Post-Independence Economic, Political Transformation | Daily News
Defusing Foreign Interferences and Influences

Post-Independence Economic, Political Transformation

Unity in diversity, our strength
Unity in diversity, our strength

We need to stop blaming our past or politicians, appreciate our achievements, understand what needs to be achieved and see through the smokescreen to the reality of powers that rule us if we are to defuse adverse foreign interferences and influences. This is in a nutshell the gist of the views held by the former Central Bank Governor Ajith Cabraal. He believes economic stability is the key to independence.

There is a general misconception that our governance has failed since 1948, observes Cabraal. While not equating our politicians to angels or entertaining any such illusions, he disagrees with the assertion that we as a nation have digressed after gaining Independence or that our political leaders have been completely incompetent in addressing national needs.

In fact, he is of the firm opinion that we have made much progress because of Independence.

“At the point of Independence we had only two universities - now we have 17 State universities and 45 private universities; we have an intake of about 45,000 undergraduates for graduate programmes each year - before Independence it was only 200; there were only about 3,000 schools, but today there are 10,100; only one percent had electricity and running water - today 99 percent have electricity and 70 percent running water,” listed Cabraal as he explained the transformation Sri Lanka has seen since the end of the European forced occupation.

“These investments came after Independence,” he emphasized. “Before, people were suffering from extreme poverty. Seventy percent did not have shoes.”

“Our economy was limited to tea, coconut and rubber.” Even basic infrastructure, he points out, as roads and railways were done to support the interests of the occupiers as these export agriculture. This has changed, Cabraal asserted.

“In all fairness to the Sri Lankan leaders,” says Cabraal, “there had been a transformation. There is a lot more inclusivity and more professionally qualified and educated people with university degrees. There has also been a tremendous improvement in our industries, roads, telecommunications, harbours and airports.”

“At the same time,” underlines Cabraal, “we must realize a lot more needs to be done.”

Inclusivity After Independence

English proficiency, vital for success.

Former Supreme Court judge who became the first Chief Minister of the Northern Province and current Parliamentarian CV Vigneswaran told this writer that English was the equalizer between the Sinhala and Tamil communities. The English language gave the minority Tamil population an equal platform as the majority Sinhalese, he claimed.

In theory this may make sense. However, the ground reality was that when in 1956 Sinhala was pronounced as the official language with special provisions for the usage of Tamil language in the North and East where the Tamil population was significant, less than five percent could converse or comprehend English.

This meant that the ordinary citizen, regardless of ethnicity, was greatly hindered from conducting everyday, ordinary matters, says Bishop Shantha. He recalls that when English was the official language, even a simple telegram needed to be sent in English.

Since many did not know the language, they had to wait for the services of a translator. He remembers that it sometimes took hours to procure such services, even for an urgent matter as a telegram. This was an era when other telecommunication services were solely lacking. Thus, the inability to send an urgent message across for the simple need of a translator was very taxing.

This problem disappeared overnight when Sinhala was made the official language, observed Bishop Shantha. This was primarily because at the time over 95 percent were familiar with the Sinhala language.

Though the act to replace English with Sinhala as the administrative language drew much flak, it translated into a significant social migration. Many who were stuck under the poverty line could move ahead with new vocations and professions as the administration was conducted in a language understood and used by many.

These progressive steps towards social integration however have gone largely unnoticed. Since the Act was passed to recognize Sinhala and not English as the official language, it has been charged that it has penalized and marginalized the Tamils.

Yet, Tamil language too was recognized in 1987 as an official language of Sri Lanka. Yet, Tamils in certain areas of the North and East - where Sinhalese en mass or mostly have been expelled - feel disconnected. This is not surprising.

There has been a national effort to get everyone trilingual, but it has failed. This is not because of any oversight but rather due to a deliberate act to keep the two communities apart. Those who stoke the fires on the language issues, protesting over the use of Sinhala language is wittingly or unwittingly playing a devious game.

Secondary level students are taught the other community’s language as part of the curriculum. However, the programme is a failure as it is not used in any ordinary exercise. The Sinhalese do not have an economic or cultural use of the Tamil language.

Tamil students in the North and East are discouraged from learning Sinhala. Any such effort is misconstrued as an effort of dominance by the majority.

Sinhalese are not affected by not knowing the Tamil language. They live mostly in Sinhala majority areas, where the happenings of the country are reported and discussed at length in Sinhala. Despite English still being a dominant factor in the economic world, Sinhalese proficient only in Sinhala are not left out as much as the Tamils fluent only in Tamil.

Conversely, Tamils who know only Tamil are trapped in ignorance. They must rely on another’s interpretation to understand matters related to the economy, political scenario and other related issues. When the majority engages in Sinhala and Tamils are actively dissuaded from learning the language of the majority, inevitably the sources for news and analysis for Tamils would be limited.

In today’s context, anyone in Sri Lanka with some sort of economic means somehow will learn at least a rudimentary level of English. It is thus those who are deeply economically challenged that will be without any knowledge or understanding of the English language.

Deliberately depriving such communities from the national conversation and limiting them to a third party translation is never good news. This is something the lawmakers must recognize and rectify immediately.

Dictating Democracy

Interestingly, it is not only the poverty-stricken Tamil communities in the Northern and Eastern Provinces who are being thus manipulated.

