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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Burgeoning Defense Expenditure and Escalating Social Antagonism

 The defense personnel in Sri Lanka are paid on average, half a million rupees per head per annum.   Stranger than fiction, but none the less true. If this is the average, how much is it for the higher echelons? Best left to one’s speculative capability. The budget for 2012 provides this sum – Rs. 161.580 billion for salaries and wages plus overtime and other allowances. The estimated strength is 320,000.

A historian once wrote, much research is not needed to unravel the causes of the French Revolution in 1789. The extravagance of the royal family would adequately illumine. To understand the social tensions in Sri Lanka one need not go afar. The inordinately high income level of the military would explain. As for ethnic animosity, the brutality of the military would account for.

If one could peer behind the democratic facade, what is seen is governance of the military, by the military, for the military. An unconscionable sharpening of the coercive apparatus is proceeding with disproportionate economic resources, rightfully due to society, being callously siphoned off. The present is ominous, the future looks disastrous. Affluence and penury cannot co – exist . Nor is it ethical. Harold Laski said, “I cannot have cakes when my neighbor goes without bread”.

There will be a splash of figures in the following paragrphs because truth emerging from statistics is incontrovertible.

It is relevant to draw a parallel with India. The defense budget for 2011-12, is $ 36 billion compared to Sri Lanka’s $ 2 billion for 2012,ie18 times. The population is 56 times more and the land area is 50 times. Besides, there are hostile borders to the north and a soft underbelly in the south. Yet the incidence of expenditure per capita is $30 for India. It is $ 95 for Sri Lanka.

Comparisons are also needed with great powers. As a percentage of GDP the US spent 4.8, Russia 4, India 2.7 and China 2.1 in 2011. The world average for 153 countries that year was 2.6 %.

Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Sri Lanka’s defense budget for 2012 is 4 % of GDP.

To Sri Lanka’s citizenry, their belts tightened for the war remain tighter still. To the military the belt was fitted loose and is yet elastic. It was so when the military was on the move.

As Napoleon said the army marches on its belly. But once the war is over, should the salaries and perquisites burgeon, and the defense budget escalate by 32% in just four years?

The need of Sri Lanka after 2009 was a drastic reduction of the military. Not filling the space vacated by attrition is a painless way. Over 30,000 could have gone that way in the last three years. Demobilising is a painful course. But a pain killer is available by way of a compensatory package.

Staggering lay off over a few years will give space for skill acquisition and alternate employment. Never was it considered. The contribution that defense personnel can make by coming into the civilian fold should not be denied or discounted. They are disciplined, habituated to high pressure timelines, changeable and trainable.

A thorough going restructuring of the economy was both an expectation and an imperative when the war ended. At such a moment, a temper of accommodation is forthcoming. It has been let slip. For every economic ailment, the Treasury had a medicine was the thought.

The Governor of the Central Bank had a cure of the quack. Shake the thermometer down to 98.4 and the fever is gone. To the uninitiated it is enthralling.

Many an issue not addressed but wished away has converged with a vengeance, as if by design. A crisis of unprecedented proportions is now upon the nation and appears to be beyond the ken of the clan.

What is cooking is clear to the percipient. Leon Trotsky once said, some people see events before they happen, some as they happen and some after. But Sri Lanka doesn’t see even after they have happened.

What is the peace dividend and where is it going?

Overtime and other allowances alone consume Rs.80.89 billion. For what?

To keep the partners in war contented in peace, salary alone won’t do. Perquisites are also needed. Is it fair or equitable to keep the redundant employed and molly coddled through an exacting regime of taxation?

In 2008 (year round war), Recurrent Expenditure was Rs. 163 billion with around 75% being devoted to salaries and perquisites. For peacetime 2012, the corresponding allocation is Rs.215.4 billion, showing an increase of Rs. 52.4 billion. Rs. 55 billion is the allocation for health administration nationwide. The simmering unrest in the health sector becomes easily intelligible.

The increase for Education and Higher Education for the same period is Rs.11.3 billion with the total from the inception standing at Rs. 42.9 billion. This explains the perennial crisis in education and the flight of the academia.

Starving health and education to feed the military can only infuriate the polity and exacerbate tensions. The exasperation is still more when it is noted that carpet deployment of Tamil areas is the cause of the waste.

The North and South have a meeting ground to make common cause. Chilaw was the symptom. Deep is the malaise. The eruption is yet to be.

Degenerate governance to which the country has been led is not unknown to the people. What earns their ire is the mismatch of their misery seen against the conspicuous lifestyle of the military, even after the war is won.

Space for redemption is still there, if the government can summon up courage.


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