Massive public backlash as crisis bites

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Sri Lanka’s Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa met a top IMF official last week, as the nation seeks a desperate remedy to its plunging foreign reserves, a sliding rupee and skyrocketing inflation. Rajapaksa flew to New Delhi to sign a fresh bailout package with India for USD 1 billion.

Last month, the country bought 40,000 MT of diesel and petrol from India’s oil major Indian Oil Corporation to meet the urgent energy requirements in the economic crisis worsened by depleted foreign reserves.

India also announced a USD 900 million loan to build up Sri Lanka’s depleted foreign reserves and for food imports, amid a shortage of essential commodities.

The Government says that Sri Lanka’s economic woes were made worse by the Covid pandemic restricting global travel and had dulled domestic productivity, and blamed the latest setbacks on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

However, when compared with regional peers, the decline in reserves appears to only have happened in Sri Lanka, while other Asian countries have seen an increase in their reserve balances; hence the constant trips to Delhi for ‘refills’.

Sri Lanka’s usable foreign reserves fell from USD 7,642 million in 2019 to USD 1,579 million by the end of 2021. 

This month the administration made some drastic changes, shed its ‘protectionist’ approach by allowing the rupee to float, sending the dollar price up to Rs 272.27 as of last week, and announcing the restriction of 367 “non-essential” items. It also formed the Economic Commission and then appointed an expert panel to advise that Commission. 

Power cuts are commonplace despite repeated assurances by the Government that there is enough fuel to generate electricity. The constant opposing views by Cabinet Ministers have become a public relations disaster and Cabinet Spokesperson Dullas Alahapperuma said the credibility of the legislature is being questioned as a result of contradictory statements. 

However, the credibility of the legislature is not just being questioned during those frustrating power cuts, long queues and wallet wringing inflation. A number of grassroots protests had sprung around the island during this time with some vigils in Colombo passing the 15th day as of writing. 

The protests have a level of intensity that hasn’t been seen in this country in a long time. There have been demonstrations in the past for increased salaries, perks, demands and red herrings of all kinds, but not in recent times has the stakes been this dire. This Government came to power with a huge mandate. The 6.9 million electoral votes have now come under severe lampoon, given the promises made on the podium and ambitious vision it projected in 2019. 

First, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya stormed Colombo on Wednesday (16) demanding the administration to provide solutions for the suffering public or resign immediately, while assuring that the mass protest was just the start in a series of agitations. Several unions affiliated to the JVP also conducted a large protest last Friday (18) citing the Government’s failure to manage the crises. 

Regardless of affiliation and creeds, we must not look at the tragic situation in the country as a time to gloat and disparage our fellow citizens but a time to rise up. A few days ago this newspaper carried a front page photograph of a woman who had collapsed due to standing in a 2km queue under the blazing sun to buy kerosene. On Saturday (19) the country shed a collective tear when a 71-year-old died while waiting in a fuel queue in Kandy. 

The incumbent Government is at serious crossroads at this point. If they continue to ignore the masses, they do so at their own peril or they can fix the situation and be known forever as the Government that brought back Sri Lanka from the brink of financial ruin. On the other hand, the Opposition should not act petty, but instead be the antithesis that drives the Government towards educated and beneficial decisions that will save the day.