Counting the cost
From 2005 to 2015, the country resounded with brazenly duplicitous
governmental pronouncements: 'peace' was promised through all-out war, 'honour'
was assured as a result of this war, the war itself was declared
'humanitarian' and finally, the terrible human toll was denied until
satellite photography revealed the bloody truth.
Meanwhile, even as the north-east tragedy proceeded, the rest of the
country raved over a 'beautification' of a single city even as other
cities and the country's villages led their usual hum-drum life in the
face of growing living costs. Asphalt carpeted roads by-passed swathes
of forgotten and under-developed rural areas with their rutted roads and
corruption-ridden, somnolent, governing bodies. Politicians waxed
eloquent over the battle feats of the military even as greedy fingers
dipped into the lucrative plunder of national wealth via massive
construction works and stock market gimmickry.
Massive infrastructure projects with little relation to actual
national needs and long term development objectives were launched for
the glory of the rulers. Financing, on the basis of expensive loans
taken with an eye to kickbacks, was easy and, the huge borrowings only
grew as the 'projects' grew in number. Seduced by victories in the war
and the gloss of 'beautification', the bulk of society buried its nose
in TV screens and indulged in dance shows. No one wanted to listen to
the warnings of the economists, business leaders and social activists
all of whom raised the alarm of future financial accountability. Such
voices were dismissed as being part of 'international conspiracies'
aiming to subvert ethno-nationalist heroics.
Today, the country must count the cost. The human cost as a result of
the war is now being addressed by various new organisations and groups
in their bold initiatives to bring about social justice to those who
have suffered immensely due to the blind violence of ethnic hatred on
all sides. The economic cost is far more complex and less obvious to
those who cannot immediately fathom the intricacies of balance of
payments, surpluses, credit shortfalls, market valuations and financial
rating down-grades. Just because a real social peace is now being
attempted, it has not meant a rush of foreign investors. Entrepreneurs,
especially the already-fattened Western investors, won't come if the
perceived uncertainty remains high. And, as always, the easiest credit
access is for expensive commercial loans and not concessionary ones.
Thus, today, despite all its Herculean efforts, the government has yet
to adequately deal with the enormous challenge of a battered national
The challenge is to enforce economic discipline on a populace already
weighed down by a weak currency and a barely controlled inflation. That
the cost of living remains high but somewhat under control is all credit
to the economic planners. It is not enough, though. The need for greater
revenue internally is more than a financial challenge. The holding of a
second Cabinet meeting on Friday, in addition to the usual weekly one on
Wednesday, shows that the Government is determined to face, without
delay, the political challenge of implementing socially sensitive
revenue earning and expenditure saving measures.
Even as probably the best group of minds at governmental level in
over a decade grapples with the challenge of an ailing economy, there
are on-going socio-economic issues that must be dealt with sensitively.
The National Unity coalition, itself, is a fragile, experimental
government that combines both normally rival political parties in a
regime that aims at simultaneously resolving the political as well as
economic crises. Even as the ethnic minorities begin to see some
heartening steps in the right direction, it is important that other
marginalised social interest groups such as the impoverished rural
communities, are also not ignored. The Rajapaksa regime, in its
narcissistic self-aggrandizement, ignored the rural poor and learned a
bitter lesson in the Uva provincial election of 2014. It was that
political demographic which, just a few months later, taught a hard
lesson to a regime that, in its sheer naivety, chose to follow astrology
to guide its political fortunes.
The Unity government, true to its commitment to crisis management,
needs all the support it can get from the citizenry that once indulged
in nationalistic self-delusion and must now understand the lessons of
recent history: nothing comes easy, neither peace nor prosperity.
At one time they were known as the 'weaker sex'. In some circles -
quite large male circles, especially - women are yet regarded to be so.
But increasingly in this modern age, society, including the male of the
species, has begun to see women in a new light.
The dramatically sensationalised role of women combatants in numerous
insurgencies and even state military operations may have played a role
in highlighting the new 'tough' image of women. But the reality of the
might of women has been driven home in a far more constructive and
enduring way: the economic contribution of women to society. Sri Lanka
is a living example of women as the biggest contributors to the
country's foreign exchange earnings, whether it has been in the
century-old tea industry, or the garments industry or, through the
remittances sent by over a million Sri Lankan women working primarily as
lowly house maids in foreign lands.
The might of Sri Lankan women is there to see in the new village
homes built from their earnings, the improved life-style of their
families - despite the occasional alcoholism and infidelity of their men
- and in local micro-enterprise start-ups with hard-earned capital. The
voice of women is yet to be heard, though, and depends on how much
society appreciates their rise and provides them with access to
On March 8, when the world will celebrate International Women's Day,
let us look to a future of genuine gender equality.