Next couple of months ‘most difficult’ for Sri Lankans: PM Ranil Wickremesinghe

Outlines proposals including new budget, privatisation of national carrier, printing more money to combat crisis 

May 16, 2022 05:10 pm | Updated 08:56 pm IST - COLOMBO

Sri Lanka’s new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. File

Sri Lanka’s new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. File | Photo Credit: AFP

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Monday warned citizens that the coming months would be the “most difficult ones” of their lives, with likely 15-hour power cuts, and a further price increase in fuel and gas, just as he outlined plans to arrest the island’s rapid economic decline.

“To ease the queues, we must obtain approximately USD 75 million within the next couple of days. At the moment, we only have petrol stocks for a single day,” he said in a televised address, his first after assuming charge as Prime Minister on May 12.

President Gotabaya appointed Mr. Wickremesinghe as Premier days after Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned, amid citizens’ protests demanding the Rajapaksa clan’s resignation over the country’s dire economic crisis.

Mr. Wickremsinghe made a host of proposals, including a “new alternative budget”, privatisation of the country’s loss-making national carrier Sri Lankan Airlines, and printing more money to pay state sector employees, and asked people to “prepare to make some sacrifices.”

A realistic projection of the country’s revenue for the year stood at LKR 1.6 trillion, he said, while the total government expenditure is an estimated LKR 4 trillion. The budget deficit for the year is SLR 2.4 trillion, or 13% of the GDP.

“In November 2019, our foreign exchange reserves were at USD 7.5 billion. However, today, it is a challenge for the treasury to find USD 1 million. The Ministry of finance is finding it difficult to raise USD 5 million required to import gas,” he said, pointing to Sri Lanka’s depleting foreign reserves. While Mr. Wickremesinghe’s address included possible help from “foreign allies”, it was silent on the government’s plans to boost domestic production, especially amid a drastic drop in annual harvest, following an abrupt switch to organic farming, that has raised fears of starvation.

Speaking on the unavailability of dollars to import fuel Mr. Wickremesinghe said under the Indian credit line, two more diesel shipments are due to arrive on May 18 and June 1, apart from two petrol shipments expected May 18 and 29. India has so far sent 12 shipments and over 400,000 MT of fuel under the Lien of Credit.

For several weeks, Sri Lankans are spending hours together in long queues outside fuel stations, where petrol and diesel are rationed to cope with the shortages. Residents across several localities in the island have been protesting incessantly, demanding LPG cylinders and kerosene. Meanwhile, citizen continue agitating near Colombo’s seafront, and other locations, asking President Gotabaya to resign.

In a message to Mr. Wickremesinghe, demonstrators are camping opposite his official Colombo residence, in a ‘No deal gama [village]’ set up as anti-government resistance continues, including against the new PM accused by critics of “entering a deal” with the Rajapaksas. The Federation of University Teachers’ Association, a trade union of Sri Lanka’s university academics, “strongly condemned” the “non-consultative and self-serving” appointment of Mr. Wickremesinghe.

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Apparently responding to the criticism, Mr. Wickremesinghe said in his speech: “My goal and dedication is not to save an individual, a family, or a party. My objective is to save all the people of this country and the future of our younger generation.”

Mr. Wickremesinghe has reached out to all political parties, seeking support. “We must immediately establish a national assembly or political body with the participation of all political parties to find solutions for the present crisis,” even as opposition parties promised conditional support, refusing to be part of a unity government.

Mr. Wickremesinghe invoked German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Caucasian Chalk Circle’ to highlight the challenging task ahead of him. He likened his situation to that of the character Grusha, crossing a broken rope bridge while carrying a child that was not her own. “This is an even more difficult undertaking. The precipice is deep and its bottom cannot be seen. The bridge is made of thin glass and there is no handrail. I am wearing shoes with sharp nails that cannot be removed. My task is to safely take the child to the other side. I am accepting this challenge for our nation,” he said.

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