A critical review of Sri Lanka in 2021

Saturday, 21 August 2021 01:06 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Sri Lanka has a wealth of competent professionals of integrity and acumen who can move this country on a path to sustainable development. For this, the Executive and Legislature (President, Cabinet and Parliament), have to admit their abject failure and ask for help  – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


Public discourse everywhere confirms that Sri Lanka is in a parlous situation on several fronts. This paper appraises our current situation against a proposed national development framework. 

National resources

Sri Lanka’s two key resources are its people and environment. People have had access to traditional, healthy nutrition and free preventive and curative health services, as well as two ancient languages (Sinhala, Tamil), a global language (English) and free education up to tertiary level. 

Our unique environment provides the natural security of an island, a strategic geographic location and manageable size, with extraordinary biodiversity. It is mostly arable, mainly flat, with accessible mountains, plentiful water and easy road, air and sea access.

Since Independence, successive governments under-utilised these resources. First, they complacently followed the unsustainable colonial development path, without forward-looking reforms for us. More recently, they mimicked the development paths of Western industrialised countries and city states, Dubai and Singapore, inappropriate for Sri Lanka. 

They prioritised infrastructure above people. While lip service was paid to their importance, teaching English, our language issues and labour market reforms were neglected. This trajectory failed to retain Sri Lanka’s human capital. Neglect of minority concerns, inadequate incomes and employment opportunities led to brains and skills drain, as many who benefitted from free health and education left Sri Lanka. We now face a critical human capital shortage. 

Governments also failed to recognise our environment’s potential for sustainable food security and earnings from exports and tourism. Instead, we see degradation and contraction of rainforests (Sinharaja), detrimental landfills, garbage dumps and ad hoc construction in wetlands (Muthurajawela), invasive plant expansion in national parks and irrigation tanks (Minneriya, Uda Walawe), violation of building guidelines in historical sites and resort areas (Colombo, Sigiriya, Unawatuna), plastic and chemical pollution (island-wide) and urban air pollution (Colombo, Kandy). Wasteful, thoughtless construction (Mattala Airport, Hambantota International Conference Centre, Colombo evictions and destruction of historic buildings) focussed on means to well-being (GDP growth, FDI, export growth, physical infrastructure, etc.), not the goal. 

Lack of a framework and priorities for our key resources has led to multiple crises Sri Lanka faces today:

nFiscal, foreign exchange and debt crisis – Against wasteful expenditure, inconsistent tax and trade policies have drastically reduced revenue and foreign earnings, leading to ballooning debt. We face financial, monetary and fiscal instability.

  • Law and order crisis – Rampant corruption, pardoning of convicted criminals, ad-hoc dismissal of cases, indiscriminate detentions and delays in legal proceedings have destroyed people’s faith in the police and judicial systems to deliver protection and justice.
  • COVD-related health, welfare and economic crisis – Mishandling of the pandemic, food distribution, people’s movements, transport and economic activities have many people without health protection, food or incomes.
  •  Maritime environmental crisis – Sheer bungling of a ship with hazardous cargo in distress created an unprecedented maritime environmental disaster.
  •  Labour crisis – Skills and brain drain, exacerbated by State support for labour migration, has led to labour shortages in many economic sectors. 
  •  Habitat loss crisis – Unregulated clearing of forest lands, beachfronts and ad hoc landfills for political gain, for unstructured agriculture, for private housing, tourism, agro-industrial and industrial projects, without consistent policies, guidelines and mechanisms to monitor and evaluate large-scale infrastructure or agriculture projects, has degraded and reduced our biodiversity.
  • Plastic and toxic chemical pollution crisis – Lack of clear policies for a phased reduction plan, monitoring mechanisms and punishments for the harmful use of plastic and agrochemicals and for proper sanitary landfill and solid waste disposal mechanisms, including for e-waste, has aggravated environmental pollution. Meanwhile, the overnight ban on chemical fertiliser, unless reversed soon, will precipitate another food and export crop reduction crisis.


National goals and framework

Sri Lanka can overcome these crises. For this, governments need commitment to sustainable national goals and a framework prioritising people and environment. 

Basic premise: Nations strive to improve the wellbeing of all citizens, which requires sustainable development and social justice. 

Goal for people: To improve their wellbeing, which encompasses three dimensions – material, intellectual and emotional – with social justice. Material needs include physical health, food, clothing, shelter, utilities, transport and communication. Intellectual needs include education, skills development, employment opportunities and leisure activities. Emotional needs include mental health and a sense of personal security within the home and country to follow one’s religious beliefs, cultural traditions, sexual orientation, etc., without harm to others. Social justice ensures impartiality in access and opportunities for all citizens, regardless of any differentiating factor.

Goal for environment: To safeguard all biodiversity through sustainable development - lasting improvement in the well-being of current and future generations. Biodiversity includes rainforests, dry-zone forests, mountain plains, wetlands, beaches, dunes, reefs, lagoons, mangroves, rivers, waterfalls, reservoirs, tanks and air quality.

