When The Nation Has Everything Going Against It| MENAFN.COM

Wednesday, 01 February 2023 06:49 GMT

When The Nation Has Everything Going Against It


(MENAFN- Colombo Gazette)

By N Sathiya Moorthy

At a time, the 'Paris Club' is said to be considering a favourable debt-restructuring package for the nation and the IMF-induced economic reforms is said to be already on, comes the GMOA (Government Medical Officers' Association) expose that the government is yet to recover LKR 773-billion arrears from tax-payers in the country. In other countries, GMOA-kind of outfits would not have concerned themselves about money-management and political issues, but even before the 'Aragalaya' mass-protests and the outbreak of the current economic crisis, medical doctors in the country, also their engineer, lawyer and teacher-counterparts, have always gone beyond their immediate group demands and expectations.

In doing so, the GMOA was only quoting Parliament's Committee on Public Accounts (COPA), and said how badly it spoke of Parliament's own oversight of public finances. Going by such claims, no one should be surprised if both creditors and future fund-providers start asking more questions about the revenue-mismanagement, too. Thus far, theirs have mostly centred on the messing up of government expenditure, including massive leakages in the form of corruption.

Independent of existing factors come IMF managing director Kristalina Georgieva's warning that global inflation and China's slowdown as risk-factors in Asia's economic outlook (which wily-nily would affect Sri Lanka). As if this were not enough – not that this one was not expected – credit-rating agency Fitch's finding that local-currency debt default is also 'probable'. Under predecessor President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's regime, Sri Lanka officially defaulted $ 51-b in overseas debt, to nations and institutions.

Like going to a doctor

It looks as if the nation has everything going against it. For, there is an additional catch. According to a 'US News and World Report', the country is ranked 10 for cheapest-manufacturing cost. The problem at times like this, when manufacturing costs could go haywire in Sri Lanka and institutional and infrastructural impediments for attracting investments could only grow, not ease, neighbouring India has been ranked at the top of the list, followed by China.

Another South Asian country in Bangladesh is in the sixth place. From the expanded South-East Asian neighbourhood, there is Vietnam (3), Thailand (4), Philippines (5), Indonesia (7), Cambodia (8) and Malaysia (9). The question arises why should any investor come to an already-troubled Sri Lanka, unless he genuinely suffers from a 'do-gooder' illness?

In this background, former Central Bank Governor, Dr Indrajit Coomoraswamy warned the people that IMF would policy-recommendations would be unpleasant to the people, and the nation would have to reduce both investment and consumption.“Going to the IMF is like going to a doctor. You go there when you become sick. So, you can't then blame the doctor for giving medicines that's bitter. So, when you go to the IMF, the IMF does meet out remedies which are not pleasant, because it is usually when you are living beyond your needs, that you need to essentially compress investment and consumption to bring your economy into better balance,” he told a Colombo audience, recently.

Dr. Coomaraswamy said East and South-East Asian countries have grown rich because of the surpluses in their balance of payments.“It is due to their export performances, but in Sri Lanka growth is correlated to the size of the budget deficit.” News reports quoted him as point to the government approaching the World Bank and the ADB for $ 1.9-b and to the IMF for another $ 2.9 b.“Multilateral lenders and Japan will give loans for projects which will boost economic activities. Banks would also find it easier to resume or extend their credit lines with an IMF programme in place, he said underlying the latter factor, all the same.

The immediate problem that may hit the nation on its face through the future is the speed with which professionals are exiting the country. After around 500 doctors, including 10 of total 40 nephrologists, have left the country, comes the news that as high as 10,000 IT professionals too following suit. This should be even more distressing news for the government, which has outlined measures to improve skills-training in the country, to attract industrial investments as a means to earn scarce dollars in ton-loads, through the coming years.

Education-hub, what?

To this end, President Ranil Wickremesinghe recently said that the country should 'tap its potential to become the education-hub in the region'. Before him, the predecessor Rajapaksa government's budget had earmarked large amounts for skills development (though the indications at the time were that such youth would find gainful employment in the now-forgotten 'Colombo Port City', funded by China. Among the Rajapaksas, two-term President Mahinda had prescribed a 'five-hub' formula, including 'IT hub' for boosting the nation's economy in his 'Mahinda Chintanaya-2005'.

All of it has come to a naught now, with even school education and universal healthcare, the nation's two prides for decades now, taking huge-hits since the economic crisis began unfolding. Opposition SJB chief whip Lakshman Kirellia has said that the government-imposed cess has caused the price of school stationery to sky-rocket. According to his colleague, Rohini Kumari Wijerathne, most parents in the country have to choose between food and their children's education – and they prefer the latter (as a long-term investment on the family's future).

As she pointed out,“An 80-page exercise book costs LKR 200, a pencil or pen costs LKR 40. A box of colour pencils costs LKR 570 while a bottle of glue costs LKR 150. If the father is a daily wage-earner, he has to spend one-fourth of his earnings on a box of colour pencils for his child. A satchel now costs around LKR 4,000. A pair of school shoes is above LKR 3,500 … Roughly, stationery cost is around LKR 25,000-30,000 per child.

In this context, Wijerathne pointed out how the budget-allocation of LKR 232 billion for the Education Ministry was too meagre.“After paying salaries of teachers and covering officials' expenses, etc., there will be very little left for other important matters,” the MP said, noting that Sri Lanka would soon be known as the country that made the lowest allocation of funds for education in the South Asia.

Gender-based violence

The women MPS who recently came to Parliament wearing orange to draw the nation's attention, starting with their male counterparts, have called for uniting to end 'gender-based violence', may soon go beyond symbolisms of the kind if they really meant what they said. Social history has taught us, as to how under stressed economic situation across the world, it is the womenfolk who end up doing most sacrifices and also become subject of domestic violence, much more than in other circumstances.

The question is these women MPs can focus mainly on gender issues, beginning with their constituencies, and also help NGOs to do so elsewhere across the country. This would also imply that while working on gender-based issues in the prevailing economic context, the MPs would – and would have to – work on issues impacting children's well-being. It goes beyond their schooling, and rather starts long before schooling commences.

Food insecurity

According to a combined study of the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), carried out in June-July this year, nearly 30 per cent of the country's population – 6.3 million people – are food insecure. WFP's latest surveys indicate that nearly seven out of 10 households are using negative coping strategies, such as skipping meals, limiting portion sizes and eating less nutritious food.

“Parents are cutting back on what they eat to be able to feed their children,” a news report quoted Abdur Rahim Siddiqui, WFP Sri Lanka Representative and Country Director.“Steep food price increases, loss of jobs and reduced incomes are pushing nutritious meals out of reach for millions of people. We are grateful for this timely contribution from France. It will enable us to provide critical food assistance to young children to stave off malnutrition.”

WFP will work in partnership with the Sri Lanka College of Paediatricians to reach children in areas where malnutrition rates are high. In collaboration with the Family Health Bureau and the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society, children who require nutritional support will be identified by medical officers and midwives at child welfare clinics. Working together, the partners will track child health standards by monitoring their progress over a one-year period.

And to top it all comes the report of the National Dangerous Drugs Control Board's (NDDCB) report about a new trend of increasing use of synthetic drugs known as 'ICE' (methamphetamine crystals) among school-children (of all persons). The board has said that heroin and tobacco-related products, apart from the use of certain medications as psychotropic drugs, to have become a trend among them.

Some trend, this. Amen!

(The writer is a policy analyst & political commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: )

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