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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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President instructs officials to vaccinate kids with Pfizer

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Health Ministry still deliberating pros and cons

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had instructed health officers to inoculate children between the age 15 to 19 with Pfizer vaccine, Army Commander General Shavendra Silva said yesterday.

General Silva added that the President had also instructed officials to inoculate children with special needs above the age of 12, with the Pfizer vaccines. He there are around 50,000 children with special needs.

General Silva said Sri Lanka would receive adequate Pfizer vaccine doses in the coming weeks. During the Presidential Task Force meeting, on Covid-19, it was decided to allow the Department of Motor Traffic, and the Land Registry to operate during the lockdown, which was extended until 01 October. However, a few hours before this statement was made, Deputy Director General of Health Services, Dr. Hemantha Herath told the media that no decision had been taken on vaccinating children.

He, however, said that discussions were ongoing about vaccinating children.

“There are a number of discussions on this because this is a serious matter. We have also decided that when we vaccinate the priority will be given to children with comorbidities. Then the rest will be vaccinated based on age groups. But we have not decided on anything else,” he said.

The dates, the brand and other details would be announced once the Health Ministry was done with consultations with experts. Once the decisions were taken the Ministry would prepare guidelines which would then be made available to the public, he said.

“So, I urge the parents not to worry or panic. They can vaccinate their children once we issue guidelines. We will ensure that this will be done safely and with virtually no side-effects or shortages,” Dr. Herath said.

The Deputy Director General of Health Services also urged people not to be misled by claims that those who had been double jabbed and being treated at home were dying in increasing numbers. Some people with serious underlying issues could die even if they were double jabbed, he said.

“However, as we vaccinate an increasing number of Sri Lankans, the deaths and those who need ICU treatment will decline rapidly. Don’t be fooled by various unscientific claims. We are a nation that has universal vaccine rates and we should maintain that tradition with COVID,” he said.

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Sumanthiran demands immediate due process against Lohan

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Immediate legal action including arrest and prosecution must be taken against Lohan Ratwatte and others who were involved in the incidents at Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons, TNA Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran said on Thursday. He said Ratwatte’s mere resignation from one portfolio would not do.

“The Presidential Secretariat has issued a statement that Lohan Ratwatte has taken responsibility for the incidents that transpired at Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons. Although Ratwatte is said to have resigned from his post as Minister for Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation, he continues to be a minister in charge of other subjects. This is not something we can accept,” he said.

The TNA MP said that the State Minister should be removed from all his positions immediately and the pistol he carried with him should be taken away from him.

“Otherwise, it’s a grave threat to the public at large,” Sumanthiran said. There had been other incidents where Ratwatte brandished his weapon in public spaces, he added.

The TNA MP said that an independent investigation should be held with regard to those incidents and Ratwatte and others involved in entering the Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons should be arrested and charged.

“The police have still not taken any action in this regard. The question that must be posed is how he was able to carry his personal firearm inside the prison premises. Prison officials must answer these questions,” he said.

MP Sumanthiran said that given that the prisoners were wards of the state, their security was in the hands of the state.

“Therefore, this is a very serious incident. Action must be taken accordingly,” he said.

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Taking contradictory stand on 2015 Geneva Resolution

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‘Govt. seeking credit for accountability mechanisms set up by previous administration

UNHRC 48th sessions:

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Attorney-at-law Sudarshana Gunawardena has alleged that the government’s stand on accountability issues at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council is contradictory to its much publicised opposition to the Geneva Resolution 30/1 co-sponsored by the previous administration.

Sri Lanka co-sponsored 30/1, on Oct 1, 2015. The then Foreign Minister the late Mangala Samaraweera is on record as having said that the UNP-led government had President Maithripala Sirisena’s consent to go ahead with the co-sponsorship.

Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s media spokesperson Gunawardena yesterday (17) pointed out that the government, at the ongoing 48th sessions of the UNHRC, has reiterated its commitment to key accountability mechanisms set up in terms of the Geneva Resolution.

Civil society activist Gunawardena, who also functioned as the Director General, Information Department during the previous administration said that the assurance given by Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris last Tuesday (14) should be examined against the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from 30/1 resolution.

Prof. Peiris’ predecessor, Dinesh Gunawardena announced Sri Lanka’s withdrawal at the Feb-March 2020 sessions.

