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    Debt: bete-noire of Sri Lanka’s economy

    January 14, 2020

    Debt: bete-noire of Sri Lanka’s economy
    Rev. Fr. Leopold Ratnasekera OMI (Ph.D.Th.D. National SeminaryKandy)

    The crippling national debt-problem which all recent governments of the post-independence era have been forced to face, has been a veritable eye-sore in the face of our dear motherland. Each successive government is guilty of having added to the debt due to constant borrowing from funding agencies and entering into imprudent and hasty trade agreements based on borrowed capital. Sri Lanka has continuously been dependent on international monetary agencies like the World Bank and the international monetary fund (IMF) condemned by all those who criminalize them as the twin-headed hydra that keeps capturing nations drowning them in misery unbearable and indeed in almost unpayable debt traps.
    The media recently quoted the national debt facing the country in 2020 as running into two trillion rupees. This bete-noire is bringing this curse on every new-born child putting it in debt for over two-hundred thousand rupees. This is frightening and staggering when recalling that same type of debt which stood only at Rs. 13,000.00 in the mid nineteen seventees. The national debt which compounds both the domestic and international, is a truly bee in the bonnet that has driven every successive government into a frenzy of deciding even on crazy deals and economic measures that entangled the country even further.
    Why this economic stagnation?
    Why is a country in debt? What are the main issues at bay in this quagmire? Who is responsible in putting a country in debt? How is it that a country even after independence, continue to get plunged into agonizing depths of debt? These are hard questions that need convincing and satisfactory answers. We have had countries that were worse affected by the two world wars like Singapore, Japan and South Korea but have gallantly risen over the ashes of destruction and defeat, bouncing back into economic giants of our Asian region which two decades ago was classed as part of the third-world within the southern hemisphere.
    Today, Asia is exalted as the continent of world’s rising economy. It has apparently not been so verified in Sri Lanka despite the fact that by now seven decades have gone by since her political independence as a British colony. All of us are simply stunned to see Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Thailand and now Vietnam to wit as strong Asian economies to date. Why has Sri Lanka stagnated or been rendered incapable of bracing for such a prosperous journey? Is it because we lack natural resources like fertile land, clean water and rivers, the ocean-depths or human resources that can always be weakening causes of a national economy? Or, it is because, we have not been working hard enough creatively and innovatively with the resources in hand to boost up our national economy? Or, is it because we have been guilty of colossal waste and irresponsibility in financial matters and thrown resources to the winds? Or else, is it solely due to bribery and corruption, abuse of resources, embezzlement of funds and lack of transparency and accountability? All these causes singly or cumulatively can harm and retard a national economy in any country and Sri Lanka in that sense had been on the verge on several occasions of being debunked as a “failed State”.
    In the web of national life, many factors inter-act in the running and life of a country. Politics with a program of good governance, a well-planned economic strategy both within short and long term, and above all social peace and political stability are crucial conditions sine-qua-non that guarantee a state of progress and on-going prosperity. International relations coupled concurrently with well chartered economic agreements and trade treaties on a win-win basis are sure to ensure a stable and healthily working economy. In the meantime, together with foreign investments, manageable borrowings from funding agencies and propelling of local industries of various kinds will add to boost up and invigorate the economic situation. In Sri Lanka, the apparel industry, textiles and similar ventures of that nature that tap the ocean-resources and earth’s endowments will add up to enrich and swell a growing economy.
    We live in a globalized culture and civilization with the entire human planet turning into a global village. Travel facilities, communication media and added to these the modern phenomenon of migration of entire hordes of populations bring people of all religions, languages, ethnicity, cultures, economic and political ideologies into an incredible scenario of human solidarity, inter-action and proximity. Urbanization and technology are engineering the culture and tempo of modernity.
    In this context it will be very imprudent on our part to alienate ourselves from other nations and peoples for whatever reason. It is a pity that the august institution such as the United Nations with its other branch institutions are finding difficult today the task of becoming a source of reconciliation, good understanding and goodwill. Despite its mighty efforts, there are nations in conflict in the areas of the southern hemisphere. In addition, there is military conflict and tension between the western nations and countries such as in the middle-east and Korean peninsula.
    Sri Lanka cannot afford to be partners in any conflict and must strive speedily for good international relations with foreign countries while working hard for political stability within, pursuing ethnic harmony and national reconciliation. When a country is politically unstable and webbed in socialunrest, economic growth is hardly possible.
    Some crucial issues of the day
    The recent demands from the north to the south in the context of the presidential elections and invariably to beechoed in the face of the up-coming parliamentary elections, will definitely be create serious obstacles to national unity. The merger of the northern and eastern provinces, the request for land and police powers under the cover of their desire for self-determination is a dangerous step in the destabilization of the country once again. The thirty-year war that brought in such enormous destruction of life and property and the economic slag that followed, do not seem to have taught the political leaders of the north about the disaster they are inviting again by making these sectarian demands.

