Sri Lanka in dire straits: Begging bowl not a long-term answer

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It always amazes me how many people there are who never seem to understand that what they have done has contributed to the consequences that followed –Thomas Sowell

The headlines in the print and electronic media these days are depressing to say the least. They describe, in vivid detail Sri Lanka’s sad state of affairs. The Pearl of the Indian Ocean, the Granary of the East and formerly known to be an upper-middle-income country is today grappling with its worst-ever political and economic crisis, which has resulted in a shortage of foreign exchange making it impossible to import essential commodities such as food, fuel, medicines, medical equipment, domestic gas and fertiliser provoking large scale street protests across the country. Once a proud nation with its national flag depicting the lion as its centrepiece; Sri Lanka today is struggling to make ends meet because of the short-sighted, ill-conceived and arbitrary decisions taken by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his government, which is now compelled to beg for handouts from the international community to sustain the lives and livelihoods of Sri Lankans.

It is against such a backdrop that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe outlined his tale of woe underscoring the fact that Sri Lanka would need US$5 billion over the next six months to ensure basic living standards and that it was renegotiating the terms of a yuan-denominated swap worth US$1.5 billion with China so as to fund much-needed imports.

He told Parliament recently that to tide over the turmoil, at least for the next six months, Sri Lanka would need nearly US$3.3 billion to import fuel, US$900 million for food, US$250 million for cooking gas and US$600 million more for fertiliser.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said according to a Central Bank estimate the economy would contract by 3.5% in 2022 but added that he was confident growth could return with a strong reform package, debt restructuring and international support.

He said the United Nations was set to make a worldwide public appeal on behalf of Sri Lanka and had pledged $48 million for food, agriculture and health.

Meanwhile, according to media reports, the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP), in response to Sri Lanka’s food and nutrition emergency is said to be working on plans to revive the Thriposha supplement for children below five years and pregnant and lactating women, as well as the school meals programme.

The WFP is said to be scaling up its programme to include an additional three million of those most at risk and estimates that US$60 million will be needed up to December. 

Be that as it may, at least four more Sri Lankans died last week while languishing for days in kilometre-long queues waiting for petrol, diesel, kerosene and domestic gas bringing the total number of such deaths to 16. The government has to be held accountable for these deaths which have resulted from the unprecedented crisis situation of its own making.

More bad news for fuel-starved Sri Lankans is the statement made by the Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera that the country has virtually run out of petrol and diesel after several expected fuel shipments were delayed indefinitely.

Although he had previously given arrival dates and the number of oil tankers that were expected in the country, he has sheepishly admitted that these tankers carrying fuel due last week had not turned up while those scheduled to arrive next week will also not reach Sri Lanka despite a Letter of Credit being opened for US$90 million.

Once again it is clearly the case of people far removed from the echelons of power having to pay a heavy price for this crisis situation created by short-sighted policy decisions of a failed government, which has lost touch with the suffering citizenry. The best way to gauge what the people think and feel about President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his government is to listen to at least a cross-section of the tens of thousands of men, women and children out on the streets across the country. 

With Sri Lanka trapped in a quagmire — schools closed, public and private sector employees asked to work from home, the transport sector come to a halt and the cost of living soaring to unimaginable levels –there is little else for Sri Lankans to look forward to other than a bleak future with loads of agony, misery and pain.

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