A sad day!
Thursday 25th May, 2023
The outcome of yesterday’s vote in Parliament came as no surprise. The government secured 123 votes for its resolution to oust Public Utilities Commission (PUCSL) Chairman Janaka Ratnayake. The Opposition could muster only 77 votes. The government can now install one of its stooges as the PUCSL head and have all its decisions rubber-stamped.
As for winning against the government, Ratnayake had the same chances as a badger engaged in a fight with a pack of mastiffs.
There will be no official with a backbone to oppose unconscionable power tariff increases hereafter, and it will be smooth sailing for the government. The power sector has become a metaphor for corruption in this country, and all governments go to any lengths to ensure that they can cut shady deals. So, the incumbent dispensation must be thinking that it will be able to do as it likes with the PUCSL as a mere appendage of it. Ruling party politicians and their crooked cronies must be on cloud nine.
The SLPP-UNP combine is obviously elated that it has demonstrated once again that it has a clear majority in Parliament. Some Opposition MPs were not present in the House at the time of voting, yesterday, according to media reports. Did they back the government by being absent and thereby ensuring that the Opposition would not be able to muster enough numbers to defeat the resolution?
Parliamentary majorities, however, are deceptive. A government can retain its parliamentary strength by engineering crossovers or entering into pacts with other political parties. It can also use ministerial posts to lure Opposition MPs. One may recall that the UNP-led Yahapalana government had a working majority in Parliament even after the SLFP’s breakaway in October 2018; the UNP even succeeded in scuttling the then President Maithripala Sirisena’s attempt to form a government with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister. But the UNP suffered its worst-ever defeat at the general election that followed.
Government politicians may be able to enrich themselves further thanks to the outcome of yesterday’s vote in Parliament, but they cannot dupe the public into believing that it is politically strong, for it is gripped by a fear of elections.
Unholy broken promise
The government is drawing heavy flak from some prominent Buddhist monks, who insist that it has reneged on its promise to make funds available for the State Poson festival scheduled to be held at the Mihintale Raja Maha Vihara. Chief Incumbent of the historical temple, Ven. Valawahengunawewe Dhammarathana Thera has expressed his displeasure at the government’s failure to allocate money. He says he is left with no alternative but to beg for funds.
This problem would not have arisen if the government had made a policy decision to stop funding festivals. Now that it has undertaken to fund the Poson festival at Mihintale, it has to honour its pledge. Some ruling party politicians have said money has already been allocated, but Dhammarathana Thera has denied their claim.
All ceremonies that cause a severe stress on the public purse must be cancelled in view of the current economic crisis. The government should have called off the Independence Day celebrations (2023), saved funds and put them to a better use like purchasing essential drugs for the state-run hospitals. It also held the Republic Perahera in Kandy!
An outspoken critic of the government, Dhammarathana Thera, unlike most other monks, is known for his courage to tell the self-important political leaders who visit him some home truths. One wonders whether this is the reason why government assistance for his temple is not forthcoming.
It behoves the government to stop quarrelling with Dhammarathana Thera and take action to ensure that his grievances are redressed and the State Poson Festival will be held as scheduled, and, more importantly, decide against allocating funds for festivals, religious or otherwise, thereafter.
A question of legitimacy
Monday 5th June, 2023
President Ranil Wickremesinghe, speaking at the National Law Conference, in Nuwara Eliya, on Saturday, urged the political parties represented in Parliament to join forces and help rebuild the economy. One cannot but agree that all political parties are duty bound to sink their differences and unite, for the sake of the country, to put the economy back on an even keel, for all of them have contributed to the process of ruining it albeit to varying degrees. The President also said that political parties should do so instead of calling for elections. There’s the rub! Does this mean that elections will not be held until the economy is turned around? How long will the government take to accomplish that task? What guarantee is there that it will succeed in doing so? What if it fails to straighten up the economy in the foreseeable future? Will the country be without elections indefinitely in such an eventuality? Efforts to revive the economy, we believe, must not be at the expense of the people’s franchise.
President Wickremesinghe argued that none of the parties with parliamentary representation enjoyed the support of 50% of voters. Opinion may be divided on whether his claim holds true for all political parties; those who endorse or challenge this argument will do so without empirical evidence. The best way its validity can be tested is for the government to hold the much-delayed local council elections, which will not lead to a change of government but enable the people to exercise their franchise, express their will, and, more importantly, help defuse the build-up of anger in the polity.
