Disaster Politics and Political Disasters
Posted on March 12th, 2017
by Tisaranee Gunasekara
March 11, 2017, 7:02 pm
Close to one million – that is the number of drought-affected Lankans in immediate need of food assistance, according to an assessment carried out jointly by the government and the UN. Of these, 80,000 men, women and children are in need ‘urgent life-saving support’.ii The numbers of drought-affected Lankans are likely to increase in the coming months, especially if the monsoons fail to become active (as was the case last year), and drought is transformed from a seasonal phenomenon to a fact of daily life.
This week, the government moved a supplementary estimate in parliament for Rs. 494 million – to buy luxury vehicles for several cabinet and state ministers.iii
It seems obscene, spending so much money on vehicles, when hundreds of thousands of ordinary Lankans are suffering for the want of two of the most basic necessities which support life, drinking water and food. Unfortunately what gold was to King Midas, luxury vehicles are to Lankan politicians; a lure almost every one of them, irrespective of ethnic, religious or political differences, find impossible to resist.
“The drought of 1788, or rather the famine coming in its wake, was, of course, not the primary cause of the 1789 revolution. However it contributed significantly to its timing and to the violence, especially to the type of violence… (including) the spread of mass hysteria that has come to be known under the name ‘The Great Fear of 1789.”J Neumann (Great historical events that were significantly affected by the weather)
The drought has already affected all nine provinces and 23 of the 25 districts of the country and this is pushing people into adopting ‘coping strategies’ with devastating medium-to- long-term consequences, such as taking children out of school and selling livelihood assetsiv. If monsoons continue to fail and the affected are not provided with adequate assistance, restlessness will spread in farming communities and rural poverty will increase. In a few years, the country might witness a surge of internally displaced, driven away from their lands and their homes by drought and its myriad consequences ranging from poverty to land degradation and the depletion of ground water.
This week the government moved another supplementary estimate in parliament for Rs. 134.4 million. The money is to fund one more giveaway to the already heavily subsidised parliamentarians – a monthly allowance of Rs. 100,000, ostensibly to maintain an office in their electorates.
Bribing ministers and parliamentarians with perks and privileges at the expense of the country is the way President Maithripala Sirisena and the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe maintain their hold over their respective parties. Many a broken promise and a significant departure from the basics of good – and sensible – governance were born from this tactic, starting with a bloated cabinet. This tactic has won for the government a majority in parliament. The victory, however, is an ephemeral one, something which can be upended in a matter of days; most ministers and parliamentarians would change sides, again, and become born-again Rajapaksa loyalists, the moment the government is sufficiently unpopular. It doesn’t take a feat of imagination to visualise Dilan Perera or SB Dissanayake singing the praises of the Rajapaksas and damning Mr. Sirisena as a traitor to the party and the country.
A Suicidal Indifference
In 2016, Sri Lanka’s rainfall was 23% less than the average rainfall for the three previous decades.v Consequently cultivation levels fell to a record low. For example, of the 800,000 acres of paddy land, only 300,000 acres were planted last year.
Harvest failures and resultant income losses are causing a worrying hike in rural indebtedness. Over 60% of drought-affected Lankans are said to be in debt, each to the tune of US$1,200vi; at the current exchange rate this is about Rs.250,000, a massive sum most of the debtors won’t be able to repay if monsoons and harvests continue to fail. A medium-to-long-term debt relief programme is another urgent necessity which is neither being acknowledged nor addressed by the government.
Even the generally tone-deaf IMF seems more aware of the systemic consequences of the drought than Lankan politicians. “A more prolonged drought could raise food and oil imports with adverse impact on growth, inflation and the balance of payment,” IMF mission chief Jaewoo Lee reportedly warnedvii.
The IMF might be concerned about the economic effects of the drought, but the Finance Ministry remains in a state of infantile sanguinity. The Ministry has reportedly predicted that the drought will not affect the budget deficitviii.
There’s no better proof that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration has begun to see the world through Rajapaksa glasses.
The IMF, having compelled the government to implement a VAT increase, has warned of its inflationary effects. The warning, though hypocritical, is accurate; inflationary pressure is building up and is likely to reach a new high if monsoons fail in 2017. This is likely to exacerbate another worrying consequence of the drought – a tendency on the part of the affected people to eat less, quantitatively and less well, qualitatively.
The overall prospect is a worrying one: increases in rural poverty, landlessness and unemployment, in school-dropout rates, malnutrition and diseases; generation of village and area level civil conflicts over water and other depleted resources; eventually the creation of internal climate-refugees.
Juxtapose this with another tendency: of Colombo experiencing 160% increase in super rich over the next decade, a hike second only to that of Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City.ix
The rapid increase in income inequality began under Rajapaksa rule, as a result of their tax-borrow-and-spend policy. The Rajapaksas increased indirect taxes which imposed a disproportionate burden on the poor and the middle classes; they borrowed at high rates, often for vanity projects with no chance of even breaking-even, such as the Mattala Airport; and they prioritised mega infrastructure projects with minimal positive effect on the lives of ordinary people.
