Building up our broken economy. Who can bell that cat?
Posted on December 15th, 2022

By Garvin Karunaratne

Our Central Bank chief has said that , with or without the IMF Sri Lanka needs to bring in reforms to correct the economy.”(Daily FT:15/12). Our President has pledged to build an economy that is free from debt.” Both aims are worthwhile and it is in the interest of a sovereign Sri Lanka to achieve both aims.

For this purpose what is essential is a development programme aimed at producing , what we imported which we cannot import due to the lack of dollars, and in that process to get our unemployed work force working/ This will be alleviating poverty. Sri Lanka has done it earlier in the days before we embraced neoliberal economic living that has unfortunately let us to become an indebted country. That is essentially the only path to liberation and it is hoped that this Government can unfold a new programme immediately.

Under the Divisional Development Councils Programme(DDCP) of the Sirimavo days we did it fast. Then the Government called the most eminent economist of the day, Professor HAdeS Gunasekera to a process of action, created a separate ministry under the Prime Minister herself, even placed a helicopter at his disposal to travel to the districts to get the programme going. I can yet remember rushing to his helicopter at Matara to greet him, bending down not to be decapitated because at that time a soldier had been decapitated by a helicopter blade.

It was all go at that time- the country had just recovered from the 1971 April insurrection of the JVP, when sadly the then JVP leaders tried to hand over Sri Lanka lock stock and barrel to North Korea. Luckily it was unearthed that the North Korean Embassy had spent a massive amount of money and the Embassy was closed down at once and the staff banished. Then foreign ships were in our waters, one unloaded something into some boats and it was our airforce that unleashed shots from the air at the boats near Dondra which make the ship vanish.

Professor Gunasekera got off the ground in style with a large number of small farms where around thirty thousand youths were trained in agriculture. In my district, Matara we within a few weeks opened up a number of small scale farms where the youths were trained and they got down to produce vegetables, yams etc. They drew incomes and ended as trained farmers. This was done in every district on a priority basis. Many small scale industries were opened up and daily stipends were paid till the farms and small industries got to the income generation stage. This was a great success in the creation of essential vegetables, and small scale industries where many items were made for sale.

We administrators wanted to do better and suggested more worthwhile projects. The Divisional Secretary at Kotmale got going with making paper and cardboard out of waste paper that he got collected waste paper from the government offices in the Nuwara Eliya District. That was a great success and it is sad to note that today we do not make paper out of waste paper but have found the art of collecting the waste paper and selling it to India, earning a few cents in Indian currency and think great about it and after that import glazed paper from India and pay them in dollars. It is sad that the brains that the Kotmale Divisional Secretary had were not inherited by anyone for the past four decades in Sri Lanka.

In my District, at Matara I agitated and had to fight to get approval to set up a Mechanized Boatyard. It took months of arguments with the Ministry as well as the Director of Fisheries to obtain approval. Once the green light was given my officers got going. Within a month the building was put up on the shores of Nilvala Ganga. An allocation was received from the Ministry for the purchase of the machinery and had we called for tenders it would take too long and we may not get what we wanted. There was a major problem. I selected officers from the katcheri who could be totally trusted and the Executive Engineer and gave them the authority to proceed to Colombo, inspect the machines available, select the best, negotiate for a discount, pay and purchase. It was done in a day. Then the Divisional Secretary Ran Ariyadasa and Development Assistant Kumarasiri got the machinery installed within a month and every year from 1971to 1997 some thirty five seaworthy fishing boats were made and sold to fishery cooperatives to ply on the seas, fishing. The industry, the first and last cooperative boatyard was axed by President Jayawardena in 1978. He did not want to give any credit to the work done during the previous rule of Sirimavo.

Our work never stopped there. I suggested that we should make Water Colours. This was not approved on the ground that the District did not have any of the ingredients that went to make water colours. My argument that Japan did purchase cotton from as far as Egypt , took the cotton to Japan, made textiles and sold the textiles back in Egypt and we would do better because we wanted to make water colours to stave off imports was not accepted. I suggested a Creamery and that we would step up growing grass on neglected and fallow land and develop animal husbandry was rejected.

Yet undaunted I wanted to prove that we could do something worthwhile. I had a Planning Officer who had graduated in chemistry and I told him what I had seen of an industry making water colours. I had once been a Deputy Director of Small Industry. The Planning Officer Vetus Fernando started experiments at my Residency to find the art of making crayons. He was helped by Rahula College science teachers. We soon wanted equipment and obtained approval to use the Science lab at Rahula College Matara for our experiments after school hours. Experimenting from five in the evening to midnight for two months we got nowhere, made something like crayons., crude and unsaleable. Then the Planning Officer who had graduated in chemistry from the University of Colombo wanted to go to the Chemistry Department of the University of Colombo and get the help from his professors- those that had taught him a few years earlier. Sad to say he was turned down on the grounds that the professors were busy teaching and correcting answer scripts. We recommenced our experiments at Rahula College and finally in another month of experiments found the art of making crayons as good as the Reeves Crayons of 1972. Then Reeves was the best.

Then the question cropped up of how we were going to produce crayons. I could have summoned one of the business magnates in Matara like SK or Harischandra and given the recipe to one of them. But I wanted it to belong to the people at large so we decided that it should be a cooperative. The Member of Parliament for Deniyaya Sumanapala Dahanayakle was the President of the Morawak Korale Cooperative Union and he had on several occasions proved to be an able and dependable maverick. I summoned him and authorized him to use cooperative funds to establish a cooperative crayon factory. He moved fast and in two days my staff- Vetus the Planning Officer who unearthed the art of making crayons, Development Assistant Paliakkara, Ranjith the Head quarters Assistant Government Agent and Chandra Silva District Land Officer,my team moved in . The selected youth entrepreneurs over twenty were guided by my staff to boil the ingredients, pour them into glass tubes etc. all done- every crayon had to be checked and this process went on for 14 days non stop till crayons were made, labels pasted and packets made to fill two large rooms. We were all working 24 hours a day- it was a non stop organization, I was there at Morawaka on most days. In fifteen day Sumanapala and I took off to show what we had done to Minister Subasinghe , the Minister of Industries. He was shocked to see the quality of the crayons and agreed to open sales that week end. A small ceremony was held at Morawaka when the Hon Minister opened sales.

These details of what we actually did will prove to anyone that we can fix the economy.

These words come to you from a son of Mother Lanka who as an International Consultant in 1981-1983 designed and established the Youth Self Employment Programme in Bangladesh and trained its Bangladesh Civil Service members to continue it, a programme that in the last four decades guided over three million youths to become entrepreneurs producing food and mechanical items that Bangladesh needs. That  is the largest and most successful employment creation programme the World has known. 

Garvin Karunaratne. 15/12/2022

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