“The New York Times’13 May 1974 edition carried an article that reflects life as it is today with food and fuel shortages, and a country living from week to week. It described a nation’s debt, and lack of foreign exchange, healthcare facilities and imports. It seems that the economic climate has been the same for nearly 48 years…” lamented Dilshan Ferdinando, the Managing Director of Access Projects.

He added: “I actually do not see it changing in the immediate future.”

“We have had about 10 different governments formed by the main political parties since 1974, when there were 12 million people, rising to 22 million in 2022; we are still importing double what we’re producing. Nothing has changed… We’ve had bursts of foreign exchange surpluses with everybody having a good time until they feel the crunch again,” he stated, candidly.

Ferdinando continued to speak openly, mentioning that “in the 1970s, both India and Sri Lanka went with a begging bowl to China and the US for food. However, while India has flourished since then, our nation’s been stuck in the same economic doldrums. Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s slogan in 1974 – ‘Produce or Perish’ – rings true today. The only way out of this economic crisis is to improve production and reduce handouts.”

Airing his views on the construction industry being considered as one of the barometers of economic development, he asserted: “When we see buildings coming up, and roads and bridges being built, the usual perception is that they’re signs of prosperity. Sri Lanka has changed with the emergence of highways, beautiful waterfronts and new hotels. However, we now know that neither buildings nor roads can be consumed when food becomes scarce.”

“Therefore, I have a different opinion on construction being one of the measures of economic progress. It is only an external signature and doesn’t signify real development. Most infrastructure that’s visible today has been built on borrowed money. That is why we have roads and bridges but no food,” he charged.

Ferdinando emphasised that “our priorities are misplaced. Self-sufficiency through agriculture and production should be the main yardsticks to measure economic development in Sri Lanka.”

Referring to government regulations on the growth of the industry, he remarked: “There should be a certain level of protectionism for local industry, and a level playing field for foreign and Sri Lankan contractors working on the same projects.”

And he added that “if a project can be well managed by local builders, there is no requirement for foreign participation. Overall, governance needs to be revamped to be holistic in consideration of related industries as well.”

“The shortage of construction materials, a lack of labour resources and the foreign exchange crunch are all having a massive detrimental impact on us. However, the industry has always survived; and I have no doubt that it will [survive] through thick and thin, simply because we’ll find alternative materials and means of fulfilling the demand,” Ferdinando maintained.

He added: “There will be delays but I’m confident because the construction industry and its stakeholders are extremely smart and innovative. It is unfortunate that we have been trained to live on imports. We’re still trying to run before we can crawl – it is imperative to reduce our imports to a bare minimum; industries will then pop up and fill the void.”

Ferdinando continued: “Further, there is a massive drop in labour resources in the country – people do not want to be employed in the construction industry. There’s a dearth of electricians and plumbers in particular – to work as three wheeler drivers is more popular.”

In addition, he noted that “most people who have enjoyed free education want a government job. Consequently, the construction field is suffering greatly due to a lack of workers. There has to be a broad based social change to fix this problem.”