We are happy to publish today a reader’s letter unreservedly complimenting the ongoing covid vaccination process at Colombo’s Sugathadasa Stadium last week where people over 70-years old received their second AstraZenecca jab which they had been long waiting for. There have also been similar anecdotal reports from elsewhere in the Colombo Municipal area. Readers are very well aware of earlier vaccination trauma in many parts of the country having been “treated,” if we may use that expression, to television pictures of long snaking queues, rows over preferences accorded to a favoured few, ugly displays of political muscle including that of a suburban mayor intimidating a medical officer of health (MOH) doing her best to enforce the rules. Sadly, policemen standing by did little to control the politician. The resultant bad publicity triggered a belated arrest and the matter is now before court.
What was demonstrated at the Sugathadasa Stadium (and elsewhere in the CMC area) was the intelligent use of technology to ensure the best possible results. First, those eligible for their second jab received text messages on their mobile phones setting a date and time for their vaccinations. Details were even posted outside the stadium where public health inspectors, policemen and military personnel – mostly women soldiers – were on duty. The intention, obviously, was to eliminate long queues and the rastiadu inevitably associated with projects such as these. We all know that today the majority of adults in the country, including the non-affluent, own mobile phones. Thus it was possible to build an invaluable data bank of the mobile phone numbers of those receiving their first dose of the vaccine. This was used to maximum effect to give them appointments for the second dose.
There were, of course, unavoidable problems. People without mobile phones of their own gave numbers of others close to them. Where the elderly were concerned, these were often phone numbers of their children. The messages were obviously passed on when the texts arrived but many of those to be vaccinated did not carry a phone to display the message to gain easy entry to the vaccination center. But policemen on duty at the entrance to the centre, courteously listened to explanations offered and did not throw insurmountable roadblocks, using their discretion to be as helpful as possible. So many elderly people, armed with their national identity and vaccination cards, were allowed to enter despite their inability to show an appointment text on a mobile phone.
This writer can say from personal experience, like the writer of the letter published in this issue who was Chairman of the Ceylinco Insurance Company and a former head of the Inland Revenue Department who narrated what he and his wife experienced, that the kindness and humanity displayed at the Sugathadasa Stadium vaccination center was near unparalleled. There were wheelchairs offered to people who found it difficult to walk. A covered spectator stand beside the running track with sitting accommodation was made available to those awaiting their turn for the jab; and, believe it or not, they were served coriander (kottamalli) water with a piece of jaggery to go with it. Policemen in gym kits handled the service on trays and retrieved the disposable plastic containers. People were sent in batches to the vaccination point to avoid overcrowding there, keeping the rest seated under the shelter. The way the whole business was handled was truly unbelievable.
Having said this, it may be useful for those handling these arrangements, to make some suggestions. First, it would have been useful to announce that those granted appointments by text message were entitled to entry preferences without waiting in long queues. There were announcements from a public address system mounted on a three-wheeler at the stadium entrance. But they were inaudible to those at the tail of a long queue who could her something being said but could not decipher what it was. Instead of being stationary at the stadium entrance, the vehicle could have been moved to different points along the queue and the announcements repeated. Having received his own appointment text message only in English, the writer does not know whether messages were sent in Sinhala and Tamil also. We are all aware that people who know English are at a distinct advantage in this country over those who don’t. Hopefully this did not apply in the present instance.
It would also have been useful if the media, both print and electronic, were utilized to give more detailed instructions to the public on how they can receive their jabs with the least possible inconvenience or delay. When word gets around that vaccines are being administered wherever, there is a tendency for those needing the jab to flock to such places, lengthening queues and upsetting carefully designed plans to ensure maximum efficiency of delivery. We observed some people obviously under 70-years old at the stadium vaccination center. We do not know whether they got their shots or not but there is no escaping the reality that they added to the numbers. But we do know that at one center, a lady who had already received her second jab elsewhere, but summoned by text message to a particular center, took a friend there to inquire whether she could instead obtain the allotted jab. This lady was under 70-years old and a doctor there politely explained that if she was over 70 it could have been easily done, but he had to abide by the rules. He assured that the next round would be for people between 60 and 70 and the person concerned would get her chance in the near future.
