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Sri Lanka’s Budget Navigates Challenging Economic Crisis

London, (16/11 – 57)

Sri Lanka President Ranil Wickremesinghe has laid out the bankrupt country’s budget for 2024, drawing mixed reviews as he strives to meet the demands of an International Monetary Fund bailout program without sowing further public resentment ahead of expected elections.

Some observers applauded the proposals, not only for what they included but also what they did not, no new taxes on top of hikes already announced. But others expressed concern that the budget seemed designed to placate certain voters, and only temporarily, while not doing enough to help the struggling masses.

Sri Lanka’s election-year budget was presented on 13 November, and it straddles line between IMF and its voters. The 2024 plan is praised for ‘sticking to reform,’ but criticized for the apparent contradictions not doing enough to help the struggling masses.

Wickremesinghe unveiled the budget on Monday, announcing his government’s plan to increase tax revenue to 3.82 trillion rupees ($11.67 billion), up from this year’s estimated 2.6 trillion rupees. Two weeks ago, the government had announced a value-added tax (VAT) increase to 18% from 15%, effective from January, as part of efforts to meet targets set by the IMF.

The fiscal deficit target is estimated at 2.85 trillion rupees, or 9.1% of gross domestic product, higher than the revised 8.5% of GDP for the current year. “We are aware of the difficulties faced by the people of this country. The path toward a stable and developed economy is not beautiful. It is difficult, hard and challenging,” Wickremesinghe said in his budget speech, following a recent uptick in protests demanding salary hikes to overcome high living costs.

The president described a country at a crossroads as it attempts to climb out of bankruptcy. “If we successfully navigate through this challenging period, we can create a free and decent society. Instead, if we continue to build sand castles by giving relief to the people based on political motives, the country will again be bankrupt.”

Still, Wickremesinghe proposed new relief measures for civil servants and pensioners. The plans call for handing out an additional 10,000 rupees in cost-of-living allowances to 1.3 million government employees, while raising allowances for 730,000 public pension recipients to 5,025 rupees from the current 2,500 rupees.

Sri Lankans are reeling from an economic crisis that has driven up the costs of essentials, although inflation has slowed.   Meanwhile, in a nod to the IMF, Wickremesinghe proposed a massive 3 trillion rupee allocation for foreign debt restructuring and the settlement of international sovereign bonds under the program. After Sri Lanka defaulted on its foreign debt in 2022, the fund came to the rescue earlier this year with a $2.9 billion bailout.

The country failed its first review of the program in September, but reached a staff-level agreement to unlock a new tranche last month.

According to Wickremesinghe, under the debt restructuring supported by the IMF, public debt is expected to decline from 129% of GDP in 2022 to 95% by 2032. He emphasized the benefits of this shift toward sustainability — greater macroeconomic and financial sector stability — for the nation of about 22 million people.

Wickremesinghe reported that reform measures implemented over the last 18 months have already resulted in significant improvements in Sri Lanka’s macroeconomic position. A primary budget deficit of 5.7% of GDP at the end of 2021 turned into a primary budget surplus in the first half of 2023, he said. Tax revenue grew 50% in the first six months of 2023, despite a deep economic recession. The inflation rate has dropped from 70% in September 2022 to 1.3% in September 2023, and foreign exchange reserves have recovered to above $3.5 billion.

“The economy is being healed due to the correct procedures and methodologies we followed during the past year, building the foundation of this system,” Wickremesinghe argued.

The budget receives much of both applauses and criticism.

Murtaza Jafferjee, chair of the Colombo-based Advocata Institute think tank, praised the president’s budget. “He is sticking to the reform and economic restructuring pathway and is not being excessively political,” he told Nikkei Asia. “This is the kind of budget that we always needed, and the language is not sugarcoated and it is factually correct.”

Mujibur Rahman, a member of parliament representing the opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya alliance, pointed out what he sees as an inherent contradiction in the plan. “From January, they are increasing VAT, which means the cost of living will increase further, and at the same time they say they will increase the allowance for government workers. So, he is giving from one hand and taking it from the other.”

Sunil Adihettige, a driver employed by a private company in Colombo, was also disappointed. “I was hopeful that the president will announce some relief so that the prices of food items and our monthly bills will reduce. But he only said government employees will be getting a salary increase, but as we are in the private sector, we won’t even benefit from this.”

“Overall, businesses were significantly affected by extensive taxation, but people are adjusting to these increases as they had no other choice and also because they understood the country’s situation,” said Imtiaz Buhardeen, an entrepreneur and investor in Colombo. “The only fear was the possibility of additional tax increases on Monday, but it’s a big relief that there are no new increases.”

Ranjan Jayalal, a trade union leader, suggested the support for government employees was little more than a ploy. “The allowance is expected to be paid from April onwards, but after another couple of months, there will be elections, and then everything will change,” he said.

The next election must be called by September 2024.

Jayalal added that poor people are facing such hardship that many don’t even switch on the lights in their homes due to high electricity costs.

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