What does Budget 2022 mean for people and country?
By Harini Amarasuriya
Yet another Budget has rolled around and once again we are frenziedly analysing and discussing what this Budget means for the people and for the country. Touted as a ‘transformative and radical’ Budget presented (according to Government MPs), by one of the most astute politicians in the country, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, most people were expecting if not transformative, at least something a little less ordinary than that which was actually presented.
Of course, the challenges facing the country are immense: high national debt, falling incomes, depleting foreign reserves, trade deficit, spiralling cost of living, scarcity of essential goods and loss of livelihoods. What was required was a Budget that at least acknowledged these issues and proposed some meaningful interventions. What we received instead, were a few rhetorical flourishes that talked about growing inequality between the rich and the poor, environmental catastrophes, the global economic crisis and the challenges of COVID. But the Budget Speech and the content of the Budget, is quite thin in terms of responding to these challenges, despite the Finance Minister’s claims of hailing from a political family that is unafraid to face challenges. It is interesting that Minister Basil Rajapaksa chose to point towards his family credentials rather than any political principles in the introduction to his speech. It shows how much the Government, especially the SLPP revolves around the Rajapaksa family and also, how empty Government politics is of political principles or ideology.
These two aspects are closely linked: as politics becomes increasingly about ‘branding’ and marketing an image, then the performative, theatrical and symbolic features of politics become more important. The SLPP ‘brand’ of politics is very clearly linked to the idea of the Rajapaksa dynasty – and the perceived values of the Rajapaksa family: patriotism, earthy, Sinhala Buddhists and patriarchal. Thus, Minister Basil Rajapaksa invoked his father and his uncle’s patriotism and valour in what he described as the “Rajapaksa Political legacy” of which he went on to say, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is the centre. Of that, there is no doubt. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa still remains popular even when the rest of his family members are fast losing their allure. At the same time, the more theatrical and symbolic, public politics become, the more likely that the real decisions are taking place somewhere else, far more secretively, and with no accountability or oversight.
And that is the ultimate truth about this Budget. What will be debated in Parliament and voted on eventually on10 December is simply a very minor part of what will be implemented by the Government. The sale of resources, investment plans for Port City, the deals and the contracts that will determine the security of the country whether it be energy, food or trade and international relations – takes place outside of the budget, and in this Government, outside the purview of the Cabinet as well.
Consequently, this Budget has very little to say about some of the most critical economic challenges facing the country. There are no real solutions offered for dwindling foreign reserves or debt servicing. Certainly, there is very little offered in terms of managing the skyrocketing cost of living. In an indication that the Government is gearing up for elections, allocations for all Members of Parliament to implement ‘development’ projects in their constituencies have been increased. Although this is an allocation available to all MPs, with the giant majority the Government has, this is obviously far more advantageous to the Government than to the Opposition. Additionally, Rs 3 million has been allocated for each Grama Niladhari Division for development work. Allocations have also been made for home-based entrepreneurship and other types of livelihood strengthening work.
There is no problem with injecting money into livelihood and development work – yet, in the absence of clearly identified national or regionally developed plans – how effective is it to simply channel money? Over the years, the public sector has been expanded in this country so much so that there are almost 50 officers in each Divisional Secretariat for the express purpose of serving the needs of the people. Yet, people complain all the time about difficulties they face with the bureaucracy in completing the simplest of tasks. Poverty alleviation projects, livelihood development projects have been implemented for decades – with little impact on reducing poverty. In fact, many of these projects have forced people into indebtedness. Microfinance lending institutions are a testament to how an idea that started with increasing people’s access to financial services ended up being a predatory, exploitative scheme to extract resources from people while generating huge profits of private financial companies. All of this shows that it is not so much money and resources that have been lacking, but proper plans, coordination and monitoring systems.
So why do we persist with this model? Because it obviously has political benefits. Rather than strengthening local communities and networks and linking them directly with Government services, this model of development creates a role for the politician as a broker, as a mediator and as a indispensable link in facilitating access to resources. Whether it be getting your child admitted to a popular school, getting a road built, or setting up a clinic – the politician becomes the key figure. This is why most politicians spend their time calling up favours with their colleagues or using their clout in Ministries to get things done on behalf of their constituents. The primary job of elected representatives to develop policy, legislation and perform oversight functions over the workings of the Government becomes sidelined.
What this means is that the root of our problem is not just the economic model we have chosen, but also the political model. The lessons we have been learning in recent years, especially in the last couple of years are revealing this all the more clearly. Unfortunately, popular criticism of politics and politicians led to a situation where people turned to ‘non-politicians’ as saviours. However, this latest experiment should teach us that what we need is not less politics or to do away with politics but the right kind of politics.