Wednesday 5th January, 2022
Santa has arrived late, wearing a saataka and carrying gifts only for some citizens. He seems to have got his numbers wrong and thereby left most Sri Lankans disappointed. If only he had cared to take a look at Sri Lanka’s population data before embarking on his gift-distribution mission.
The government has unveiled a relief package, which will cost the state coffers as much as Rs. 229 billion. Co-Cabinet Spokesman Udaya Gammanpila has sought to deny the Opposition’s claim that the government has granted some relief to the people as it is planning to hold local government elections soon; he says the relief package is intended to help the people affected by the rising inflation. People clutch at straws during crises, and the relief package will therefore be welcomed by the beneficiaries thereof. How does the government propose to help the people who are neither public servants nor Samurdhi beneficiaries nor pensioners but affected by the high cost of living similarly? Farmers’ associations insist that the government’s offer to increase the guaranteed price for paddy from Rs. 50 to Rs. 75 is of little help because private traders already pay that amount for their paddy. A mere request to the private sector employers to grant relief to their employees will not do. Most businesses are struggling for survival. Only a few companies are doing well, and they include those which have gained from import restrictions. Besides, there are millions of self-employed people who are not entitled to poor relief. Whom can they turn to?
Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, on Tuesday, said taxes would not be increased to raise funds for the relief package, which also includes tax concessions for essential goods. So, more money will have to be printed, and inflation will rise further as a result, and it will be swings and roundabouts for the people, or worse.
Why didn’t the government unveil its relief package earlier? What has prompted it to fork out Rs. 229 billion as relief may be its realisation that public resentment has passed the tipping point, and there will be uprisings unless some relief is granted immediately. People are so resentful that they have even started hooting at some ruling party grandees in public places, and the government seems to have chosen to throw some money around in a desperate bid to assuage their anger. But whether its modus operandi will yield the desired result remains to be seen because the vast majority of people will be left without any tangible relief.
When the Finance Minister announced the relief package and fielded questions from journalists, he looked unfazed by the prospect of a sovereign default. Or, he may have pretended to be so. He said all loans would be paid back. Is the government planning to have foreign loans rescheduled, or will more strategic assets of the country go the same way as the Hambantota Port, which the yahapalana government handed over to China on a 99-year lease, claiming that the loan obtained for its construction could not be paid back?
Even if the forex inflow improves significantly, helping settle external loan instalments and pay for imports, a sustainable solution to the country’s economic crisis will have to be found. Instead of coming to terms with reality and acting accordingly, the government is being as overoptimistic as the proverbial pauper who walked into a restaurant and ordered oysters for dinner, hoping to pay the bill with pearls he expected to find on his plate. It does not pay to be overoptimistic during crises; one should not ignore the worst-case scenarios in such situations if disaster is to be averted.
Understanding a problem is half the battle in solving it. The government does not seem to have identified the causes of the economic crisis. It ought to listen to expert advice and refrain from playing politics with serious economic issues.
There is already too much money in circulation as can be seen from the steep rise in inflation, and printing more money will be like pouring rotgut down the throat of a cirrhosis patient who needs oxygen support. This is the price a nation has to pay for having square pegs in round holes.
Youth, tooting and hooting
Saturday 22nd January, 2022
President Gotabaya did not say anything new in his policy statement presented to Parliament on Tuesday (18), much less spell out how his government was planning to hoist the country from the current economic mire. The parliamentary debate thereon did not leave us any the wiser, for the Opposition did not offer any alternatives to the government’s policies.
What President Rajapaksa has said of the youth in his address to Parliament, however, is of interest: “I especially hope that the patriotic youth who painted wall art and cultivated barren paddy fields in the recent past will also support this.” But mere exhortations will not help rally the youth around the government, which has driven them away. The SLPP leadership ought to make a serious effort to figure out what led to the alienation of the youth. That will be half the battle in winning them back.
Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, MP got it right when he told Parliament, on Thursday, that we were witnessing the end of politics. He did not care to define that concept, maybe because a large number of books have been written thereon, or he thought it would be an exercise in futility, given the calibre of most of the House members. What is termed anti-politics, defined as ‘reaction against or rejection of the practices or attitudes associated with traditional politics’ has become the order of the day, at least where the youth are concerned, and this is the political reality that all politicians should come to terms with, as Wickremesinghe has said.
