Did the government use Sri Lanka’s Investment Forum organised by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce (CCC) this week to restart its development agenda, more than a year after the pandemic hit Sri Lanka? That’s what my good friend and know-all neighbour Haramanis of broken-English fame seems to think. We were on a call this Wednesday [...]

Business Times

Prioritising the priorities


Did the government use Sri Lanka’s Investment Forum organised by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce (CCC) this week to restart its development agenda, more than a year after the pandemic hit Sri Lanka?

That’s what my good friend and know-all neighbour Haramanis of broken-English fame seems to think.

We were on a call this Wednesday morning when he posed the question whether government leaders used the 3-day investment forum to promote investment and development in the country within the space of five years, arguing that he thought it was aimed at ‘developing as much as possible’ before the next election.

“You may be right,” I said in response adding: “The speeches by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa had similar sentiments of inviting investors to the country and that Sri Lanka was more aligned to non-debt inflows (foreign investments) than loans.”

“I say….….even ministers like Ali Sabry and Ajith Nivard Cabraal spoke of improving the justice system to make it more efficient and accessible and bringing improvements to Sri Lanka’s current rules to start a business or invest,” he said, but pointed out whether all this development should go ahead at the expense of not paying too much attention to COVID-19.

To some extent State Minister Cabraal answered this question during his presentation at this virtual investment summit which was attended by participants from over 80 countries.

Mr. Cabraal said that some people may question why Sri Lanka was paying attention to attracting investment and development when it is facing many challenges, foremost being the COVID-19 pandemic, for example. “Why not,” he asked, adding: “You continue to handle the challenges but don’t lose sight of the long term goal and vision (of developing the country).”

I concluded my conversation with Haramanis, who had followed more of the speeches at the virtual investment forum, after discussing many other points made at the event.

Soon after that I was drawn to another ‘discussion’ at the gate where the trio – Kussi Amma Sera, Mabel Rasthiyadu and Serapina – were engaged in conversation with Aldoris, the choon-paan karaya.

It was also an opportunity for the trio to have their regular discussion under the pretext of buying buns and ‘maalu paans’ from the modified tuk-tuk vendor as gatherings are banned under COVID-19 rules. “Mata kata-kathawak ahuna mulu rata-tama andiri neethiya danna yanawa kiyala (I heard some rumours of an islandwide curfew being imposed),” said Kussi Amma Sera.

“Eka aththa-nam, mage paan bisness eka karanna beri-wei (If that is true, then I won’t be able to do my bread business),” grumbled Aldoris.

“Mokakda andiri neethiya saha sancharana seema athara venasa (What is the difference between a curfew and travel restrictions?)” asked Serapina. “Matath e-deke venasa gena therumak-ne (Even I cannot understand the difference),” said Mabel Rasthiyadu.

“Mama hithanawa seema-neethi wedi kiyala andiri neethiya yatathe (I think there will be more restrictions if a curfew is imposed),” said Kussi Amma Sera.

“Mata loku prashnayak mathuwenna yanne, mage kaema vikuna ganna (I will have a serious problem selling my bakery items),” said a worried Aldoris.

While the travel restrictions have allowed essential services to function, the worst affected are the daily wage earners who are not permitted to work unless they belong to an essential service. In most cases, these daily wage earners don’t have food on the table for their families. They don’t have the money to purchase food from takeaway restaurants and hotels which middle-class families are doing at the moment, in addition to cooking at home since they have some income from the work-from-home environment.

While government leaders used the investment forum to proclaim that Sri Lanka is back in business, there were more development projects initiated this week giving some indication that the government is on a huge development drive to woo back voters, many of whom have been disillusioned with the authorities. Government popularity is at a low ebb these days due to farmers being confronted with the human-elephant conflict and the unavailability of fertiliser (the government says there are enough stocks, but farmers are quoted in the media daily, complaining that there is no fertiliser available for the current season) and delays in the COVID-19 vaccination of communities outside Colombo and the Western Province, among a plethora of other issues.

This week the government launched work on 5-6 overhead bridges, announced plans to redevelop 100 cities and spoke of industrial expansion plans outside the capital with investments of Rs. 100 million each at Divisional Secretariat levels.

National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak Head Army Commander Gen. Shavendra Silva also gave an assurance at the investment forum that Sri Lanka’s entire population will be vaccinated by early next year, which would help spur development work.

But are we getting our priorities right? On the priority agenda of the government is building elevated highways (with a Chinese company in a build, operate and transfer mechanism); flyovers; school car parks; and offering long leases to develop several heritage sites in Fort, among other developments.

The government has also gone back on its announcement to suspend the import of luxury vehicles for 225 parliamentarians which it did following widespread protests that importing vehicles for MPs was not a priority at all during the pandemic crisis. This week, reports said that the government would go ahead with the imports as Letters of Credit have already been opened and Sri Lanka risks getting black-listed in the international financial markets where LCs once open are not withdrawn. Some of these vehicles were cleared this week from the port. This is at a time when the country is in dire financial straits and importing luxury vehicles should be the furthest in its priorities.

Also in terms of priority, the government needs to seriously consider providing funding and concessions to students who are forced to rely on online classes.

How many rural students have access to a computer or for that matter the funds to pay for mobile phone data to access the Internet to follow classes? There is also a need to improve the coverage of mobile phone providers in these areas. We earlier reported an instance where students in a remote village in the Puttalam district would climb a water tower to get a better mobile phone signal to listen to online classes. Who looks after their needs? The people’s representatives (MPs) who are complaining that they don’t have luxury vehicles to meet the people!

There was also a news item stating that the Education Ministry had refused to pay for data used by teachers for online classes as it didn’t have enough funds. Isn’t this totally unfair? Teachers need to be reimbursed and a part of that investment could have come from the import costs of luxury vehicles which amounts to billions of rupees.

As I wound up my column, a beaming Kussi Amma Sera came into the room with my second mug of tea. “Ah…..yaluwo hamu-wuna neda (Ah… you met your friends),” I said. She laughed and as she walked out, I reflected on the government’s need to prioritise on its list of priorities instead of spending haphazardly.

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