By Chandrasena Maliyadde A major promise made by J.R. Jayawardena during the 1977 election campaign was to make available apples and grapes in addition to the famous ‘Eta Ata’ (8 grains). People who have been greedily longing to taste apples and grapes gave sweeping powers to the UNP at elections. One year later, the Government [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Do we need all these imports?


By Chandrasena Maliyadde

A major promise made by J.R. Jayawardena during the 1977 election campaign was to make available apples and grapes in addition to the famous ‘Eta Ata’ (8 grains). People who have been greedily longing to taste apples and grapes gave sweeping powers to the UNP at elections. One year later, the Government opened all the flood gates of the economy relaxing restrictions imposed upon imports including apples and grapes. No other country I could think of opened a closed economy overnight with a single stroke of the pen. Since 1978 Sri Lanka, during last 35 years, has fast become an import dependent economy.

File pic of exquisite crockery by a local manufacturer

“Alloy wheels, Tiptronic, Leather interior, Electric memory seats, Rear power door, Zenon lights, Blue tooth, Push start, Fully loaded, with panoramic sunroof, Side reverse camera, TV/DVD, 6 speed, Automatic transmission”. One might wonder whether I have gone insane. No, I did not; I was simply reading an advertisement appeared in a Sunday newspaper about an imported vehicle. The price quoted for the vehicle was Rs. 9.1 million (US$70,000). This is in a country where the per capita income is just below US$3000.Thirty five years back people were looking for a mode of conveyance only. Today it is a floating palace. How many Sri Lankans could afford to enjoy this luxury? To be honest I do not even understand the facilities mentioned in the advertisement. I consulted my son.

Vehicle imports alone have reached $2 billion (Rs.260 billion) in 2011. The foreign exchange drain on imports of vehicles, accessories, spare parts, body parts, fuel, maintenance and operation is prohibitively high. High speed super luxury vehicles consume a heavy load of fuel. They keep speeding up all the time and cause at least six deaths a day leaving many disabled. The right of the way is replaced by might of the way. More the vehicles on the road worse the pollution caused. They are more stalled than moving; they exhaust fume all the time and blare horns continuously. They make, visual, air and sound pollution while those who are responsible for environmental protection enjoying an undisturbed deep slumber in some of these vehicles. Congestion makes everything and everyone late. When we are late for a meeting the convincing excuse is ‘traffic jam’.

It is no secret that many families own more than one vehicle and all the vehicles are on the road and more often than not on the same location. One can hardly justify ownership of multifarious vehicles by a single individual either on economic or social grounds; some experts explain the economic growth using per capita ownership of vehicles. That may be sweet music for the ears of their political masters but far away from the reality. Widening inequality is inevitable in the capitalistic model and is argued as a motivate factor. But when vehicles are made available in the absence of affordability the majority is deprived. While a higher income category can afford to own more than required, the low income category is prevented from buying even a single simple low cost vehicle.

One cannot ignore that several crimes and transportation of illegal products such as ‘muwamas’ (venison) and hashish are connected to the super luxury vehicles. Too many vehicles on the road make one sick, impatient, abusive and losing temper. How many times we have been insulted and harassed and been subject to insult and abuse while on the road. Take my advice and make your next visit to Kandy by train in one of those luxury compartments. You will be free of all what I have mentioned and will enjoy a cup of coffee, reading a book and admire the beauty of surrounding while travelling in addition to contributing to the economy as a whole in numerous ways.

Since there are no restrictions, prohibition and standardization on imports any one can import anything in any quantity. There are many advertisements appearing on drugs for one to lead ‘a healthy and a beautiful life’ such as reducing weight and growing a silky hair and a fair skin. Paediatricians and nutritionists advocate breast feeding. Beauty queens promote imported processed milk. Cricketers promote sausage meat. Which parent does not want their daughter to be a beauty queen and their son to be a cricketer in future? I am told some of these products contain vegetable oil and animal fat. Who decides standards, quality and any adverse effects of these products?

We, as children and students have always been taught to use resources economically. Free imports convey a message completely contrary to this. Today, individuals and organizations cannot move a finger without a computer. You keep on changing the computer to ensure being updated with the latest version. Have we thought of disposal of the used ones? Disposal of e-waste, and minimizing radiation impact and pollution are specialized subjects taught and researched in developed world. We are completely ignorant and wait for the disaster to happen to awaken us and jerk from our deep comfortable slumber.

Unrestricted unchecked imports will make people insensitive, irresponsible and ignorant. The other day my wife and I were taking a cousin to see a psychiatrist. Sri Lankan law does not permit using a phone while driving. But courtesy another classic interpretation of the law by Police, one can use it with a ‘hands free’. I took cover of this interpretation and was talking continuously on the way. My cousin suddenly asked me ‘‘Aiyata pissuda, thaniyama katha karanne?” (Are you mad to talk alone to yourself?). I was wondering whether it was me or my cousin who should see the psychiatrist. Children of all ages use the mobile phone. It is said that radiation discharge of these phones are harmful, dangerous and carry cancerous effects on children. People use it to enjoy a porno film. People use it for crimes. In one school, it was reported, that a student used a mobile phone in committing suicide. While admitting the need to have the benefit of modern technology, we must know the limits. There are 19.6 million cellular mobile subscribers by end of 2012 against a population of 20 million. Excessive use of it is more harmful and unhealthy than beneficial. It will have ill effects on foreign exchange, trade balance, health, environment, culture, attitudes, values and finally on the whole economy.

Some fertilizer has caused terminal diseases such as cancer, kidney failure and has polluted water harming human lives and bio-diversity. Supermarkets sell food items imported from all over the globe such as lamb, fruits, processed food, ingredients. Last week a friend invited me to enjoy a cup of coffee in a coffee shop and the price was Rs.990.

The US is considered to be the father of free trade. Yet, there are restrictions and prohibitions on many imports. US Customs and Border Protection Department (CBP) is entrusted with preventing from entering imports that would injure community health, public safety, US workers, children, or domestic plant and animal life, or those that would defeat national interests. CBP enforces hundreds of laws that protect the economy, the health and the safety of the American people and that ensure unsafe items are not allowed to enter the US. There is a long list of prohibited and restricted items.

Imports are rising faster than exports. This has lead to a widening trade deficit, damage on health, safety and environment. This has caused disappearance of a host of employment opportunities in the informal sector. Repairs on sophisticate vehicles cannot be attended to by our mechanics, welders and painters. Moreover their service is made redundant by importation of vehicle parts.
The Government, Treasury, Central Bank, economists and many others repeat that the serious most challenge before the country is bringing the widening trade deficit under control. The trade deficit is in excess of import expenditure over export earnings. Imports have risen sharply from $6 billion in 2003 to $20 billion in 2011. Exports have risen from $5 billion in 2003 to $10 billion in 2011. Imports are growing much faster than exports. The immediate solution to restrain the trade deficit lies on imports. Unrestricted imports widen the inequality through availability sans affordability.

It is time we as a nation think again whether we continue to enjoy the taste of fruits (apples and grapes) of free unlimited unchecked imports regime or be conscious of both merits and demerits of it. I am not proposing going back to a closed economy but rationalization of imports rather than unrestricted, unchecked imports.

Otherwise, the day will not be far that you and I will have an e-wife or e-husband. It was Sardiel for us and Spiderman for our children.
(The writer is a former Secretary, Ministry of Plan Implementation. He can be reached at

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