Bipartisan Govt Needed

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Seventy years ago, in 1952 when Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then known, had no foreign exchange (FX) to import rice, with starvation staring in its face,  then Premier Dudley Senanayake sent his first cousin R. G. Senanayake to London, to successfully negotiate the Rubber-Rice Pact with China.

At that time China had no embassy let alone a consulate in Sri Lanka. Therefore, negotiations were conducted at the Chinese Embassy in London under the auspices of Sri Lanka’s then High Commissioner to London Sir Oliver Goonetilleke.

Today too, Sri Lanka is facing crises on multiple fronts due to the lack of, or no FX, led by corruption, coupled with bad agriculture policies. Current shortages are not confined to rice only, but fuel, cooking gas, medicines and a host of raw materials needed for the manufacture of finished goods to both the domestic and export markets.

Additionally, due to the lack of fuel, exports are also impacted because road hauliers are unable to transport the merchandise goods to the port. This is an unenviable record. Another obnoxious first is Sri Lanka recording at least one fuel queue death monthly, with the Government, be it the immediately preceding Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government or the current Ranil Wickremesinghe Government, not being accountable for such avoidable fatalities.

Food and medicine shortages to a degree are looked after by India and the UN and its allied agencies, with a focus on the poor. Cooking gas shortages for now are covered to an extent by a World Bank (WB) loan. But there is no such aid package forthcoming for petrol, diesel and kerosene, with Sri Lanka having to depend on its spartan FX inflows to make such imports. Neither is there a plan for cooking gas imports once the WB loan is exhausted.

Wickremesinghe for now has burnt his boats with the West and Japan after a blunderbuss handling of peaceful aragalaya protesters at Galle Face and the Presidential Secretariat by forcibly evicting them using the Armed Forces and the Police in the early hours of Friday, despite these protesters having had previously said that they would vacate the Secretariat that afternoon itself.

Meanwhile, in 1952 Sri Lanka had raw rubber to offer China in lieu of rice, but fast forward to the present, Sri Lanka has no rubber to offer to the world in exchange for essential imports, including fuel, because, with the opening up of the economy in 1977, Sri Lanka’s domestic rubber industry was developed. Currently Sri Lanka is one of the world’s top exporters of solid tyres.

A long shot to meet the island’s fuel and cooking gas needs is Russia, the world’s second largest producer of such commodities. In a congratulatory message to President Wickremesinghe, yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said, “Please accept sincere congratulations on the occasion of your election as President. 

“Russian-Sri Lankan relations are of a traditionally friendly nature. I am counting on your activities as Head of State to foster further development of the constructive bilateral cooperation in various spheres for the benefit of our peoples and in the interest of strengthening regional stability and security.

“I wish you every success as well as good health and prosperity.”

Wickremesinghe should immediately reciprocate by asking Putin for the much-needed fuel and cooking gas on a credit basis, if he has not already done so. Sri Lanka is already importing oil from Russia on an immediate payment basis and not on credit.

Grant aid to Sri Lanka totalled a miserly 0.04 per cent of GDP last year, according to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, whereas during the 1990 Gulf war, when oil prices escalated, it was equivalent to 2.1 per cent of GDP, a 5,150 per cent increase compared to 2021. Grants, vis-à-vis 2021, have been on the decline in 2022. In 1990, Sri Lanka’s President was Ranasinghe Premadasa, father of Opposition and SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa. A solution is for Wickremesinghe to extend the Olive branch of friendship to Premadasa (junior) in order to obtain both bilateral and multilateral assistance to solve the island’s burning fuel problem.