Friday, April 4, 2008

Responding to changing dynamics a future plan is essential

In all aspects of life, and in the context of this essay, that of the future plan for the country covering all aspects is essential. The Mahinda Chinthanaya of the President was a brave attempt to put a stamp on his vision, which has failed from the start, presumably because he lent his name to it, forever staining him, as all plans seem to stumble and he will rue the day he lent his name. Only the future will judge on his term, as one, which gave so much hope, only to die in the womb even before it was born, as it did not have a fundamental basis or reason for birth.

The inexorable rise of India and China and the subsequent pressure on the worlds natural and agricultural resources by these two giants was only too predictable. How Sri Lanka planned to respond to this was what should have been fundamental to the Rajapakse vision but was not concentrating solely on the mundane, losing sight of the big picture and making the visionary decisions in keeping with the response to the Global reality.

Sri Lanka is just too small and not self sufficient to even think of becoming insular. We can never shy away from the open economy, when over a million people are actually working outside the Island. We cannot even pay lip service to the JVP insistence of not privatizing state industries except in exceptional circumstances.

A vision based look at most likely scenarios, should have been used as a foundation. Rise in world oil prices, resulting increase in electricity costs with no plan to plug the shortages for years to come. The severe shortage of workers, especially in the skills needed; the shortage and therefore double digit increase in food prices and the resultant increase in fertilizer and other input costs of food production; the likely effects of oil wealth in oil producing countries; the unpredictable weather patterns to be built in as a normal occurrence; the brain drain of skilled personnel emigrating; the increase in recruitment to the forces; the resulting increase in defense costs and shortage of male farm labor arising there from could all have been forecast.

Given these factors, a reduction in Government servants, not an increase should have been factored in. A more efficient electricity supply with fewer employees, and short and long term plans for alternative energy sources, for which carbon credits etc are available is just one example of what the policy document should have included in it. A much more capital intensive route to infrastructural development such as road building should have been envisioned rather than the still manpower bloated methods currently in place, adding to the upward wage pressure on other sectors due to lack of workers. A plan of ensuring a much more skilled labor force to be sent for foreign employment so more funds would be remitted per person working should have been an integral part of the plan.

On the financial sector, the distinct advantage of maximizing on cheap funds due to historically low interest rates in US dollars, used to finance infrastructure, underwritten by foreign remittances could easily have been marshaled, especially because the rupee payback on foreign borrowings is low when the currency does not depreciate given high interest rate environment locally.

Sri Lanka does not have a large foreign debt and also has not attracted a lot of foreign money, so permitting funds to invest in sovereign debt by gradually opening the economy will cushion the rupee, despite the high inflation.

In the area of Tourism, our Hotels could all be full today, if we only concentrated on the Indian tourist as his currency had appreciated 50% on the SL rupee while the US $ has actually depreciated. To the Indian our hotel costs would have dropped, while for the European they have increased as all are priced in dollars.

The Tea Industry has benefited enormously, but that is not to say, had the government been able to help them further, to replant and become more efficient, as well as encourage and promote value addition, the benefit of the high prices could have been much higher.

The private sector is the engine, but the government must build the tracks on which this engine moves forward. They should not mess with engine by even choosing the driver, given half a chance they will put a drunk at the wheel!

Its not too late to change direction, and stop wasting money on airlines, that even the Italians are selling to the French or is it the Dutch, unworkable airports or grandiose irrigation schemes. Just improve what we have and the rest of us will take up the mantle and show what Sri Lanka is capable of.

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