Forgotten builders of Lanka's economy

The Minister of Economic Development in a statement issued this week has correctly pointed out that 2011 will need to be a year of economic growth for Sri Lanka and that this was an essential corollary to the defeat of terrorism in 2009.

He has proudly stated that 2010, the first full year without the menace of terrorism in more than quarter of a century saw the country posting an impressive 8 percent growth rate; that tourist arrivals hit a record high and development work is happening around Hambantota.

There is no mention though that the official inflation figure is 7 percent and that his colleague, the Minister of Trade is in the sorry situation of having to import not only poultry food, but also coconuts, once Sri Lanka's third largest export and foreign exchange earner. He did not refer to a UNICEF/WFP (World Food Programme) report in 2010 that stated that nearly a quarter of Sri Lankan children below five years suffer from anaemia and that acute malnutrition and stunting were widespread in the nine districts they surveyed -- one from each province.

Electricity consumers are in for a shock when they receive their bills this month with the jacking up of prices mainly because the Government is unable to settle its dues to the Electricity Board. Fish and vegetable prices are soaring and with the heavy flooding in the 'rice bowl' areas, it is only a matter of time for the Minister to start importing rice putting paid to the Government's campaign to get the people to eat less bread and thereby cut the country's wheat import bill.

The Minister of Economic Development is, however, right when he says that 2011 will require a greater focus on strengthening the economy. While he points out the positive aspects of the economy, especially at a time the world is in recession, there is no doubt an economic war is looming. There is every possibility that the people, once hit in their stomachs, are not going to forever be grateful to a Government that defeated terrorism.

In the absence of a 'war', the people's minds will revert to the mundane issues of prices and jobs. The volatile issue of the 'educated un-employed' is a smoking powder keg. The continuing trend of 'boat people' risking life and limb to escape to faraway lands is an indictment on the country's political establishment. That those in it are unworthy representatives of the people is further illustrated by their rush to obtain, and then sell off their duty-free car permits, circumventing the law in the process, and not helping to uplift the morale of a disillusioned people.

According to Central Bank figures, Sri Lanka's economy is fuelled to a great extent by the blood, sweat and tears of Lankans working in West Asia (the Middle East). Foreign remittance from expatriate Sri Lankans to as much as US$ 3.3 billion or nearly Rs. 350 billion in 2009, and is expected to be the top foreign exchange (gross and net) earner in 2010 as well. Even though the garment industry may have been the highest gross earner in 2009, with nearly 50 percent of this money going back to import raw materials, the net remittance from Sri Lankans overseas - and this amount also includes those in countries outside West Asia -- is more significant income generator.

And yet, what is the priority the Government gives this sector and these workers? At a time such as this, with the advent of a new calendar year, when we reflect on the past, present and future, it is time to think of those citizens working overseas and sending their hard earned pay packets back home.

For one thing, they don't even have a vote. Most other advanced democracies have afforded their citizens overseas the franchise and the opportunity to elect their Government at home. Sri Lanka is an advanced democracy having had universal adult franchise since 1931 -- 80 years ago, but it does not give Sri Lankans overseas this right.

There are other issues. This newspaper reported a week ago that 460 overseas Sri Lankans in 41 countries lost their lives in 2010 of which the suicide figure was 29. While many died due to natural causes, there have been several cases, especially in the inhospitable West Asian countries where deaths have been the result of suicide or murder. Last year in Italy, four Sri Lankans were murdered and to-date the culprits have not been apprehended.

The attitude in Colombo seems to be one of taking these remittances for granted and viewing these unfortunate overseas workers as dispensable commodities. Is it because they come largely from the lower socio-economic strata, or is it more that successive Governments have not wanted to kill this 'golden goose' by 'rocking the boat' with Governments of other countries, by raising these sensitive issues.

There seems to be too much at stake witnessed very clearly in the Saudi Arabian attitude to hit back by proclaiming their 'Saudiization' programme that was to restrict Sri Lankan workers in that country immediately after issues were raised about a housemaid who had nails driven into her by her employer and the very public issue of an underage maid now languishing in a Saudi jail on a death sentence on charges of killing a baby in her care.

The question, therefore, is whether beggars can be choosers in this world. Despite the boasts of the Minister of Economic Development of how well the economy has done in 2010, and despite Sri Lanka now being classified as a 'middle income country' there is no running away from the hard bare facts that all is not well and our priorities are skewed.

Again, and again we come to the terrible state of our foreign policy and the limited engagement Sri Lanka has with other countries with whom it has its economic interests. While there is successful engagement with India and China, the administration has fallen down elsewhere as was seen by the deprivation of the GSP+ duty concessions by the European Union and now the proposed Saudiization programme.

Obtaining information from the Foreign Employment Bureau is like looking for the proverbial blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that is not there. But if foreign remittances are the backbone of Sri Lanka's economy beating tea and garments, and it is largely from these monies that we not only import our oil and wheat, but now also our coconuts and eggs and enable our MPs get duty-free cars, then there is a crying need for the Government to pay much more attention to this sector. It needs to strengthen our missions in these countries not with political stooges but efficient officials. At a political level, the need is for greater engagement with the leaders of those states than happens at present.

The people of this country have reason to salute these unsung heroes, the men and women toiling to keep the home fires of the citizenry burning. This would be an opportune moment to pay tribute to them and wish them well for the New Year.

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