Sri Lanka: A country where the buck seeks the least fortunate and the most disadvantaged
Posted on April 27th, 2022

By Raj Gonsalkorale

The sign “The Buck Stops Here” that was on President Truman’s desk in his White House office was made in the Federal Reformatory at El Reno, Oklahoma. Fred A. Canfil, then United States Marshal for the Western District of Missouri and a friend of Mr. Truman, saw a similar sign while visiting the Reformatory and asked the Warden if a sign like it could be made for President Truman. The sign was made and mailed to the President on October 2, 1945.

Buck passing, or passing the buck, or sometimes (playing) the blame game, is the act of attributing to another person or group one’s own responsibility. It is often used to refer to a strategy in power politics whereby a state tries to get another state to deter or fight an aggressor state while it remains on the sidelines -Wikipedia

Going by experience, if President Truman was a Sri Lankan, he may have to change the sign on his desk to The BUCK DOES NOT STOP here. One cannot recall a single instance when a President or a Prime Minister or a Minister accepted responsibility for actions, or inaction, that resulted in the breach of the social contract they have with the people. There have been many such instances. Politicians including those holding the highest office in the land, are elected to hold an office for a given period as representatives of the people, by the people. As Dr Deepika Udagama, former chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka said at a recent interview, they are not elected to power” but elected to an office. That office has constitutional responsibilities and unwritten moral and ethical responsibilities.

The office holder at the apex, the President of the country, is elected to that office as the voters opine that he or she is the most suited to hold it. There is an expectation therefore that the office holder will act in a timely, wise, and informed way to ensure the people are not disadvantaged and lead to situations that could have been avoided had suitable action been taken in a timely, wise and informed manner.

The economic and increasing social calamity that has befallen the country is different to a Tsunami that could hit any country without notice, perhaps a days’ notice as experienced by Sri Lanka. The economic and social Tsunami that has hit Sri Lanka now did not unleash itself in a day, or two or a month, but waves were gathering at least for 18 months if not more, giving ominous signs of the impending disaster.

The worldwide impact of the Coronavirus was known that long ago. Its impact on Sri Lanka was known that long ago. It did not manifest in February or March this year. Sri Lanka knew the financial impact on its foreign income due to the hit on tourism, and on foreign remittances. Sri Lanka knew its foreign debt and debt interest commitments for 2020, 2021 and 2022, and well beyond into decades from now.

It knew the impact on its rupee income arising from a very injudicious decision taken to reduce numerous taxes, done entirely if not mostly to meet the demand of cronies who supported and perhaps funded the ruling party to come to power. It knew that it was subsidizing loss making State enterprises and bleeding the country for years. The worst of all such institutions being Sri Lankan Airlines which reportedly had an accumulated loss of Rs 316 billion as at 2020.

It printed rupees to cover the drop in income in a situation where the budget deficit was very high and unbridgeable for the foreseeable future. It printed money knowing inflation will rise very steeply, and cause prices to rise. Then, to make matters worse and compound the disaster, the suicidal decision to float the rupee was taken, causing the absolute calamity it has given rise to.

The rupee depreciate has exceeded 70 % now in less than 3 months, with no signs of any stability of the rupee. Many experts are of the view that had the depreciation of the rupee been done progressively, over a period, the catastrophe caused by the floating could have been avoided or at least mitigated.

Whoever the Executive President or Executive Prime Minister is, the office holder has access to the best brains of the country and the opportunity to seek advice from overseas experts as well. However, the availability of expert advice, and the ability to seek, listen and make a final considered judgement and decisions of course are two different things. This ability depends on the capability of the office holder to listen to advice offered, often by too many experts, weigh the advice given for its pros and cons, and make decisions that are more common sense oriented rather than on an ideological basis.

Given all of above, readers could make up their minds about how our leaders have taken responsibility for their actions or their inaction.

In 1983, the worst ever attack on innocent Tamils took place during a pogrom organized by a section of the government. No apology was offered by the then President and no action taken against anyone for the heinous incident. In more recent times, Sri Lanka had a President under whose watch 290 people were killed during a preventable terrorist attack on Easter Sunday in 2019. The buck certainly didn’t stop with the President, and to the best of the writer’s knowledge, not even an apology was offered to the families of people who lost their lives and to the country for letting this debacle happen. That buck roamed free and found some scapegoats.

In 2022, Sri Lanka has been subject to its worst ever economic shock and a never before bankruptcy of the country. Again, at least the severity of the hardships faced by the country could have been prevented had action been taken at least 12 to 18 months ago. This could have been done and no amount of excuses could exonerate the leaders from responsibility for not doing so. No one has taken responsibility for this catastrophe and the buck is roaming free once again looking for scapegoats!

It is unclear whether those at the top of the political heap genuinely feel and understand the pain felt by virtually all people of the country. Cooking gas shortages, huge price increase of gas when available, medicine shortages, food shortages, fuel (diesel, petrol and kerosine) shortages, power cuts, small business being shut due to their inability to exist, unbearable price increases of all essential items, queues for all essentials, have all become the day-to-day life for millions of people.

In this desperate situation, people are being subject to a political drama with each side crowing they could do a better job than the other side. At a time when political parties should have got together to agree on immediate steps that need to be taken to alleviate the pain experienced by ordinary people, and work together on the steps agreed, the campaigns being fought are to secure power, not to address the immediate problems and the suffering of the people.

If there is any genuineness on the part of the political parties, they should defer their quest for power and work together at least for the next 12 months until the suffering of the ordinary people could be alleviated, and their essential needs made available to them along with a financial compensation package considering the sky-high cost of living experienced by them. The tax cuts that were made late in 2019 should be reversed and the revenue generated utilized to meet the cost of such a compensation package.

Experts of all shades are doing a great analysis as to what led to the current situation. This is good although most of these experts were not airing their views and analysing the flawed policies when successive governments followed these flawed policies. The challenge now is an immediate one. That is to find money to buy food, medicines, fuel and gas. The country cannot debate the flaws on the cart and its wheels when the horse is about to die. There will be a time for that when the horse is well enough to pull the cart.

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