We say all this to point out that good results are possible in this country despite all the everyday negatives around us, and to congratulate those responsible for a superior performance. Hopefully this example can be replicated elsewhere in the country to improve te efficacy of the entire programme.
Govt. as drunk as a skunk?
Tuesday 21st September, 2021
Drinking is one of the many things Sri Lankans do not know how to do properly. They do not drink tea with sugar; instead, they drink sugar with tea, as it were, and religiously keep their blood sugar levels extremely high much to the benefit of Big Pharma. They are supposed to drink a lot of clean water daily, but they take in only a little of it, and ask for kidney problems. They prefer sugary drinks saturated with kidney-busting dyes and high levels of sugar to healthy, tasty thambili or kurumba.
Sri Lankan males are the worst; they chugalug firewater as if they had a death wish, and most of them do so at the expense of their families. ‘Moderation’ is certainly not in their vocabulary. A person cannot be denied his right to drink himself to death, but something needs to be done when drunkards become a threat to others’ health by spreading deadly diseases.
When the government, in its wisdom, allowed liquor outlets to reopen, ‘Alpha males’ amongst us thronged around them, without giving a tinker’s cuss about the highly contagious Delta variant of coronavirus. Having jostled and shoved madly, they must have returned home, taking with them not only alcohol but also the deadly coronavirus, which is looking for lives to snuff out; they have endangered the lives of their family members. Thus, in a single day, the country must have lost most of what it had gained through the past few weeks with the help of an expensive lockdown. The cumulative impact of the ‘bar clusters’ in the making on the country’s pandemic control efforts will be seen in a few weeks. Infections are sure to increase by leaps and bounds. Are the government leaders so drunk as to make such stupid decisions? They blundered in April by refusing to close the country during the traditional New Year period, thereby facilitating the formation of a massive cluster of infections and the subsequent emergence of the Delta variant. Five months on, they have given a turbo boost to the pandemic again by reopening liquor stores haphazardly. The elusive virus must be fist-pumping with glee.
The country is technically closed, but practically open. There is a lockdown, and at the same time there is no lockdown, paradoxical as it may sound. However, thankfully, the infection rate and the death toll have been decreasing significantly during the past several days. The government, out of sheer desperation for money, may have thought it would be able to rake in billions of rupees by way of taxes if the liquor outlets were allowed to reopen. But it should at least have ordered the police to keep a watchful eye on the desperate males gathering near liquor stores and ensure that they followed the Covid-19 protocol. The police were conspicuous by their absence. Were they also bending their elbows? (A picture of a traffic cop carrying a carton with VSOA—Very Special Old Arrack—written thereon is doing the rounds on social media!)
Several essential commodities are in short supply. There are complaints of shortages of milk powder and cooking gas. The government, which has chosen to ignore them, is keen to ensure an uninterrupted supply of alcohol! It is too shy to admit that it is desperate to collect taxes at the expense of people’s health; it claims that the demand for illicit brews is on the increase because the authorised liquor outlets have remained closed. If a rise in moonshine sales is the problem, the government must order the police to raid the illicit breweries, including those belonging to its supporters who manufacture a toxic brew euphemistically called ‘artificial toddy’.
Liquor stores will have to be reopened like other businesses, but that must not be done on a priority basis even before the pandemic situation is brought under control. Precautions must be taken to prevent overcrowding when they reopen after the lockdown is officially lifted. Let the buyers of liquor be made to queue up like other consumers who patiently wait for their turns near places such as the Sathosa outlets.
