Sri Lanka spirals out of control with chants of “Go Gota Go” as Ranil Wickremesinghe is sworn in as the new president. Will it put a stop to the protests? India is keeping its finger crossed, mulling the geopolitical ramifications of the crisis. China is conspicuous by its absence.
The last time Sri Lanka went up in flames was when Lord Hanuman set it on fire after demon king Raavana set his tail on fire to punish him for daring to trespass his kingdom in order to rescue Sita.
This time what has set the island nation aflame is economic crisis resulting out of unsustainable debt and accompanying spiraling inflation. Long ques outside petrol stations and long power outages have brought people out on the streets. Sri Lanka is on the brink of bankruptcy with an outstanding debt of $51 billion to repay and only $25 million of foreign exchange reserves at its disposal.
The dramatic visuals of street protests emerging out of Sri Lanka exhibit the intensity of despondency and helplessness people feel against the present political dispensation led by Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The protesters literally overran key government institutions. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has resigned and fled the country seeking temporary political asylum first in Maldives and then in Singapore.
They have been driven out of power by the very people who elected them with a thumping majority. The political order has collapsed. The state machinery has crumbled.
The mess that Sri Lanka finds itself in today can be attributed to the shenanigans of one dynasty—the Rajapaksa. This dynasty controlled all strands of power in the island nation and ruled the country as their own personal fiefdom.
The scenes emerging out of Sri Lanka convey the moorings of dystopian fiction, but for the people, it is an existential reality. Government offices were overrun. The state broadcaster was hijacked. The presidential palace was ransacked. The Prime Minister’s house was set ablaze.
The country is in a mess. There is no government, no accepted leader, no food and no fuel. More than 50% of Sri Lankans are missing a meal every day. Children are skipping school and large number of families need humanitarian aid.
Nearly half a million have lost their jobs. There is a shortage of medicines for the ill. People are riding bicycles to offices because there is no petrol for the car.
The citizens of Sri Lanka are fleeing to Australia because they do not see a future for themselves in their own country. The situation is going from bad to worse.
The question everyone is asking is how did Sri Lanka get itself into this mess as just a few years ago, it was a well-functioning economy. A deeper perusal is warranted. The two major industries that kept Sri Lanka’s economy running are tourism and agriculture.
The pandemic created by the Wuhan virus killed tourism as for the last two years international travel came to a grinding halt. This severely affected the economy as many youths lost their employment.
Agriculture of the country got destroyed because of the faulty policies adopted by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who banned the use of chemical fertilizer as he wanted Sri Lankan farmers to shift to organic farming. This led to a severe fall in agricultural yield. Rice production fell by 20%.
Compounding the problem was the fact that Sri Lanka is an import-dependent country. There is no local manufacturing industry. Almost everything is imported right from washing machine and cooking gas to refrigerators. This created the need for a healthy forex reserves which began dwindling during Covid as tourism industry came to a standstill. They were spending more than they earned, and the government did not take corrective measures. They kept taking up unsustainable loans from China and steadily got sucked into the quicksand of debt and have now been completely devoured by it. This led to the present precarious situation where they did not have enough money to import oil. There were massive power cuts.
This led to protests by the people, which ultimately overturned the Rajapaksa government and the political imbroglio continues. Gotabaya, once referred to as terminator for his success against LTTE, is now on the run.
Sri Lanka is facing a multi-dimensional problem, and it needs a multi-pronged solution. The first step towards restoring stability in the island nation is the formation of a stable government. According to Sri Lankan constitution, a sitting president can dissolve the house only after he has held office for two and a half years, which is not the case right now. So, there cannot be elections before November 2024. This parliament has to elect a new president and complete its full term. Till then a stable government is required. Moreover, the election commission of Sri Lanka does not have the money to conduct fresh elections now.
SLPP led by the Rajapaksa still has the largest majority in the parliament with 114 seats out of a total of 225. This creates the possibility that the next president might be a Rajapaksa nominee, but the people of Sri Lanka may not accept him as they think that the dynasty is the root cause of all the problems that they are facing. Surprisingly, Ranil Wickremesinghe emerged as the President with 134 votes. There is resistance in Sri Lanka to his election.
On the economic front, Sri Lanka faces a herculean task. It has to take drastic steps to reduce the debt burden and create employment opportunities for its youth. Inflation has spiked to 80%. Food prices have risen 60%. Gas cylinders are selling for $16. The Sri Lankan rupee has slipped to 361 to a dollar. Sri Lanka needs $5 billion to secure essential supplies for the next six months. Economic recovery will be a very torturous process.
India, as a friendly neighbor, has sent aid worth $3.8 billion, but it is cautious not to get dragged into the politics of it and offend public sentiment. The last time India intervened militarily by sending the IPKF, it tarnished its own image and suffered heavy casualties. India, treading cautiously this time, is focusing on economic recovery and making sure the kitchens are working and providing meals to the people. Global bodies are pitching in too with bailout packages but it will take time.
The World Bank has suggested three steps to be taken immediately to initiate the revival of the economy. The first is to boost agricultural productivity by changing the manure policy of the government and shifting to environment-friendly fertilizers. The second step is to diversify the economy with a focus on non-farming sectors. The third step is to create jobs in the formal sector as presently most of the employment in Sri Lanka is in the informal sector.
Ranil Wickremesinghe has been elected as the new President. He has a tough task ahead. He has to restore public order and ensure that ethnic tensions do not flare up precipitated by the economic hardship that people are undergoing presently. There are no quick fix solutions. It is a long haul for Sri Lanka, but as they say better late than never.
edited and proofread by nikita sharma