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Editorial

Lone jumbo comes along

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Thursday 24th June, 2021

UNP leader and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, after months of dilly-dallying, entered Parliament via the National List, yesterday. He should be thankful to his late uncle, J. R. Jayewardene, who amended the Constitution to enable defeated candidates to have themselves appointed to Parliament through the backdoor, as it were. Immediately after being sworn in, he began lambasting the government as if to the manner born. He did not say anything new in his first speech, though. He only reiterated what he had been saying on social media for the last 10 months or so. But he, in our book, put his finger on what had gone wrong with the government’s pandemic control strategy.

Of the three former Presidents around, only Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga is not in the current Parliament. Time was when it was speculated that she was trying to enter Parliament after completing her second presidential term. If she had done so, we would have had, under one roof—of course, during the incumbent President’s trimonthly presence in Parliament—all the leaders responsible for what has befallen the country during the past three decades or so. One may recall that President Kumaratunga toyed with the idea of returning to Parliament as the Prime Minister, and sought to introduce a new Constitution in 2000 to achieve her goal. Her plan went pear-shaped because the UNP opposed her constitutional reform package, and literally set it on fire in Parliament.

The UNP is trying to make Ranil’s return to Parliament out to be a cometh-the-hour-cometh-the-man occurrence, but the public is not so naïve as to expect washed-up political leaders to play messianic roles in national politics. There is no way Wickremesinghe can unsettle the current regime. He was not equal to the task of keeping governments in check even when there were more than 50 UNP MPs. But he can easily be a problem for the SJB, which reduced him to a virtual political nonentity last year. So, he is very likely to try to outperform the SJB and emerge strong at the expense of it.

The UNP is hopeful that Wickremesinghe will be able to win over enough SJB MPs to secure the post of the Opposition Leader. This is a tall order. He, as the Opposition Leader could not retain the support of the UNP MPs, many of whom defected to the previous Rajapaksa government. So, it is doubtful whether he, without a single UNP MP on his side, will be able to muster enough numbers in the current Parliament to become the Opposition Leader. But, as Elvis Presley has said, ambition is a dream with a V8 engine!

The SJB has not taken potential threats from Ranil lightly. It has been unusually active during the past few weeks. The reason for its high-octane performance is obvious. Its leaders are trying to outshine their former boss. On Tuesday, the SJB MPs staged a public protest near Parliament; they travelled a short distance in trishaws, backhoes, tractors, etc., condemning the government for the fuel price hikes, which are hurting the public. Yesterday, they invaded the Well of the House, carrying as they did placards with catchy slogans. Whether they have succeeded in eclipsing Wickremesinghe or impressing the public with their protests is anybody’s guess. The SLPP MPs tried to take moral high ground, yesterday, urging their SJB counterparts to behave in Parliament without disrupting its proceedings! Among the government members were those who unleashed violence in the House during the failed October revolt in 2018; these violent elements should have been thrown behind bars for serious offences such as damaging parliament property, throwing chilli powder at the Opposition MPs, attacking the police and threatening to harm the Speaker.

Some of the SJB MPs interviewed by television channels, on their way to Parliament, yesterday, said they expected Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and Wickremesinghe to kiss and make up. They are being extremely overoptimistic, but nothing can be considered impossible in politics. In January, 2015, whoever would have thought the then President Maithripala Sirisena and the Rajapaksas would ever smoke the peace pipe much less contest elections together?

Whether Ranil will succeed in clawing his way up, as expected, or whether Sajith will be able to hold him at bay, one may not know. Ranil’s return to Parliament, however, can lead to some negative developments in politics much to the detriment of the Opposition and to the benefit of the government. But it has already had a very positive effect on Parliament; it has jolted the SJB into action.



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Editorial

1990 – Suwa Seriya’s success story

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That perhaps is the country’s best known telephone number. Punch those four digits on any telephone and an ambulance will be at your door in less than 15 minutes, the average time of response. This is what the Suwa Seriya Ambulance Service, launched against a myriad of obstacles five years ago, has given the sick and injured free, gratis and for nothing rushing nearly a million people for hospital care since its innauguration. For many of them, this has been a life saver thanks to something a country, long used to doing otherwise, got right. It was not all plain sailing though. There was very strong opposition to the project, funded by India on a grant basis. The powerful Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) opposed it. So did several other influential parties and groups fearing job losses for locals, misplaced nationalism and other reasons now proved wrong. At the initial stages, even parking the ambulances in government hospitals was not permitted. But it has all ended well and today it is acknowledged to be one of the finest public services available to Sri Lankans.

