New Budget, Poor’s Only Hope

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Three salient points of Finance Minister Ali Sabry’s speech in Parliament yesterday were that “the present economic crisis will not be resolved for another two years, Budget 2022 was no longer realistic, with the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) hoping to present a new budget in Parliament soon, and income taxes were expected to be increased.”

Sabry’s comment, “The present economic crisis will not be resolved for another two years” has to be looked at in the context that in just two years and five-and-a-half months that this SLPP Government has been in power, the country is suffering from daily blackouts because GoSL has no US dollars to import sufficient quantities of the cheap coal, diesel, and gas.

And all essentials, from food to medicines and from fuel to milk foods have been astronomically increased due to Sri Lanka being an import-dependent economy, complemented by the rupee being subject to record depreciations in the review period.

But despite these price  increases, essentials are in short supply, leading to long queues, sometimes lasting as much as nine hours or even more, being  exposed to the elements, to buy these essentials and in a number of instances returning empty-handed.

Several queue-related deaths have also been reported with no compensation paid by the GoSL for the bereaved families because life is cheap for the present regime, a thriving black market played out in the open, bribery and corruption, steep rise in the cost of living and increased poverty resulting in numbers going hungry.

Discounting the steep price increases of food and milk food, the present regime has increased the price of a 12.5 kg domestic cylinder of cooking gas by 225.52 per cent (Rs 3,367) to Rs 4,860, Petrol 92 Octane used by three-wheelers by 144.93 per cent (Rs 200) to Rs 338 a litre, Petrol 95 Octane by 128 per cent (Rs 210) to Rs 373 a litre, Lanka Auto Diesel used by buses by 177.88 per cent (Rs 185) to Rs 289 a litre, Lanka Super Diesel by 145.52 per cent (Rs 195) to Rs 329 a litre, the basic bus fare ticket for an adult by 125 per cent (Rs 15) to Rs 27, with cascading effects on other bus fares as well.

In that context, Sabry’s statement, “the present economic crisis will not be resolved for another two years” is akin to Premier Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s statements, monotonously parroted out each New Year in the seven years she was in power from 27 May 1970 to 21 July 1977, by asking the masses to tighten their belts. Present Premier and two times President Percy Mahendra Rajapaksa is a protégé of Bandaranaike’s, having served as a young MP representing the Beliatta Electorate under that Government of hers.

Coincidentally, there is little or no difference between the socioeconomic environment that prevailed during the Bandaranaike tenure of office and that of Sabry’s Government of the present. Subsequently, Bandaranaike got her just desserts at the 21 July 1977 Parliamentary Poll, where her party won a record low eight seats, with indications that Sabry’s party may break that record in the Parliamentary Poll due in another three years, but not before suffering an even greater debacle at the Presidential Poll due in another two years time.

However, the other two points raised by Sabry in Parliament yesterday gives a glimpse of hope to the suffering masses. They were “Budget 2022 was no longer realistic, with GoSL hoping to present a new budget proposal in Parliament soon” and “income taxes were expected to be increased.”

A proposal to present a new budget was first mooted and agreed at the inaugural All Party Conference (APC) held on 23 March 2022 at President’s House presided by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.