It was another lockdown period with the week ahead full of uncertainty and by the time this column reaches you on Sunday courtesy your favourite Sunday newspaper, we would know whether the lockdown will be continued or not for a third week. While we are ravaged by news of new variants and mutations of the [...]

Business Times

Difficult choices


It was another lockdown period with the week ahead full of uncertainty and by the time this column reaches you on Sunday courtesy your favourite Sunday newspaper, we would know whether the lockdown will be continued or not for a third week.

While we are ravaged by news of new variants and mutations of the COVID-19 virus, for the moment this Thursday morning, the news of the week was the food emergency though government ministers painfully try to project an image that there is no reason to panic and enough food was available. If that was the case, why declare an emergency and appoint a special commissioner to deal with the ‘food crisis’ and trigger worries among the larger population that the government was arming itself with emergency powers that could also stifle dissent?

The food crisis and in particular the sugar issue was on the minds of the trio who had gathered under the margosa tree this morning. “Eh kaale wage, 1970 ganan wala wage, polim yugaya avillada? Janathawata polime inna weida haal saha paan gediyak ganna (Has the queue era emerged again like those days, the 1970s? Will we have to stay in a queue to get rice or a loaf of bread),” asked Kussi Amma Sera.

“Sathose den denne seeni kilowak witharai. Eka davas dekakata athi hathara denek inna pavulakata (They are only giving one kilo of sugar at Sathosa outlets. That is enough for only two days for a family of four),” noted Serapina.

Mae theerana hinda me wasangatha kale, aanduwa apakeerthiyata path wela inne (The government has become very unpopular with these measures in the midst of the pandemic),” added Mabel Rasthiyadu.

As I watched the trio in action while sipping my morning mug of tea, the phone rang. It was my banker friend Seeni Bola (so named by friends after he once boasted that other banks were handling ‘seeni bola’ deposits compared to his bank) who was in the mood to discuss the economy.

“I was thinking of asking you whether the government should put on hold its development agenda and resort to ‘survival’ mode. There are many projects like beautifying several cities that are not essential when we are in the midst of the worst crisis the world has faced,” he said.

“I think you are right. When it comes to development versus survival or sustenance, I think we need to go into crisis mode and put all our resources towards dealing with the pandemic as our priority. A sick population and growing number of deaths will deal a bigger blow to the economy than trying to ignore these factors,” I said.

“I want to share a very salient thought (relating to the politics of a country), by James Freeman Clarke, an American theologian and author, relevant at these times. He says a politician thinks of the next election, while a statesman thinks of the next generation: A politician looks for the success of his party; a statesman for that of his country,” he said, earnestly sharing these thoughts.

Understandably, the government is faced with difficult choices; open up to save the economy and face the consequences of more deaths and a rising number of cases. State Finance Minister Ajit Nivard Cabraal is constantly stressing the dangers of a prolonged lockdown and its economic impact. On the other hand, health professionals are stressing that not enforcing a lockdown would result in an increasing number of cases which could wipe out a part of the workforce.

After resisting calls for a lockdown, the government bowed to pressure since the number of COVID-19 cases was on the rise. “Along with the many problems we are facing, we are also confronted with rationing of essential items,” said Seeni Bola, reviving the conversation.

“Yeah, earlier it was rationing of letters of credit by banks due to a shortage of dollars. Now it is rationing of sugar and very soon many other essential items. It’s a case of going back to the 1970s when food was scarce and food queues were commonplace – and this in a modern society,” I said.

“The public should also take the blame for the rising number of COVID-19 cases. Even during lockdown, many people are getting onto the streets for non-essential reasons. Masks are not properly worn and social distancing is observed in the breach. The public has a huge responsibility and the government cannot be faulted if there is no public support for the COVID-19 measures,” he said. “Oh yes. I agree with you,” I said, winding up the conversation.

On the point that the government needs to place the country on an emergency footing (by using normal laws at its disposal and without resorting to dreaded emergency rule), what needs to be done is to come up with a list of doable development projects which don’t need much finance and channel the unused funds to fight the pandemic and for economic recovery measures.

Last week the Business Times reported that amidst empty coffers, the government has drawn up plans to complete 121 mega-scale development projects this year. These are part of the 319 projects which are to be completed during the period of 2021-2030. Work on only three projects has been completed as most of them slowed down or were halted due to financial constraints and COVID-19 situations, it was reported

The approximate total investment of these 319 projects is Rs. 6,744 billion, while the total allocation for 2021 is Rs. 692.5 billion, according to a Cabinet memorandum presented by Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa. The government is struggling for funds and at the same time losing Rs. 522 billion per annum in revenue owing to tax amendments/benefits introduced in 2020.

There is a dire need to make adjustments in the economic policy direction and as stated above put non-essential development projects on hold and channel these resources to battling the pandemic and for economic recovery measures.

These were my final thoughts as I wound up the column and accepted with gratitude Kussi Amma Sera’s second mug of tea.

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