These goals are best understood as a government’s responsibility to provide to its citizens, through constant review and reforms, the following: 

  •  Representation – Electoral systems for meaningful representation at national, regional and local levels, including relevant criteria for suitability of candidates. To meet people’s needs not representatives’ greed.
  •  Justice – Judicial reforms to ensure an independent, accountable judiciary, and law reforms for timely delivery of justice to people. 
  •  Domestic security – Police and legal reforms to ensure zero tolerance of discrimination on grounds of ethnic, religious, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, social status, income, political affiliation or other differentiating factor. 
  •  A sustainable natural environment – Action plans and guidelines to reverse environmental destruction. Sustained review and reforms of existing laws and procedures which hamper safeguarding of Sri Lanka’s resources.
  •  An ethical and transparent business environment – Institutional and legal reforms to rationalise and simplify access, procedures, approvals and licences to facilitate doing ethical business.
  • Access to State services – National administrative system reform to create realistic geographical boundaries for greater efficiency of service delivery. Clear demarcation of what state services are to be delivered at national, provincial and local level. Rationalisation of multi-tiered services where people have to seek multiple levels of authorisation for simple acts.
  • Education – Reforms in educational infrastructure, curricula and teacher training to meet current market needs for analytical, problem-solving and writing skills with English proficiency. Regulation of private institutions to supplement State institutions. Removal of inconsistencies in access, with capacity building for national level schools at Divisional Secretariat level.
  • Health – Policy reforms and better budgets to improve preventive and curative health delivery systems.
  •  Nutrition – Policy consistency in land use, agriculture and trade, to ensure food security and price stability.
  •  Housing – Policy reforms for access to housing markets at all income levels.
  •  Financial system stability and responsible fiscal management – Reform of monetary and fiscal authorities to ensure monetary, financial and fiscal stability. Capacity building for Parliamentary oversight of fiscal and financial management.
  • Gainful employment – Labour market and related legal reforms to reverse people migration (200-300,000/year). Recognise and regulate new forms of atypical employment. Ensure liveable minimum wages and decent working conditions. Allow hiring flexibility, while protecting worker rights.
  • Social safety net – Welfare and social security reforms to support those below the poverty line and ensure retirement benefits for all.
  • Access to Information – Access to public data and methodology. Expanded budgets and capacity building to address supply-side constraints in national data agencies.
  • National Security – Capacity building for safety against international threats - physical, social or economic. Defined role for Tri-Forces. Foreign policy consistency in geopolitical relationships with global and regional powers. 


Current situation

Sri Lanka has a bloated public service and excessive layers of political representation. The public sector employs about 1.2 million people (15% of total work force) in 1,200 major institutions covering over 30,000 smaller units. 

Sri Lanka’s population of 22 million, has a parliament of 225 members with about 30 Cabinet Ministers and 40 State Ministers at national level. In contrast, India’s population of 1,326 million (6 times) has a Lok Sabha of 545, 15 Cabinet ministers and 28 State ministers. Malaysia’s population of 33 million (1.5 times) has 222 members in its House of Representatives, 32 ministers and 38 deputy ministers. 

At Local Government level, Sri Lanka has 8,708 elected representatives in 341 local authorities (24 Municipal Councils (MCs), 41 Urban Councils (UCs) and 276 Pradeshiya Sabhas (PS)). If Provincial Councils were in place, there would be about 500 Provincial Counsellors and another level of ministers. With no clear delegation of responsibilities among these layers and overlapping institutions, there is considerable confusion in policymaking and service delivery. For decades, instead of focussing on their substantive role of policymaking and implementation for longer term national objectives, Cabinet and other ministers have been micro-managing day-to-day activities, such as transfers, promotions, job and school placements, etc. 

Overlap of functions has killed accountability. Senior bureaucrats, fearful for their jobs in a politicised culture, have forgotten their advisory role. Most muddle around at the bidding of their political masters or hoodwink them, in order to remain in favour. Those with integrity have paid the price for their commitment and professionalism, by removal. 

With such a serious breakdown of independence, professionalism, accountability, channel-of-command and decision-making processes in key systems of authority and electoral representation, successive governments have failed to deliver universal rights.  The cumulative outcome has Sri Lanka in an extremely unstable and precarious situation. There is neither time nor space for further bungling or foolish posturing that we see among those responsible for running the country today.

Way forward

A well-planned path prioritising critical reforms which optimise our key resources, would retain our people at higher incomes and safeguard our environment. To carve such a path, the country urgently needs to rationalise the size and layers of government and have a merit-based selection of professionals to key positions to plan a way forward, implement related policies and much-needed reforms. My wish list:

  • National framework and goals – A small competent team to prepare it, with goals based on Citizens’ Rights.
  •  Public sector contraction – Professionally review roles and responsibilities of existing institutions under each Right. Cull and combine to rationalise and remove duplication.
  •  Merit-based promotions and recruitments - Establish guidelines and efficient procedures to fill key positions with professionals of acumen and independence. Reconsider categories of Presidential Appointees.
  •  Accountability – Establish systems for channel-of-command and responsibility, with continuous monitoring and evaluation. Re-establish Monitoring Authorities – Constitutional Council, Independent Commissions. 
  •  Language – Build official capacity to ensure tri-lingual language rights for all.
  • Electoral representation 
  •  Effectiveness – Rationalise existing electoral systems at national, provincial and local levels. 
  •  Consistency – Assign all electoral delimitation to one independent delimitation authority. 
  •  Eligibility – Introduce minimal eligibility criteria to raise quality of representatives.



Sri Lanka has a wealth of competent professionals of integrity and acumen who can move this country on a path to sustainable development. For this, the Executive and Legislature (President, Cabinet and Parliament), have to admit their abject failure and ask for help. Till then, men and women of ability will remain in the wings until it is too late. Sadly, that day may not be far off.

(The writer is a former Assistant Governor and Director of Statistics of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. She served on the Delimitation Commission of Sri Lanka from 2015 to 2020.)


Recent columns