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A CRITICAL REVIEW OF SRI LANKA IN 2021

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by Anila Dias Bandaranaike, Ph. D.

Public discourse everywhere confirms that Sri Lanka is in a parlous situation on several fronts. This paper appraises our current situation against a proposed national development framework.

National Resources

Sri Lanka’s two key resources are its people and environment. People have had access to traditional, healthy nutrition and free preventive and curative health services, as well as two ancient languages (Sinhala, Tamil), a global language (English) and free education up to tertiary level.

Our unique environment provides the natural security of an island, a strategic geographic location and manageable size, with extraordinary biodiversity. It is mostly arable, mainly flat, with accessible mountains, plentiful water and easy road, air and sea access.

Since Independence, successive governments under-utilised these resources. First, they complacently followed the unsustainable colonial development path, without forward-looking reforms for us. More recently, they mimicked the development paths of western industrialised countries and city states, Dubai and Singapore, inappropriate for Sri Lanka. They prioritised infrastructure above people. While lip service was paid to their importance, teaching English, our language issues and labour market reforms were neglected. This trajectory failed to retain Sri Lanka’s human capital. Neglect of minority concerns, inadequate incomes and employment opportunities led to brains and skills drain, as many who benefitted from free health and education left Sri Lanka. We now face a critical human capital shortage.

Governments also failed to recognise our environment’s potential for sustainable food security and earnings from exports and tourism. Instead, we see degradation and contraction of rainforests (Sinharaja), detrimental landfills, garbage dumps and ad hoc construction in wetlands (Muthurajawela), invasive plant expansion in national parks and irrigation tanks (Minneriya, Uda Walawe), violation of building guidelines in historical sites and resort areas (Colombo, Sigiriya, Unawatuna), plastic and chemical pollution (island-wide) and urban air pollution (Colombo, Kandy). Wasteful, thoughtless construction (Mattala Airport, Hambantota International Conference Centre, Colombo evictions and destruction of historic buildings) focussed on means to well-being (GDP growth, FDI, export growth, physical infrastructure, etc.), not the goal.

Lack of a framework and priorities for our key resources has led to multiple crises Sri Lanka faces today.

* Fiscal, foreign exchange and debt crisis – Against wasteful expenditure, inconsistent tax and trade policies have drastically reduced revenue and foreign earnings, leading to ballooning debt. We face financial, monetary and fiscal instability.

* Law and order crisis – Rampant corruption, pardoning of convicted criminals, ad-hoc dismissal of cases, indiscriminate detentions and delays in legal proceedings have destroyed people’s faith in the police and judicial systems to deliver protection and justice.

* COVD-related health, welfare and economic crisis – Mishandling of the pandemic, food distribution, people’s movements, transport and economic activities have many people without health protection, food or incomes.

* Maritime environmental crisis – Sheer bungling of a ship with hazardous cargo in distress created an unprecedented maritime environmental disaster.

* Labour crisis – Skills and brain drain, exacerbated by state support for labour migration, has led to labour shortages in many economic sectors.

* Habitat loss crisis – Unregulated clearing of forest lands, beachfronts and ad hoc landfills for political gain, for unstructured agriculture, for private housing, tourism, agro-industrial and industrial projects, without consistent policies, guidelines and mechanisms to monitor and evaluate large scale infrastructure or agriculture projects, has degraded and reduced our biodiversity.

* Plastic and toxic chemical pollution crisis – Lack of clear policies for a phased reduction plan, monitoring mechanisms and punishments for the harmful use of plastic and agrochemicals and for proper sanitary landfill and solid waste disposal mechanisms, including for e-waste, has aggravated environmental pollution. Meanwhile, the overnight ban on chemical fertiliser, unless reversed soon, will precipitate another food and export crop reduction crisis.

National Goals and Framework

Sri Lanka can overcome these crises. For this, governments need commitment to sustainable national goals and a framework prioritising people and environment.

Basic Premise:

Nations strive to improve the well-being of all citizens, which requires sustainable development and social justice.