Monsters and Masters
Monday 20th September, 2021
No sooner had Hambantota Mayor Eraj Fernando (SLFP) been arrested yesterday for trespassing on a land in Bambalapitiya recently and assaulting two security personnel guarding the property than he was given police bail. It looks as if the police had been eagerly waiting for his arrival to grant him bail! He is sure to come out with a tall tale in bid to justify his unlawful action. This is not the first time he has allegedly committed trespass. In November 2020, a video circulated on social media showed him and his men engaged in a brawl with some persons over a land dispute in Nugegoda. He sought to justify his action, and received kid glove treatment from the police.
The Rajapaksas have created quite a few monsters, who enjoy unbridled freedom to violate the law of the land. During the previous Rajapaksa government, Fernando, as the Mayor of Hambantota, tried to harm a group of UNP MPs, who visited the Hambantota Port and the Mattala Airport. He was shown on television, carrying a small firearm and chasing the MPs, who luckily managed to escape. He got away with his crime; his political masters claimed he had been brandishing a toy pistol! After President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat in 2015, he switched his allegiance to the yahapalana government, and joined the SLFP. Thanks to an SLPP-SLFP deal, he is back in power and going berserk with impunity.
One should not lose sight of the big picture—the issue of land grabbing. Nobody’s property is safe. Organised gangs with links to powerful politicians prepare forged deeds for bare lands or unoccupied houses. The victims are helpless. Mervyn of Kelaniya was able to grab or destroy properties at will by virtue of being a member of the previous Rajapaksa government. He, too, turned his back on his political masters, nay insulted them after the latter’s fall in 2015. His criminal actions and illegally acquired assets have not been investigated although his erstwhile masters are back in power. Maybe they do not want to open a can of worms by probing his crimes. If the yahapalana government had cared to investigate him, it would have been able to uncover the crimes he had committed at the behest of his masters, but the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration did not go to that extent for obvious reasons. Former President Maithripala Sirisena and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are benefiting from the quid pro quo; the incumbent Rajapaksa government is looking after their interests as well as those of their supporters. Fernando’s release on police bail is a case in point.
Nawala Nihal, known as the God Father of Sri Lanka’s underworld, grabbed lands in Colombo, and many people had to pay him protection money. He operated freely under several governments obviously due to his political connections. Landowners in Colombo must have heaved a sigh of relief when he disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 2006, never to be sighted ever again. But the problem is far from over.
Land grabbing goes on in different parts of the country, and many victims are wary of having recourse to the law for fear of reprisal. Sri Lanka’s laws notoriously favour land grabbers and other such lawbreakers. Land cases drag on for decades and are prohibitively expensive. On 17 August, 2010, the then Justice Minister Athauda Seneviratne revealed in Parliament that it took as long 40 years for some land cases to be concluded!
Land racketeers also have the blessings of corrupt police officers, pettifoggers, and some venal Land Registry officials, and therefore, the victims are helpless. Greedy politicians and their thugs take advantage of this situation. There has to be a special police unit to probe complaints of land grabs expeditiously and action must be taken to have such cases heard speedily for the benefit of the hapless victims.
As for the likes of Fernando, the onus is on the current leaders to clean up the mess they themselves have created. When Mayors enjoy unbridled freedom to trespass, storm vaccination centres and obstruct health officials (in Moratuwa), destroy historical monuments (in Kurungeala), it is only natural that ministers think they should be able to commit far more serious offences with impunity such as barging into prisons and trying to execute inmates.
Lohan Ratwatte: What will be will be
State Minister Lohan Ratwatte’s wild behaviour at the Anuradhapura prison last week has triggered universal condemnation and rightly so. He has tendered his resignation from one of his ministries, Prison Management and Prisoner Rehabilitation, but not from his position at the Ministry of Gems and Jewellery related industries prompting The Island to editorially describe him as a “gem of a minister!” But chuckles apart, the public continues to be kept in the dark about much of this horrific incident. For instance, was his resignation accepted by the president a command performance or did he, admitting culpability for gross misbehaviour, volunteer to resign? Either way more questions arise. If his departure from the prisons portfolio was on demand, why was he not asked to quit his second state ministry? If he volunteered the resignation, why was he not told to go the whole hog and give up gems and jewellery as well because he has amply demonstrated that he is totally unsuitable to hold public office.