“Countries in reality are not ruled by all the people,” says Cabraal. “People like to think that they have a say in sovereignty. But at the end of the day we have a system that takes care of the leadership. It’s very carefully engineered by a few people.”

By ‘leadership’, Cabraal is not necessarily referring to the political elite of Sri Lanka.

Elaborating further, Cabraal notes that “countries are not ruled by vast numbers of people who were elected democratically, but by a few - some who may not even be elected officials.

“For example, who took the serious decision to default debt? It was one person and he was not even elected. Likewise, it was the judiciary and not the people who decided to dismiss the Prime Minister the then President wished to work with in 2018.”

Admitting to the seriousness of this statement, Cabraal emphasizes the need hence to ensure that the decisions regarding the country to be taken in the interest of the country - regardless of who may make these decisions.

IMF Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

However, says Cabraal, “if you are poor, you can’t make the decisions yourself. When you are struggling and need assistance from someone, you are not free to take the decisions needed, because others can dictate otherwise. This is why some countries can never resolve their issues properly.

“That is why when Sri Lanka defaults, we have to now do what the IMF or what some other country says,” notes Cabraal.

The ongoing controversy over the proposed tax hikes is a case in point. President Ranil Wickremesinghe, addressing the nation on October 19, 2022, explained that the IMF had advised the need for a surplus in Sri Lanka’s primary budget. The recommendation is to target the State income to increase to 14.5 percent by 2026 from its current 8.5 percent.

“It was agreed to,” stated President Wickremesinghe, “since the country needs the support of the IMF. Therefore, during the discussions with the IMF a new tax system has been proposed. The IMF informed that even the export industries would be required to pay taxes.”

State Minister of Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya stated earlier this month that the Government expects to increase its revenue by 65 percent (Rs 900 billion) in 2023. Ninety percent of this revenue is to be collected from taxes.

However, whether the Government would be able to pass such proposals in the Budget for 2023 remains to be seen. The Budget proposal is to be presented in Parliament on November 14, 2022.

Dissident MP and Leader of the National Freedom Front Wimal Weerawansa accuses the Government for lacking a plan to address the root causes of the current economic crisis. The Wickremesinghe Government is not doing the needful to strengthen our exports, address structural issues or make the State sector efficient were his charges. Instead, the Government is banking on tourism and using the IMF’s money to bridge its finances with the support of our usual creditors as China, India, US and other world bodies, said the Parliamentarian. The IMF too, he charged, does not have a genuine interest in providing meaningful solutions.

Discerning citizens too are questioning the rationale of taxing the citizens whilst offering tax holidays to investors in Colombo Port City. Gomi Senadhira, in an English daily expresses his skepticism that tax concessions alone would attract investors, who are more interested in investing in countries where good governance is assured.

He also questions the logic of taxing our exporters, especially after the Government revealed to reporters that Sri Lankans are favouring countries such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Kenya “as investing in those countries are more beneficial.”

Never to be Beholden to Another

“To be independent it is important to be conscious of the global circumstances and our own needs and strike a balance between these two parameters,” says Cabraal.

“When we were considering the Norochcholai Coal Power Plant (NCPP) that was to supply electricity to 40 percent of the population at the time,” recalls Cabraal, “we had two options. The first was to obtain a loan from China to build this facility. The second was to get China to build the facility and buy power from them.

“Both were viable options and justifiable economically. If we took the second option, we would not be as financially stressed as we would be by obtaining a loan. We would also be getting a steady supply of electricity to 40 percent of our people.”

However, remembers Cabraal, President Mahinda Rajapaksa outrightly rejected the second option. President Mahinda’s words had been, “I don’t want to be at the mercy of another power.”

This is a very sensible argument from a politician on a policy statement, asserted Cabraal. “These are the decisions that actually provided us the freedom to do things in a certain way. If we had not done that, we would not have had the freedom to disagree with China on a future date without risking them switching off lights to about 40 percent of the population.”

Need for Wise Leaders

These far reaching decisions were taken by the ruler of the country and not the professionals at the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation or the Ministry of Power and Energy, Cabral points out. This stresses the need for leaders with a strong vision and the political will to realize these goals.

“That’s why you need to see beyond one’s educational qualifications and elect those who are wise,” states Cabraal. “Educated are not necessarily wise. It is not possible to analyze the situation based on what you can see on a spreadsheet alone.

“People ask me if a proper evaluation was done before the Hambantota Port was built. Of course it was. But I ask them if there was similar analysis done before the Colombo Port was built 300 years ago or for the ports that were built 800 years ago in Germany. When US President Roosevelt did the interstate highways in the ‘50s connecting the entire nation from North to South and East to West, whether similar evaluations were done.

“A leader must see 50-100 years ahead. These assets were not built for two or three years. These are the makings of history.”

Simultaneously, it is important for the nation to share or at least be on board with the leader’s vision. As we fail to appreciate the unique challenges that we had overcome for the past three quarters of the century and distrust our politicians, we are malleable for manipulation.

Hence, we have allowed the victory of a war against terrorism to be tarnished as a war crime and strategic assets to be ridiculed as white elephants. Both efforts have affected us economically. In the end, it does not matter if we are conversant in only our mother tongue, or are bi or trilingual. We must first overcome our prejudices or forever be gullible to the analysis and interpretations of another with questionable intentions.

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