Goal for People:

To improve their well -being, which encompasses 3 dimensions – material, intellectual and emotional -, with social justice. Material needs include physical health, food, clothing, shelter, utilities, transport and communication. Intellectual needs include education, skills development, employment opportunities and leisure activities. Emotional needs include mental health and a sense of personal security within the home and country to follow one’s religious beliefs, cultural traditions, sexual orientation, etc., without harm to others. Social justice ensures impartiality in access and opportunities for all citizens, regardless of any differentiating factor.

Goal for Environment:

To safeguard all biodiversity through sustainable development – lasting improvement in the well-being of current and future generations. Biodiversity includes rainforests, dry-zone forests, mountain plains, wetlands, beaches, dunes, reefs, lagoons, mangroves, rivers, waterfalls, reservoirs, tanks and air quality.

These goals are best understood as a government’s responsibility to provide to its citizens, through constant review and reforms, the following:

* Representation – Electoral systems for meaningful representation at national, regional and local levels, including relevant criteria for suitability of candidates. To meet people’s needs not representatives’ greed.

* Justice – Judicial reforms to ensure an independent, accountable judiciary, and law reforms for timely delivery of justice to people.

* Domestic Security – Police and legal reforms to ensure zero tolerance of discrimination on grounds of ethnic, religious, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, social status, income, political affiliation or other differentiating factor.

* A Sustainable Natural Environment – Action plans and guidelines to reverse environmental destruction. Sustained review and reforms of existing laws and procedures which hamper safeguarding of Sri Lanka’s resources.

* An Ethical and Transparent Business Environment – Institutional and legal reforms to rationalise and simplify access, procedures, approvals and licences to facilitate doing ethical business.

* Access to State Services – National administrative system reform to create realistic geographical boundaries for greater efficiency of service delivery. Clear demarcation of what state services are to be delivered at national, provincial and local level. Rationalisation of multi-tiered services where people have to seek multiple levels of authorisation for simple acts.

* Education – Reforms in educational infrastructure, curricula and teacher training to meet current market needs for analytical, problem-solving and writing skills with English proficiency. Regulation of private institutions to supplement state institutions. Removal of inconsistencies in access, with capacity building for national level schools at Divisional Secretariat level.

* Health – Policy reforms and better budgets to improve preventive and curative health delivery systems.

* Nutrition – Policy consistency in land use, agriculture and trade, to ensure food security and price stability.

* Housing – Policy reforms for access to housing markets at all income levels.

* Financial System Stability and Responsible Fiscal Management – Reform of monetary and fiscal authorities to ensure monetary, financial and fiscal stability. Capacity building for Parliamentary oversight of fiscal and financial management.

* Gainful Employment – Labour market and related legal reforms to reverse people migration (200-300,000/year). Recognise and regulate new forms of atypical employment. Ensure liveable minimum wages and decent working conditions. Allow hiring flexibility, while protecting worker rights.

* Social Safety Net –Welfare and social security reforms to support those below the poverty line and ensure retirement benefits for all.

* Access to Information – Access to public data and methodology. Expanded budgets and capacity building to address supply-side constraints in national data agencies.

• National Security – Capacity building for safety against international threats – physical, social or economic. Defined role for Tri-Forces. Foreign policy consistency in geopolitical relationships with global and regional powers.

Current Situation

Sri Lanka has a bloated public service and excessive layers of political representation. The public sector employs about 1.2 million people (15% of total work force) in 1,200 major institutions covering over 30,000 smaller units.

Sri Lanka’s population of 22 million, has a parliament of 225 members with about 30 Cabinet Ministers and 40 State Ministers at national level. In contrast, India’s population of 1,326 million (6 times) has a Lok Sabha of 545, 15 Cabinet ministers and 28 state ministers. Malaysia’s population of 33 million (1.5 times) has 222 members in its House of Representatives, 32 ministers and 38 deputy ministers.

