A welcome relief | Daily News

A welcome relief

The long suffering senior citizens of this country who saw their interests on bank deposits drastically slashed, no doubt, will have a huge sigh of relief on learning that their interest rates would now be restored to their original levels.

The interest offered on fixed deposits by commercial banks which stood at between 9 and 11 per cent some years ago was brought down to 4 per cent or thereabouts forcing most depositors to pull out their money and invest it in ventures that brought them a better yield, such as purchasing property and playing the stock market.

However, senior citizens and pensioners certainly are not the type to speculate with their hard earned money in this fashion and settled for the pittance handed to them by the banks while suffering in silence.

Being in the evening of their lives and beset with ailments associated with old age, these souls largely depended on their bank interest to purchase their medicines etc. With the drastic cut down on their deposit interest, senior citizens who are private sector retirees were at their wit’s end, going by the many lamentations that appeared in the ‘citizens columns’ in newspapers.

Many were the letters addressed to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa by these men and women left in the lurch by the banks’ meanness. They apparently have no means of support other than the monthly withdrawn bank interests derived from the deposits that were made up from the accumulation of their EPF/ETF over several years of service in the private sector plus gratuity and any other lump sum payments.

The restoration of original interest rates no doubt would bring semblances of smiles to the faces of these hapless folk who were plunged into gloom during the last two years as a result of the measure to halve their deposit incomes.

We say ‘semblances of smiles’ because the prices of medicinal drugs on which a majority of these senior citizens depend on to stay alive has almost trebled during the last two years, which is going to offset whatever benefits they may derive from the increased interest rates. The pharmaceutical companies have already made a request for abolishing price controls on drugs pointing out that medicines are the only commodity in the market today under price control.

Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella should be commended for resisting the call by the pharmaceutical companies to lift price controls on drugs, citing the current foreign exchange crisis. “I understand the difficulties experienced by all sectors including the pharmaceutical industry. However price controls as regards medicines cannot be done away with,” he asserted.

However, it will only be a matter of time before the drug companies turn on the heat, perhaps encouraged by the abolishing of price controls on nearly all other items across the board. The Sri Lanka Chamber of Pharmaceutical Industry (SLCPI), while claiming that the group imported over 80 per cent of medicines into the country, recently warned of a collapse of the industry unless remedial measures were taken swiftly. This bodes ill not only for the senior citizens but others too particularly middle income earners who would be hard put to afford any further increase in the price of medicines. The Government will have to explore measures to cushion the impact of such an eventuality.

Ideally, the present deposit ceiling Rs. 1.5 million for an annual interest of 15 per cent granted by commercial banks to senior citizens should be increased at least by another Rs. 1 million, so that they may be able to cope with the increase if the price controls on drugs are abolished. In the alternative, means should be explored to offer them drugs and medicines at concessionary prices with the Government picking up the tab on the difference. This is to avoid a situation whereby people will start dying for want of medicines which they cannot afford. Food at least could be shared but certainly not medication. True, Dollars are available for the immediate purchase of medicines and food thanks to the Credit Line offered by neighbouring India for this purpose. But things could get trickier if a solution to the foreign exchange crisis eludes us in the long run. We certainly cannot wish away the present crisis.

For now though, our senior citizens could breathe easy following their minor windfall. They deserve whatever relief that is offered, for their long service that would have benefited the nation too. Of course, Government pensioners would not be finding it that hard being recipients of a regular monthly income. It is the retirees from the private sector who are today feeling the pinch from the drastic drop in their interest on deposits.

There are also thousands out there, the ordinary folk, who live by the day who too will be an endangered species in the event of a steep rise in the price of drugs and medicines. The onus therefore is on the Health Ministry to ensure that all Government hospitals are adequately stocked with all essential drugs so that the poor will not have to endure any hardship. 

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