The people are hungry
Economics statistics, unlike those of womens statistics do not always reveal. At times, like Central Bank statistics, much is concealed.
The end of the year statistics on the state of the economy announced by the Central Bank is indeed cheerful news. Certainly, it is for the government. The Gross Domestic Product in the third quarter of 2002 was 5.3 per cent and this rate was being maintained during the last part of the year, the Central Bank predicted. The bank hoped that the overall growth rate for the year would exceed their prediction of 3 per cent. Enthusiastic government supporters may describe this progress like peace-makers do: a paradigm shift in the rate of economic growth caused by quantum jumps in production rates.
But what does all this mean to the vast mass of Sri Lankans - the farmers, labourers and even the lower middle class such as clerical servants and teachers?
The statistics released by the Central Bank itself, the Colombo Consumers Price Index (CCPI) tells a part of the story. This index, earlier termed the Cost of Living Index, which the wags called the Cost of Lying Index (for good reasons) by itself does not tell the whole story, but it says at least part of the story.
The CCPI rose from 3239. 9 to 3321. 2, an increase of 81. 3 index points from November, 2002 to December, 2002. This in real terms is an increase of Rs 164.38 in expenditure value of the Market Basket in just one month. This rise, according to the press release of the Central Bank, does not include the Shell shock delivered in the last weeks of December - a rise of Rs 31 per cylinder.
Mr. Ranil Wickremasinghes government is maintaining a noticeable silence on this issue of the rising cost of living, probably hoping that the cries of peace, peace, will drown the groans. It is much better than the standard lunu ambul PA rhetoric of blaming it all on the World Market and UNP racketeers and those who want to sabotage the progressive forward march of the PA government. But incantations of peace and those of religious fervour, however euphoric and exhilarating they may be, are hardly a substitute for pangs of hunger of the poor.
The economic development of the country was certainly stymied by the north-east conflict that had been raging on for 20 years. But it will be recalled that during the Jayewardene regime an economic growth rate as high as 8 per cent was recorded while this war was continuing and while a vilification campaign amounting to a call for trade sanctions against Sri Lanka was on.
Undoubtedly, times are different now. But once again the focus is on Sri Lanka and it does appear that the affluent west is being sympathetic towards this country once again. But are we using the correct strategies to obtain economic aid, grants and other forms of assistance for a take-off of the economy?
There are millions being pledged for reconstruction and rehabilitation, the greater part of which would go to the Northern and Eastern Provinces, as it should be. This effort will be long and tedious and take a long time for contributions to flow into the economy. Meanwhile, those provinces other than the north and the east have stagnant economies and new efforts must be made for economic regeneration and creation of employment. Even where investment is available, progress on vital projects have been painfully slow. The wheels of government machinery are grinding as slowly as in times of the PA administration.
The proposed main highways such as the Matara - Colombo highway, the Colombo - Katunayake highway, the coal power project and the Kotmale Hydro Power project are those that still appear to be stuck in various stages. Politics and legal proceedings appear to be main factors that hinder progress and for that to be overcome political leadership and legislation that could remove road-blocks are called for. The UNP in 1977 on coming to power engaged in massive development projects such as the Mahaveli should now try to emulate their leader President Jayewardene.
Since the times and the international climate have changed, strategies have to be different and fresh thinking is called for. There are natural resources to be tapped in Sri Lanka such as gems that could be a main prop of the economy. It will be recalled that during the Jayewardene era, world renowned Israeli companies for marketing of precious stones were interested in coming and and working together with Sri Lankan partners. But the long established gem trade, used to primitive and dubious practices, was able get the government to reject the proposal.
The question that government as well as the PA should try to answer is whether our economy can solely depend on tea, rubber, coconut and now garments and housemaids? Is there a plan and strategy to take this country into that brave new technological world that Mr. Wickremasinghe was talking about at the polls.? Merely importing computers and distributing them at random wont do, We will soon have monkeys at the keyboards not knowing what to do or in which direction we are heading.
Very much in economic regeneration was expected of the new UNP government but we do not see any positive signs of development. The economy has now been stabilised and the Peace Process, we are told, is now progressing well. But what of the economy? Cries of peace alone wont do.
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