It was a good, morning: No … a great, morning. The rain had ceased the previous day and the Thursday morning rays came clearly through the leaves of the Margosa tree in the garden.
I was watching the tranquil scene from my office window with a steaming cup of tea for company, made by myself as Kussi Amma Sera was away.
Away? Yes she had gone to her home town for a couple of days to attend to some family business; something connected with her niece returning from a two-year stint in West Asia with plans for marriage.
Oh! What a beautiful morning, so it seemed, with one exception however: I was having writer’s block, one of the biggest fears of any writer.
I didn’t have a clue about what to write this morning. But then came a saviour in the form of know-all neighbour Haramanis Appu.
“I-say Machan, Sri Lanka still developing for many years, no?” he said in his halting, broken English, after sliding into a chair in the sitting room. Developing? Yes, he meant that Sri Lanka is still a developing nation after 70 years of independence. “Every year developing, no….….but no progress,” he continued.
(He has a point because in the developing country status too we are trudging along between low income and mid income categories. God knows when we’ll go to the top of that segment and attain developed status.)
“Well we have some real problems when doctors want to decide on trade policy – instead of looking after patients — and railway workers strike when important school exams are on,” I said.
“Why we have so many problems? I don’t understand,” he asks. “That maybe because (Minister) Mangala (Samaraweera) says we have a spineless government not prepared to control unions with a firm hand,” I ventured a response.
“I-say Mangala, fine one, no. He is also putting allowances and petrol using for official purpose as salary,” he says referring to the new taxes for public servants where their allowances are also included in the tax structure.
The elderly neighbour went on and on about the country, it’s falling economy (the way he sees it), depressed consumer spending and high interest rates which were a disincentive to investment.
I lightened up. This was something I could write about, I told myself and gently indicating to Haramanis that I had a deadline to catch saw him off at the gate and rushed back to my computer.
What a great day, I was collecting my thoughts and ready to pound on the computer. There was also no Kussi Amma Sera around, though more times than not I welcomed her intrusion with a sharp comment that more often than not gave the column the bite it needed for readers who are more regaled by Kussi Amma Sera’s tales than I ever would be.
Recollecting my thoughts, what Haramanis said about the economy was not far from the truth because I was drawn to a similar statement this week by the subsidiary of a Colombo conglomerate where it announced the cancellation of a joint venture with a US company because of the moody investment climate.
“WAPO and SEAF having given due consideration to the current economic conditions and unfavourable investment environment, have on August 14 mutually terminated the JV agreement on an amicable basis,” it said according to a notice posted on the Colombo Stock Exchange on Tuesday.
Guardian Capital Partners Plc (WAPO), part of the Carson’s Group, had entered into a joint venture with US-based Small Enterprises Assistance Funds (SEAF) on April 28, 2016. The JV was aimed at managing and investing in private equity projects in Sri Lanka.
The company decision is not surprising since over the past year, business sentiment has dropped, consumer buying has eased and the Central Bank has adjusted downwards its planned 4 per cent and over economic growth forecast for 2018.
According to media reports, AC Nielson’s Q2 2018 research report released recently has revealed that overall consumption has dropped by 14.5 per cent, in a continuing sequence of negative growth over many quarters.
Large consumer goods group, Softlogic Holdings Plc, in its quarterly (end June 2018) results reported that “economic slippages, high interest rates and taxes plus a weakened rupee posed many challenges resulting in further erosion in consumer demand and market sentiment in Sri Lanka”.
Amidst the flow of quarterly (end June) results of Sri Lankan companies, Hayleys PLC reported volatile economic conditions in the country. Most companies were reporting depressed market conditions with low or negative growth in most major FMCG categories.
In its quarterly report, the HNB banking group stated: “As we move into the second half of 2018, we are fully cognizant of the macro-economic challenges, slow-down in economic growth and market liquidity constraints …”
So, all is not well on the economic front. Not good news to the government which is battling on all fronts externally and (also) internally amidst a battle of wits between the President’s team and Prime Minister’s team. One proposes while the other disposes – we have seen many such instances in the past – and the latest one was the railway strike. Mangala Samaraweera said he would discuss demands of railway workers only after they gave up the strike. When that didn’t happen, the President invited them to a discussion and hey presto, the strike is called off. A few days later, the unions are threatening to strike again, accusing the President of not keeping to his side of the bargain (promises).
Even Kussi Amma Sera’s kitchen-style political management is better than what the country is being confronted with day-in day-out, some readers point out. The phone rings.
“It’s like a Laurel and Hardy comedy show,” exclaimed my jolly-mood economist friend, Sammiya who was on the line.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Why the things politicians are saying and the news on the TV is a never-ending comedy of errors – microphones poked in front of politicians coming out of temples, churches, mosques, political rallies, the Dalada Maligawa and in an instant, you get a quote for the day,” Sammiya said. His reference to Laurel and Hardy was about the classic Hollywood comedy duo popular in the 1950-60s.
Again the discussion went the way of the earlier conversation with Haramanis about the economy not doing well, consumer spending down but at this point, Sammiya was also talking about Sri Lanka’s dismal work culture and ethics.
“Nowadays it’s very difficult to get an honest carpenter or mason. They are either costly or won’t complete a job properly,” he said.
I was reminded of a colleague telling me that very soon when local carpenters and masons become scarce, we’ll be able to tap into the dozens of Chinese and Indians workers floating around. Or maybe take a walk along Slave Island’s ‘slum-land’ and you are sure to run into a Chinaman (not the googly type) who will do the job at less cost and to perfection.
“If a local baas (carpenter) feels it’s about to rain and has to do something connected with the roof, he will put off the job for another day. In the case of a Chinaman, he will continue to work in another part of the building as time is precious,” the colleague said, explaining how lazy Sri Lankan workers have become and one of the reasons why construction sites have foreign workers.
Urgent requests are being made by the industry for Sri Lanka to import workers to service shortages in sectors like garments.
Well the situation is not rosy in Sri Lanka as of now and with provincial council elections round the corner, politicians will be daggers-drawn against each other. Let’s see what Kussi Amma Sera has to say next week. Maybe she will cook up a few things or two on where Sri Lanka should be positioned on the development path.