As President Maithripala Sirisena steps into his third year in office, the country is poised to undertake a massive socio-economic development programme titled a “three-year programme for sustainable development.” The ‘three-years’ obviously refers to the remainder of the Government’s term, but the idea is that these development principles would essentially remain over the next decade at least regardless of political developments.
The complete scrapping of a previous Government’s programmes has usually been the practice when a new Government is elected, but the Maithripala Sirisena administration departed from this norm. It did pause a few development programmes for a while to asses their viability and financial background, but by and large many development programmes of the previous administration has been carried over. Unfortunately, the Government was saddled with a few ‘white elephant’ projects which are also being reinvigorated.
There were rumblings that the Government had ‘stopped’ development programmes, but the Government wanted to draw up a more comprehensive plan for development during the last two years. In the meantime, preliminary work on programmes such as the Western Province Megapolis Project took off. This is a massive project the like of which has never before been undertaken in Sri Lanka.
Almost at the start of the New Year, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe together opened several development projects in various parts of the country and the Prime Minister later outlined the Government’s economic vision for the next three years. This is a major challenge, given the economic downturn in most parts of the world, which does have an effect on Sri Lanka. But with the right mindset and hard work, Sri Lanka should be able to reach its goal of becoming a financial and economic hub that straddles regional powerhouses Dubai and Singapore, both of which are just four hours away from Sri Lanka by air.
This is the vision behind the two plans and documents unveiled last week - the three year sustainable development programme and “Sri Lanka towards powerhouse status” which outline the Government’s vision for economic prosperity and South Asian hub status. From the Hambantota Port to the Colombo International Financial City (Port City), Sri Lanka will have the infrastructure facilities necessary to become a financial hub for the region.
Investors will get a better deal under such a set-up. There will be new infrastructure links such as a Light Rail Transit (LRT), Bus Rapid Transit, new flyovers and expressways, electric railways, railway line extensions and best of all, virtually a brand new airport by 2020. First impressions of visitors to Sri Lanka do count, and it is important to have a state-of-the-art airport.
Sole runway at BIA
The overlay of the sole runway at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) which began last week will be the start of a massive US$ 400 million expansion project at the BIA implemented in partnership with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). It will include a new international terminal capable of handling the double-deck Airbus A380 plus a new domestic terminal. It will be one of the most eco-friendly airports in the world when completed. Domestic airports islandwide will be upgraded in line with this development and there will be a bigger role for Mattala.
We cannot live in isolation in a globalised economy. Just as physical links to other countries via ports and airports are essential, diplomatic links are even more crucial. Ending Sri Lanka’s isolation in the international community was one the major victories of the Maithripala Sirisena administration. Most Western countries used to shun Sri Lanka, but now they have enhanced their relationship with Sri Lanka. International relations are vital for our trade and development prospects.
Sri Lanka will soon have a number of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with several countries including China. Trade links with India will be strengthened under the Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement. As Sri Lanka has become a Middle Income country, OECD aid (in the form of outright grants) is generally on the decline. Thus trade has become a vital lifeline. The twin ports at Colombo and Hambantota will assume greater significance as Sri Lanka seeks to ramp up its exports over the next three years.
Enhanced relations with the EU
The restoration of fish exports to the EU and the imminent restoration of the GSP Plus facility of the EU will be an impetus to our exports. This was made possible by the Government’s enhanced relations with the EU which soured over human rights concerns earlier. Human rights are now a universal concern. This is indeed the logic behind the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) where other countries raise concerns over a given country’s HR record.
Sri Lanka experienced a hostile situation at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) during the previous regime over alleged human rights abuses and accountability issues following the end of the conflict.
It did appoint a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) which submitted a string of recommendations to achieve reconciliation. It was left to this Government to actually implement most of these recommendations. Instead of being hostile towards foreign Governments and individual officials, the Government has opted for constructive engagement with the international community. It is working towards a domestic accountability mechanism that will address certain issues raised by the global community.
Priority to reconciliation
The Government has given the highest priority to reconciliation and the creation of a truly Sri Lankan identity. In addition to various exercises already underway - from small gestures such as singing the National Anthem in Tamil to bigger ones such as handing over lands to displaced persons, the Government has also made it a point to make reconciliation and national unity the pivot of the proposed new Constitution which is in the process of being formulated.
If, at least by 2020 we can all proudly call ourselves Sri Lankan instead of identifying ourselves by community (Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher) as we usually do, these efforts will not be in vain. People expected a change for the better when they voted on January 8, 2015 and this will by far be the biggest change in our contemporary history.