A love note to Mr. Choksy
(I won’t forget you — how could I?)

by Malinda Seneviratne
Everywhere we look, there are budgets. Companies have them, NGOs have them, ministries, departments, provincial councils, you name it. The world is burgeoning with budgets. There are small ones and large ones, tight ones too. Some are liberal, some not; some business-friendly, some, rarely, favour the poor. Even Prabhakaran, I am sure, has one. Even this ace ventriloquist’s supporting cast of NGOs and other dummies, masquerading as peace-lovers and intellectuals, must have heard the word.

Where there is money to spend, things to buy, like it or not, budgetary considerations factor into decisions, even if you have never heard the word "budget". Things such as marginal benefits, weighed against marginal costs, are written into the often tragic scripts that people, as individuals or collectives have to play.

Yes, countries have budgets too. Even countries such as Sri Lanka, although we are not sure if we are a country any longer or how many square inches of land we have got. Needless to say, we don’t even know who dreams up our national budget. All we know is that that some dummy finance minister mouths the words that the IMF-World Bank ventriloquists throw. Quite a pantomime, one could say.

Anyway, whatever the merits or demerits of a given budget may be, it is safe to say that national budgets inevitably frame the potentials of the meagre currency notes in our pockets. Even if we know nothing about classical economic theory, the impact comes in economic terms that we can understand. We know how much we can demand from the market. We know how much (actually, how little) we can save. We know the political economy of tightening belts.

And so, when people who know much about economics, budgets, growth etc., tell us that this last budget presented by the Hon. K.N. Choksy, is not exactly a wholesome meal but it satisfies hunger nevertheless, we can’t help wonder if we live in another country altogether. When we are told that this is not an express train, but it will take us to our destination anyway, we are amazed because no one asked us where we want to go.

This is a "growth-oriented" budget. The Hon. Choksy, like his friends in the ADB and other places, may not have heard, but the business of growth-led development was nothing but that. Business. The rest of the world suffered. This is why the idea, which has been unceremoniously thrust into the dustbin of intellectual history, is dug out again and again and thrust down our throats.

I asked Cecil Wikramanayake, "Uncle, how has the budget impacted you?" The answer was quick and simple: "It left me completely with empty pockets". Experts know, even experts who are only interested in how their bank accounts grow. They tell us, "this budget has said nothing to agriculture, nothing to the poor". Why should this surprise us? After all, it is a UNP budget, isn’t it? Meaning, it comes unadulterated unlike PA/SLFP budgets which the reds valiently paint as being "people-friendly".

In these budgets, some people "grow". Income disparities grow. Discontent too. Perhaps resistance also. And then of course the "inevitable" growth of the length and breadth of the killing fields.

These experts are concerned, but believe that in the long run, employment opportunities will widen and everyone will be happy. Reminded me of what James Scott had to say about the peasantry: "The peasant is one who is standing upto his nose in water; even the slightest ripple will take him under". Scott’s peasant didn’t know how to swim, probably. But then again, Scott didn’t tell us that the poor man was standing not in a placid pool but a turbulent river swelled by tropical rainstorms which also carried tree trunks uprooted by the mindless process called "development". Growth led, in case we forgot.

The point is, the vast majority can’t wait, because stomachs can’t wait for the economy to take off, if at all it does that is, and in directions desirable of course. What happens? Collateral damage? I hear a voice saying very gently, "we don’t want to be the collateral just so that you can chase your mad, destructive dreams". And another, even more gentle: "I believe you wouldn’t mind if the entire world became ‘collateral’, right?"

I asked Nihal Jayawardena, a co-worker, "aya veyen sahana lebunada?" (did you get any relief from the budget?). Incredulity swept across his strong features. "Mona sahanada?" (what relief?). I did not dare elaborate.

Electricity, water, telephone charges are going up. What this means is that prices will go up all around. The buck does not stop with Ranil Wickremesinghe, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, John Cooney, Ashley Wills, Linda Duffield, Jon Westborg or Velupillai Prabhakaran. The buck, ladies and gentlemen, stops here, with us consumers. And guess what, ladies and gentlemen? This buck rupee is floating. The word that comes to mind is "hulang". Naturally.

I remember listening to a lecture by Prof. Nalin de Silva about ten years ago. Yes, about the much maligned but so pertinent idea called Jathika Chinthanaya. Someone asked if Nalin was recommending that we, as a society, take off to Anuradhapura in a bara karaththaya. Tongue in cheek, obviously. Nalin responded by elaborating on the difference between imitation and creative engagement with that which is foreign, but didn’t fail to point out that if we don’t watch out, we will have to take a buggy cart to Anuradhapura.

We are in the dark. No, I am not complaining about you, Hon. Karu Jayasuriya. We are in the dark about too many things. At least, the intricacies of the budget will trickle down painfully into our consciousness when we realise how much our purchasing power has shrunk. We will quietly prune down on extravagant spending, and this is a good thing. The SLIM Awards notwithstanding, we will gradually cut down on the non-essentials. We will gradually start consuming more mallum. And out tortured systems, poisoned by much advertised junk food will heave a sigh of relief. Stupidity will slowly be evacuated from our corrupted minds. All good. All good.

We are in the dark about other things. When the truth about the "Eelam Process" is out, it will hit us hard both in the pits of our already contracted stomachs and at the very core of our sense of dignity and sense of identity. It will be, appropriately, in broad daylight.

I, for one, have been short-changed on all fronts. And I am hungry. Ravenous in fact. Not just because this budget does nothing for me. As I told my friend Shamindra, "machang, mata yakek kanna badaginiy". Seems like there’s a wide selection of tasty dishes in that category. No prizes for guessing who these devils are.