Last week, Suwa Seriya which means “a journey to health/wellness” celebrated its fifth anniversary. The project was launched at the initiative of Dr. Harsha de Silva, then a non-cabinet minister of the Yahapalana government and now an Opposition MP. He suffered a traumatic experience on a trip to the Eastern Province with a group of family and friends when one of their vehicles suffered an accident and a member of the party was seriously hurt. Getting an ambulance to rush the injured to hospital proved problematic. It was then that the germ of the project that has given this country so much during the last five years came to be. De Silva says in an article we publish in this issue of our newspaper that on July 28, 2026, what was called the 1990 Suwa Seriya Project was launched in the Western and Sabaragamuwa Provinces with 88 ambulances purchased from India with a grant of USD 7.6 million. Following the success of that pilot project, India granted a further USD 15.2 million to cover the whole island with the service.

Today as many as 297 ambulances are operated countrywide and they are a common sight even in remote areas. The service is managed entirely at the expense of the Government of Sri Lanka through the Suwa Seriya Foundation set up by an Act of Parliament. It is run by an eminent group working in an honorary capacity. There is no gainsaying the founder’s claim that the “last five years have been a period of healing for the country.” People who have benefited from the service and their near and dear are all too aware of its value as also a wider segment of the population who have seen and heard of the good that it has done and continues to do. All of us Lankans must be truly grateful to India for gifting us this invaluable service, her second biggest donation to an immediate neighbour. In value terms, it is only behind the ongoing 60,000 houses grant costing nearly USD 400 million. There was one condition attached to the gift – that after the initial phase, the Government of Sri Lanka must take over the service and run it. “We readily agreed,” de Silva says.

Making an outright grant to purchase the ambulances was not all that India did to get the service started and keep it running. Since the project was setup, New Delhi and Colombo organized training for Lankan ambulancemen and technicians to hone their skills at a specialized institution in Hyderabad. The well known newspaper, The Hindu, in a recent report marking the fifth anniversary of the ambulance service reported that so far, all 709 technicians working round the clock for Suwa Seriya have been trained in India. The report quoted Sohan de Silva, Suwa Seriya’s CEO, saying that this hands-on training has greatly helped our emergency technicians who also undergo refresher programmes periodically. The not-for-profit Foundation which runs the service has a staff of 1,400 and is a semi-government institution including medical technicians and drivers. It is under the purview of the Ministry of Health with State Minister Sudharshini Fernandopulle, a qualified doctor, in charge. While each ambulance carry a sticker saying it is a gift from the people of India to the people of Sri Lanka acknowledging the Indian connection, as Harsha de Silva told The Hindu, the service is Sri Lanka’s and run entirely by Sri Lankans.”

It is a matter of satisfaction that despite the political orientation of those who initially opposed the project, the new government is wholeheartedly supporting what its predecessor began. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa recently went of record saying that the ambulance fleet will be augmented with 112 new vehicles. The situation caused by the current explosion of the Covid pandemic has demonstrated anew the value of this service which has over the past few months redoubled its efforts attending not only to medical and accident related emergencies but also in helping the transfer of Covid-infected patients to hospitals. The country certainly owes a debt of gratitude to India, whose Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a personal interest in the project when Dr. Harsha de Silva first made the request to him while he was here on an official visit some years ago. Equally so to de Silva for all the hard work he has put in to make the project the success it is. Thanks are also due to all those others, who in an honorary capacity, helped move it along and continues to help manage it.

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Editorial

Saving poor children

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Saturday 31st July, 2021

The police have had to go into overdrive to investigate Ishalini’s tragic end. The victim’s body was exhumed yesterday for a second postmortem by a team of forensic medical experts, and the public is eagerly awaiting their report. Investigators must pull out all the stops and get to the bottom of what actually happened to the girl.

A separate investigation is called for to find out why the police did not launch a thorough investigation immediately after Ishalini’s admission to hospital. They dragged their feet until the media reported her death, triggering public outrage. Stern action should be taken against the police personnel responsible for this serious lapse. It must also be ascertained whether there was a political hand behind the initial delay in investigations. Although MP Rishad Bathiudeen, at whose residence Ishalini suffered serious burn injuries, is in the Opposition, some of his MPs are supporting the government.

It has been revealed that as many as 17,500 videos of Sri Lankan children being sexually abused are found on the Internet. This shows how established and widespread the child abuse racket in this country is. There is reason to believe that the police are scratching the surface of the problem in that the Internet is not the only medium through which children are exploited sexually or otherwise. But for the use of a website to attract sickos as clients, the predicament of an underage girl from Mount Lavinia sold into prostitution would not have come to light. There must be hundreds of such underage children forced to work as sex slaves. They must be liberated from the clutches of organised procurers.

The question is what the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) and other state institutions responsible for protecting children have been doing about the videos at issue. These video clips would not have gone unnoticed if the state outfits concerned had carried out their duties and functions properly. They must be made to explain their lapse.

