The Island | 5 December 2022
IMF-led privatisation, land and resource grab in Sri Lanka
by DR. Asoka Bandarage
On September 1, 2022, debt-trapped Sri Lanka reached a preliminary agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a 48-month Extended Fund Facility of $2.9 billion, which hardly covers the country’s outstanding debt, nor its immediate survival needs. Nevertheless, IMF structural adjustment requires the country to meet its familiar debt restructuring conditions: privatisation of state-owned enterprises, cutbacks of social safety nets and alignment of local economic policy with US and other Western interests. There are already signs that these policies would be detrimental to the well-being of ordinary Sri Lankans and the sovereignty of the country and will inevitably lead to more wealth disparity and repeat debt crises.
The most important source of generating state revenue identified in the 2023 Sri Lanka budget is the privatisation of SOEs (State Owned Enterprises), a primary strategy of IMF structural adjustment and neoliberal economics. The 2023 Sri Lankan budget states:
“The government is currently maintaining 420 State-owned enterprises. 52 of these generate over Rs. 86 Billion in losses… A Unit has now been established at the Ministry of Finance with the specific task of restructuring SOEs. Initially, measures will be taken to restructure Sri Lankan Airlines, Sri Lanka Telecom, Colombo Hilton, Waters Edge, and Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation (SLIC) along with its subsidiaries, the proceeds of which will be used to strengthen foreign exchange reserves of the country, and strengthening the Rupee.”
The left-wing and nationalist Bandaranaike governments established many SOEs between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s, many of them import substitution industries to replace foreign imports with domestic production. Many SOEs were privatised after the introduction of the Open Economy in 1977, and privatisation (or commercialisation) has continued steadily since then, with successive governments selling SOEs outright or turning them into Public Private Partnerships (PPP).
There are 55 strategic SOEs, 287 SOEs with commercial interests and 185 SOEs with non-commercial interests in Sri Lanka. The 55 strategically important SOEs are estimated to employ around 1.9 percent of the country’s labor force. The total state sector workforce is estimated to be about 1.4 million people, which accounts for over one in six of the country’s total workforce. Many Sri Lankans prefer to work for the government sector given job security, retirement and other benefits. There are concerns that “…privatisation can result in lower salaries and benefits as well as retrenchment and high employee turnover,” and that privatising SOEs that enjoy monopolies can result in “corporations making decisions based on profits rather than on public benefit.”
Unlike the private sector, many of the SOEs in Sri Lanka have powerful trade unions, with workers of different skills and professional levels, which have fought for workers’ rights and the country’s sovereignty for decades. Privatisation is likely to lead to the elimination of many trade unions, strikes and other forms of labor resistance. In October 2022, Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) workers held a protest strike against the proposed privatisation of the CPC. Similarly, 1200 union workers of the Government Press plant – also targeted for privatisation and cutbacks in wages, work conditions and jobs – went on strike in November 2022.
The CPC, a vital enterprise in the island’s oil supply and energy security, has been targeted for privatization under the IMF restructuring programme. Lanka India Oil Company (LIOC), China’s Sinopec, Petroleum Development Oman and Shell have expressed interest in this deal. It is important to note that, in the name of privatisation, the CPC is being handed over to state owned enterprises of powerful foreign countries. The parent company of LIOC is the Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOC) which is owned by the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas of India. Similarly, Sinopec Group is the world’s largest oil refining, gas and petrochemical conglomerate and is wholly owned by the Chinese state; and Petroleum Development Oman is owned by the Government of Oman, Royal Dutch Shell, Total Energies and Partex.
Parasites and Vultures of Privatization
Sri Lanka must take lessons from privatisation episodes in other parts of the world. According to a 2016 study, ‘The Privatising Industry in Europe’ by the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam, privatisation in Europe has failed to produce the expected revenue as only “profitable firms are being sold and consistently at undervalued prices.” The study notes that privatised firms are no more efficient than state-owned firms and that, under the rubric of privatisation, many European energy companies in Portugal, Greece and Italy, have been sold off to state-owned corporations from China. The Study also states that privatisation in Europe has “encouraged a growth in corruption, with frequent cases of nepotism and conflicts of interest” in Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and the UK.
We must also be vigilant for conflicts of interest in such large deals involving public money and wellbeing. For example, the financial and legal advisory firms Clifford Chance and Lazard have been hired by the Sri Lankan government to assist with IMF debt restructuring. The Transnational Institute Study lists Clifford Chance as part of a small group of privatisation advisory law firms, with annual revenues of more than a billion Euros, “reaping huge profits from the new wave of crisis-prompted privatisations.”
