IN DANGER ZONE
Sri Lanka’s ongoing economic and humanitarian catastrophe becomes a
full-blown political crisis, with the people taking to the streets in protest and a defiant government announcing an islandwide emergency in reprisal. Public anger against the Rajapaksas has turned the clan into
enemy number one.
A SICKENINGLY FAMILIAR STORY THAT HAS played out in country after ill-administered country, of government incompetence leading to citizen unrest and violence, in turn leading to more repressive measures, is now playing out in Sri Lanka. History has been witness to the endgame too in such cases: the people do not vanish as the story winds down, the rulers do.
The Sri Lankan debacle begins with sudden import restrictions imposed about six months ago. The reason was that the government woke up quite late to the developing foreign exchange crisis and acted in a knee-jerk manner that created fear among the people and distrust of the government in the market.
The situation quickly spiralled into a crisis marked by power cuts, scarcity of fuel and other essentials and rising public anger. The people vented their anger in online public fora and later in the streets, inviting swift and brutal reprisal from the government. At the time of filing this report, protests were swelling and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had responded with yet another draconian step: the imposition of a state of emergency in the country with effect from April 1 ahead of islandwide protests planned for the week.
A gazette issued by the government said the President was taking the step “in the interests of public security, the protection of public order and maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community”.
The problem began with the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna-led (SLPP) government taking its eyes off the economy and letting trusted but incompetent lieutenants of the Rajapaksa clan manage it. Nalaka Godahewa, Minister for Urban Development, who drew up a vision document for the SLPP ahead of the parliamentary elections in 2020, admitted on a local television show that because the government gave tax concessions (to the rich), revenue collections had come down significantly, by about 2 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP). However, there was no significant reduction in government spending.
In fact, government spending went up massively on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. Already, with revenue collections down and foreign exchange earnings dwindling, economists and nearly everyone who had followed developments in Sri Lanka were aware that the country was heading for an economic meltdown. Somehow, the government did not pay enough attention, except for replacing one incompetent person with another in a critical seat of power and enormous responsibility.
SHORTAGE OF ESSENTIALS
Sri Lanka imports most of its fuel requirements, apart from many other essential items. With foreign exchange reserves declining, the government was unable to import sufficient quantities in time and keep them ready for disruption-free distribution.
At the heart of the Lankan fiasco is the shortage of two essential fuel items, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and diesel, and the daily day-long power cuts as a result of the shortage of fuel needed to generate electricity. From March 31, the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) announced a 13-hour daily power cut. The same day, the CEB chairman, a political appointee, declared: “When God gives rain and CPC [Ceylon Petroleum Corporation] gives fuel, CEB can give power.”
The shortages affect people in every possible activity. A lack of fuel means inability to get to a place of work; companies cannot function in the absence of power; mobile phone service is patchy because towers suffer from power cuts; and the LPG shortage means an inability to cook meals at home in the most populous and job-intensive Western Province, where the capital, Colombo, is located.
NO TRUST IN GOVERNMENT
The shortages and the government’s mishandling of the crisis have meant that there is no public trust in the government. Hence, many people have flocked to supermarkets to pick up as much stuff as possible, forcing