Sri Lankans must be a patient lot, at least when it comes to bearing the pangs of the rising cost of living. Didn't the Buddha, whose birth, demise and enlightenment millions of Buddhists the world over marked yesterday, say that one of the greatest prayers is patience?
And is there a more appropriate time than the eve of Vesak -- when the teachings of the Buddha bring tranquility to the mind and reassert the virtues of patience and when pandals, lanterns and other attractions make people forget the crisis gripping the economy, to raise the prices of gas, milk food and cement? Of course, these price hikes follow many a shocking hike in prices of fuel, electricity rates, wheat flour and other essential items.
It appears that the four sublime precepts of Buddhism -- Metta (caring and loving kindness), Karuna (compassion), Muditha (sympathetic or selfless love) and Uppeka (equanimity or levelness) have been forgotten or not taken into consideration when the Vesak eve blows are directed at the suffering people.
More and more Sri Lankans are falling down the economic ladder which they thought would take them to greater heights at least on par with people in the newly developed countries in East Asia, or even neighbouring India where the millionaire class and the middle class are growing, although still some 40 per cent of the country lives below the poverty line.
Perhaps the self-discipline and sacrifice the Sri Lankans underwent, especially during the last years of the war, during which they told government and military leaders to go ahead and wipe out terrorism from the face of this thrice-blessed land, is the reason for their silence in the face of blow after blow they are being dealt with in the form of price increases in essential items.
They lived in hope that the end of war will give a boost to the economy and bring about prosperity. But little did change with the end of the war, although the Central Bank, year in and year out, churned out figures generating hope. But now the people are beginning to feel that the government has messed up or mismanaged the economy and that it is taking tough austerity measures to fill the coffers and prevent an imminent crash.
The shocking price increases since March this year together with tax increases on vehicle and food imports, tobacco and liquour and the sharp depreciation of the rupee - which has sent import costs sky high in rupee terms - have made Sri Lanka the most expensive South Asian country to live in. One must also add the blow from the Power and Energy Ministry in the form of heartless or incompassionate new surcharges.
The worst hit are the people in the middle class or the salaried gentry. The breadwinner is hit from all sides. His or her electricity bill has been almost doubled. The van driver who takes his or her children to school has demanded Rs. 500 more for each child. The monthly grocery bill has gone up to such an extent that it even threatens peace at home.
The middle class's plight is aggravated by the crisis facing employers, many of whom are unable to give a salary hike in proportion to the rise in cost of living. Wages are not increased to cope with the rising cost. While the government prevaricates or filibusters public sector pay hikes, the private sector complains that it is badly hit by the fuel price hikes and the increase in electricity rates, among other costs.
To tide over the cost of living problem, ministers say the prices will be reduced when world market prices come down. On Friday, we heard Trade Minister Johnston Fernando saying it. But the hard-hit Sri Lankans are not naïve to believe it. They know price increases in Sri Lanka usually defy gravity. The turn of phrase is, 'what goes up does not come down'.
These price hikes cannot be placed on the doorstep of external factors which are beyond the government's control. How come, one might ask, that other countries in the region do not inflict such punches on the people's solar plexus with such ferocity and their exchange rates do not go like a yo-yo more up than down though. Whether Europe or even the world in recession, prices of essential food items in these countries remain stable for years.
What is the root cause of this crisis - yes we call it a crisis though the Central Bank does not? Are the price hikes linked to the depreciation of the rupee and the oil price hike in the world market alone?
We ask these questions largely because we feel there is some credence in the claim of some economists that there is lack of transparency in the manner in which the economy is run and figures are presented or, as the opposition claims, manipulated
There is little transparency when the government goes for big loans at commercial rates. Big imports involving government tenders are done under the cover of top secrecy, sometimes leaving even the minister in the dark to grumble because he is deprived of the big baksheesh. Sri Lanka probably has the biggest cabinet in the world. While the carnival goes on for them, the people are asked to carry their weight on their collective shoulders.
There is something lopsided in the affairs of the state, when austerity measures are introduced selectively, affecting the middle class. The politically-backed rich class or the small coteries close to powers-that-be airfreight posh cars and purchase prime property in the heart of the country's commercial capital.
This is crony capitalism as has never been seen before in Sri Lanka where the poor and the middle class have become irrelevant.
But the government will argue that the people are with it and it is right. Surely, it will win the provincial polls which it is contemplating to hold in the coming months. This is because this country has a major democracy deficiency brought about by the inaction and failures of the opposition. The less said about the opposition the better.
The main opposition United National Party just can't seem to get their act together. Decades ago, the then President J.R. Jayewardene scoffed at the opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party, for its failure to or inability to capitalize on the government's blunders. In the years past, a 50-cent hike in rice prices or a one-rupee hike in bread prices had toppled governments. Well, the more the opposition becomes obsolete the better because at least then the people can take their fate into their own hands.