rectified by giving priority to renewable energy (primarily solar and wind) and electric vehicles. It is also noteworthy that Sri Lanka is exploring the possibility of building Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) with Russian assistance to add power to the national grid.

It is also time to think outside the box and give up certain archaic notions. For example, education has become a big business globally and Sri Lanka could lose out by not permitting full-fledged private universities that can attract overseas students. We just cannot afford to cling on to the belief that private universities are somehow inherently bad. Likewise, there is a dire need for a paradigm shift in all sectors to turn Sri Lanka into a developed nation by 2048.