Sri Lanka has become ‘Q-Lanka’

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In Post-independence Sri Lankan history, significant events have happened in the month of May. Assassination of former Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premdasa and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandhi happened in May. The LTTE war came to an end in May 2009. May 2022 would become significant in Sri Lankan history for the resignation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapapaksa and the violent events that unfolded surrounding his resignation on 9 May.

Another significant development in  May 2022, or even a month or two before, is the sad and terrible visuals of people standing in queues, also called ‘pollin’ in colloquial language.

There were queues  for all essentials including petrol, diesel, kerosene, gas, and the list goes on. Sri Lanka’s debt issues are nothing new. In the last decade, almost all major newspapers around the world have written article over article on Sri Lanka’s debt problems. Global TV channels made several documentaries claiming that Sri Lankan debt was unsustainable.

 In social media, many trolled Sri Lanka as ‘Chi- Lanka’, claiming that Sri Lanka is in a Chinese debt trap. Some claim that Sri Lanka is not in Chinese debt trap as only 10% of total external debt is from China, and the majority of the external debt is International Sovereign Debt. However, one cannot deny the fact that many of the Chinese-funded projects like the Hambantota Port, Airport, have all been white elephants for a decade and the funds raised from International capital markets have also been used for maintenance of these ‘white elephants’. So, whether Sri Lanka became a ‘Chi Lanka’ or not is debatable, but the country definitely became ‘Queue-Lanka’ in May 2022. By mid-May, on certain days, it was hard to hire a tuk tuk (3-wheeler) as more than 90% of tuks were in fuel queues rather than being on the roads on hires. There were only a few buses plying the roads and thus were jam packed. However, this does not mean that public transport in Sri Lanka was all good before the current economic crises.

In September 2020, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government cancelled the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)-funded light railway transit (LRT) project. This project was expected to reduce traffic and time for commuters in Colombo and the suburbs. 

The Government also decided not to sign the USD 480 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant from USA, which was to provide aid to digitalize and upgrade transportation and land registry.

With regard to the LRT project, former secretary to the President P.B. Jayasundera stated “very costly and not the appropriate cost effective transport solution for the urban Colombo transportation infrastructure.” However, the project was to be carried out from a loan at an interest rate of 0.1 percent from JICA, repayable over 40 years with a 12-year grace period, which is quite attractive. Moreover, research from think tanks like Verite Research have clearly shown that Japanese funded projects have been the most beneficial to Sri Lanka with transparency, proper feasibility studies and at least interest costs.

Also, the cancellation of the LRT project could be costly in terms of international relations with a very friendly country to Sri Lanka after WW-II. While, the Government was aggressive in cancelling the LRT and MCC, the effort to find solutions for better public transport or to upgrade land registry remains dull.

Now, with the foreign exchange crises, Government has banned imports of vehicles for over two years. Sri Lanka neither manufactures automobiles except for a few assembly plants, nor does it produce crude oil. Now it begs the question, why did Sri Lanka allow the import of so much of vehicles over the years without developing a proper public transport system which could have saved a lot of foreign exchange? Why did it offer permits to politicians and public sector officials to import vehicles with duty concessions? In the future, even if Sri Lanka gets rid of the current foreign exchange crises to some extent, it needs to prioritise better public transport systems over importing vehicles.

There is a segment of society which prefers to travel comfortably, for them the Government can introduce buses where only seated passengers are allowed. The Government can introduce mini buses and Share Auto to cover inroads in the suburbs and small towns which normal buses don’t travel.

A Share Auto is a larger version of the tuk tuk where at least ten passengers can sit. The Share Auto could traverse on different routes just like the bus. These measures would significantly reduce the need for cars. Also the Government should not introduce the vehicle permit system again for politicians and public sector officials. The Government should give a re-think and re-start the LRT project or initiate similar measures for better public transportation.

Pic by Rajiesh Seethram

By Rajiesh Seetharam