Though the emergency that the Sri Lankan Government imposed has been lifted now, the woes of the economy seem unending as the crisis-hit Sri Lanka is also facing political turmoil due to fast-rising prices and scarcity of essential goods. India has given the support of $2.5 billion so far, and more help is being talked about. Till date, we have sent nearly 2.7 lakh tonnes of petrol and diesel to Sri Lanka. However, the Sri Lankan Government is seemingly clueless about dealing with this crisis, which is believed to be the first of its kind in the country. There is no consensus in the government about dealing with this situation.
Sri Lanka had come out of a brutal civil war in the past, which continued for 26 years and ended only in 2009. But despite the severity of the civil war at that time, Sri Lanka did not experience any big economic crisis. The rampant inflation in food and fuel in Sri Lanka after January this year, followed by an acute shortage of goods, is making life hell for the people of Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s per capita income in the year 2020, based on the market exchange rate, was recorded at $4053 annually. On the basis of purchasing power parity, it was $12537 annually, which was more than double that of India. If we talk about human development, according to the Human Development Report of the United Nations (2020), Sri Lanka ranked at 72nd position in the world, whereas India was in 131st position.
International agencies have significantly lowered Sri Lanka’s credit rating, pushing Sri Lanka out of the global capital market. As a result, Sri Lanka could not reschedule its foreign borrowings. The devaluation of Sri Lanka’s currency started due to the lack of foreign exchange. When Sri Lanka tried to curb imports, it led to a shortage of commodities, especially fuel and food, causing hyperinflation. The Sri Lankan Government believed that reducing imports would save the foreign exchange, and domestic production would be encouraged, increasing exports. But this could not happen, and the foreign exchange reserves kept depleting further. The Sri Lankan Government had to sell its gold reserves and enter into currency swap agreements with India and China to prevent default in international debt repayment.
Genesis of the Problem: China
Behind Sri Lanka’s crisis is China’s old strategy of debt trap. China has trapped not only Sri Lanka but many more countries. The story starts with Sri Lanka accepting China’s proposal to develop the Hambantota port without undertaking any feasibility study. Between 2007 and 2014, China gave five loans amounting to $1.26 billion for the development of this port, initially at 1 per cent or 2 per cent, but later escalated to 6.3 per cent with short repayment periods. After that, China invested $1.4 billion in the Columbo port city project. Billions of dollars in loans have been given to Sri Lanka by China for developing a seaport, airport, highways and power stations. By 2020, Sri Lanka’s total liability to China had increased to about $ 8 billion (2020), but these projects are far from earning adequate revenues for debt servicing, even today.
The Sri Lankan Government believed that reducing imports would save the foreign exchange, and domestic production would be encouraged, increasing exports. But this could not happen, and the foreign exchange reserves kept depleting further
We can understand that behind Sri Lanka’s crisis lies the Debt Trap Strategy of China. However, the pandemic accentuated the problems further. Sri Lanka has traditionally been a tourist attraction, and tourism has been contributing significantly to its foreign exchange earnings. Last year, tourism revenues fell by about $5 billion due to the pandemic.
Sri Lanka suddenly decided to move towards entirely organic farming, in a very irresponsible manner, and chemical fertilisers were banned. Due to the ban on the import of chemical fertilisers, agricultural production was poorly affected and the prices of agricultural commodities started increasing wildly. Due to this, the export of tea also got affected significantly. Although there is no harm in organic farming, doing the same in an unmindful manner is no good.
While Government revenues were already declining, the Sri Lankan Government’s reckless reduction in direct and indirect taxes worsened matters. Due to the compulsion to increase Government spending, the budget deficit widened, leading to an inevitable increase in money supply and, therefore inflation.
Sri Lanka has been importing many essential goods for consumption, and when imports were banned, naturally, there was a shortage of food and fuel. Sri Lanka’s exporting industries were also affected due to the non-availability of imported raw materials and essential intermediates. Due to which, Sri Lanka’s exports decreased significantly. With a trade deficit of $10 billion on the one hand and huge foreign debt, including sovereign bonds, the problem of repayment of debt is nothing less than a nightmare for Sri Lanka. On top of all this, being caught in the clutches of China, condition for Sri Lanka is even more precarious. A few years ago, Sri Lanka had to undergo a worst humiliation, when they had to lease out its strategically important port Hambantota to China, but even after that there is no end to Sri Lanka’s woes.
