Short stories, Travel and Health Information
Over the past month I have been seeing at first hand just how bad the crisis in Sri Lanka is.
Travelling from place to place in motorised vehicles is virtually impossible, as there is hardly any fuel in the petrol sheds. Calling to book a taxi entails a wait of at least couple of hours. Long queues of cars, motor bicycles and three wheelers (the famous ‘tuk-tuks‘) line up patiently outside filling stations – with people patiently spending 24 to 72 hours in these queues just waiting for the bowers to come. The folk in these queues live in hope that shipments of fuel from overseas will come in the next two-three weeks.
And it is not just petrol and diesel that are unavailable .
In a land where households with piped gas are the exception rather than the rule, most people use cylinders of Liquified Petroleum (LP) gas -similar to those used for outdoor barbecues in western countries – for cooking. With no gas available, households as well as bakeries and restaurants have been forced to manage with firewood – or to simply stop cooking.
We Sri Lankans are well known, despite having had to face bad times over and over again during the past 75 years, for our resilience and for making the best of a bad situation. But the current situation is testing even the most optimistic and resilient of us. The people have been struggling to manage as best as they can with no petrol, no diesel, no cooking gas – and nothing but plenty of hot air from our useless politicians.
While there are many causes for the current fuel crisis (the COVID pandemic and the war in Europe have certainly contributed) the most obvious reasons are glaring incompetence, gross mismanagement and blatant corruption by our political leaders.
In third world countries from Argentina to Zimbabwe , Democracy as a form of government is simply a means to preserve and potentiate the power of the wealthy elite. Even when those from outside the pale manage to get elected to office, they soon become accustomed to tasting and enjoying the fruits of office – and before long they themselves become part of the ruling elite. In turn they then devote their efforts to remaining in power as long as possible and ensuring their spouses and progeny (if they have any) inherit their wealth and their politically sanctified income generating capacity.
Whether it is the Kirschners in Argentina, the Marcoses in the Phillipines or the Rajapakses in Sri Lanka, power is handed down from husband to wife, from older brother to younger brother, from father to child. Political office is considered to be a family’s right, ratified at the hustings by a gullible population of voters.
And the Rajapakses of Sri Lanka have epitomised what nepotism and corruption can do in a Third World country when allowed to go unchecked by a hoodwinked electorate. Until the end of last year, the president of Sri Lanka was Gotabhaya Rajapakse, a retired military officer. The Prime Minister was his older brother Mahinda Rajapakse while the Finance Minister was his younger brother Basil Rajapakse. The Minister of Irrigation was their eldest brother Chamal Rajapakse -while the Minister of Youth and Sports was Mahinda’s son Namal Rajapakse.
When a country has a cabinet of ministers with no less than FOUR brothers (plus a nephew) in it, one can hardly be surprised if the family does not come to look upon the land as their personal fiefdom – ripe for exploitation. And bleeding the country dry is exactly what the Rajapakses and their cronies have done – spending tax money as well as money obtained as loans and aid from other countries on useless projects. It appears that expensive infrastructure projects were selected, not for the wealth they would create for the country, but for the commissions and kickbacks they would generate for the politicians in charge of these projects.
Just one example will suffice: In 2018, the Sri Lankan Government approved the establishment of a Light Rail Project which would be constructed with the assistance of the Japanese government . This would have streamlined travel to and from the capital Colombo. In March 2019 the Government signed an agreement with the Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA) for a loan to meet part of the cost of the Colombo LRT, the total project cost being estimated to be 246,641 billion yen (US$ 2.3bn).
Says Dr Dimantha de Silva, senior lecturer at the University of Moratuwa, this was a very worthwhile project – both from the point of view of Colombo’s present and future transport needs as well as the return on investment. The elevated track would have taken a good chunk of the city’s traffic during peak hours and would have created Rs.38 billion of economic benefit annually in terms of travel time savings and fuel cost savings.
The agreement was duly signed by the previous government – but after Rajapakse was elected president in November 2019, things changed. The project which would have modernised Colombo and greatly assisted commuters was abruptly cancelled by the Rajapakse government.
Cynics claim that the real reason for cancellation of the project was that the Japanese government was not prepared to pay the bribes requested by the new politicians in power wanted to allow the project to continue!
Today, July 9th, a massive protest is planned demanding the resignation of President Rajapakse. Protesters have been agitating for the past several months. Step by step, they have achieved the dismissal of the cabinet with its four Rajapakses in April, the resignation of the prime minster Mahinda Rajapakse in May – and now they are agitation for the resignation of the president Gotabhaya himself.
What is happening in Sri Lanka could be just the portend of things to come –a canary in the coalmine situation – in many other third world countries that have been buffeted by the pandemic, the deadly military invasions of food-producing and fuel-producing countries, and blatant corruption.