Developed Nation 2030: Dhammika Perera’s Roadmap

PERHAPS FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HISTORY, A PRIVATE CITIZEN OFFERS A COMPREHENSIVE STRATEGIC ROADMAP TO TRANSFORM SRI LANKA INTO A RICH COUNTRY IN A DECADE. SHOULD WE TAKE HIM SERIOUSLY?

Sajith Premadasa and Dhammika Perera were born in the same month. I followed three months later. If I were to select four more born the same year I would go for Ajith P. Perera, Hashan Tillakaratne, Prof. Ajantha Dharmasiri and Dilith Jayaweera. If I spread the range few months to the following year, I may also capture Anura Kumara Dissanayake, JVP leader and Presidential Candidate.
I cannot help but cite this observation. We are all of a generation that spent its childhood during the harsh 70-77 era. This generation witnessed the beginning, progression and end of a conflict too. We also saw how a poor country, where per capita GDP was less than $200, moved to the upper-middle-income bracket. Irrespective of all other differences these are the strings of time that invisibly bind us. Lets’ say they help us understand each other better. By the time you read this Sajith Premadasa or Anura Kumara Dissanayake may or may not have become President. This is the first time anyone from our generation is a serious contender for the Presidency; the closest was Maithripala Sirisena, who had a near two-decade head start.

Whatever the outcome, Premadasa and Dissanayake in contention indicate our generation – has a serious shot at leading the nation. Yes, in a developed country, it would have happened sooner. Nonetheless, the feeling that this country takes our generation seriously pleases me.

When Dhammika Perera launched his strategic roadmap titled ‘Sri Lanka 2030: A Developed Nation’ I took it with that sprit. I understand his motivation. Those born before us, like my father, having experienced many miserable decades, probably have low expectations. Those born much later won’t understand the urgency. Our generation knows the difference between good and bad times and are perhaps ready for any measure to improve our fortunes. Dhammika Perera’s attempt is such an extreme measure. It is a brave move; also a generous one. Typically, government policies are the preserve of bureaucrats and politicians. They set these because they are obligated to do so or because they seek to hold power. Dhammika Perera seeks neither. In spite of his achievements and a career track record in state and private sectors, he is a private citizen. The site www.dhammikaperera.lk reveals almost nothing about him.

WE ALL NEED WHAT DHAMMIKA PERERA ALSO BENEFITS FROM. RAISING PER CAPITA GDP IS A NEED FOR EVERYONE.

Should we take him seriously? If so, why? Is it because he is probably on the way to becoming the first local dollar billionaire? Or he is named the wealthiest individual in Sri Lanka since 2013 by Forbes? Or because his is a rags-to-riches story. Unlike typical political manifestoes, aimed at gaining votes than building the country, he talks sense. Perera may exaggerate at times, but he provides data and evidence. It is easier to start a meaningful discussion with numbers.

‘Sri Lanka 2030: A Developed Nation’ intends boosting Sri Lanka’s per capita GDP threefold. ‘Middle Income Trap’ is a term that explains the inability of some countries to the climb from being a middle-income one to developed status, despite poverty reduction gains and structural change and growth. For example, Thailand reached a per capita GDP of $4,000 in 2008. Eleven years after it has only reached $6,500. This challenge is pronounced in South America and Africa where almost all countries that reached the $4,000 mark around 2005-10 are still, a decade later, trapped around $6,000. This is not the case of high achievers. China is the best example. The Middle Kingdom crossed the $4,000 mark in 2010, but since then it has more than doubled to $8,826 by 2017. In the other extreme Maldives, with all its political turmoil, has reached a figure over $10,000 the same year. This achievement has little to do with the size of an economy. The difference comes from the existence of a strategic plan, or not. Maldives and Mauritius, two small economies are doing great in some industries like tourism. India opened its markets in 1992 but reached a per capita GDP of $1,940 by 2018. Millions of India’s poor still struggle. However, Goa, Delhi and Sikkim have surpassed Sri Lanka. Many others, including Tamil Nadu, are closing in with higher growth rates.

Meanwhile, China, with a population of similar size to India, does far better with a central plan. Its industrialized cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou are unlike any in India. China’s success isn’t due to an abundance of natural resources but down to its strategises.

Dhammika Perera’s strategic roadmap is the outcome of his research over the last 15 years. It covers 30 ministries. The proposals are comprehensive and practical as can be expected from any single team. The plans will have to undergo rigorous scrutiny before any are considered for implementation. But this should not undervalue the significance of the proposals.

Two key characteristics are evident: some proposals are not new. First, they are similar to projects in the pipeline some ministries struggle to launch for years. Then each example follows a successful implementation elsewhere. A closer look reveals Perera’s plans have some outstanding features. The ministery budgets are interlinked. Spending rises aren’t financed by increases in tax. In fact, the important idea is to reduce tax rates over five to ten years. Most budget funding increases are from money saved by improving productivity. Such thinking, as if you have not noticed, would not have come from a politician or a bureaucrat. It needs a sharp business mind to figure the linkages.

Dhammika Perera also did something surprising. He distributed the plan to all Presidential aspirants. By sharing his thinking, Dhammika Perera forces the candidates to at least consider his roadmap. It’s also possible that someone will adopt sections. No Presidential candidate can risk not having a plan to avoid the middle-income trap. How they do it, is a different question. But Dhammika Perera presses them to consider it deeply.

Of course, one can completely ignore it. During the past four years, per capita GDP grew 3-4% annually. In 2019 it may be as low as 2%. That rate of growth will be the lowest since 2001 when the double whammy of 9/11 and the Katunayake airport attack by the LTTE pushed growth into negative territory. Sri Lanka now faces the dual impact from the October 2018 political coup and Easter Sunday bomb attacks in 2019. Should this be a time we question someone presenting a plan? We all need what Dhammika Perera also benefits from. Raising per capita GDP is a need for everyone. That’s what I think – and please don’t forget; I represent a generation.