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A Cabinet reshuffle needed

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

It looks as if the government did not realise the need to take drastic action to stem the tide of public disapproval. Even the most optimistic, who were overjoyed at the election of a non-politician President, followed by that of a government with an unexpected thumping majority, are sighing in despair! Although part of it is due to avoidable own-goals, there seems to be an extremely effective anti-government campaign directed by an unseen hand. Even when toxins are detected in imported coconut oil, rather than laying the blame on errant importers, attempts are made to tarnish the image of the government. All this is possible because the government seems to lack an effective communication strategy. One wonders whether the government has a lax attitude because the Opposition is blundering.

The fracas in the Parliament on the issue of Ranjan Ramanayaka losing his seat was the best illustration of a misguided Opposition not fit for purpose. Critics may argue that RR was given an unfairly harsh punishment but their criticism lacks moral authority because they opted to be silent when a Buddhist priest was given a much harsher punishment for the same offence: in fact, they were delighted! RR stated publicly that most judges were corrupt and defended his stance at every possible turn. He also refused all opportunities afforded for clarification. In spite of the Attorney General informing a while ago that RR’s seat should be declared vacant, to his credit the Speaker waited till RR’s petition for appeal was dealt with. Even though the facts were obvious, the Leader of the Opposition accused the Speaker of removing RR on the basis of non-attendance for three months, which he had to correct the following day! Those who blamed the SLPP for staging unruly protests in Parliament in October 2018, did the same on behalf of RR. Is this not laughable?

Once and for all, the question of the authority of the President was settled with the passage of the 20th Amendment and it is high time the President made use of his new powers. The most important thing he can and should do is a cabinet reshuffle, a mechanism often adopted by British Prime Ministers by way of a course correction. It need not be a major reshuffle but a minor one involving some ministers who are obviously underperforming. I have written in the past about the Minister of Health who demonstrated gross irresponsibility by partaking of an untested and unlicensed medicinal product. She is also responsible for not implementing the Jennifer Perera committee report on the disposal of bodies of unfortunate victims of Covid-19? Had this been implemented in December, much of the adverse publicity the country received could have been avoided. Perhaps, the voting during the UNHRC resolution also may have been very different. The Minister of Public Security talking of banning some face coverings did not help either. Pity he did not realize he was talking of this at the wrong time; during an epidemic when face coverings may be useful.

The Minister of Trade, who was an effective critic in the Opposition, has turned out to be totally ineffective. Even the government gazette has become a joke due to his actions. Perhaps, it is time for him to take a back-seat and allow someone else to have a go at the rice-mafia. etc. Perhaps, ex-president Sirisena may be given a chance to see whether brotherly love is more effective than the gazette in controlling the prices of rice.

The biggest failure of this government is on the diplomatic front. What most diplomats consider to be the most important diplomatic assignment, the post of High Commissioner to India remains unfilled for almost a year. Whether we like it or not, India is fast gaining the status of a world power, and not having our representative to deal with officials acknowledged to be of top calibre is a shame.

The way the UNHRC resolution was handled showed total incompetence of the highest order. We withdrew but the Ambassador decided to take part; we lost and claimed victory! To cap it all, the Foreign Minister announced in Parliament that the resolution was illegal. All the time sinister forces are at work, relentlessly, to undermine the country and force the separatist agenda on us and if we are not sharp, we may end up in disaster. For reasons best known to themselves, the government failed to utilize fully the good offices of Lord Naseby. Statements made by the Foreign Secretary no doubt irked the Indian and US governments.

For all these reasons, the need of the day is a complete overhaul of our Foreign Affairs set up, starting with the Minister. It is high time we made use of our career diplomats, who are well trained for the job and stop sending political ambassadors. The practice of utilizing ambassadorial posts as parking lots for retired service chiefs is abhorrent, as it gives the false impression that Sri Lanka has a military government in all but name.

There is still a chance for reversal of fortunes, if the President decides to act swiftly after returning from Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebrations. If not, unfortunately, there may not be much left to celebrate!



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Opinion

Independence Day reflections: The Bible or laws of the land?