The SLPP has lost popular support though it polled more than 50% of the total number of valid votes at the presidential election in 2019 and the parliamentary polls in 2020; President Gotabaya Rajapaksa quit and Mahinda Rajapaksa stepped down as the Prime Minister due to public protests. They would not have done so if they had been confident that the people who had voted for them overwhelmingly were still with them. The UNP polled only about 2% of the votes countrywide at the 2020 general election and has only one MP. Thus, the SLPP-UNP administration lacks legitimacy to govern the country, and that is why an early general election has to be held so that the people can elect a new parliament; ideally, it ought to stop manipulating numbers in the current Parliament to retain its hold on power and seek a fresh mandate from the people by holding a snap general election, or at least face local government/Provincial Council elections without further delay.
Public resentment is palpable, and the government has become dependent on the police and the military for its survival, and keeps postponing elections. Political stability, which is a prerequisite for economic recovery, will be at risk as long as the people remain resentful of a failed government, which clings on to power in spite of having bankrupted the country. What the current regime is doing is tantamount to a rapist retaining the custody of his victim! It is only natural that the people have lost faith in the government.
President Wickremesinghe also said at Saturday’s National Law Conference that the majority of people had lost faith in elections, and politics, and whether it was the parliament, the judiciary, the media, trade unions or professionals, the people lacked trust in the entire system. There is a general consensus on this assertion.
The abuse of the National List (NL) mechanism by political parties to bring in defeated candidates and persons of their choice as appointed MPs is one of the main causes of the erosion of public faith in elections. The NL is a constitutional wormhole, as it were, which has to be sealed. Thankfully, all is not lost if relatively high voter turnouts at elections are any indication. Anti-politics, which means people’s hostility towards established political systems, parties, institutions or practices, is manifestly on the rise, and this situation is attributable, among other things, to the presence of many undesirable persons among politicians and people’s representatives, rampant corruption, the abuse of power and public funds, and the prevailing culture of impunity.
Most of the factors that gave rise to last year’s socio-political upheavals are still there; they have the potential to trigger another popular uprising of tsunamic proportions. Hence the need for the government to mend its ways and tread cautiously without suppressing democracy and provoking the public.
The publication of Merril. J. Fernando’s autobiography last month is a useful peg to hang a discussion on the Ceylon tea industry – we advisedly call it Ceylon tea rather than Sri Lanka tea – as the former is the name by which this unique product is known globally. Merril Fernando, of course, needs no introduction. He is very well known in this country as the creator of the Dilmah brand he coined from the names of his two sons, Dilhan and Malik, which he took to the world outside making it the best known nationally owned tea brand in Sri Lanka. As we said in a review of the book last Sunday, MJF is not the country’s biggest tea exporter but his is the best known nationally-owned brand of Ceylon tea in the tea drinking world.
During the British colonial years and the early post-Independence period, tea was our major export and foreign exchange earner. But decades ago garments overtook tea and also, remittances from blue collar workers striking out overseas to support their families back home became a reckonable factor in the country’s foreign exchange budget. Net earnings from tea, obviously, was far higher than what garments, that had by far become the country’s largest manufacturing industry fairly quickly, brought in. That was because the imported input into tea was a fraction of what the clothing factories had to import to manufacture their product. This included not only fabrics but much more. The labour was the major value adding factor in the domestic garment industry.
The major imported input into the tea industry is fertilizer. Like garments, tea growing too is a labour intensive industry. Onetime Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel who presented 10 national budget for the J.R. Jayewardene regime from 1977 to 1988 once famously said that Sri Lanka’s economy sits on a tripod of women workers – those slaving on the tea fields, working in the garment factories and venturing out as domestic servants largely to the Middle East. Never were truer words spoken. The British brought in indentured Tamil labour from India to work on their tea estates under harsh conditions because the upcountry peasantry was reluctant for various reasons to work on the plantations. These were created at tremendous environmental cost on land sold for a pittance under the infamous Waste Lands Ordinance of 1840.
This stipulated that “all forest, waste, unoccupied or uncultivated land was to be presumed to be the property of the Crown until the contrary is proved.” This resulted in the denuding of the country’s mountain slopes clothed with montane rain forests providing the sponge-like catchments for the rivers flowing through the valleys. The price paid was irreparable ecological damage to first plant coffee and then tea. The upcountry peasantry lost their common grazing land and much more to this despoliation that brought fame and fortune to British plantation owning companies quoted on the London Stock Exchange. Ceylon tea soon earned the reputation of being the world’s best and Merril. J. Fernando in his memorable over six decade long journey through the industry retains at age 92 a passion for the product that was the foundation of his success.