The present-day youth are not dyed-in-the-wool ideologists. They are receptive to new ideas and not blindly faithful to political parties. They are conscious of their rights, and without political allegiances as such, and therefore the number of floating voters has grown considerably in the Sri Lankan polity, making it well-nigh impossible for political parties to garner enough votes to win elections with the help of their traditional vote banks alone. They have to woo the youth. Gotabaya’s appeal to the youth stood the SLPP in good stead at the 2019 presidential election.
The SLPP was lucky that the yahapalana government, which the youth backed in 2015 as they were fed up with the previous Rajapaksa regime, dug its own political grave, and the Easter Sunday terror attacks brought the country under a pall of uncertainty, making the people look for a leader capable of bringing order out of chaos. The youth pinned their hopes on Gotabaya, expecting a radical departure from the rotten political culture under his stewardship. They saw Gotabaya as a technology-savvy, efficient, no-nonsense technocrat capable of draining the swamp that is Sri Lankan politics, straightening up the economy, protecting national security and ushering in a new era. Their wall-painting spree was an expression of their hope of a new beginning. During the first months of his term, President Rajapaksa lived up to the high expectations of the youth and endeared himself even to some of his critics. He was able to do so because he had free rein to govern the county as there was no SLPP parliamentary group. Most of those who had ruined the Mahinda Rajapaksa government were still out of power.
The youth thought there would be a complete reset after the 2019 presidential election, and Gotabaya, being the toughie that he was thought to be, would have complete freedom and, above all, a tabula rasa to work from. But the corrupt in the SLPP started crawling out of the woodwork, after the last general election, and the new President put the family before the country much to the disappointment of young Sri Lankans.
The youth who longed for a meritocracy came to be burdened with a kleptocracy. The yahapalana administration committed the Treasury bond scams within the first few weeks of its formation in 2015, and a mega sugar tax racket besmeared the SLPP government’s reputation irreparably.
The youth are now convinced that their interests do not figure in the government’s scheme of things, and what they are witnessing is a replay of the latter stages of the second Mahinda Rajapaksa regime (2010-2015), which became synonymous with corruption, criminal waste of public funds, cronyism, impunity and abuse of power. They know where the government and the country are heading with one family having all the luck. Hence their disillusionment, and it is not surprising that they are queuing up at foreign embassies to obtain visas.
The youth are intelligent enough to know that it is at the country’s expense that politicians and their progeny without any legitimate sources of income are living high on the hog. They are therefore resentful and give vent to their pent-up anger via social media. At this rate, the day may not be far off when they graduate from hate posts to other forms of protest, the way the people did from tooting at night to hooting during the daytime.
If the government is serious about winning the youth back, it will have to make an immediate course correction, and its leaders will have to put the country before the family.
‘Casting pearls before MPs’
Friday 21st January, 2022
One of Sri Lanka’s most underutilised assets is the parliamentary library, which is considered a treasure trove. Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena has gone on record as saying that only 330 books were borrowed by MPs in 2021, and of them 122 were novels. Urging the MPs to make the best use of the library, he told the House on Wednesday that reading would help improve the quality of parliamentary debates, and the MPs’ conduct. He recalled how hard he had worked to prepare himself for his first speech in Parliament; he had burnt midnight oil for weeks, he said. The MPs who do so today can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
The Speaker deserves praise for trying to knock some sense into the legislators, but it is doubtful whether he will succeed in his endeavour. He should be paid a special allowance for maintaining his sanity in an insane world where horizontally gifted and intellectually challenged elements rule the roost.
Many are those who pursue higher education, obtain postgraduate qualifications and then enter politics, where they unflinchingly choose to demean themselves by touching their forelock before semi-literate political dregs who hold ministerial positions, or by kowtowing to ‘clown’ princes. We have some highly educated MPs and deputy ministers unashamedly bowing and scraping to former chain snatchers and cattle rustlers in the garb of ministers and thereby sending the wrong message to the country’s children, who, on seeing the educated grovel before political nitwits, may wonder why on earth they should pursue education when they can drop out of school, take to politics and go places with learned people brown-nosing them.
On listening to the Speaker’s exhortation to the MPs, one may have remembered former MP Ranjan Ramanayake. He may lack control over his restless tongue, which landed him in jail for affronting the judiciary, and caused him to lose his parliamentary seat, but he certainly has some plus points, which should be appreciated, his thirst for education being one of them. In this country, where learned people become politicians and devalue education, politicians who value education are rare; Ranjan is one of them. In fact, Ranjan has placed a higher value on education than on politics. He set an example by sitting the GCE O/L examination a few years ago to obtain a higher grade for English so that he could sit the Law College entrance examination. Then he sat the GCE A/L successfully.