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Canterbury Cathedral

Church governance and Anglicanism

By S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

In our Universities Act, there is provision for a University Council to forward three names for the post of Vice Chancellor and for the President to pick any one of the three. It is a necessary check and balance since a Council tends to favour its own and can make egregious choices against the well-being of the university. For example, at Peradeniya there were once only three applicants – the incumbent VC, an eminent Professor from Singapore with a higher doctorate, and a civil servant with political connections. The Council panicked since they had no choice but to forward all three names. So, after the closing date, they got two of their own members to apply and forwarded the names of the incumbent and the two new applicants. It is for such a situation that the President is given the power to exercise discernment and pick any of the three rather than the number one vote getter. In that case the President picked the incumbent, not recognising the skullduggery the Council was capable of.

Likewise, in the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is also the Archbishop (Moderator) of the Church of Ceylon, it is written that “Since Henry VIII broke with Rome, the Archbishops of Canterbury have been selected by the English (latterly British) monarch.” The similarity is that today the choice is made in the name of the Sovereign by the Prime Minister, from a shortlist of two selected by an ad-hoc committee called the Crown Nominations Commission.” It has 15 members, all full communicants of the Church.

However, according to y Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The King sends the Dean and Canons a leave to elect, but also sends them the name of the person whom they are to elect. They go into the Cathedral, chant and pray; and after these invocations invariably find that the dictates of the Holy Ghost agree with the recommendation of the King.” It is like the incumbent VC being elected.

After Margaret thatcher refused to appoint a Bishop put up by the Commission because she considered him to be too liberal and left-wing, there is said to be a convention that the Prime minister does not interfere. It is only a convention though and not the law. It remains to be flouted by a future Prime Minister or indeed the Sovereign who presently, as “Defender of the Faith,” is in an adulterous marriage by Church definition insofar as his wife has a living husband in Andrew Parker Bowles.

Thus, the current Archbishop, Justin Welby, who was appointed in 2013, was chosen by David Cameron, an Anglican. However, should the See fall vacant now, the appointment will be decided by Rishi Sunak, a devout Hindu.

Likewise, the Bishop of Colombo is chosen by the Archbishop from a list of three elected by us. Last time when Bishop Dushantha Rodrigo was selected, Archbishop Welby hummed and hawed although Rodrigo had the most votes. Welby offered the post to the Thomian Warden the Rev. Marc Bilimoria, who declined. Then Welby came back to Rodrigo, who was against expanding the Church to three dioceses to make it a full member of the Anglican fraternity, and extracted from Rodrigo a promise to form another diocese and become a Province of the Anglican Communion. Said Welby as reported in the Anglican Communion News Service (28 Sept. 2020),

“I should say that although I regard it as a privilege to have been entrusted with this important function in the life of the Church of Ceylon, as its ‘Metropolitan’ [i.e., Archbishop], it is not a role I have sought, or feel comfortable having to exercise. In my view, it carries too many reminders of a colonial past. I have therefore sought and obtained from Fr Dushantha his assurance that he will give urgent priority to enabling the Church of Ceylon to take its proper place as a fully independent province in the life of the wider Anglican Communion.

To become a Province, we had to start a new diocese to make us a three-diocese Church (now with only two in Colombo and Kurunegala). This despite our numbers having dwindled from over 100,000 at independence overseen by one bishop, to 25,000 which it is claimed needs a third bishop now. The reality is the actual numbers are around 20,000 because many like me go to the Roman Catholic Church (as permitted to dissatisfied Anglicans by Pope Benedict XVI) because of its unchanging Magisterium confirming our sacraments. These are the actual reasons why many like Bishop Rodrigo himself (said at the time to be an Anglo-Catholic explaining why I campaigned for him) opposed expanding the church to three dioceses.

Indeed, if the connection to Canterbury smacked of colonialism, there was the option to have a non-White Archbishop from the Church of South India or Nigeria or Burma instead of forming another Bishop and diocese with correspondingly higher expenses.

Rodrigo somersaulted before his boss the Archbishop to be made Bishop. Similarly, like good Anglicans, when our new Bishop and Boss Rodrigo asked for another diocese, the Church overwhelmingly had the Holy Spirit guiding it as the new Boss wanted as in Waldo Emerson’s paradigm. Almost all senior priests who opposed another diocese at public meetings in 2018 voted for it.