Apart from very readable accounts of his upbringing and early years covered in the book, Fernando has dwelt on the exploitation of Ceylon tea by the British whose chief focus was the bottom line. He writes that during the period of his training as a tea-taster in the UK he was greatly distressed “by the ruthless exploitation of our tea industry and its workers that took place in London.” He had developed a great respect for the British as a result of his friendship with many Brits resident her e as well as his employers who controlled much of the tea export trade. But all that was shaken when he realized what was being done in London to Ceylon tea by the British who dominated the global tea trade in Mincing Lane, “the world’s undisputed tea center controlling and manipulating the distribution and marketing of tea from grower countries.” He says that resulted in producers, especially those in Ceylon, being held to ransom adding that we were then more vulnerable to market manipulation than any other grower as about 90% of national production was being exported, a large proportion going to the UK.
A major service rendered to Ceylon tea by Merril Fernando was his resistance to efforts to make Sri Lanka a so-called ‘tea hub’ by importing cheap teas and blending them with Ceylon tea. This would have been a profitable business but at the cost of both the unique character and reputation of Ceylon tea. In the middle seventies, as result of the JVPs 1971 adventure attributed by the then rulers to land hunger, the land reform laws compelled the sale 150,000 acres of British-owned sterling estates at a price of Rs. 1,125 an acre (pounds 42 and 50 pence). It was agreed that the compensation would be “prompt, effective (meaning may be remitted) and adequate.” Payment was concluded over four years. Rather than alleviate land hunger, the plantations were vested in two monolithic state corporation, the Sri Lanka State Plantations Corporation and the Janatha Estates Development Board.
Despite the presence of 23 Regional Plantation Companies managing state-owned plantations leased to them in 14 regions, 70% of Sri Lanka’s tea is produced by nearly half a million smallholders mostly in the low country. Today the industry is hard-pressed for labour with the tea workers lot way below minimum norms. But the industry remains a vital segment of the Sri Lankan economy.
Fish or cut bait!
Saturday 3rd June, 2023
Long lines of vehicles were seen near filling stations yesterday as well, and it may be a couple of days before the situation is brought under control. Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera has threatened tough action against the fuel stations that did not maintain adequate stocks due to speculation about fuel price reductions. But the government’s bark is worse than its bite.
Worryingly, the country is experiencing a crippling fuel shortage while the GCE O/L examination is on. About 472,500 candidates are sitting it at 3,568 centres. More than 35,000 persons, mostly teachers, are reportedly on examination duty. The government apparently has no concern for these students.
Ruling party politicians bellow rhetoric, but fuel station owners always have the last laugh, for most of them have political connections. They do not place orders for fuel if they get wind of possible downward price revisions in a bid to avoid losses but make a killing when fuel prices are increased. Thus, they have the best of both worlds at the expense of their customers, who have to grin and bear it.
The Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and the Ceylon Petroleum Storage Terminals Ltd., would continue fuel distribution over the weekend as well, Minister Wijesekera said on Friday. The need for such measures would not have arisen if the government had acted wisely. An increase in the petroleum sector overtime bill will cost the state coffers dear, and its losses will be passed on to the public.
The government should have known better than to increase the fuel quota on the eve of price revisions, without taking steps to ensure that fuel would be freely available for a steep increase in the demand to be met. It couldn’t have been unaware that the easing of fuel rationing, and price reductions would lead to a huge increase in the demand for petrol and diesel and there would be a shortage thereof unless action was taken to meet the shortfall in the fuel supply. One can only hope that it will learn from its mistakes in dealing with the filling station owners, who are manically focussed on furthering their interests and maximising profits with no heed for the public or the economy.
It is a mistake for the government to effect fuel price revisions on a specific day every month since it cannot ensure that all filling stations maintain adequate stocks in case of price reductions. At present, fuel station owners do not have supplies replenished for days on end if they fear price decreases, and there is no one to regulate them. They are apparently guided by Rafferty’s rules or no rules at all. The cantankerous government politicians should be asked to exercise control over their restless tongues, and refrain from announcing fuel price reduction in advance.
The government ought to do everything in its power to ensure that all filling stations maintain sufficient stocks regularly, price revisions or no price revisions. It has to get tough with those who fail to do so and muster the courage to revoke their licences. It should fish or cut bait.
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