It is an affront on the world consciences that despite the MDGs and the effective launching of the SDGs by the UN, millions are living in perpetual hunger. Many do not have access to adequate food. Sri Lanka is an eye opener and the world must wake up to bail out that country, if we all claim to be civilized and signatories of the SDGs. Unless we wakeup now, it is a shame to observe that the member states of the UN has agreed to SDGs – a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for the peoples and planet forever. World hunger is on the increase, driven by climate change, Covid -19 pandemic, armed conflicts like Afghanistan, Ukraine and elsewhere as well as poverty and inequality. In 2019, some 650 million people suffered from hunger. It was some 43 million more compared to 2014. Since the onset of the Covid -19 pandemic, people suffering from hunger went up to 270 million compared to 135 million last year. Another related subject is malnutrition. In 2021, it was estimated that some 150 million children were suffering from micronutrient deficiencies. We are caught up in an impending famine related catastrophe in many parts of the world.
The Saga of Sri Lankan Tragedy:
There is hitherto an unheard tragedy in this island country. There is no ink and paper to print the news papers. The educational institutions cannot hold examinations due to shortage of paper to write the questions. Medical supplies are drying out. Many die due to medical emergences including non performance of critical surgeries on time. SLR –Sri Lankan Rupee- the national currency is at its lowest ebb. One USD is equal to 300 SLR. The reserves are hardly enough to import for one month. Households stand up in ques for hours to buy cooking gas, kerosine, and even vegetables. Apart from this, skyrocketing prices and non – availability of essential food items, make life of people miserable. Let us see the recently reported prices of various household items in Colombo. All prices are in Kg/ SLR, unless mentioned otherwise. Rice 162;Wheat 123; fish 1000; chicken 690; tomato 200; onion 129; potato 190; sugar 178; egg per piece 29; coconut 80; coconut oil 805 per liter; petrol 254 per liter; diesel 176 per liter; cooking gas 4199 per 12.5 kg cylinder; red chilly 1133 per kg; green chilly 300; lentil ( Dal) 388 ( Source WhatsApp).
People are thinking of leaving Sri Lanka for better and safer destinations. It seems boat people are leaving its shores for India to be safer from the national tragedy of famine and the resultant deaths. It is said that families are skipping tea and even major meals as they cannot afford any more three square meals a day.
It is generally said that failed leadership is the major cause of this tragedy. Coupled with this, one can point out some macroeconomic management issues as well. The need of the hour is empathetic leadership with futuristic vision and decisive policy measures. The worsening economic crisis in Lanka has reached its crescendo.
The economy is dependent on tourism and remittances as well as some exports of tea and garments. The covid 19 pandemic has shattered its economy and ripped apart its way of living. Nonetheless, the 2019 Easter bombings was the death knell of the tourism industry.
There is a need to re-examine some of the recent policies of the government like the reversal of the populist measures including income tax exemptions. The chemical fertilizer ban though reversed, its impact is far-reaching as nearly 35 per cent of the cultivable land is left fallow and barren by the farmers. The food security of the nation is at stake and may lead to the mass starvation, unless World Food Programme ( WFP) and countries like India with its agricultural surpluses come to the rescue of Sri Lanka. It is time for all those who profess great philanthropy under the guise of charity and Foundations, to act decisively. Again the UN should wake up to this call of the starving millions. UN may act expeditiously under FAO and WFP on war footing.
Apart from food grains, Sri Lanka needs funds and even fuel and medical supplies. India has given some 2.4 billion dollars. China has already given $ 2.5 billion and it is considering to give some $ 2.5 billion. It seems India has already sent 200,000 lakh tons of fuel-diesel- to Sri Lanka . Soon 40,000 tons of rice- will reach form India. Side by side, Sri Lanka wants debt relief and some rescheduling of repayments.
The exodus of the citizens is more discernible recently. There are some 1,61,394 new applications for the issuance of passports. It is observed that thousands of Sri Lankans work as domestic help in the Gulf Region and work as care givers in Israel and some other countries. They were the major source of remittances.
It was during the ethnic crisis and the resultant long civil war, Sri Lanka became one of the failed sick states. Thousands of Tamils fled that country for better and safer places. Some of them were very brainy men and women who now work in the west with self-respect and dignity . Even now the Tamils do not feel very safe or well at home as first grade citizens in Sri Lanka. The government did not try to heal the wounds of ethnic strife, as it was done under the heroic leadership of Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
It is sad to see that even now the government has no definite strategy beyond the next few weeks. It has got a hand to mouth piecemeal plan only. We need political sagacity and proactive macro – economic polices to salvage the worsening situation. A massive rebuilding is the need of the hour in every sector with linkages and integrations.
Apart from talking about the geopolitical designs of the neighbors in helping the island nation, this country should not be sold out to the forces which may devour it lock stock and barrel. Global attention and concern must be focused on Sri Lanka now on war footing to see that it is not one another failed state politically and economically. A few steps may be considered to bail out the island nation expeditiously.
Road Map for Rescuing Sri Lanka:
1) A national government may be formed with a minimum common programme spelling out clearly the immediate bailout strategy. Make it fully a representative set up of all political parties and even various ethnic communities. It must be an inclusive government to foster collective goodwill.
2) Take the counsel of countries like India, China, Japan and the regional forums where Sri Lanka is a member to discuss the bailout packages. Efforts mat be made to exhaust all bilateral and multilateral agencies in this process of bailing out the island nation with built in stabilizers.
3) Talk to IMF to come to the rescue with a five year bail out package with out imposing penal conditions, so that the citizens do not feel the burden too much.
4) Declare a moratorium on the repayment of loans for all sections of the borrowers ,particularly the poor and the sick units of garments and tea gardens and the fishermen community and the urban poor. The devastated farming community must be rehabilitated with short term and long term plans. The Central Bank –Reserve Bank- of the country must conduct immediately a debt and rebuilding survey to enunciate policies and programmes to rebuild the economy proactively.
5) Bring in confidence building measures expeditiously to bolster social cohesion and strengthening the link between citizen and the state.
6) There is a need to set up a land army for the youth in all the provinces of Sri Lanka to do some kind of infrastructure jobs, so that people are paid in grains and cash partly. It may be called territorial army of the youth.
7) Grain Banks may be set up at the most vulnerable points of famine with assured distributive justice to reach out to every one. One must make sure that no one is left out of the purview of distributive justice reach out plan.
8) Policy corner stones may be woven around peace, justice and development. Efforts may be in place to make use of artificial intelligence with the full play of knowledge society and the resultant synergy. Accord top policy priority to take up Infrastructure development , initiation of production oriented programmes coupled with supportive institutions.
9) Beef up the tourism sector and make it a must be visited place for world tourists with attractive packages like adventure tourism in the hills, sand and coastal tourism in the coastal areas, eco- tourism in the rich tea gardens, medical tourism and herbal—Ayurveda- tourism at throw away prices.
10) UNDP, WFP, FAO,UNOPS and the rich nations including Japan, USA and EU must spearhead benevolent packages with clearly spelt out integrations to bailout Sri Lanka. Reach out to foundations like the one sponsored by Bill Gates to salvage the island nation holistically. Time runs out fast to salvage Sri Lanka.
It is either now or never.