At Local Government level, Sri Lanka has 8,708 elected representatives in 341 local authorities (24 Municipal Councils (MCs), 41 Urban Councils (UCs) and 276 Pradeshiya Sabhas (PS)). If Provincial Councils were in place, there would be about 500 Provincial Counsellors and another level of ministers.

With no clear delegation of responsibilities among these layers and overlapping institutions, there is considerable confusion in policy-making and service delivery. For decades, instead of focussing on their substantive role of policy-making and implementation for longer term national objectives, Cabinet and other ministers have been micro-managing day-to-day activities, such as transfers, promotions, job and school placements, etc. Overlap of functions has killed accountability. Senior bureaucrats, fearful for their jobs in a politicised culture, have forgotten their advisory role. Most muddle around at the bidding of their political masters or hoodwink them, in order to remain in favour. Those with integrity have paid the price for their commitment and professionalism, by removal.

With such a serious breakdown of independence, professionalism, accountability, channel-of-command and decision-making processes in key systems of authority and electoral representation, successive governments have failed to deliver universal rights.

The cumulative outcome has Sri Lanka in an extremely unstable and precarious situation. There is neither time nor space for further bungling or foolish posturing that we see among those responsible for running the country today.

Way Forward

A well-planned path prioritising critical reforms which optimise our key resources, would retain our people at higher incomes and safeguard our environment. To carve such a path, the country urgently needs to rationalise the size and layers of government and have a merit-based selection of professionals to key positions to plan a way forward, implement related policies and much-needed reforms. My wish list:

* National Framework and Goals – A small competent team to prepare it, with goals based on Citizens’ Rights.

* Public Sector Contraction – Professionally review roles and responsibilities of existing institutions under each Right. Cull and combine to rationalise and remove duplication.

* Merit-based promotions and recruitments – Establish guidelines and efficient procedures to fill key positions with professionals of acumen and independence. Reconsider categories of Presidential Appointees.

* Accountability – Establish systems for channel-of-command and responsibility, with continuous monitoring and evaluation. Re-establish Monitoring Authorities – Constitutional Council, Independent Commissions.

* Language – Build official capacity to ensure tri-lingual language rights for all.

Electoral Representation

* Effectiveness – Rationalise existing electoral systems at national, provincial and local levels.

* Consistency – Assign all electoral delimitation to one independent delimitation authority.

* Eligibility – Introduce minimal eligibility criteria to raise quality of representatives.

Conclusion:

Sri Lanka has a wealth of competent professionals of integrity and acumen who can move this country on a path to sustainable development. For this, the Executive and Legislature (President, Cabinet and Parliament), have to admit their abject failure and ask for help. Till then, men and women of ability will remain in the wings until it is too late. Sadly, that day may not be far off.

The author is a former Assistant Governor and Director of Statistics of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. She served on the Delimitation Commission of Sri Lanka from 2015 to 2020.



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Unprovoked attacks: AG asked to consider taking legal action against MR, others under ICCPR

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… arrest those named in court proceedings

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Colombo High Court Lawyers’ Association intends to move the Fort Magistrate’s court against the inordinate delay on the part of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to arrest those who had been named in the ongoing court proceedings as suspects.

The Fort Magistrate’s Court has issued a travel ban on ex-Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Namal Rajapaksa, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Johnston Fernando, Sanjeewa Edirimanna, Rohitha Abeygunawardena, C.B. Ratnayake, Sanath Nishantha, Kanchana Jayaratne (Pavitra Wanniarachchi’s husband), Sampath Athukorala, Mahinda Kahandagama, Renuka Perera, Nishantha Abeysinghe, Amitha Abeywickrama, Pushpalal Kumarasinghe, Dilip Fernando and Senior DIG Deshabandu Thennakoon.

The Magistrate also imposed a travel ban on seven others who had been wounded in or were eye-witnesses to the attacks.

