Serapina was livid. She had gone to Fort the other day on some work but had to return due to traffic congestion and some roads being closed due to a protest. “Balanna-ko Akke, loku virodhata nisa mata mage veda karaganna bari vuna (See Sister, because of protests I could not get my work done),” she [...]

Business Times

Street wars


Serapina was livid. She had gone to Fort the other day on some work but had to return due to traffic congestion and some roads being closed due to a protest.

“Balanna-ko Akke, loku virodhata nisa mata mage veda karaganna bari vuna (See Sister, because of protests I could not get my work done),” she grumbled.

“Den virodhata hema velema, hema thenama thiyanawa (There are protests every time and everywhere,” said Kussi Amma Sera.

“Meva navathvanna rajayata nohaki bava penawa (The government seems unable to stop these),” declared Mabel Rasthiyadu, seated under the margosa tree, sipping a cup of tea.

These comments connected with a personal experience the other day when I too had to return to my office unable to get to Fort for an appointment.

Over the past few months and years, Sri Lankans working in Colombo have been experiencing huge disruptions in the Fort and Kollupitiya areas with protestors targeting either Temple Trees (the Prime Minister’s Office) or the Presidential Secretariat to vent their anger against the authorities.

A pitiful sight the other day was when a retired disabled soldier, during a protest by disabled soldiers, climbed a lamp post and in doing so his artificial leg fell off. In these protests, there has been one significant feature – the regular closure of Lotus Road in Fort, near the Ministry of Finance and the Presidential Secretariat.

Consider a few of these newspaper headlines:

‘Lotus Road closed due to protest by teachers, principals’ – September 26
‘Lotus Road closes due to disabled soldiers protest’ – September 24
‘Lotus Road closes due to protest by unemployed graduates’ – September 16
‘Lotus Road closes due to university graduates’ protest’ – August 28
‘Lotus Road closes due to protests by state workers’ – July 10

In one wry Facebook comment, a Colombo resident said Lotus Road should be renamed ‘Closing Road’ to reflect the regularity with which this road is closed to traffic.

As these headlines show, protests and demonstrations are largely carried out by undergraduates making various demands, railway workers, university academic and non-academic staff, disabled soldiers, teachers and principals, nurses, state workers of many other categories and medical officers, among others. Some are politically motivated, the others have genuine grievances.

It has often led to street wars between police armed with water-cannons and tear-gas against mostly undergraduates and others.
Thursday was a bright and sunny morning and after two days of pouring rain this was a morning to cherish. Kussi Amma Sera had woken up early, also rejuvenated by the sunny morning and brought my cup of tea which I was sipping when the phone rang.

It was ‘Nana’ Mohideen, the jolly trader from Moneragala, on the line. “I came to do some important work in Colombo but got delayed by the protests,” he said, grumpily. “Opps,” I said.

“I had to see several people but the bus got stuck in traffic. Why are there so many protests in Colombo,” he asked.

“Some of the reasons might be because these protestors face many issues and also because during the previous regime, people were scared to resort to protests which were often dealt with brute force,” I said.

“But how can you work with protests happening daily,” he said.

“You have a point,” I agreed.

There is no calculation of how much these lost hours on the road costs the economy. It’s anybody’s guess and could cost millions of rupees in lost working hours. Let’s do a simple calculation: If for example 1,000 people spent two hours idling on the road – caught up in traffic during a protest – that would work out to 2,000 hours per day; equal to 40,000 hours when multiplied by 20 days (everyday barring the weekends in a month).

This multiplied by 12 months equals 480,000 hours lost per year per 1,000 persons due to protests. This is just the tip of the iceberg and could mean thousands of hours more lost by people on the roads.

These protests not only cripple the economy but also deter foreign investments, erode consumer sentiment and increase the country’s fuel bill – more time spent on roads means more fuel burnt.

As I finished my call with ‘Nana’ Mohideen, the phone rang again. This time it was Arthika, my nonsensical economist friend, on the line. He wanted to discuss a similar experience – getting trapped on the roads during a demonstration.

“I say, these protests are killing the economy,” he said.

“It is..….and I was just now on the line with our friend ‘Nana’ Mohideen discussing the same issue,” I said.

“Already economic growth is down. If you measure the number of hours lost due to protests and demonstrations, the additional cost to the economy would be phenomenal,” he said.

“It is. Some institution – maybe the Central Bank or the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) – needs to do a study on the economic cost of these disruptions,” I said.

Sometime ago, an IPS study on the cost of the civil conflict was measured in economic terms around 1997 to amount to twice Sri Lanka’s 1996 GDP since it began (1983). The conflict saw foreign investors like Motorola, Harris and Sanyo withdraw plans to invest in the country.

That conflict deterred growth and saw tourist arrivals drop sharply.

One redeeming feature is that these protests are essentially only concentrated in one or two locations in Colombo – Kollupitiya and Lotus Road in Fort – and not spread across the country. If they were occurring all over the country, it would have meant a staggering number in lost hours!

Apart from the economic loss from the number of hours lost on the road, the economy has also been hit by crippling droughts on one hand and thunderstorms that have wreaked havoc on paddy cultivation and other crops on the other hand, this year. The Central Bank has estimated economic growth to fall to around 2.9 per cent this year compared to an early 2019 forecast of 4 per cent, largely due to the fallout from the Easter Sunday bombings and their impact on the economy, mainly tourism.

This would be lower than the GDP growth of 3.2 per cent in 2018 and 3.4 per cent the previous year.

To get a breath of fresh air, I walked out of the house and found Kussi Amma Sera and her friends still chatting under the margosa tree. “Aney Sir, apey ratata mokakda vuna (Sir, what has happened to our country),” asked Serapina.

I nodded in dejection, wondering – like anyone else – whether or not the forthcoming Presidential election will usher in a new era for Sri Lanka.

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