By Vijay Darda | 16-05-2022
India had also faced a Sri Lanka-like crisis three decades back, but the leadership saved the country
During the rule of demon king Ravana, his palace in Sri Lanka was made of gold. But today there is not an ounce of gold in Sri Lanka’s treasury to save it from bankruptcy! But quite amazingly, when India was on the verge of bankruptcy some three decades back, we saved ourselves by selling 20 tonnes of gold, and subsequent rapid economic recovery helped bolster the economy. Very few people of the present generation of the country would be aware of this story. Before examining the situation in Sri Lanka and its causes, it is pertinent to briefly learn about the then situation!
The Gulf War broke out in 1990 and the price of petroleum products skyrocketed in the international market. India’s petroleum imports suddenly increased from $2 billion to $5.7 billion in 1990-91. During this period, political instability was at its peak. In 1989, Rajiv Gandhi kept the Congress away from forming a coalition government.
Vishwanath Pratap Singh became the PM but he too had to resign in 1990. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in May 1991. The situation turned so bad that the NRIs started withdrawing their money. India’s foreign exchange reserves went down to less than one billion dollars. There was so little money that only essential imports could be paid for and that too only for 20 days. There was no money to do business with the world! The foreign debt on India had shot up to $72 billion. There were only two countries in the world above India in terms of debt – Brazil and Mexico.
India would have gone bankrupt had it not paid the debt. Chandrashekhar was the Prime Minister at that time. He got India out of a balance of payment crisis by selling 20 tonnes of gold, regardless of domestic politics and criticism. Meanwhile, the IMF gave a loan of $1.27 billion, but improving the situation was a big challenge. However, in June 1991 P V Narasimha Rao became the Prime Minister and he brought about a lot of changes in India’s economy through the then finance minister Manmohan Singh. Imports were curtailed, government spending was drastically cut, and the rupee was devalued by up to 20 per cent. Banks increased interest rates. This is how India survived!
Had India’s political leadership and administrative machinery not shown alertness, our story would not have been any different from Sri Lanka. The political leadership is largely to blame for the condition of Sri Lanka today. Until last month, the all-powerful Rajapaksa family dominated the island nation. The unbridled nepotism ensured the presidency for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Mahinda Rajapaksa was the Prime Minister, Chamal Rajapaksa was the minister for irrigation, Basil Rajapaksa was the finance minister and Namal Rajapaksa was the sports minister. Thus, 75 per cent of the budget of Sri Lanka was grabbed by the Rajapaksa family. The Rajapaksa family ran Sri Lanka as their own private company. The children of the Rajapaksa family were roaming around in the world’s most expensive and customised luxurious cars. They behaved as if the country’s money was their own money. The Rajapaksa family ran the country according to their whims and fancy. It is not known why the use of fertilizers in farming was banned, leading to a sharp decline in yields. The export of tea and rice, which were prime sources of foreign exchange for Sri Lanka, declined drastically.
Tourism accounts for about 20 per cent of Sri Lanka’s revenue. Sri Lanka’s finances were already in the doldrums in the aftermath of the years of the civil war resulting from the LTTE insurgency. The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic further worsened the situation. In the meantime, Sri Lanka went on seeking loans left, right and centre. When China dangled the carrot of Hambantota Port, the experts had cautioned that Sri Lanka does not need it but eventually Sri Lanka walked into China’s debt trap. Now the rumour mills are churning out the stories of how the Chinese financiers benefitted the Rajapaksa family for this. I don’t know how much substance these stories hold, but one thing is clear that Sri Lanka unnecessarily took a loan of billions of dollars from China. What is the condition today? China has got Hambantota Port on a lease for 99 years. Actually, the rulers of countries like Sri Lanka and Pakistan run the country like a private limited company. They use the public money to feather their own nests but we are proud that neither any party nor any prime minister has ever done this in our country. For us, our country is supreme.
The burden of foreign debt on Sri Lanka has now exceeded $50 billion. The Sri Lankan government has clearly admitted that it is not in a position to pay even the interest on the loans. It simply means that Sri Lanka has gone bankrupt. The value of one dollar has crossed 360 Sri Lankan rupees. Traditionally, it is believed that any country should have at least 7 months’ worth of foreign exchange reserves to import, but Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange reserves are not enough to pay for imports even for a few days. The situation is so bad that there is a complete power outage throughout the island nation. Petrol and gas are being supplied under the protection of the army. Essential goods are missing from the market and the poor have nothing to eat. There is no money for paper and hence newspapers have stopped publishing. Sri Lanka is burning in the fire of discontent. Meanwhile, the post of prime minister has been taken over by Ranil Wickremesinghe. He is considered very close to India. India has helped Sri Lanka a lot even during Rajapaksa’s reign, but how much can any other country help? The health of Sri Lanka will have to be restored by its own political leadership. Let us all pray for Sri Lanka!
The woeful plight of Sri Lanka is an eye-opener for the world that it is very risky to fall into the debt trap. An old saying in our Indian families says, stretch your legs no bigger than the coverlet. And there is another saying that there must be some money in hand for rainy days. This is the proverbial lesson for every family and also for the political setup and government! No one can say for sure when and where any calamity will strike!
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