    Why can’t all provinces in the land be equally treated and the work of development devolved equitably to all? It may be a spiral of speedy development over devolution after all. What people need in the north is what we in the south enjoy: resources for economic prosperity, growth in industry, health care, transport, good education and of course employment.
    Above all, one must be assured by the authorities that in the north, no trend to violence or terrorism bordering on ethnicity and language be tolerated. This is a precondition for a good development drive to take on its stride in these parts of our motherland. No discrimination based on language, ethnicity, race or religion is to be tolerated at any cost. This had been the bane of Sri Lanka from the very first days of independence: a condition that had been aggravated by short-term policies and elections gimmicks of succeeding governments.
    It is time that this political game grinds to a halt making way for national politics becoming a genuine and committed service to the whole country and for all its people. If fundamental human rights are respected, the situation would certainly ease. This country is neither a theocracy nor a religio-cracy but a democracy: a government of, by and for the people and not for their religions, languages or race. Politics need to be neutral vis-a-vis these issues while safeguarding and promoting religious freedom and liberty of worship and cult. Religion and freedom of worship are fundamental human rights, No state has power to dictate terms regarding these matters. In a multi-racial, religious and cultural land like ours, it will augur well too, if the voice of religious leadership is also given due hearing and consulted in important national issues. Religious leadership can come in handy especially when there are moments when issues of a controversial nature prop up, or when on the national level there is a sharp division of opinion in the pursuit of certain policies of programming and action on the part of the State.
    Religious leadership is the moral voice of a country and certainly must intervene since politics clearly contain issues that are highly ethical and moral: social justice, human dignity, human rights, fundamental human freedoms, people’s security are some of them. That people live and work in harmony with mutual trust and respect, forms the moral fabric of any decent and healthy society.
    Economic prosperity is not only a result of good financial enterprise and monetary security, but thrives within the ambit of political stability and social peace. In the pursuit of this ideal, there are many factors and actors that enter the stage of national growth. While divisive issues have to be carefully averted, values that unite and harmonize various groups into a well-blended whole have to be fostered and explored.
    At the moment, national unity is such a priority and resurrecting the economy is another. There is no doubt that questions like vocational education of the youth with emphasis on skill-training, a type of education that is ordained to the job-market, creation of jobs, trade with foreign countries, inviting foreign investments and wooing tourism, improving the traditional exports, such as tea, rubber and coconut together with apparel and textile sector emoluments will embellish our great national assets and vital resources for growth. Measures have to be adopted to gradually lessoning the borrowing from international funding agencies.

    The outstanding debts have to be quickly minimized and in due time totally resolved. A debt-free nation can breathe freely and live in peace on her own resources and fruits of hard work and creative enterprise. Both the state and public sector, government and private sectors must join hands working together towards common economic goals so that Sri Lanka can become soon a country that is productive and self-sufficient. We must earn the respect and confidence of other nations who are willing to enter into international agreements, both of a geo-political and economic nature. These are the pathways, though difficult and time-consuming that will help us to patiently achieve our dreams for stability and progress in the coming decades. Let the bete-noire, the black demon of our national and international debt be first seriously dealtwith every possible mean at our command so that the nation can truly enter the threshold of self-reliance and economic security.


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