The Government forewarned it was coming, and on this rare occasion kept its word as well, hitting the people right in the stomach with unprecedented price hikes on essential food items and consumer goods. And now, the public is told, there’s more to come. Removing price controls had to be done because traders were running [...]


Is there a way out for people caught in price tsunami?


The Government forewarned it was coming, and on this rare occasion kept its word as well, hitting the people right in the stomach with unprecedented price hikes on essential food items and consumer goods. And now, the public is told, there’s more to come. Removing price controls had to be done because traders were running rings round the authorities. From rice to milk foods, the Government lost the battle to rein them in. The Consumer Affairs Authority that is expected to protect the consumer is a powerless bystander. The poorer segments of the country are left to their own devices for survival. Corruption is rampant at every level and ghouls in state institutions are feeding on the misery of the poor.

Prices of cooking gas have doubled and the combo of price increases coming in a flood has impacted strongly on fixed salaried employees in the public sector, those in the private sector who have had their salaries cut by half and those in sectors that have taken the brunt of the pandemic like the hospitality and automobile industry workers and the small enterprises with no income being generated.

That is not all. Inept Government agricultural policy has compounded issues both for the farmer and the consumer alike. The drop in harvests of fruit and vegetables is evident already and paddy farmers are walking out in protest from “Kanna Rasweem”, the agricultural meetings held prior to the release of irrigation waters for cultivation because of the fertiliser ban. They ask if all the farmers and a vast majority of soil scientists and agriculturists are raving lunatics and only the ruling politicians are in their right minds to slap an immediate ban on the use of chemical fertiliser.

The Government has been forced to reverse some of these knee-jerk decisions. It has agreed to allow fertiliser imports for the tea industry. The import of low quality organic fertiliser has resulted in a spat between Chinese and Sri Lankan authorities. While the blame game continues, the domestic food supply system is teetering on the edge of a breakdown.

The next attraction, coming soon to a shed near you is the petrol, diesel and kerosene price hike. World prices have also shot up. There’s a sudden surge in energy requirements in Europe with lockdowns easing, shooting oil prices upward. Greater demand for coal is disrupting plans for a greener world. The Government is looking all over the world for easy payment terms to purchase the next shipment of oil.

Once these prices increase, local food prices will go still higher. In the midst of this emergency situation all kinds of questionable ‘deals’ seem to be taking place with the least amount of transparency. It is anything but an easy payment loan being negotiated by the Petroleum Corporation (CPC) with an American lending agency for a massive USD 2.5 billion loan at 3 percent interest over 12 years with the ‘facilitating agent’ getting a whopping 7 percent commission. The annual interest payable is in the hundreds of millions of dollars (See page 1 of today’s Business Times section).

Meanwhile, local eateries are complaining that the recent price increases of bread and flour based products are insufficient to meet costs. That is when one is reminded of the local idiom translated to the man who fell from the tree getting gored by the bull.

There will be socioeconomic knock-on effects from all these price hikes. Bribery and crime rates rising will be the order of the day — and the night. Surely, the Government, which claims it has the confidence of the people already buffeted by the pandemic, will need to ensure a secure safety net for the poorer folks if they are not to be driven to the brink. Instead, it seems a; ‘Everyman for himself and God for all” policy that is in place.

The new Non-Alignment Lanka faces

 The newly independent nations of the post-World War II years ganged up to protect themselves from the pulls and pressures of the victorious superpowers, viz. the United States of America and the former Soviet Union as they were carving up a neo-colonial world with veto powers in the United Nations. These nations banded themselves into the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) 60 years ago this month.

There was hardly any meaningful celebration to mark the occasion either locally or abroad.

Sri Lanka was once the chairperson of NAM (1976-79), but the world has changed dramatically in the past six decades when the likes of Nehru, Nyerere, Nasser, Tito, Castro, Sukarno, Kaunda and Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike gave leadership to the Movement comprising more than two-thirds of the world’s countries, especially those in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Somewhere in the late 1970s, early 1980s, NAM began disintegrating as individual member-states started aligning themselves with one or other of the superpowers. President J.R. Jayewardene said that non-alignment was the “golden thread that runs through the fabric of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy”, but he also cynically noted at the time there were only two Non-Aligned countries in the world, viz., USA and the former Soviet Union.

As it happened, China — which took part in the inaugural meeting in Bandung, Indonesia that set the stage for NAM — is itself a superpower today and dragging countries like Sri Lanka into its orbit. India, which once signed a Friendship Treaty with the Soviet Union while remaining in NAM has now turned to the US for a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue commonly called ‘Quad’ with Japan and Australia.

These two newly emerging superpowers of today are what are more relevant to Sri Lanka, no longer the former Soviet Union or the US. This is the new era and the new ‘Cold War’ that confronts Sri Lanka. And how to balance the country’s foreign policy staying non-aligned to either while both those countries keep a telescopic watch on the happenings in Sri Lanka offering carrots (loans, aid, currency-swaps) and breathing down with stick (demands for port facilities).

‘Soft power’ diplomacy is also at work. Come Wednesday (Poya), the Indian Government will be taking a planeload of dignitaries for the opening of an international airport at Kushinagar, where the Buddha passed away. The Indo-Pacific region has widespread Buddhist influence and China will not allow India to outsmart it with any ‘Buddhist diplomacy’ one-upmanship in Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and other ASEAN countries.

This then, is the new Non-Alignment Sri Lanka faces with the old Non-Aligned Movement quietly fading into extinction.

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