Solution is Here… Not There!

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Public servants engaged in trade union action last Monday by calling in sick.  It was reported that over thousand trade unions participated in a bid to pressurise President Gotabaya and the incumbent Government to resign. They have since then threatened to continue to protest in this manner until their objective is achieved. 

However, to call in sick, when one is not, simply as an excuse from reporting to work, to engage in a personal agenda, is the very antithesis of those who are genuinely agitating for a system change that will arrest corruption, eliminate waste and strengthen accountability. The protestors’ call is for law abiding officers instead of those who deceitfully misuse facilities and privileges for agendas other than for the execution of the responsibilities of the position they are holding. 

Then, it is questionable as to whether the trade unions had adapted the correct strategy in this endeavour. We must ask ourselves if a disciplined society will blossom through actions such as these, that affect the country’s economy and inconvenience those who seek support and service from these officers. 

If we endorse this trade union action, then we must wonder at the kind of system change we are looking at if a public servant does not give his job and the responsibilities entailed with it due respect but instead prioritise his or her personal political views. Even if President Gotabaya and his Cabinet resigns today, how could the succeeding President and Cabinet function if government servants call in sick every time they disagree with that government’s decision or outcome or are ousted before their tenure expires?  

It could be a fundamental right for each of us to entertain a political opinion of our own choosing. However, when we hyper-inflate this right and make it our foremost concern than any of our other responsibilities then we have a problem as bad as alcoholism. Our loyalty to our political opinion is such that we barely see the real problem or its root cause. 

Root causes for current crisis

Bulk of our earnings are spent on debt servicing and most of the balance on imports to either consume or as raw materials for manufacturing. Hence, even the goods we export take half our earnings by the import of raw materials. Thus, industries have not developed laterally. 

This leaves us very little for development. Without development our income is limited. For instance, our main forex revenues are not from the educated population but from the uneducated engaged in menial tasks than intellectual work. Our professional sector, may it be medicine, engineering or any other that requires some tertiary level education, but which is woefully behind global standards. 

The main reason for our economy to buckle was that revenue from tourism was lost since 2019 due to the Easter Attack and the pandemic. Only now has our tourism industry begun to recover. Yet, even with tourism, we have always taken the easy way out by just showcasing the beach, wildlife and archaeology. We have made zero attempt to brand ourselves as unique. We ought to be ashamed when comparing the tourism industry in countries like Maldives and Dubai with their limited resources. 

Since we do not have an income to accommodate our spending, we must rely on loans for our basic needs and wants. This is the actual reality in Sri Lanka – we borrow to buy commodities for our day-to-day needs and then to service those loans. Often we do not have sufficient funds to service our loans and so we borrow some more to service these gaps. 

We had been running in this vicious circle until the pandemic hit us and took away all our meager earnings. As we scrape the bottom of the barrel and globetrot with our begging bowl today, to meet our daily needs and service out debt, we must admit to ourselves that we have been the proverbial grasshopper.

We as a nation are no longer industrial. Our cottage industry is in a pathetic mess. Those who are engaged in it are living impoverished lives. Its products are rudimentary and lacks imagination. The wow factor is simply absent and so is a cross pollination of ideas across industries. 

Conversely, we are heavy consumers. Sadly, we prefer imported goods and services than local produce. The cry for milk powder is a case in point. 

Milk powder was introduced in the 1980s with the marketing pitch that it is imported. Today, this is considered as an essential. None of the paediatricians nor the GMOA has come forth to highlight the harm and non-necessity of milk powder for children. Conversely, switching to liquid milk from our local diary farmers would be the healthier choice for the child and the economy. 

Solutions we need

There are two basic solutions before us. One would be to ensure that any borrowed money is put to the best use possible. Our current habit of using it to cover our day-to-day expenses needs to stop. 

Countries today cannot sustain their economies without debt. Therefore, debt must be handled as a currency. The loans we take must be put to work in the form of investments. Debt is certainly not a currency to play with as it can easily turn into a monster. 

Our current decision to halt debt servicing until we secure IMF’s support, must thus be carefully monitored. Anyone who understands the precariousness of this situation would not have skipped work for politics but would have protested over the extended holiday granted in honour of May 1st. 

The ongoing protests and the government rebels, now in the Opposition, as well as that of the Opposition’s moves, to take the President hostage, is stressing the IMF negotiations. With political stability a prerequisite to secure IMF support our current irresponsible behaviour can jeopardise more of the possible IMF support. 

We are running the risk where Sri Lanka would actually default the loan payments. This would severely undermine our nation’s credibility. This would be suicidal for a country like ours that cannot sustain itself without debt. 

The second solution would be to reduce our imports, locally manufacture goods that we import and make the best use of imports. For instance, most of our fabric is imported. Then, when it tears, stains or ages we ought not throw it. Instead, we must be creative with it and look into ways to repair or redesign it through embroidery, fabric paint or even with a snip and a stitch. If all fails, then we must make entirely new products with it as aprons, dusters and any other product allowed by our imagination. 

In retrospect 

Since 1948, every time we disagree with the Government, we on false pretence, take leave from work to engage in our political activities. There have been instances where we had even engaged in trade union action to decide if we ought to call for a trade union action. This is how we have misused a lever meant to empower workers’ rights for political gain. 

Lets ask ourselves how this penchant of ours to call for trade union action in the name of politics has worked for us. Other than changing governments what exactly have we achieved? 

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By Shivanthi Ranasinghe