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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

An elusive economic dividend and a pattern of deceit

By Upali Tennakoon | Lanka Independent Published on May 30, 2011 at 5:51 am
The Central Bank recently said that Sri Lanka’s economic growth rate has now reached 8 percent. This seems an amazing feat by a country emerging from a debilitating 27-year-old war and given that countries like China and India that record the highest growth rate in the world is 9 percent. The difference is that in these two countries economic growth is visible and its dividends are enjoyed by it people while in Sri Lanka this dividend remains among the politically powerful and their parasitic hangers on.
In Sri Lanka the prices continue to rise to astronomic levels even as our unemployment question escalates and the amount of free or subsidized benefit to masses is not commensurate with either political rhetoric or Central Bank figures. Our educational infrastructure is poor and in the rural areas almost non- existent. This then is Sri Lanka’s development and the country’s foremost monetary regulatory authority insists that our growth rate stands now at 8 percent. And yet the state of the nation does not remotely reflect that figure. Surely what is the benefit of a high numerical growth rate if it does not translate to the country and its people in real terms?
In Sri Lanka 18 of its 24 districts are severely under developed with many of its inhabitants living below the poverty level and un-empowered in everyway. Basic utilities like electricity and drinking water still elude them. Malnutrition, unemployment and lack of educational opportunity remain their lot in life and the government has not addressed these issues in a systematic way at the micro level.
Despite a high literacy rate in the country the fact remains that some 30 percent of the population still receives only an education below the fifth grade. About 10 percent continue until the 9th Grade or just shy of the Ordinary Level Examinations. Only about 30 percent of students continue to reach the Advanced Level Examination stage. Given these figures it is clearly not an education system that is working nor is it a system that encourages a student to pursue her studies but rather a system that inhibits and stunts.
Here’s another alarming statistic. Some 75 percent of youth under 29 are unemployed. Graduates churned out of state universities have no jobs waiting for them as they shoot out of the cookie cutter system of education we now have.
So acute is the nations’ drinking water problem that 27.91 percent of Sri Lankans have no access to this basic right. Some 23.84 do not have access to basic sanitation and yet the government talks of an 8% growth rate.
Sri Lanka has four districts, which are densely populated with over a million people in each. They are Colombo, Gampaha, Kandy and Kurunegala. On the other end of the spectrum there are three districts where the population is less than hundred thousand. They are Mullaitivu, Vavuniya and Killinochchi all concentrated in the north and east of the country. There are nine districts with a population of less that five hundred thousand and they are Amapara, Batticaloa, Hambantota, Mannar, Matale, Moneragala, Pollonaruwa, Puttalam and Trincomalee. These districts are largely rural and underdeveloped. However many of these districts are not receiving support for sustainable development except perhaps the district of Hambantota from which hails President Rajapakse. These people remain under served with no hope for the future.
About 4 million Sri Lankans are below the poverty line while some 7.5 million are deemed poor. What then has the rest of the population done on behalf of the population languishing in poverty? Absolutely nothing.
Despite what spews out of the mouths of government lackeys, the reality of Sri Lanka’s economic progress and the burden brought to be bear upon the people – especially the lower middle class – can be easily assessed by a comparison of prices of essential goods between 2005 and 2009. Here’s a list comparing these two years
Item 2005 2009
White Sugar 1 kg Rs 42.00 Rs.81.00
Rice Rs.38.00 Rs.70.00
Bread Rs.16.00 Rs.40.00
The prices of meat and fish and vegetables also rose sharply during this period. With essential commodities and other consumer products reaching prohibitive levels it is difficult to believe that the ordinary people of Sri Lanka are able to even eke out a bare existence.
I am not merely talking about cheese butter and jam –which in many parts of Sri Lanka are still considered luxury items – but basic staples like dhal and other protein rich lentils. A kg of dhal which was Rs.76 has gone up to over Rs. 193/-
But it is also in the sphere of education that the government has failed in keeping prices down. Even such mundane school accessories like pencils and erasers are priced sky high. A small square eraser that was Rs.5.00 is now Rs.12.00. An exercise book which was Rs. 18 is now Rs.28.00. A five rupee pencil has doubled in price. If young children hailing from rural areas are unable to find the means to even purchase the most rudimentary of writing tools even as their parents are trying to make ends meet what is their future? How are these innocent people to make ends meet while also ensuring that their child will get the best possible education that would give him the opportunities they may not have had to get ahead in life and to be a responsible contributing citizen of Sri Lanka?
If we do not address the problem of education we will be churning out disgruntled sullen frustrated disenfranchised youth who may turn to drugs or crime for a quick fix to their problems. Is this the future we want for our children and for our nation?
It is a joke then considering the realities on the ground for the common man and for the long suffering middle income families that the Sri Lankan government continues to insist that it’s growth rate is at 8 percent.
Over a decade ago in 1999 statistics showed that about 40 percent of Sri Lanka’s population were below the poverty line. Seventy percent of that population earned less than Rs 5019 per month (USD50)
Some 10 percent of the population earned less than Rs 1199 per month. (USD11) Another 10 percent earned over Rs30,000 per month (US300). A decade ago the suicide rate in Sri Lanka according to a State Report was 15.92 percent. Today nothing has changed. So bleak is the future for our children that if our political leaders continue to ignore the real figures and engage in casuistry for political gain, a decade from today there would be no progress at all. Instead Sri Lanka would have fallen into a bottomless pit.
Developed countries structure their long-term economic and social goals with the tomorrow of the child born today. They focus on the education, jobs, housing opportunities and well being that will be available to her as she progresses.
In Sri Lanka the economic mentality is small minded and reminiscent of the rural wayside tea outlet of the village businessman. (The Sillara Kade Mudalali). The Mudalali usually thinks about what items would bring a sufficient profit that day only once he wakes up and then offers them up for sale. He has no long-term plan nor does he keep awake at night wondering about his merchandise.
Sri Lanka ‘s economic policy is much the same. Our leaders address their minds to the economy only once they wake up of a morning. There is no long term plan or sustainable infrastructure that could implement a viable economic policy that would truly bring relief to the people and ensure the future of our country.
We must take an example from countries like Singapore. Even though in geographical size it is about the size of the Gampaha District it’s economy is a tremendous force in the world. If a tiny nation of 1387 square miles can become such an economic power what can’t a country such as Sri Lanka do if steered in the right direction with genuine political will? In 1968 Lee Kwan Yew looked to Sri Lanka for inspiration as he said he wanted Singapore to be another Colombo. Today Sri Lanka’s potential has been misused and its future crushed by selfish politicians who come into power for self-aggrandizement. There has to be a genuine system of checks and balances and a system devoid of such rampant corruption. We need to restore true democratic principles, the rule of law and eradicate the culture of impunity that is now enjoyed by the State. Despite the negative propaganda that the west receives within Sri Lanka, our leaders must look to the leaders of the west whose mindsets are so keenly geared towards the progress of their own countries; and take a cue from them.

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