Church Independence as we Celebrate Independence

The scenario, however, is a lot worse than in the appointment of Bishops. As in the appointment of the Archbishop, prayers to the Holy Spirit, mysteriously yield the man the top dog wants. That obedience of the Church to British political authorities remains. We now want another diocese in obeisance to our English Archbishop

In England, where statistics is available, church attendance, like in the Church of Ceylon, is abysmally down – from 11.1% of the UK population in 1980 to 6.3% in 2005 and an estimated 5% in 2015. In the face of similar statistics, it is far more important for the Church of Ceylon to focus on faith and church attendance rather than on the number of Bishops and getting a local Archbishop. But given the obedient promise extracted by the Archbishop, we are on a path where faith is neglected in exchange for the grandeur of ceremony parading bishops and an Archbishop – preferring obedience to British authorities rather our own interests in independent Sri Lanka.

Faith Versus Ceremonial Grandeur of the Church

The British Church has been consistently holding up the biblical teaching that marriage is for life, between one man and one woman. That is divorcee-remarriage and homosexual marriage are disallowed.

Some Bishops in the UK, America and Canada, however, are themselves in homosexual unions. This has angered the rest of Anglicanism especially in Africa. Many of them refused to participate in the prestigious Lambeth Conference, where all bishops gather every ten years. Their anger was because Welby took no disciplinary action and many of these clergymen and their husbands (and clergywomen and their wives) were invited to Lambeth.

That boycott ensures that the next head of the Anglican Communion is likely to be an African. For, The Church of Nigeria that boycotted Lambeth is the largest Anglican province. Together with the Churches of Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda, those representing a firm stand against homosexuality form the majority of Anglicans worldwide numbering 42 million members while the whole communion has only 80 million members spread over 38 Provinces. England has only some 825,000 Anglicans many of whom do not go to church on a Sunday unlike the Africans. With the next appointment of the Archbishop, the English tail may have to stop wagging the Anglican dog, unless the Prime Minister, whoever he is, breaks convention and refuses to accept either of the two nominees.

As a Church, the Church of Ceylon is committed to being guided by biblical principles which clearly are against homosexual relationships. Being western in orientation, our church elders have not alerted the congregants to the raging debates in the worldwide church on sexuality. Instead, they divert the discussion to the environment, poverty. and racism towards Estate Tamils, skirting around the racism against Ceylon Tamils inherent to opposing the 13th Amendment.

Obedience to British Government

International human rights instruments on the other hand, protect homosexual rights – and rightly so since we are not a theocracy and society has accepted aberrations from Biblical teachings such as England’s Defender of the Faith being married to a divorcee. From a British standpoint therefore, there are no grounds for condemning homosexuality while promoting divorcee-remarriage as between King Charles and Camilla his Consort.

So, it was that Penny Morduant, leader of the House of Commons, recently (16 Jan. 2023, Guardian) urged Church of England bishops to back same-sex marriage in critical talks this past week, saying the church’s current stance causes “pain and trauma” to LGBTQ+ people.

Says The Guardian, the choice before the Church was stark: “to change its stance, based on biblical teaching, to reflect the law of the land and the weight of public opinions.”

In response, according to Religious News Service (3 Feb. 2023), “After years of wrangling over how the church should deal with homosexuality, its bishops announced in mid-January that they would not agree to same-sex marriage but were prepared to bless civil unions. They followed with an apology for the way that LGBTQI+ people were treated by the Church of England.

With our Archbishop promising to bless homosexual unions and apologizing for unspecified bad treatment of homosexuals, would we follow as we do in all things from England? Surely, the Anglican communion is dead. The question for us in Sri Lanka is this: Are we truly independent? Will we follow our boss, the Archbishop? Or will we assert our faith independently of him? Are we truly free of racism to identify with African Anglicans in breaking off from our English masters and joining African leaders who reflect our faith?

The writer’s family traces its roots to Anglicanism in 1845, to the America Ceylon Mission in 1825 and to the Roman Catholic Church well before that.