Alleging that the CID probe was progressing at a snail’s pace, Attorney-at-Law J. Tenny Fernando, Convenor has, in a letter dated 15 May, requested Attorney General Sanjay Rajaratnam, PC, to expedite the process. The copies of the lawyer’s letter have been forwarded to IGP C. D. Wickremaratne, Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission Justice Rohini Marasinghe, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The Association has asked the AG whether the delay in taking those who had influenced the unprovoked attacks on protesting public into custody was because of their political status, political intervention hampering investigations or any other reason.

The association’s President and Attorney-at-Law Lakshman Perera told The Island that the public was seriously concerned about the double-standards in the CID’s response to the unprovoked attacks obviously carried out at the behest of those at the helm of Temple Trees and retaliatory violence.

Referring to the association’s letter to the AG, lawyer Perera said that the police headquarters over the weekend declared the arrest of over 200 persons in connection with retaliatory attacks whereas none of those whose passports were impounded were taken. Lawyer Perera noted that Police Spokesman and Attorney-at-Law SSP Nihal Thalduwa on Sunday (15) announced the arrest of a 49-year-old employee of Moratuwa Municipal Council in connection with the attacks on protest sites. SSP Thalduwa said that the CID took him into custody at Moratuwella, Moratuwa.

The Colombo High Court Lawyers’ Association has requested the AG to instruct the CID to take those who had been named in the court proceedings into custody without delay.

The IGP directed the CID to inquire into the incidents following a missive from the AG, who drew attention of the Police Chief to the domestic and international ramifications of the May 09 mayhem.

The association has queried whether the AG could file charges against some of those politicians who had allegedly instigated attacks in terms of Section 03 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act No 56 of 2007.

Convenor Fernando warned the AG that the integrity of his Office is in question against the backdrop of both the legal fraternity and the citizenry relentlessly demanding expeditious handling of the Temple Trees case.

The association has emphasised that the ongoing investigations are under the purview of the AG in terms of Section 393 of the Code of Criminal Procedure Act No 15 of 1979. Referring to the extensive coverage of the incidents in the mainstream as well as the social media, the association has questioned the honesty and the efficiency of the CID.

Appreciating the swift action taken by the AG’s Department in respect of principal suspects to secure a travel ban, the association has reminded the President’s Counsel Rajaratnam that the outfit is about to file action against the same lot and some additional suspects when the AG intervened.

Lawyer Perera said that if not for the AG initiating action, the association would have done the needful. The entire world was watching how the government handled this situation, he said, adding that it would be the responsibility of the AG to ensure justice.

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PM tells bitter truth, proposes how to overcome crisis

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With the country caught in a fiscal crisis, where it is unable to find dollars even to buy lifesaving drugs, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe yesterday declared some urgent steps that he proposed to take like privatising the money draining national carrier SriLankan Airlines.

The loss suffered by SriLankan for the year 2020-2021 alone amounted to SLR 45 billion. By 31 March 2021, the total loss was at 372 billion. “Even if we privatise Sri Lankan Airlines, this is a loss that we must bear. You must be aware that this is a loss that must be borne even by the poor people of this country who have never stepped on an airplane”, he said.

In his address to the nation, Premier Wickremesinghe said

the coming few months will be the most difficult times that Sri Lankans have experienced in their lives.

He said Sri Lankan economy is in an extremely precarious state and that the budget deficit for 2022 will be 2.4 trillion Sri Lankan Rupees.

“At present, the Sri Lankan economy is extremely precarious. Although the former government’s budget projected a revenue of SLR 2.3 trillion, SLR 1.6 trillion is the realistic projection of this year’s revenue,” he said.

Wickremesinghe said that the estimated government expenditure for 2022 is SLR 3.3 trillion. However, due to the increase in interest rates and additional expenditure of the former government, the total government expenditure is SLR 4 trillion.

He said that the government needs to find 75 million U.S Dollars in the next few days to provide the basic necessities for the people.

“At the moment, we only have petrol stocks for a single day. Due to the diesel shipment that arrived yesterday, the diesel lack of diesel will be resolved to some extent. Two more diesel shipments are due to arrive on the 18th May and 1st June. In addition, two petrol shipments are expected on 18th and 29th May,” he said.