The UNP was rightly critical of Rajapaksa economics, highlighting the depressive effect on the Main Street, the lack of employment and income generating opportunities and the worsening of income imbalances. During the presidential election campaign, a radical departure from the Rajapaksa path was promised. Without that promise, Maithripala Sirisena would not have won, even with the minority votes. A segment of the Sinhala South was hurting from inflation and unemployment; their support was a critical building block in the victories of Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Two years and two months in power, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration (especially the UNP component) has become born-again adherents of Rajapaksa economics, regarding mega-projects, especially highways, as the road to economic salvation. Even more fraught is the government’s decision to lease 1,300 acres of land to China, in the environmentally vulnerable districts of Hambantota and Moneragala. This is particularly worrying given the possibility that China might establish pollution-intensive industries (PII) in their exclusive economic zone, exacerbating Sri Lanka’s climate woes.
A society in which a tiny minority wallows in riches while a large majority is plagued by absolute or relative poverty and economic uncertainty is not a healthy society. Such a society is vulnerable to civil and systemic instability and to anti-democratic and extremist impulses. These are all horrors Sri Lanka had known in the past. The challenge is to ensure that they don’t become a part of the country’s future.
The Wages of Squandered Opportunities
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration came into office on a popular wave. Mr. Sirisena and the UNP were able to defeat the Rajapaksa juggernaut because they succeeded in inspiring the voters by giving them a new sense of hope.
Two years and two months on the government has squandered almost all the goodwill it once enjoyed.
Mr. Sirisena had the opportunity to create a post-Rajapaksa SLFP invulnerable to the siren song of the Rajapaksas. He could have turned the SLFP from a backward looking semi-feudalist entity into a modern democratic political party. He was popular and he was trusted. Unfortunately he failed to develop a new vision and a new path for the SLFP. He has also failed to develop a set of new leaders who can take over the party once he retires. As a result of these multiple failures, the SLFP remains vulnerable to a Rajapaksa takeover.
Mr. Sirisena could have met the Rajapaksa challenge far more effectively had he opted to occupy the moral high-ground. A certain degree of bazaar-politics was inevitable, but Mr. Sirisena went beyond the boundaries of necessity (not to mention decency) when he opted to bring in the likes of SB Dissanayake and Dilan Perera into parliament through the national list. From that moment onwards, his dealings with the SLFP became marked by a cringe-worthy level of opportunism and a distressing absence of courage. The result has been a politically-debilitating inability to dominate (let alone hegemonise) the party of which he is the nominal leader.
The bond scam has depleted Ranil Wickremesinghe’s credibility and legitimacy to near zero-levels. He was expected to usher in a government of financial probity and administrative efficiency. He has failed to live up to both expectations.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration lacks a long-term perspective, not just economically but also politically. This is why the government has focused almost exclusively on keeping the political class – and other influential interest groups such as the military and the Buddhist monks – happy while neglecting the problems and needs of ordinary voters (including the rank-and-file of the three forces and the police). Since a change in the parliamentary balance is the easiest way to bring down the government, both Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe would do almost anything to retain the parliamentary support they currently enjoy. This is the logic of bestowing more largesse on parliamentarians in a time of severe financial crisis, when five percent of the country’s populace is suffering under the hammer blows of a crippling drought.
This strategy might have worked if the drought been a short-term phenomenon, a dry spell lasting for no more than a few months, in between the regular monsoons. But the current drought, said to be the worst in decades, is the outcome of global warming. A continued increase in Indian Ocean temperatures is beginning to affect monsoon patterns in South Asia.x Failed monsoons resulting in long periods of drought; short spells of extremely-intense rain causing unprecedented floods and landslides – that was what Sri Lanka experienced in 2016; and that might be the shape of our foreseeable future, weather-wise. If so, the drought is likely to be not a distant memory but a living reality for a significant percentage of Lankans when the time comes for the next round of presidential and parliamentary elections.
Just as water takes the colour of its receptacle, human woes caused by climatic factors can don the clothes of existing rivalries, be they economic or ethno-religious. Several studies have identified the severe drought in Syria’s greater Fertile Crescent as one of the factors which contributed to the current Syrian conflictxi. In Sri Lanka, the danger of popular discontent generated by climatic woes taking the form of ethnic or religious conflicts is a real one. This is particularly so since extremists of all ethno-religious communities will see in a prolonged drought and resultant socio-economic devastations an opportunity to advance their divisive and often violent agendas. What is easier than for a Sinhala-supremacist to blame climatic woes on the greed of Tamils and Muslims or for a minority extremist to point the finger at Sinhala indifference or criminality? The victims of the drought include – and will continue to include – members of all ethno-religious communities. But when have extremist politicians allowed facts to cramp their destructive style?
vii Daily Mirror – 8.3.2017