Interview: Samantha Ranatunga

What are the most important issues for the private sector in Sri Lanka in 2016?

SAMANTHA RANATUNGA: The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce has a heritage going back over 170 years and includes 8000 indirect and direct members and 550 established institutions. From their perspective, the last year has been very challenging. A fair amount of disconnect was produced in certain areas in 2015. The budget is a case in point. We are still trying to resolve issues related to the budget five months after it was presented, and this is a major problem. If we go by the 10 principals of the chamber, one of the things we always look at is transparency and policy consistency. With this consistency, the private sector and other interested parties can use Sri Lanka in a much better way, but without it they are unable to plan.

Therefore, we need much more economic coherence and articulation, which has to come from all the state sector institutions involved in the economy. I blame circumstances more than people. We have a difficult coalition that has come together for certain purposes, but the beliefs and principles are intact. Meanwhile, listening capacity has increased tremendously. We were completely shut out of a number of issues for many years and were unable to form economic partnerships with different countries. Now that all these issues are resolved, everyone is aligned, and we need to push for a consistent policy base.

To what extent can Sri Lanka deepen its integration with the Indian subcontinent?

RANATUNGA: We have been doing business with India for over 2500 years. With that in mind, there is simply no way we can keep India out of our economic equation. In today’s world, it is a no-brainer. They are in our backyard. Now we already have a free trade agreement in place, and we need to see how it can be deepened and strengthened. From the chamber’s side of things we have been quite clear. There are benefits. In this process, we want to ensure that local industries are heard, and whatever the difficulties are, we want to see how these can be brought into some kind of settlement that is satisfactory to both sides. That process has begun to some extent, and it will continue throughout 2016.

Broadly speaking, a practical approach must be employed. We cannot let overt nationalism blind us to the realities. We have a serious shortage of agricultural labour, and this is a challenge multiple industries are facing as our population continues to age. On top of this there are limits to what you can do in any country as small as Sri Lanka. In this context, we have to weigh each and every possibility.

How do you see skills gaps being bridged locally?

RANATUNGA: Thanks to the British, we inherited a fairly decent education system, but this was diluted largely during waves of nationalisation. The quality of coursework, as well as English language knowledge, has suffered. We have started producing fewer science and technology students, and are now in a situation where we are not competitive. Today artisans and craftsmen have a lower standing than a government clerk. In the same way, we have also pushed 2m jobs outside of Sri Lanka, which has taken away a large number of our skilled workers.

In the meantime, we have left everything in the public sector, earmarking 6% of GDP for education with no real private involvement. It is a sad fact that the organised private sector does not see money in education, but I am confident that if any of our top five corporates asked top businesses and technology schools for a joint venture in Sri Lanka, they would agree. These are synergies we need to build.

Ultimately, the creation of a more private-sector-driven model, the aggregation of schools, the recruitment of better teachers and the integration of new technology will bridge skills gaps going forward.