If the level of people’s education increased, it would be difficult for politicians to dupe them, Ranjan told the media on his way to the GCE A/L examination in 2019. One may not totally agree with him on this score because politicians are capable of taking even the educated for a ride to achieve their political goals. How the present-day rulers used associations like Viyathmaga to further their interests is a case in point. But the people must be armed with knowledge for them to be empowered, and one’s age should not be allowed to stand in the way of one’s education.
Ranjan recently sought permission to read for an external degree while serving his prison term, and thankfully the judiciary and the prison authorities granted his request. Ours is a country where convicted rapists, terrorists and other murderers, drug dealers, and a person who committed contempt of court have been given presidential pardons, and it defies comprehension why Ranjan should be kept behind bars any longer.
Meanwhile, if the MPs are not using the parliamentary library, the Speaker should seriously consider taking steps to open it to the members of the public, especially researchers. After all, the place is maintained with public funds and must not remain underutilised.
A fake fracas
Thursday 20th January, 2022
Pickpockets and Sri Lankan politicians have many things in common, besides being nimble-fingered. Their modi operandi are similar in most respects. They steal from the people in such a way that the latter do not realise their losses until it is too late. Pickpockets have their accomplices kick up fake shindies in public, and prey on curious onlookers who jostle and shove to get a better view of such incidents. Those who watch such pulse-racing ‘brawls’ return home minus their wallets. This is apparently what the incumbent government is doing to the public.
Minister of Power Gamini Lokuge and Minister of Energy Udaya Gammanpila have engaged in a war of words over fuel supplies to the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), and their verbal battles that television stations liberally beam into many a parlour almost daily have assumed the form of public entertainment.
Lokuge has been blaming the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) for the fuel shortage the CEB’s thermal power plants are experiencing, and Gammanpila has been maintaining that the CPC cannot issue any more fuel unless the CEB settles its outstanding bills and makes dollars available. Perhaps, it is for the first time the CPC has asked the CEB to make payments in dollars! Thankfully, the CPC has supplied a stock of fuel to the CEB, but power cuts continue.
Lokuge and Gammanpila could have sorted out their differences at Cabinet meetings, or in private. Both the CPC and the CEB are state-owned entities dependent on the Treasury for funds. It is up to the Treasury to make funds available for these two institutions in times of crisis, and the responsibility for this lies with the person who controls the public purse—Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa.
Lokuge and Gammanpila seem to have volunteered to be whipping boys for Finance Minister Rajapaksa, whom nobody is criticising for the power crisis. Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Althugamage is taking all the whipping for the sake of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa over the government’s botched organic fertiliser experiment. It is his effigies that irate farmers are burning although the organic fertiliser drive is the President’s brainchild. If Aluthgamage thinks he will be rewarded for doing so, he is mistaken. He will be used and discarded like karapincha (curry leaves).
Having witnessed the fate that befell Susil Premjayantha, who ruffled the feathers of the members of the ruling family, and lost his ministerial portfolio, other ministers seem to be trying to humour their bosses lest they should also be stripped of their positions. Minister Wimal Weerawansa is also defending the government as never before! No minister wants to lose his or her Cabinet post; it is a fate worse than death for any politician thirsting for power.
Time was when power and energy sectors were kept together under one ministry, and their bifurcation has been welcomed by experts, but the ongoing fake clashes between the two ministers in charge of them would not have been possible if they had remained merged. What would be the situation if the power and energy sectors were brought under either Lokuge or Gammanpila, or any other minister? There would be no ministerial ‘clashes’ over them for public consumption.
The current squabble between Lokuge and Gammanpila has effectively distracted public attention away from the real causes of the crises in the power and energy sectors—the government’s poor economic management, the crippling foreign currency crisis that has resulted mainly from the investment of huge amounts of borrowed dollars in useless mega projects, and widespread corruption that drives foreign investors away.
The government has succeeded in defraying criticism thanks to the verbal clashes between Lokuge and Gammanpila. If they become too embarrassing for it to defend, it will reshuffle the Cabinet, and give them some other portfolios; the problems in the power and energy sectors will remain, but the public will be so confused as to decide whom to direct their anger at. One wonders whether the government is setting the stage for another round of fuel price hikes or an increase in electricity tariff by having problems in the power and energy sectors highlighted.
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