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Opinion

Victoria Nuland calls Chinese bluff on SL debt relief

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Victoria Nuland

By Harim Peiris

The United States, under-secretary of state for political affairs Victoria Nuland was visiting Sri Lanka last week and dominating her agenda with the government has been the core issue of restructuring the Sri Lankan government’s foreign debt, on which it has defaulted, which stands at the heart of our recovery from bankruptcy. Unusually plain speaking for a diplomat, under-secretary Nuland was blunt about the main factor obstructing the receipt of an IMF structural adjustment facility and that was the reluctance of the Chinese Government, through their state owned financial entities, to seriously explore the issue of a debt write down. Under Secretary Nuland stated that “What China has offered so far is not enough ….. We need to see credible and specific assurances that Chine will meet the IMF standard of debt relief”.

That credible standard of debt relief did not seem to be forthcoming from the Chinese. After months of being scarce in the process of debt renegotiation, the Chinese had finally made an offer that was at best completely underwhelming, namely a two-year moratorium on the repayment of debt. Compare that with what the Western aid donor countries, in the Paris Club were discussing about offering, which was a ten-year moratorium on debt repayment, including some debt write down. In the words of visiting Under Secretary Nuland, this commitment was very clear. “We, the United States, are prepared to do our part. Our Paris Club partners are prepared to do their part. India has made strong commitments that it will provide the credible assurances the IMF is looking for” she said.

Predictably the Chinese were quick to defend their not very generous offer as the epitome of reasonableness and were sharp in their rebuttal. Gone are the days when Chinese diplomats were known for bowing a lot and speaking softly. Now they come out swinging, as it were, at the slightest hint of criticism and accordingly the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Ms. Nao Ning responded saying “rather than jabbing fingers at China’s close cooperation with Sri Lanka, the US might as well show some sincerity and actually do something to help Sri Lanka weather through the current difficulties”. Conveniently perhaps forgetting that the US had for several years offered half a billion (five hundred million) dollars in grant (yes, a non-repayable) funding from the Millennium Challenge Cooperation (MCC) which the Rajapaksa Administration for reasons best known to itself, chose to turn down, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase, “looking a gift horse in the mouth” and then making the nation falling flat on our face.

The Chinese debt from the belt

and road initiative

Dealing with the Chinese debt is a serious challenge for Sri Lanka and an even bigger challenge for China. For Sri Lanka, it is currently the main sticking point in securing an IMF facility which would be the start of reversing the steep contraction (negative growth) of the Sri Lankan economy. For the Chinese, the issue of distress loans from its much vaunted belt and road program could not have come at a worse time. The Chinese economy has significantly slowed down and with it the Chinese face their own issues of the asset quality in their banking system. There is also now much more vocal criticism of the debt piled on the vulnerable economies of developing countries for the construction of projects of dubious utility and economic value at inflated prices. Sri Lanka has become a poster boy (case study) of corrupt and despotic local rulers (one of them chased out by a popular uprising) who indebted their countries to the point of bankruptcy. The issue becomes, how responsible is the lender for this fate of the borrower. Undoubtedly the Rajapaksas and their political cohorts in the SLPP should bear the responsibility for the decision to rake up expensive and extensive foreign debts. But rather like the classic tort law case studies of the liability for a drunk driving accident of a bar tender, who keeps plying his obviously intoxicated customer with ever more alcohol, knowing that the customer was a danger to himself and others, the Chinese showed at best a reckless disregard for the economic vulnerabilities of its borrowers, especially Rajapaksa led Sri Lanka or as its detractors claim, a cynical method of creating pliant client states.

The Chinese aspiration to being a global power requires China to deal with international issues and especially international global financial issues in a mainstream manner. China like even other great powers do not want to end up being isolated in their foreign affairs. Mostly due to some adroit work by some of Sri Lanka’s other friends, namely India and the Paris Club of creditor nations, the Chinese now find themselves in the unenviable position, where all others are ready for a very pragmatic and generous approach to debt restructuring, the very mention of it is unthinkable, a likely unviable long term position.

