Sri Lanka is often spoken of as one of the worst affected countries economically from the COVID-19 pandemic. Fitch Ratings last November made it look worse. COVID-19 did affect the economy no doubt with lockdowns and isolations over almost nine months last year and still continuing. But we were no better even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Pre-pandemic Sri Lanka is one major fact that is not brought into discussion when getting “back to normalcy” is spoken about.
“Economists and Financial experts” with high profile designations continue to publicly advise the government on how the economy could be pulled out of the rut. They stress on the need to provide more incentives for “foreign direct investments” (FDI). Need to leverage private investments for infrastructure development and perhaps introduce import controls only on short term basis till the economy picks up. Most believe, “tourism” should have priority attention. They also compromise on money printing to set aside local debt. International Reserves, Sovereign debt, GDP, inflation is among other terms thrown into the fray.
We are thus talking of a free-market economy that had failed us all through 40 years in improving the quality and living standard of the People in this country
This is about the “old normalcy” that has more ills than cures. This was when we were wholly dependent on FDIs and export manufacture to the global market. When we were part of the global market economy tragedies like Carbon dioxide emissions, climate change, global warming and growing disparity between the global rich and the poor. In our own context massive deforestation, regular landslides, floods, increasing socio-economic disparity, growing corruption and crimes in society are extensions of global tragedies on our free-market economy.
We are thus talking of a free-market economy that had failed us all through 40 years in improving the quality and living standard of the People in this country. It had left the entirety of the rural society and the urban poor outside the expanding Colombo middle-class market and had allowed socio-economic disparity to continuously grow. These are issues never focussed on when Economists and Financial Experts propose remedies for the future. Do they expect in the next few years, a “trickledown effect” to the peripheries from market expansion in the City? These economists and financial experts seem unaware there was no “trickledown effect” to the peripheries during the past 40 years. They also don’t seem to bother finding answers to any of these socio-economic issues within their hyped proposals for economic revival.
Proposals for resurrecting the free-market economy pays no attention to the major issues of eroding democracy with widespread corruption and politicised administration
Two, they leave out the major political issue of breakdown of law enforcement and public administration. In short, the issue of “failed governance” in this mega corrupt, free-market economy during the past decades is never even mentioned. Proposals for resurrecting the free-market economy pays no attention to the major issues of eroding democracy with widespread corruption and politicised administration. They conveniently separate the country’s economy from its political anarchy that over decades led to social insecurity and breakdown.
Three, free-market economies cannot exist without mega corruption. That is the ground rule and with that during the past 40 years, filthy rich business dealers emerged with political and State patronage. Big business dealers funded election campaigns, invested in media and virtually bought over major political parties. The State apparatus in its entirety including law enforcement turned corrupt to the core and is inefficient. The judiciary has lost social trust and credibility. Every single profession including academia turned utterly selfish and corrupt.
Next, free-market economies are strictly “megacity centred” in every aspect; consumption, job creation, investments, wealth accumulation, entertainment and in everything else with profits. Rapidly changing Colombo city’s skyline is proof where money circulates and accumulates. Rural society is left with subsistence farming. Rural poor promoted for migrant labour in the Mid East and now stranded amidst the pandemic are not even considered for repatriation. The IPS report “Sri Lanka: the State of the Economy 2018” notes, “Inadequacy of opportunities in predominantly rural districts, is one of the main reasons for the significant gaps in income levels among regions.”
Most unfortunately, free-market economies thrive on majoritarian racist and religious extremism. It is that in Myanmar and in all South Asian (SA) societies including Sri Lanka. The vast majority of the rural poor are mobilised on racist and religious “patriotism” with minorities shown as a “threat”. It wasn’t different even in Trump’s America, with Capitol Hill invaded by violent White American supremacists.
It is also important to note, economic failures and bankruptcies in free-market economies, contrary to theoretical demands for a “reduced role of the State”, turns them into very repressive politicalised States that make a mockery of democracy.
It is therefore worth asking, “with 40 years of free-market economy, have we developed into a decent and civilised society?” Far from all that. We lived with grave crimes including 875 abductions and kidnappings, 289 rape cases (these are only reported cases) against women, 1,185 statutory rape cases (below 16 years with consent) and 305 statutory rape cases (below 16 years without consent), 114 reported cases of sexual exploitation and cruelty to children and 4,340 drugs and narcotic cases in 2019 alone, according to statistics from the
A case study titled “Structural Transformation of Society and Development of Criminality: A Case Study from Sri Lanka – 2016” by a Rajarata University Senior Lecturer Samantha Ekanayake says, of the convicted prisoners in 2011, there were 2,259 who were post-graduates. This number he says had increased to 2,574 in 2013. Crimes are no more restricted to “illiterates” in this free-market economy.
All crimes committed were within a socio-political context bred and nurtured in a free-market economy. Raking in profits have no ethics and morals attached. Profit-making goes beyond serving the rich middle-class with a surplus in the purse. It is also about roping in lower-income earners through credit cards, long and short-term loans, aggressive leasing packages and also with ruthless micro-financing that reach out to the desperate rural poor. Majority poor are turned into eternal debtors struggling to keep ends meet.
Such societies have no time and space for humanity, empathy, ethics, morals, discipline and a need for functional democracy. Though economists and financial experts prefer to ignore we were in a criminalised society, that was where we were when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. Corruption and crime were partners in a horribly misgoverned country by all elected governments, one after another. This was shamelessly exhibited and proved in public during the 2018 October-December political fiasco in parliament. That was quite different from protesting “White Supremacists” led by extremist groups like “Gab and Parler” breaking into Capitol Hill in Washington DC on 06 January (2021). Here it was elected MPs who ran amok damaging furniture and fixtures in parliament. No political party ever decided to punish their MPs who acted like hooligans, insulting the People who voted them to parliament. No one was even charged for the damage caused to public property.
That same rotten culture was brought back with major political alliances accommodating the same men and women at the last elections too. It was that same political parties who opposed each other at elections sans any decent political programme who were funded by business dealers. They now have influence over government policy. That was no different in pre-COVID-19 as well.
Economies decide and design governing politics, its structures and its social partners. To that extent, economies and not Constitutions decide functional aspects of democracies. Extremely corrupt free-market economies turn functional democracies into procedural democracies as in SA that includes us, SL too. Elections in SA that in the 50s and the 60s established governments that to a fair degree were held responsible to the “voter” are no more than that. Political party leaderships have distanced themselves from People while elections have been turned into procedural events. Governments elected, therefore, don’t hold themselves responsible to the voter in free-market economies, but decide in favour of business. Will of the People ends there and not thereafter.
Thus, expert advice and measures proposed for economic revival with no attention paid to what Sri Lanka lived with pre-COVID-19 pandemic, are mere “painkillers” to get back to the “ailing economy” that was nauseatingly corrupt and misgoverned in the most irresponsible, inefficient manner for 40 years under every government. We, therefore, have to now talk of economic revival for a “new future” that would not be another pre-COVID-19 pandemic era. Talk of economic revival for a future with decent, civilised and democratic governance with People’s participation. In short and in plain language, talking economics without talking democratic governance is simply unnecessary.