The natives are restless
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.
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.
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
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
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
and a private developer. The taxpayers of
however, are the ones repaying the loan.
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
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.
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
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 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.
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.