China has provided billions of dollars in loans to Sri Lanka for developing a seaport, airport, highways and power stations. While the country’s debt liability to China has increased to about $ 8 billion (2020), these projects have yet to yield adequate revenues for debt servicing.
What is India’s role?
Significantly, Sri Lanka is home to a large number of Tamil people, who migrated from Tamil Nadu centuries ago. In view of the deteriorating situation in Sri Lanka, a large number of Tamil refugees are reaching the Tamil Nadu coast. Naturally, humanitarian help to them will be the priority of the Government of India and State government of Tamil Nadu. Apart from this, the Government has given a credit line of $ 1 billion to Sri Lanka and has also given assistance of $ 500 million to buy essential petroleum products. Apart from this, the Sri Lankan government has sought additional assistance of $ 1.5 billion from the Indian government.
As India extended help to Sri Lanka amid the biggest economic crisis since its Independence, former cricketer and Sri Lankan politician Arjuna Ranatunga thanked PM Modi and India for supporting Sri Lanka in every possible way in the hour of its need. Arjuna Ranatunga said India has been an elder brother to Sri Lanka.
Praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Ranatunga said, “PM Modi was very generous to give the grant to start Jaffna International Airport. India has been an elder brother to us… They’re looking at our needs like petrol & medicines… India has been helping us in a big way.”
He further added, “India has been like an elder brother to us. I am glad that they are monitoring rather than just giving money to Sri Lanka. They are looking at our needs like petrol and medicine. I am sure that those are the things we will lack in the next couple of months. I think that is why India might have come out and India has been helping us in a big way.”
Talking about his other major concerns for his country, Arjuna Ranatunga said, “My major worry is that I don’t want to see a bloodbath. I am very very scared. I don’t want people to start another war which we suffered for thirty years. Some of the politicians who are in the government are trying to show that this is created by the Tamils or the Muslims. By doing that they are trying to divide this country again. That is my major worry.”
“General public is only asking for basic things in protests like milk powder, gas, rice, petrol. I don’t agree with the violence happening. The country has gone into a major crisis in the last 2 years, they can give excuses like COVID–19 but the world went through it, he added”
Criticising the current Government in Sri Lanka, he said, “This Government changed the entire Constitution for their own benefit. Unfortunately, these people didn’t handle COVID properly and were cocky & overconfident. If the President thinks he can’t handle it, he can step down. We’re begging for money around the world. Luckily there are countries helping us out, mainly India.”
Another Sri Lankan great Sanath Jayasuriya said “You know as always as a neighbour, the big brother next to our country has been helping us… We are very grateful to the Indian government and the Prime Minister (Modi). So, for us even to survive it is not very easy at the moment, things are going through… I hope that things will change and also with the help of India and other countries we are trying to come out from this situation.”
India has supplied over 270,000 MT fuel to Sri Lanka so far to help ease the power crisis in the island country which is witnessing acute power cuts. Sri Lanka is battling a severe economic crisis with food and fuel scarcity affecting a large number of the people in the island nation.
It is true that as a neighbour and friendly country, India is providing all possible assistance to Sri Lanka and it seems that this will continue in future also. But giving aid in times of crisis will not be enough. To deal with this impending crisis in front of Sri Lanka, India will also have to help them move towards a solution. It is true that Sri Lanka has applied for International Monetary Fund (IMF) assistance, but it is well known that IMF debt comes with conditions and those conditions are mostly against the borrowing countries. Therefore, other options will also have to be considered. The Government of India, in addition to just lending in this matter, can also try to help Sri Lanka restructure its debt.
At the global level, the international organisations will have to come united and respond to this ill-fated effort of China. In addition, the Government of India may provide humanitarian and commercial assistance to Sri Lanka, and help them with an action plan for Sri Lanka’s sustainable development. For this, the revival of Sri Lanka’s agriculture, apart from the rescheduling of debt and repayment of the sovereign debt; helps in ending instability caused by the lack of raw materials in industries, ensures the availability of essential commodities for the common people; are some other contours of India’s help to Sri Lanka. These endeavours can help India earn the goodwill of the Sri Lankan people; trapped in the clutches of China, and take it on the path of development once again.