Wickremesinghe said that Sri Lanka produced 25% of electricity through fossil fuels.

Thus, if the country is not able to purchase adequate amounts of diesel soon, there is a possibility that the daily power outages will increase to 15 hours a day.

He added that the government incurs a loss of 84.38 rupees per liter of 92 octane petrol, 71.19 rupees per liter of 95 octane petrol, 131.55 rupees per liter of diesel, 136.31 rupees per liter of super diesel, and 294.50 rupees per liter of kerosene oil.

“The Petroleum Corporation can no longer bear this loss. Similarly, although the Electricity Board charges SLR 17 per unit of electricity the cost of production is at around SLR 48 amounting to a loss of about SLR 30 per unit. This is also a serious problem,” he said.

Given below is the speech in full: “Last Thursday, I accepted office as the Prime Minister. I did not request this position. In face of the challenging situation facing the country, the President invited me to take up this position. I assumed this duty not only as a political leader, but also as national leader who has benefited from free education at the Faculty of Law of the University of Colombo.

“At present, the Sri Lankan economy is extremely precarious. Although the former government’s budget projected a revenue of SLR 2.3 trillion, SLR 1.6 trillion is the realistic projection of this year’s revenue.

“The estimated government expenditure for this year is SLR 3.3 trillion. However, due to the increase in interest rates and additional expenditure of the former government, the total government expenditure is SLR 4 trillion. The budget deficit for the year is SLR 2.4 trillion. This amount equals 13% of the GDP.

“The approved debt ceiling is SLR 3200 billion. By the second week of May, we had spent 1950 billion. Therefore, the remainder is SLR 1250 billion. Yesterday, a cabinet decision was made to present a proposal to parliament to increase the approved limit for issuing treasury bills from 3000 billion to 4000 billion.

“In November 2019, our foreign exchange reserves were at USD 7.5 billion. However, today, it is a challenge for the treasury to find USD 1 million. The Ministry of finance is finding it difficult to raise USD 5 million required to import gas.

“Amidst all these issues we are faced with several grave concerns. To ease the queues, we must obtain approximately USD 75 million within the next couple of days. At the moment, we only have petrol stocks for a single day. Due to the diesel shipment that arrived yesterday, the diesel lack of diesel will be resolved to some extent. Under the Indian credit line, two more diesel shipments are due to arrive on the 18th May and 1st June. In addition, two petrol shipments are expected on 18th and 29th May. For over 40 days 3 ships with crude oil and furnace oil have been anchored within the maritime zone of Sri Lanka. We are working to obtain dollars in the open market to pay for these shipments.

“A quarter of electricity is generated through oil. Therefore, there is a possibility that the daily power outages will increase to 15 hours a day. However, we have already obtained money to avert this crisis. We must also immediately obtain USD 20 million to provide gas to consumers. The situation of kerosene and furnace oil is even more urgent. At present, the Central Bank, local state and private banks, and foreign banks functioning in Sri Lanka are all facing a dollar shortage. As you are already aware, we possess a very low amount of US dollars. Nevertheless, we succeeded in bringing in a diesel shipment yesterday despite these adverse circumstances with Indian assistance. Therefore, you can obtain that diesel from today onwards. We will also work towards making a payment for the gas shipment that arrived on Tuesday. Therefore, you will have some respite from the gas shortage.

“Another grave concern is the lack of medicine. There is a severe shortage of a number of medicines including medicine required for heart disease as well as surgical equipment. Payments have not been made for four months to suppliers of medicine, medical equipment, and food for patients. The payment owed to them amounts to SLR 34 billion. In addition, payments have not been made for four months for medicine imported by the State Pharmaceuticals Corporation. As a result, pharmaceutical companies are taking steps to blacklist the SPC. Unfortunately, our Medical Supplies Division is unable to provide even two critical items of the 14 essential medicines that we currently need. These two are a medicine used in treating heart disease and the anti-rabies vaccine. The latter has no alternative treatment.

