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The natives are restless

Iíve been travelling around the Southern and Central Provinces. The same posters dot the roads, but if you get down you hear a far different story. Peopleís concerns are far more nuanced than war and mega-projects. They talk about jobs, education, and local empowerment. They want the ability to succeed based on what they do, not who they know. They are Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher, etc. and they want to get on with their lives. I think weíd be wise to listen.

On politicians

Though the roads are covered with political posters, people donít have that much faith in the politicians. A man in Kegalle told me that they had a few ministers from the area, including the Minister of State Revenue and Finance. However, as a small businessman, he hasnít seen much benefit. ĎThey take care of their friends and family, not us,í he said. 

On the flip side, I also spoke to someone in Hambantota who thanked the President for expediting his liquor license in a day. For every case like this, however, there are hundreds who suffer from weak institutions. Connections work well for those that have them, but they leave most people out.


An economy based on who you know isnít especially productive. In Kandy, for example, there is an uncompleted parking garage in the center of town. Its support columns hang there like a concrete Polonnaruwa.  In this case, someone close to the central government got the contract and even flew journalists out there using Air Force helicopters.  The area was taken from the municipality and given to the BOI. He, however, stopped paying rent and never completed the construction. 

The local people would like to have the intended community spaces on top, but they no longer have authority over their own land. They also have no income from the parking. That belongs to Colombo and a private developer. The taxpayers of Kandy, however, are the ones repaying the loan.


In Anuradhapura, too, there are ongoing issues with the central government. Itís very hard to get deeds for land, much of which is administered centrally via the Crown Lands Act. One businessman told me that it takes 48 steps. The paperwork has to pass across 24 desks, twice. There is also a tug of war between the provincial council and central government for authority. The business people are caught in between.

Without deeds they canít borrow, without loans they canít invest, without investment they canít expand. Instead, people come from Colombo with capital and take earnings out while people in Anuradhapura end up becoming traders. They, however, have the skill, ingenuity and drive to start their own manufacturing and services. Theyíre doing it right now, they just need the opportunity to scale. To start, they need the rights to their own land.

Mega projects

Instead of these local issues, however, mega-projects are being advertised from Colombo. While these make nice billboards and offer big commissions, they donít necessarily create opportunities for local people. We need infrastructure, but we should be sure that weíre getting a good deal and not just enriching the people who broker it. We should ensure that development creates jobs for Sri Lankan people and benefits the Sri Lankan taxpayer first.

Our deals with China, for example, may not exactly put our country first. China is becoming known world-wide for their huge graft ridden loans, especially to Africa. They loan millions of dollars for development projects on the condition that the work goes to Chinese contractors. The price is often inflated, but everyone gets a kickback and no one complains. Average taxpayers, however, have to repay the money. This way of doing business may be good for the political elite, but itís not necessarily good for the people.


The people Iíve met are quite smart and they can see whatís going on. They know they need infrastructure, but they also want to see some changes that directly benefit them. Clean institutions that get things done on time. Local and provincial government that controls its own land and can take decisions. Affordable lending that makes investment possible for small, medium business as well as the big guys. 

These issues may not fit on a billboard, but they are important to people on the ground. The infrastructure is simply there for people to use, and they should be the priority. These are the entrepreneurs who can develop the country, create jobs and lift people out of poverty. What theyíre saying makes sense. Mega-projects and war victories may go so far, but at some point people are going to ask whatís being done for them. In my brief experience, they already are.  









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