The Prince of Kandy
The following was also published on the Daily FT on Monday 12 April and at http://www.ft.lk/columns/Is-Port-City-not-important/4-716223
To reform the proposed legislation instead of expressing an opinion on the proposed Port City framework it would be more effective to comment on the lack of media coverage on the issue. Even media content targeted at the 10% of the population to have finished high school consider it unworthy of prominent coverage.
Though many would be unable to forecast the large economic and social ramifications of the proposed legislation they are also in a position that they do not know what it is that is being proposed. This is unique for a country wherein policy very much against the public interest is masterfully interwoven with policies that focus group well (never really implemented) in manifestos obviously designed by Marketing Departments.
From NGO industry stalwarts like the Government Medical Officers Association to opinionated members of parliament like Champika Ranawaka, there seems to be no real discussion on the issue.
On the nature of political parties
Both major parties, the SJB and the SLPP, are actually highly organised and collusive institutions representing big money interests. The policy outcomes the country faces represent the views and interests of a small group of people willing to fund those parties.
This is clear from the fact that the majority of the population support the abolishment of the Executive Presidency to the fact that most do not benefit from the direction of the taxation regime. Most people though silent on the issue are averse to politicians and the major political parties.
Our working hero
Take the SLPP Gotabaya theme song. One must commend it for being an incredibly catchy tune with an amazing music video to match. It through a highly calculated representation of affinity (a relation between biological groups involving resemblance in structural plan and indicating a common origin) helped bring about a Presidential victory for the backers of the party.
The music video builds on imagery of huge infrastructure investments to, in the words of Noam Chomsky, ‘manufacture consent’ for the large construction friendly policies of the government.
No one considers or questions as to how the Central Expressway is going. To my understanding, the government is now heavily reliant on a Chinese firm for the completion of a key infrastructure project that could prove to be politically decisive.
No one even considers the fact that the Lotus Tower is mainly broadcast infrastructure. Its existence would help reduce the cost of broadcast media. It was also funded by the Chinese.
You decide on the SJB
Given that American Aid funded think tanks are working overdrive to bring into power the son of a mass murderer it would be more difficult to convince you of what an idiot Sajith Premadasa is. He seems not to have had a misstep over the last six months.
Do you honestly think there is no dirt on the person for whom there is a highly circulated video of him allocating jobs on the basis of height? Please remind yourself that this is a man who spent a considerable amount of sums earmarked for housing and cultural development on self-promotion.
The SJB let the 20th amendment pass. There are no serious questions on Sajith Premadasa’s role or lack of leadership on the issue. Members of his alliance and even his own party voted for the bill. He was warned that this would happen and was definitely in a position to reign it in.
His attacks on the government seem to be centred around environmentalism and the majoritarianism of the government. On the economic front with the help of Harsha De Silva, his party is actively fear-mongering on the state of the economy.
Not that fear isn’t warranted
The environment is important. Land allocation is a sensitive issue. People should have water, land, and the right to economic upliftment. Premadasa even as cabinet minister for housing has done little to alleviate any of these issues.
The economy is in the doldrums. Incomes especially at the lower end of the spectrum have crashed. The most obvious solution would be to increase taxation and have targeted government spending. Why is neither main party advocating such a solution?
Narrow minority interests
Mangala Samaraweera has expertly positioned himself as the champion of minority rights. The media eats this up. No one questions whether he actually is supportive of minority rights.
They take this Mandela-esque image as being true and attack him thus appealing to the Sinhala Maha Sabha base and helping position Mahinda (not Chandrika) as the leader of that movement.
Colombo based rights institutions rarely take a holistic view of government violence. Groundviews and Vikalpa for instance have nothing on the violence perpetrated against the JVP.
Anyone capable of reading the budgets that Mangala presented to parliament would see that he undid a lot of the improving trends in terms of revenue collection. The budgets did not benefit the people of the North.
Take the appointment of Prince Sarojini Manmatharajah Charles to head Sri Lanka Customs. Something hailed by the Colombo elite as being both multicultural and feminist. Her incompetence seeked to maintain the corrupt import mafia and the low effective taxation on the super-rich.
With regards to the debt sustainability instead of pushing the country into the arms of the IMF, there is ample scope to raise revenues. The favourite punching bag of the corporate media Ravi Karunanayaka did this.
In 2015 the country was put into elections because of the coming debt payments. Let us remember that Presidential elections were called early.
Having won the election, the UNP government of the time implemented; retrospective taxes, cleaned up customs and excise departments, renegotiated Chinese debt, and at the same time managed to increase salaries of the government sector.
GDP did not do well right after the Presidential election of 2015. Remember if a Chinese contractor builds an apartment that he sells to a Chinese investor on Sri Lankan soil then it is still counted as Sri Lankan GDP.
Over half the construction workers in the country are from abroad. As Chinese contractors are not involved in small scale projects like residential housing it is safe to assume that the government and big corporations have a higher weightage of Chinese business relations than the rest of the economy.
Therefore, one can raise the question of whether the construction bailout organised after the Presidential election of 2019 helped out the Chinese more so than the Sri Lankans. Given the structure of the bailout and the complaints of the Ceylon Institute of Builders, it should be considered.
If you are inclined to such questioning you would also then wonder to what extent the rise in GDP growth would accrue to foreign parties.
The Port City
This leads us to the question of whether Port City would benefit us? Yes, economic activity would rise. Yes, it would look really nice and bring about national pride. Yes, it would be nice to see actual urban planning.
However as with the young girl looking up at the Lotus Tower in wonderment are, we really as Sri Lankans going to benefit all that much with its construction. What would happen to wage growth? What would happen to public debt under such a low tax regime? After all Casinos outside Port City will lose customers to those within Port City. Is Colombo really that much of a tourist draw?
To be honest I do not know. The BOI Framework though highly feared has delivered good employment outcomes and helped keep our apparel sector competitive.
What I do know is that the son of the mass murderer is unlikely to win an election and the sooner we all just get behind Ranil the better our chances of having someone competent redraft the Port City legislation.