Coincidently, Sri Lanka’s international sovereign bond holders, through their lawyers White and Chase LLP also issued a statement and wrote to the IMF Managing Director, expressing their willingness to engage in good faith in debt negotiations. However, for them, the Paris Club and all other creditors, is the cardinal principal of equal treatment, that early movers who make concessions would not receive less favorable terms than the hold outs. So the real price of Chinese reluctance for serious debt renegotiations, is that it prevents even other creditors from doing so. The Wickremasinghe / Rajapaksa Administration has no answers to this dilemma and the other crucial requirements of economic reforms.

(The writer served as Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2016 to 2017)

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Opinion

This Pretentious Plenitude

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(loketa parakase, gedarata maragate )

“On 3 June, 1400, the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus entered Paris. By the showy standards of contemporary state visits, Manuel cut a sory figure. Accompanied by fewer than sixty of his own attendants, speaking nothing but Greek, mounted on a borrowed white charger and dependent for his travelling expenses on his hosts, he had come to beg for money and troops in the hope of preserving his shrunken domains from the Ottoman Turks.”

– Cursed Kings, The Hundred Years War IV, 2015)

By Usvatte-aratchi

A few days ago, I went to Panadura to see my brother, 95 years old. We parked the car to go to the Arpico Supercentre at the southwestern corner of Galle Road and Nirmala Mawatha. From the park, I did not go into the store; I sat in the car. There were about 20 cars parked and people went into the store and drove away after making their purchases. There were more women shoppers than men. The women were distinctly well-clothed and appeared well-fed. They all wore slacks or skirts and upper garments, all in good taste with no garish hues. None wore a sari. All men wore slacks and shirts and none a kapati suit or sarong. All the cars glistened in the morning sun; none had scratches or worse damage. One car had a number plate BK; all the others had number plates with three letters. There was plenitude; where is the austerity the country is published to undergo? Or is austerity the burden borne by only one category of citizens? A few days later, as I entered through the gates to a hospital compound, I noticed that the man who issued tokens from a little cubicle in the heat and humidity wore a necktie. Public servants assembled before ministers invariably wearing a suit. The rooms are airconditioned to accommodate them. Doesn’t it make more sense to wear simple shirts in rooms cooled to a higher temperature to save fuel? Why this pretence of plenitude in this land of austerity? It is so poor that it bears the odium of having defaulted on its sovereign debt.

What are the rules of etiquette that require us to wear evening dress, no matter who the dignitary that one has to meet? Well, of course, anyone is entitled to wear funny clothes, even silken wigs in this high temperature and high humidity in torrid tropical weather. But in this impoverished hungry land, where children who attend school faint from starvation? There are reports of stunted and underweight children. I expect to read infant and maternal mortality rates for 2021, 2022 and 2023 higher than the excellent levels that our health services had ensured for us. The age cohorts born in 2020-2024 will bear the scars of this scourge throughout their lives.

Sometime in the mid-1980s, a friend of mine was the Indian Ambassador to Vietnam. She was very keen to learn Vietnamese. After a few weeks in the country, she hired someone to teach her Vietnamese. Although now written in Latin script, there is a range of diacritical marks to help one to speak a word with the proper tones -more complex than in Mandarin or Thai. (The Latin script was introduced in the 17th century by Portuguese Jesuit priests.) In the second week of lessons, the tutor took the liberty of raising a question with the Ambassador, one evening after the lesson. ‘Madam, with the flaps of the dress you wear, I can make a pretty blouse’. Isn’t it a pity that so much cloth must is wasted’? (Vietnamese are still small-made, perhaps genetically and the result of centuries of malnutrition.) The ambassador who was very sympathetic to what Vietnam was trying to achieve, was shocked by how right the tutor was. She took her lesson seriously. I was a student in Britain in the 1960s and stayed in my lodgings all summer, except to go to the theatre in London. One summer, I was invited to tea in the garden with the queen. Many students from Commonwealth countries were so invited. I had no suit to wear for the occasion nor did I consider it wise to invest in one, just to attend a tea party. (Mad Hatter might have considered it otherwise.) We are still a poor country and anyone who yearns for the use of expensive clothing must seek a fitting clime. Some of you must have observed the army-style warm collarless cardigan that President Volodymyr Zelensky wore when he addressed the US Congress, a rare honour bestowed on men from outside the US. Does a caparisoned elephant look more dignified than the real thing in the wild? Do murderers, plunderers, women abusers and forgers gain dignity when they wear kapati suits buttoned up to the chin? If clothes make for dignity, mannequins in shop windows must present the most dignified postures in the world.