Getting Tamil prisoners held in the Anuradhapura Prison under terrorism laws produced before him at the prison, brandishing a revolver at their faces, getting at least two of them to kneel before him and threatening to kill them was preceded by another incident at the Welikada Prison in Colombo where he and a group of friends including a woman, allegedly under the influence of liquor, had paid a late night visit and inspected the gallows. Apparently the authorities there had done nothing to restrain him, adopting the all too common ehei hamuduruwaney approach and letting him have his way. If anybody at Welikada had the guts to stand in his way, the Anuradhapura incident probably would not have happened. Unfortunately only very few public servants today stand up to political authorities and do their jobs without fear or favour. The whole country is paying a price for that. The few instances where public officials do stand their ground in confrontations with politicians are so rare that when that does happen, it’s headline grabbing news. So it was when a woman official of the Wild Life Department resisted an effort to destroy a mangrove.
There is some small consolation that Ratwatte has gone from prisons. Most people would believe that he should have gone into prison but that’s way too much to expect in this Democratic Socialist Republic of ours. Mr. Dew Gunasekera, a former Minister of Prisons and leader of the Communist Party, a constituent of the ruling SLPP, went on record on Friday that a cover-up was underway. Be that as it may, Ratwatte who had initially said that an investigation would reveal the truth, had since come out strongly breaking his silence and claiming he has “stopped the prisons from burning” according to Friday’s Daily Mirror. This report quoted him asking “Am I stupid to threaten prisoners?”, claiming he “never touched Tamil prisoners.” Admitting he had visited the Welikada gallows, he had claimed he had gone alone on an inspection and was not intoxicated. Ratwatte says the truth will be revealed to the president and prime minister. Newspapers well know that there are two sides to every story. But hackneyed as the cliché may be, it is nevertheless true that there’s no smoke without a fire. Both sides have now had their say so let us see how the drama will further unfold.
Much of the blame for the untoward incidents involving politicians can be laid at the door of leaders of most parties. They are too often guilty of running undesirable candidates on their party lists enabling them to get elected. The proportional representation (PR) system of elections that President J.R. Jayewardene imposed on this country through his 1978 constitution better enables undesirables to enter the legislature than under the previous constituency system. There is no gainsaying that there are pluses and minuses under both systems. PR prevents national political parties that have polled 30 and 40 percent of the vote at an election from being totally wiped out in landslides such as those we saw in 1970 and 1977. Of course there are exceptions such as what happened the last time round when the UNP was reduced to zero despite PR. The explanation for that was the Ranil – Sajith split. JRJ used his five sixths majority of 1977 to ensure that nobody got a two thirds majority enabling constitutional amendments in the future. But that has now been proved wrong.
The mere fact that somebody who’s charged in a court of law is discharged or acquitted does not necessarily mean he or she is not guilty. There are many reasons why prosecutions fail – shoddy investigations and prosecution, influencing witnesses, able defence counsel and many more. The conviction rate in Sri Lanka is a mere four to six percent according to published figures but we all know what the crime rate is. It is not only in this country that dicey characters get elected both to Parliament and lower down. India is much worse with as many as 43% of its Lok Sabha MPs having criminal records. The chances are that some kind of committee of inquiry will be appointed to investigate allegations against Lohan Ratwatte. This is akin to the pithy Sinhala idiom horage ammagen pena ahanawa (asking the thief’s mother about his whereabouts). The committee of UNP lawyers who them Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed to investigate the bond scam is recent enough to be remembered. We won’t bet serious money or even petty cash that any government appointed investigation will hold against Ratwatte.
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