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Sunday, 6 March 2016

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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 economy.

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.


Weaker sex?

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 political decision-making.

On March 8, when the world will celebrate International Women's Day, let us look to a future of genuine gender equality.

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