“We have planned to present a new alternative budget to the development budget proposed for 2022. Intend to present it as a concessionary budget.

“I further propose to privatise Sri Lankan Airlines which is incurring extensive losses. The loss for the year 2020-2021 alone amounts to SLR 45 billion. By 31st March 2021, the total loss was at 372 billion. Even if we privatise Sri Lankan Airlines, this is a loss that we must bear. You must be aware that this is a loss that must be borne even by the poor people of this country who have never stepped on an airplane.

“In the short term we will have to face an even more difficult time period. There is a possibility that inflation will increase further.

“At present, the government incurs a loss of SLR 84.38 per liter of 92 octane petrol, 71.19 per liter of 95 octane petrol, 131.55 per liter of diesel, 136.31 per liter of super diesel, and 294.50 per liter of kerosene oil. The Petroleum Corporation can no longer bear this loss. Similarly, although the Electricity Board charges SLR 17 per unit of electricity the cost of production is at around SLR 48 amounting to a loss of about SLR 30 per unit. This is also a serious problem.

“Against my own wishes, I am compelled to permit printing money in order to pay state-sector employees and to pay for essential goods and services. However, we must remember that printing money leads to the depreciation of the rupee. Under the current circumstances, even the Petroleum Corporation and the Electricity Board are unable to obtain rupees.

“The next couple of months will be the most difficult ones of our lives. We must prepare ourselves to make some sacrifices and face the challenges of this period.

“I have no desire to hide the truth and to lie to the public. Although these facts are unpleasant and terrifying, this is the true situation. For a short period, our future will be even more difficult than the tough times that we have passed. We will face considerable challenges and adversity. However, this period will not be long. In the coming months, our foreign allies will assist us. They have already pledged their support. Therefore, we will have to patiently bear the next couple of months. However, we can overcome this situation. Doing so will require taking a new path.

“I thank the opposition leader and the leaders of the political parties who replied to the letters that I sent them informing them of the current situation.

“We must immediately establish a national assembly or political body with the participation of all political parties to find solutions for the present crisis. This will enable us to discuss with all parties and to arrive at decisions for short-, medium-, and long-term action plans that will enable us to rebuild our nation within a specified time frame.

“We will build a nation without queues for kerosene, gas, and fuel; a nation free of power outages, a nation with plentiful resources where agriculture can freely flourish; a nation where the future of the youth is secure; a nation where people’s labour need not be wasted in queues and in struggles; a nation where everyone can lead their lives freely with three square meals a day.

“I am undertaking a dangerous challenge. In the Caucasian Chalk Circle, Grusha crossed the broken rope bridge carrying a child that was not her own. This is an even more difficult undertaking. The precipice is deep and its bottom cannot be seen. The bridge is made of thin glass and there is no handrail. I am wearing shoes with sharp nails that cannot be removed. My task is to safely take the child to the other side. I am accepting this challenge for our nation. My goal and dedication is not to save an individual, a family, or a party. My objective is to save all the people of this country and the future of our younger generation. I will undertake this task willingly risking my life if needed and will overcome the challenges facing us. I ask you to extend your support to me in this endeavour.I will fulfill my duty towards our nation.”

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Parliament security beefed up in view of planned IUSF protest

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By Norman Palihawadane

Security for Parliament and surrounding areas has been beefed up in view of Inter University Students’ Federation-led agitations against the government and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

During a special meeting, headed by Sergeant-at-Arms Narendra Fernando, with security experts and other stakeholders from Parliament, it was decided to enhance security during the next sitting week of parliament scheduled to start at 10 am today.

In addition the number of Navy boat patrolling in the adjacent Diyawanna Lake has been increased, parliament sources said.

The scope of intelligence observances and surveillance would be increased, sources said, adding that police and army men would be deployed in the surrounding areas of parliament premises.

Yesterday’s meeting also conveyed instructions issued by Defence Secretary General Kamal Gunaratne during his visit to the Parliament complex on Sunday.

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena told The Island that the responsibility of providing security to the MPs had been handed over to the Police and the Army.

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