The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) owed an explanation, Gunawardena stressed, urging the government to take the public into confidence. “Stop playing politics at the expense of our international relations,” Gunawardena said, underscoring the need for what he called a national consensus on the post-war reconciliation process.

Responding to another query, Gunawardena said that FM Prof. Peiris in his address to the Geneva sessions discussed the progress in what he described as a domestic process in respect of accountability issues. Reference was made to the Office on Missing Persons (OMP), the Office for Reparations (OR) and the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR). However, the FM conveniently failed to acknowledge that the OMP, OR and ONUR had been established in keeping with the 2015 Geneva Resolution that covered broader understanding of transitional justice.

The SLPP, while taking credit for the ongoing transitional justice process, continued to publicly reject 30/1, the very basis of the solution, Gunawardena said. “In other words, the SLPP’s actions are very different from their pledges before the electorate in the run-up to presidential and parliamentary polls in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

Referring to the assurance given by Prof. Peiris at the UNHRC that Sri Lanka Human Rights Council was carrying on its mandate, Gunawardena challenged the government to prove its sincerity by allowing no holds barred investigation into SLPP lawmaker Lohan Ratwatte’s raids on Welikada and Anuradhapura prisons on Sept 6 and 12, respectively.

The announcement made by the HRCSL regarding its decision to initiate an inquiry of its own in the absence of police investigation received public attention and appreciation, Gunawardena said.

Commenting on the declaration that Sri Lanka was engaged in an integrated process to bring the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in line with international norms and best practices, lawyer Gunawardena urged the government to study the work done by the previous government in that regard. Referring to statements made by then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in that regard, Gunawardena said that the then Joint

Opposition quite maliciously rejected the move. “They should be ashamed of theirconduct,” relevant ministers and the Attorney General Department couldn’t be unaware of the agreement on new anti-terrorism law.

Gunawardena said that the SLPP administration shouldn’t hesitate to appreciate the previous government’s achievements. “We are quite pleased that mechanisms accepted by the previous government continue to be in operation even though the progress seems slow. However, the SLPP cannot deprive the UNP-led administration of the credit it deserved,” lawyer Gunawardena said.

Gunawardena urged the government to examine the report of the Committee appointed by then Premier Wickremesinghe to develop what he called the policy and legal framework of the proposed Counter Terrorism Act of Sri Lanka. He said that a politically motivated campaign derailed that effort whereas the Opposition propagated the lie the yahapalana government intended to deprive Sri Lanka of anti-terrorism law.

Asked to comment on the revelation of the SLPP government having talks with a group of civil society activists to explore ways and means to strengthening the reconciliation process, Gunawardena said that a 13-page Foreign Ministry note dated Aug. 31, 2021 addressed to Colombo-based diplomatic missions acknowledged the pivotal role played by the civil society. Having always accused the civil society of being part of a Western strategy, the same lot exposed their duplicity by meeting a group of civil society activists.

Gunawardena was referring to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Ministers, Basil Rakapaksa, Prof. Peiris, Dinesh Gunawardena, Ali Sabry, PC, and Namal Rajapaksa having separate meetings with SLCC (Sri Lanka Collective for Consensus) in the run-up to the Geneva confab. SLCC comprises 16 individuals.

Gunawardena noted the Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, too, in her hard-hitting Sept 13 statement on Sri Lanka referred to President Rajapaksa’s meeting with the SLCC.

Gunawardena said that in addition to the SLCC, another group styled itself as the Civil Society Platform (CSP) in a statement issued on Sept. 13 made its position clear on a range of accountability issues as well as stepped up pressure on the civil society. CSP consists of 30 organizations and 36 individuals.

Responding to declarations by FM Prof Peiris and Foreign Secretary Admiral Jayanath Colombage that external investigations wouldn’t be acceptable, lawyer Gunawardena said that instead of rejecting the investigation the government should furbish whatever information in its hands or had access to the new investigative mechanism. The government couldn’t ignore the fact that the UNHRC authorized the fresh investigative mechanism at the 46th session with an overwhelming majority with 22 countries voting for the resolution, 11 against and 14 missing the vote.

Gunawardena urged the government to take a realistic view as Sri Lanka didn’t have time and space to engage in silly maneuvers. The bottom line was that the March 2020 announcement that Sri Lanka withdrew from 30/1 was nothing but a farce, Gunawardena said.

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