BALANCING CONFLICTING NEEDS
Take the middle path in times of stress and uncertainty – Dr. Jehan Perera
The desire to keep the economy running and boost it seems to have played a role in the government’s decision not to put the brakes on social mixing during the traditional New Year season, which is being blamed for the spread of the virus.
Health authorities warned in advance that the new variant of COVID-19 was the UK strain, which has a higher capacity to spread easily and be more virulent in its impact.
Despite this knowledge being available locally, the government did not crack down on the social mixing that took place in the lead up to Avurudu in particular.
Pent up consumer demand was expressed in packed shopping centres and long-distance travel to holiday resorts where social events took place with little or no deference being shown to the COVID-19 guidelines.
The spread of the virus without maximum remedial action being taken to mitigate it isn’t the only tradeoff the government is making to keep the economy afloat.
It has also targeted chemical fertilisers, which cost several hundred million dollars of scarce foreign currency. The government is under obligation to provide this fertiliser to the farming community at no cost as this was an election promise.
But it has declared that chemical fertiliser imports will be banned on the basis that they are unhealthy for the soil and human beings with large numbers of people living in some farming areas falling prey to kidney disease. Additionally, the government stated that it places the country in a vicious cycle in which the main beneficiaries are MNCs.
At the forefront of the government’s calculations is the high import bill to which fertiliser imports add their share.
Due to the reduction in export earnings and the crippled tourism industry – which witnessed a growth spurt with the end of the nearly three decade civil war – the country is facing a severe shortage of foreign exchange.
Consequently, the government has imposed restrictions on imports of what it terms ‘nonessentials.’ But if this goes on for too long, Sri Lanka could fall afoul of the WTO whose mandate is to promote international trade and mitigate obstacles to this.
However, the government’s decision to ban chemical fertilisers and revert to more traditional modes of farming with an emphasis on organic fertilisers is not an ad hoc response to the foreign exchange crisis. It runs deeper than that.
A main theme in the government’s political ideology is the struggle to preserve the nation’s culture and religion, in the face of repeated invasions and encroachments by foreign powers.
Banning fertiliser imports can also be seen in the light of an attempt to be free from domination by MNCs with patent rights on high yielding seed varieties and chemical fertilisers that are part of the production cycle.
Meanwhile, the movement in the direction of economic nationalism has been bolstered by the recent reversal at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva where it lost the vote on the resolution on Sri Lanka.
The UNHRC’s focus on issues relating to the war that ended 12 years ago has been escalated to monitoring ongoing human rights and governance issues. However, the current situation in Sri Lanka – despite its declining trend – could be considered better than many other countries that aren’t being subjected to such resolutions.
This observation appears to have given rise to a conviction within the administration that the island is being singled out for discriminatory punitive actions by a group of countries that are hostile towards it. As such, this is one of the main reasons for government leaders seeking new allies on whom they can depend for their protection and fairer treatment for Sri Lanka.
The desire of the political leadership of any country to be free from relationships of domination and humiliation is understandable.
Where the economic aspects of agriculture are concerned, chemical fertilisers have become part and parcel of a complex web of interrelationships, which include high yielding crops that are genetically modified, and require heavy doses of fertilisers and pesticides to be productive.
It will take time for farmers to replant their land with more traditional crops that can be sustained on organic fertilisers, and also adjust to the lower yields and consequences to the income flows they’re accustomed to.
Similarly, shifting Sri Lanka’s traditional foreign policy needs to be carefully thought through if it entails severing relations with those with whom there are organic relationships born of history and neighbourhood.