Perhaps, the plight of poor children reduced to semi-slavery as domestic workers would not have shaken the nation’s conscience to the extent of people taking to the streets, demanding justice, unless Ishalini had come to harm at an Opposition MP’s residence. Had her employer been a ruling party MP, the incident would probably have been covered up; the police would have concocted a story to mislead the public, the way they did following Thajudeen’s killing.

The police are shown on television visiting houses and asking whether there are underage domestic workers. Their naivety beggars belief, and their modus operandi reminds us of the visa applications that ask the applicants whether they have been involved in any criminal activities!

The best way to trace child workers is to enlist the help of the Grama Niladaris, and encourage the public to provide information about the underage workers in their neighbourhoods to the police or the NCPA so that raids could be conducted. Given Sri Lankans’ penchant for sneaking on their neighbours, this method is sure to work.

While everything possible is done to trace child workers and ensure their freedom, the factors that have led to the estate sector being the main source of child labour have to be obviated if the problem is to be tackled effectively. Yesterday, this newspaper revealed the appalling conditions in which plantation workers are living. A family has to shoehorn all its members into a small house with a floor area of less than 180 sq. ft. They also have to skip meals due to poverty. No wonder the children who grow up amidst such deprivations drop out of school and opt for work at tender ages. Our report also pointed out that some housing units constructed for the plantation workers cannot be handed over to the beneficiaries as there are no funds for water and electricity connections.

If the scourge of child labour is to be removed from our midst, poverty in the rural and estate sectors has to be reduced significantly as a national priority while steps are taken to ensure that the police and the child protection authorities enforce the law strictly and bring the culprits to justice.

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Editorial

Plaguey jab hesitancy

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Friday 30th July, 2021

Sri Lanka’s national vaccination drive has gained considerable momentum with more vaccine doses arriving, and the administration thereof continuing apace. The only way to reopen the country fully, and revive the economy soon is to accelerate the vaccination programme further, and ensure the public compliance with the health regulations to beat the Delta variant, decisively. Sadly, it has been reported that some people are not keen to have themselves vaccinated. This kind of vaccine hesitancy or wariness is bound to stand in the way of the country’s reopening plans. How could this issue be tackled? It is however not limited to Sri Lanka. The US and Australia are among the countries affected by the vexatious jab wariness, which is a threat to public health.

It may not be possible to make vaccination mandatory. But everything possible has to be done to persuade the unvaccinated to get the jab for their own sake as well as that of others. In this country, various factors have been adduced to explain vaccine hesitancy. Some people have an unfounded fear of vaccines. Others have been misled by misinformation campaigns carried out by some elements promoting certain brands of vaccines; they are waiting for the jabs of their choice, and this has been the result of the ongoing international trade war over vaccines. There are still others who are planning to travel overseas and want to receive the shots specified by the countries they will be visiting.

The concerns of those who avoid the jab have to be addressed and remedial measures adopted if we are to achieve the much-needed herd immunity through vaccination. The World Health Organization (WHO) has exploded many a myth about vaccines, and approved several jabs after testing them scientifically, and its messages and recommendations have not apparently reached some sections of the Sri Lankan public, who must be made aware that all WHO-recommended vaccines are safe and effective against coronavirus.

Vaccine is science, which has benefited humans tremendously, and there is no reason why one should not repose one’s trust therein. It is the opinion of respected medical professionals that one should heed as regards the pandemic and the vaccines, and not the much-publicised views of profit-seeking multinationals that are notorious for questionable business practices and have even been fined for resorting to corruption to promote their products.

There has been a mixed public reaction to a proposal by the Lanka Private Bus Owners’ Association (LPBOA) to limit interprovincial travel to the vaccinated. It has struck a responsive chord with some people, but the opponents thereof have pointed out that such a move will be tantamount to discrimination and a violation of people’s rights. Many people have not yet received the jab, and they will be at a disadvantage if the unvaccinated are denied permission to travel across the provinces, the critics of the LPBOA proposal have argued, maintaining that in a democratic society, nobody should be forced to undergo vaccination. This argument is not without some merits. Prior to the commencement of the national vaccination programme, the government announced that nobody would be forced to take the jab. But one may ask how fair it is to respect the rights of some people who refuse to be vaccinated at the expense of others’ right to safety. As for the pandemic, nobody will be safe until everybody is safe, as health experts have warned.

Even the advanced democracies have had to pressure their citizens to take the jab, and devise ways and means of achieving that end. In the US, President Joe Biden, who deserves the credit for having saved millions of American lives by believing in science and expediting the vaccination programme, is expected to announce that all civilian federal employees must be inoculated against coronavirus or be forced to submit to regular testing, physical distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel, according to The New York Times. Fair enough! If one wants one’s right to remain unvaccinated respected, one has to respect others’ right to remain safe, and, therefore agree to enjoy one’s rights under certain conditions for the greater good.

The US vaccine persuasion model is worthy of emulation.

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