Take the case of cars. In this small island with a short mileage of expressways and a speed limit of 100km per hour, where do people go in a Mercedes 350 or BMW 740 ? Those gas guzzlers, V8 vehicles which even Bhikkhu covet, are symbols of pretentious plenitude. I recall some MPs explaining in parliament that they needed expensive vehicles because they had to travel in their electorates on uneven roads. When NIssanka Wijewardene was the government agent in Badulla in the early 1960s, he toured the district on horseback and Uva is still not an area roads in good condition in that part of the country. Leonard Woolf, 123 years ago, toured the Hambantota district on horseback. Riding a horse on rough tracks and rural roads is no fun. I cannot see why MPs cannot travel about in cheaper cars which are less expensive to buy and also consume much less gas. All this plenitude is at the expense of rich and poor taxpayers. The frequent use of helicopters by the president and ministers is something we cannot afford. Once a relative of a president flew in a helicopter from Ratmalana to Maharagama, at government expense. A president travelled by helicopter several times to ‘inspect’ construction work on the Moragahakanda dam. I wondered how much engineering the man had in him to waste so many resources for so flimsy a reason. When a dam was built across Gal Oya at Inginiyagala in 1950-52 with two months to spare before the end of the contracted date, there was nobody flying around in helicopters. The Ampara-Siyambalanduwa road was a decade away and one had to drive to Chenkaladi to get to Inginiyagala, a tiring journey for a young man even in 1968-69. When a poor population struggles to climb higher in the income ladder, it does not help to grease it with opulent lifestyles by its leaders. That grease pulls down people back into poverty.

Our religious leaders do not help. The Durutu perahera was held a few weeks back. Navam perahera is on a grand scale. Then comes Avurudu when the whole country takes a holiday and eats and drinks as if there were no tomorrow. May is for vesak. June, and people sojourn in Anuradhapura. July is for many festivals in devale in the south. August puts up the spectacle in Mahanuvara. September opens a period of quietude in pansal only to begin again in November. Who objects to religiosity among believers but please undertake them without denying the rest of this economy resources. It is more important that a child goes to school regularly than that votive candles are lit on an altar.

Some places of religious importance in this country are mighty rich. Their daily income probably is in the millions. What is the educational institution or hospital that they financed to build and run? Even the Vidyodaya pirivena receives, to date a subvention out of taxpayers’ money. Why isn’t it maintained with the collections in the shrine with a Bo-tree in Kalutara? The collections are administered by the Public Trustee but why not give a sense of ownership to those that collect the money? The Venkateshwar kovil in Andhra Pradesh runs a fine university with a part of the huge income it earns. Superstitious politicians from our country contribute to that income. Satya Sai Baba organization in Bengaluru runs schools and provides pipe-borne water to villagers close to their offices. The Rama Krishna Mission in India has a brilliant record of having established and run many schools and colleges in India. Tatas have established research institutes that put out high-quality work. In the 13th and fourteenth centuries when England was probably poorer than Sri Lanka then and certainly poorer than even impoverished Sri Lanka today (2023), colleges that now comprise Oxford and Cambridge universities, were built and run by Roman Catholic churches, monasteries and rich individuals. Many Bishops established colleges in Oxford and Cambridge. Walter de Merton started Merton College in Oxford; Peterhouse in Cambridge had similar beginnings. They had to wait for Edward III and Henry VI to meet Royal benefactors of colleges. In the first settlements in Boston Bay, the immigrants established Harvard College (now Harvard University) in 1635 well before a systematic government came into being there. Someone needs to inquire why well-endowed religious establishments in this country, do not find it fitting that they establish educational facilities for bright students. They would rather gild with 13.5 kg of gold, a fence around a venerated tree.

Why do we so often mistake appearances for substance? More than 120 years ago, Thorstein Veblen coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ to identify behaviour patterns of people in opulent societies. What does one call this pretentious plenitude in a land where hunger haunts almost every household day after day?

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