Lazard is reputed to be both “the number one sovereign advisory firm” and “the world’s largest privatisation advisory player.” Lazard’s operational global headquarters are in New York City, but the company is officially incorporated in Bermuda – always a warning sign when it comes to (lack of) financial ethics. In previous government advisory contracts, Lazard has taken advantage of its prominent position by involving itself not only its advisory services branch, but also its asset management branch. According to the Study, “Upon the Initial Public Offering (IPO) of important state companies, Lazard has on a number of occasions undervalued the price of a company, which has allowed its asset management branch to buy up the stock at low prices which have then been sold for considerable profit when stock prices soared.”
The practice of both advising on processes of privatisation and then profiting from that advice, raises ethical questions about Lazard. Questions are also raised about the entire global financial industry responsible for creating debt crises in the first place, and then finding devious ways to benefit from them, at the expense of debt-trapped countries.
Despite such serious concerns over privatisation, there is now an enormous push by local and international actors that the solution to Sri Lanka’s debt and economic crises is to privatise the remaining SOEs, and no doubt a select few profit greatly in the process.
A key local player in this is the Sri Lankan NGO, the Advocata Institute in Colombo, which is associated with the Mont Pelerin Society and the Atlas Network and their neoliberal agenda. Advocata is spearheading a major campaign to convince the public that privatisation of SOEs is the path to ‘reset Sri Lanka’ for solvency and prosperity. The ‘Great Sri Lanka Fire Sale’ of state owned enterprises and strategic assets is now on, with huge returns expected for colluding local and global financial and corporate elites and pauperisation for ordinary people.
One key state-owned resource at risk is land, such that commoditising state-owned land is a major aspect of privatisation in Sri Lanka. Not only the land, but water – indispensable for survival of life on Earth – is threatened by privatisation and commoditisation in Sri Lanka and around the world.
This is not new; privatising and commoditising state land for export production has been going on in Sri Lanka since the British colonial era. Although the more recent neoimperial US Millennium Corporation Compact agenda, initiated under George W. Bush in 2002, has not been officially signed by Sri Lanka, contemporary Sri Lankan governments have been advancing its agenda of privatising state land to prioritise export production over local food production, despite rising prices of imported food and the food crisis facing the country.
Two very important proposals in this regard have been slipped into the 2023 budget proposals without public discussion. Firstly, Clause 12.1 on ‘Lands for Agricultural Exports’ states:
“A vast amount of land belonging to Janatha Estate Development Board [EDB), Sri Lanka State Plantation Corporation (SPC), and Land Reform Commission (LRC) remains without being cultivated or productively utilized for a long time, ….. Accordingly, a programme will be devised to allow investors to productively utilise them in a manner to increase both the production and exports. Hence, it is expected that large parcels of unutilised/unproductively used lands will be leased out on long-term basis to grow exportable crops…”
Secondly, Clause 13.1 of the 2023 Budget on ‘Disposal of Government Lands’ states:
“…activities related to the disposal of government lands are carried out by District Secretaries/Government Agents through Divisional Secretaries/ Additional Government Agents…, , such duties were also allocated to Sri Lanka Mahaweli Authority and Land Reform Commission which were established for special requirements at a later stage…there are occurrences of discrimination and malpractice as …activities related to disposal of lands … Therefore…, a programme will be prepared during the next year to enable preliminary activities in relation to disposal of all government lands including the disposal of lands under the above two institutes only by the Divisional Secretaries.”
Nationalist members of Parliament and the Federation of National Organizations have criticised the move to place state land under Divisional Secretaries as a ploy for land grabbing, and that the move to deliberately privatise state land may have ‘irrevocable consequences.’ While recognising the need to reform the existing Land Reform Commission, they point out that solely empowering Divisional Secretaries would encourage partisan land distribution. The 2023 Budget seems to put the MCC Compact into effect although activists challenging the Compact have warned of a neocolonial agenda for a massive modern-day land grab, displacement and peasant pauperization.
There is great concern over the legitimacy of crucial land and other privatisation decisions taken by President Wickremesinghe as neither he nor his United National (UNP) Party have a mandate to do so from the people. The land, the ports and the state enterprises do not belong to politicians but to the people and to future generations of Sri Lankans. Clearly, there needs to be careful deliberation of alternatives before the IMF dictated ‘Great Sri Lanka Fire Sale’ is allowed to proceed.