For a nation on the verge of collapse and its people in danger of economic chaos without food and fuel and other amenities, the much-needed changes in Sri Lanka are still in slow motion. Even after discontented mobs took to the streets and occupied the Presidential palace and surrounded the Prime Minister’s residence, things moved at snail’s pace as Gotabaya Rajapaksa used his privileges as President to protect himself and his family and to carry his ill-gotten wealth to safe havens. What appeared to be a revolution for the sheer existence of the people of Sri Lanka did not generate the sense of emergency required for establishing a legitimate Government, which has to work out a bail-out package from the World Bank, the IMF and friendly countries. Precious days and hours were being spent on following the president’s calculated moves to travel to Maldives and Singapore.
Instead of devising extraordinary procedures to deal with an extraordinary situation, which impinges on the survival of its people, constitutional niceties are delaying the election of president and a prime minister. Ranil Wikremasinghe, whose removal as prime minister was a major demand of the protesters, has been sworn in as president, who has declared an emergency to prolong the agony of the people. Except for India, no other country, not even China, is engaging with Sri Lankan authorities to bring about an emergency cabinet, which should not lose time in making a rescue economic package for Sri Lanka. The Ukraine war has dominated the western world so completely that the Sri Lankan situation does not even create a ripple in its conscience. The champions of human rights have no time to address the misery of the Sri Lankan people.
The complexity of the crisis in Sri Lanka has not been appreciated by the world at large. Sri Lanka’s economy was hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. It is currently facing the most severe economic and energy crisis recorded in recent history due to the ongoing foreign exchange shortage. The prices of essential commodities have sky-rocketed as inflation hit 15 per cent in February 2022, while people queue up for hours outside fuel stations and undergo regular power outages for as long as seven hours daily.
The tourism industry, one of the highest foreign exchange earners, decreased by 70.8 per cent in March 2020 as travel restrictions came into effect. Foreign exchange shortage resulted in the country being unable to pay for the import of essential commodities which in turn drove up the prices of many day-to-day necessities from food to fuel to pharmaceuticals. The rising cost of living has pushed close to 600,000 Sri Lankans below the poverty line.
The foreign exchange shortage has also triggered an energy crisis as the country is unable to pay for the import of fuel. The fuel shortage in the country has driven prices of petrol and diesel up to unmanageable levels, and people are forced to queue up outside fuel stations daily.
The country has to repay close to $7 billion in loan instalments and sovereign bonds in 2022, resulting in a budget deficit of $11.9 billion. However, this has not prevented Sri Lanka from going further into debt as the country is desperately attempting to shore up its foreign reserves.
The erroneous economic policies followed by the Rajapaksa administration are largely responsible for the current crisis. This includes measures such as tax cuts implemented in 2019 as part of the Rajapaksa election campaign which continued to incur budget deficits due to loss of revenue close to $550 billion.
The most recent protests were a demonstration of the hardships of the overwhelmed masses. But the behaviour of the protesters was surprising. Inside the Presidential palace, it looked like an excursion rather than a demand for immediate action.
The irony is that the timetable set even after the resignation of Gotabaya is painfully slow. Wikremasinghe, as acting President, will now appoint a prime minister and then the Parliament will elect a new president till 2024. Somewhere in between, an all-party government will be formed. All of this was promised within a week, but there is no likelihood of it happening within a short period. It is amazing that the Sri Lankan people have been so patient about the process of change. But unless the process is speeded up, the agony of the people will continue and the stability of the country will be in jeopardy. It is high time that the world woke up to the grave situation in a strategic nation in the Indo-Pacific.
The writer is a former Indian Foreign Service officer and ambassador.
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