By mid 2021 large numbers of young people were seen to be queuing up at our passport office. So much so that former president, turned prime Minister and now MP Mahinda Rajapaksa was force to remark that the young people who voted the government into office were now fleeing the country in apparent despair.
The reasons were clear enough, by early 2022 the country was facing rolling power cuts, small and medium industries were closing down, people were losing employment, the cost of living was soaring.
By April as protests against the regime spread, in May premier Rajapaksa was forced to resign and Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed PM in his stead. The situation worsened with the cost of living soaring while salaries remained stagnant. Soon basic commodities such as food, fuel cooking gas, kerosene and basic foods became unavailable.
The president’s sudden ban of agrochemicals saw the collapse of the agricultural sector and brought the farming community too onto the streets. Faced with unending protests, growing violence, inability to repay foreign loans and no foreign currency to to import essentials because of bankruptcy; in July president Gotabaya fled the country and premier Wickremesinghe was appointed in his stead.
Thanks to an Indian credit line and the streamlining of distribution networks of basic commodities, the new president was able mitigate the shortage of basics. However while basics still remain beyond the reach of many families they are available in the market.
In order to repay our foreign debt the country applied to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a debt restructuring facility. In March this year the IMF approved a $US2.9 billion bailout loan to the Sri Lankan government over four years.
While the loan provided a life-line to our crisis-hit economy, it also ties government to imposing unprecedented austerity programme based on IMF requirements.
Resultantly, deep cuts have been made into social services adversely affecting living conditions. Included was also a huge devaluation of the rupee, curtailing imports, cuts in subsidies, increases in fuel, electricity and water tariffs.
These devastating inroads into the social fabric of working people come on top of the economic crisis which has sent prices soaring, created widespread shortages of basic goods and left many families malnourished.
Among other measures government had to agree to reach an agreement with the IMF included the divestment of several state owned enterprises (SOE).
The fallout of the IMF deal has led the cost of living to more than double. A ‘Daily Mirror’ study showed in 2016 the costs of 14 essential items which cost to Rs. 4,117.50 had increased to Rs. 11,048 by 2022. Yet salaries have remained static and in some instances had been lowered. Today prices have risen even higher.
The major opposition parties do not oppose the IMF facility but protest the austerity measures. The Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) leader has said a future government under him would not be obliged to support deals with the International Monetary Fund or any other international funding agency.
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake told a “Swarnavahini” talk show that Sri Lanka had “no other alternative to going to the IMF”.
But the party supports work stoppages and street protests.
What we need today, are not pompous statements of how badly the masses suffer -it is the masses who are living it, and they know it.
We need to know how parties in opposition plan to bring down the cost of living. We need to know if they plan to raise wages without increasing inflation.
Workers need a wage where they can afford to provide their children with a quality food and education.
We want to know how the opposition expects to raise the earnings of the Exchequer so that we do not need to borrow more and more to meet our import bill, without increasing taxes on a long-suffering people
If they have a plan for import substitution, let’s hear it.
Our people need to see a specific plans, so that they can make an enlightened choice in the event an election is called.