Sri Lanka has a long way to go before resolving its economic problems, President Ranil Wickremesinghe warned in his original policy statement earlier this month. The situation is still grave, and it is no exaggeration when Ranil says it is his duty “to light even one lamp rather than cursing darkness”.
He is still pursuing the plank of political unity to tide over the crisis collectively. His statement underlines the challenges the government has to overcome before setting the economy right: “Our country suffered disputes due to disunity. We were divided into ethnic groups. Divided into languages. Divided into religions. Divided into parties. Divided into classes. Divided geographically. Divided by castes… Ever since I entered politics, I wanted to create a society with a Sri Lankan identity. I suffered political defeats. I was criticised by extremists because of my continued stand against extremism, and bigotry. Some political parties slandered me as a racist. However, I will not deviate from my principle, from my policy.”
Inspiring words, but does it stand the test of actual governance? Though relatively peaceful at the time of Independence, the country soon plunged into civil wars, which made Sri Lanka one of the most notorious killing fields of the world—with Sinhalese killing Sinhalese, Tamils killing Tamils and the State killing all—Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. Ranil’s tall claims remind me of W H Auden’s words: “Beware of words. For with words we lie. We say peace when we mean war.”
With India, especially Tamil Nadu, rising to the occasion spontaneously, the government and people of Tamil Nadu rightly feel that food grains, fuel, milk powder and life-saving medicines should reach the neediest and most vulnerable sections of the population.
Recently, I received an email from a good friend, which makes for painful reading. To quote: “In the ubiquitous petrol queues—now all over the urban areas—mafia-like ruffians intimidate the innocent in the line-ups and sell petrol given by the Government at SLRs 250 per litre at SLRs 2500 and more. They force their ways, out of the line into the queues, again and again, to continue their brazen black-marketing on their own people, at a time of great suffering.”
The need of the hour is for India and the international community to persuade/pressurise Sri Lanka to introduce the Public Distribution System (PDS) throughout the country. With all its pitfalls and shortcomings, the PDS works satisfactorily in all parts of India, especially in Tamil Nadu.
The PDS was introduced during the Second World War when there was artificial famine throughout India created by the British colonialists. The PDS is a system of distributing essential commodities to the most vulnerable sections of society under the control of government departments and agencies at an affordable price. Thanks to the admirable zeal and commitment of civil servants like A D Gorwala, the Bombay Presidency was saved from famine. Even in native states, the PDS was introduced. In my hometown, Ernakulam, capital of the Cochin State, the
Maharaja not only introduced rationing but also made arrangements for serving standard vegetarian meals in government-run restaurants for four annas (25 Naya Paise). Textiles were scarce, and the ration shops distributed cheap cloth to the needy. The imported rice was stinking, but the people survived those difficult days because they were convinced that the government was doing its best to serve the people.
The PDS involves twin tasks—1) Procurement of essential items through imports and local procurement and 2) Its distribution through fair price shops or what we call ration shops in India. It is the duty of the Central government to implement these tasks. The items to be imported should be identified in advance, and they should be stored in warehouses spread throughout the country. It is essential to store an additional quota of food grains and essential items to meet unexpected contingencies like famines and floods.
In the Sri Lankan situation, the items include food grains, milk powder, sugar, and kerosene. As far as life-saving medicines and medical equipment are concerned, these should be handed over to the International Red Cross for distribution to the hospitals. It will be a good idea if the Government of Tamil Nadu volunteers to provide medical facilities, including surgery, to needy people. They could be airlifted to Chennai and treated in local hospitals.
Sri Lanka never had a PDS. According to the information I gathered, essential items are distributed through the Divisional Secretariat, a wing of the Central government. In order to strengthen participatory democracy, Sri Lanka requires strengthening the provincial governments, which came into existence as a result of the 13th Amendment. The opening of ration shops, distribution of essential items to the needy, and recruitment of personnel to carry out the public distribution should come under the provincial government, just as it is in India. A ration shop could be opened for every 5,000 families if one considers the Tamil Nadu example. Each ration shop employs four or five people. In recruiting this personnel, preference could be given to women who have been widowed, differently abled persons and refugees who have returned to Sri Lanka.
In the present situation, where unemployment is very high, the start of PDS will greatly boost the economy. The need of the hour is the constitution of an expert committee, which should visit Tamil Nadu to study the situation and make positive recommendations, avoiding the pitfalls of the Tamil Nadu experiment.
Views are personal