The recovery of the voyage data recorder (VDR) of the dangerous cargo laden container ship, X-Press Pearl, the burning and subsequent sinking of which caused this country an unprecedented and unimaginable environmental disaster may help ongoing investigations to establish where culpability for alleged negligence or irresponsibility lie. The VDR is the equivalent on a ship of the ‘black box’ voice and data recorder in the cockpit of an aircraft vital for investigation of a plane crash. Fortunately, merchant shipping authorities, assisted by the navy, were able to recover this instrument, from the bridge of the now submerged vessel. It is now available for analysis and a court order has already been made to begin this process.
But there have been reports that because there had been little, if any, navigation on the bridge since the ship’s crew was evacuated from the vessel on May 25, the VDR may not have recorded substantial new information about recent events on board. Nevertheless it provides an added resource for investigation of the disaster.
The matter that is most in contention at the time this is being in written is whether ship’s local agent had deleted email communications between the vessel and himself as has been alleged. The fact that there was a leak in a container of nitric acid on board the ship has been known several days before the vessel anchored in Colombo’s outer harbor. The vessel had in fact attempted to off load the leaking container at two other ports, one in the Middle East and the other in India. Hamad in Qatar said it did not accept transshipment containers while Hazira in India had pleaded lack of facilities.
If the port authorities here knew of the problem well in advance, it would most likely have permitted priority berthing to deal with the emergency. The Chinese-run CICT (China International Container Terminals) controlled by China Merchant Port Holdings, one of the world’s largest port operators, with state-of-the-art equipment, would well have been able to handle the task. This is what the head of the Ceylon Association of Steamer Agents said in a recent television interview.
But from the narrative now in the public domain, it appears that the port authorities here had not been informed of the problem when the ship entered anchorage on the night of May 19 although the local agent had the information. How true or not that is remains to be established. If emails have been deleted as alleged, it will be possible to retrieve them through the ship’s server and this has been ordered.
Events had subsequently unfolded rapidly. First a fire on hold number two was reported but Colombo was told that the fire fighting capability on board had dealt with it. Thereafter the fire reignited and winds blowing at speeds of up to 100 kilometres per hour fanned the flames. The massive effort mobilizing all available resources, including air support and fire fighting tugboats, to bring the blaze under control failed dismally.
According to international safety requirements, no dangerous cargo can be stored below deck and the nitric acid containers could not have been in the hold where the first fire was reported. Whether the leaking acid triggered the fire below remains an open question.
On top of all else, it is feared that we at risk of a massive oil spill as we stagger under the Covid pandemic Whether that will come to pass has not been made clear as this comment is being written. But we have to be prepared for the worst even with the limited resources we command. International assistance that will always be available to combat a catastrophe as big as this has already been mobilized. An Indian ship equipped for such emergencies is on standby at the scene.
The stricken vessel is reported to have been carrying about 350 tonnes of fuel on board when she arrived at the Colombo anchorage. The optimistic assessment, not yet confirmed, is that much of this would have been burnt in the massive fire that raged aboard before the ship began to sink. But pictures of what appeared to be an oil slick were beamed by at least one local television station that sent a crew to cover the sinking ship. Hopefully much of the fuel oil, if not all of it, has been destroyed in the fire.
The X-press Pearl was carrying among other cargo a large volume of plastic pellets, raw material for the plastic industry, some of which was consigned to Colombo, among other cargo like chemicals and cosmetics. Billions of these pellets have been washed ashore on our beaches and many more would yet be in the sea. Beach clearing operations have begun but how effective they would be even in the short and medium term is yet to be seen.
Dead sea creatures including turtles are being washed ashore and marine environmentalists predict vast damage that can extend to a hundred years. Fishermen fear for their livelihood. What would polluted beaches do to out tourist industry? It is unlikely that even if we are compensated in billions by insurers, as is being freely claimed, that this country can never again be what it was before the disaster. There is no escaping the reality that a long tough haul lies ahead.
Plaguey jab hesitancy
Friday 30th July, 2021
Sri Lanka’s national vaccination drive has gained considerable momentum with more vaccine doses arriving, and the administration thereof continuing apace. The only way to reopen the country fully, and revive the economy soon is to accelerate the vaccination programme further, and ensure the public compliance with the health regulations to beat the Delta variant, decisively. Sadly, it has been reported that some people are not keen to have themselves vaccinated. This kind of vaccine hesitancy or wariness is bound to stand in the way of the country’s reopening plans. How could this issue be tackled? It is however not limited to Sri Lanka. The US and Australia are among the countries affected by the vexatious jab wariness, which is a threat to public health.
It may not be possible to make vaccination mandatory. But everything possible has to be done to persuade the unvaccinated to get the jab for their own sake as well as that of others. In this country, various factors have been adduced to explain vaccine hesitancy. Some people have an unfounded fear of vaccines. Others have been misled by misinformation campaigns carried out by some elements promoting certain brands of vaccines; they are waiting for the jabs of their choice, and this has been the result of the ongoing international trade war over vaccines. There are still others who are planning to travel overseas and want to receive the shots specified by the countries they will be visiting.
The concerns of those who avoid the jab have to be addressed and remedial measures adopted if we are to achieve the much-needed herd immunity through vaccination. The World Health Organization (WHO) has exploded many a myth about vaccines, and approved several jabs after testing them scientifically, and its messages and recommendations have not apparently reached some sections of the Sri Lankan public, who must be made aware that all WHO-recommended vaccines are safe and effective against coronavirus.
Vaccine is science, which has benefited humans tremendously, and there is no reason why one should not repose one’s trust therein. It is the opinion of respected medical professionals that one should heed as regards the pandemic and the vaccines, and not the much-publicised views of profit-seeking multinationals that are notorious for questionable business practices and have even been fined for resorting to corruption to promote their products.
There has been a mixed public reaction to a proposal by the Lanka Private Bus Owners’ Association (LPBOA) to limit interprovincial travel to the vaccinated. It has struck a responsive chord with some people, but the opponents thereof have pointed out that such a move will be tantamount to discrimination and a violation of people’s rights. Many people have not yet received the jab, and they will be at a disadvantage if the unvaccinated are denied permission to travel across the provinces, the critics of the LPBOA proposal have argued, maintaining that in a democratic society, nobody should be forced to undergo vaccination. This argument is not without some merits. Prior to the commencement of the national vaccination programme, the government announced that nobody would be forced to take the jab. But one may ask how fair it is to respect the rights of some people who refuse to be vaccinated at the expense of others’ right to safety. As for the pandemic, nobody will be safe until everybody is safe, as health experts have warned.
Even the advanced democracies have had to pressure their citizens to take the jab, and devise ways and means of achieving that end. In the US, President Joe Biden, who deserves the credit for having saved millions of American lives by believing in science and expediting the vaccination programme, is expected to announce that all civilian federal employees must be inoculated against coronavirus or be forced to submit to regular testing, physical distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel, according to The New York Times. Fair enough! If one wants one’s right to remain unvaccinated respected, one has to respect others’ right to remain safe, and, therefore agree to enjoy one’s rights under certain conditions for the greater good.
The US vaccine persuasion model is worthy of emulation.
It’s MPs’ Code of Conduct, stupid!
Thursday 29th July, 2021
What on earth are our politicians doing at the Tokyo Olympics? The Opposition has called for action against some state ministers who are currently in Tokyo for having violated the MPs’ Code of Conduct. The government has claimed that none of its politicians have used state funds for the trip. Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella has demanded to know how they raised funds and who the donors are.
One wonders what even Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa is doing at the Olympics, where his presence is not required. He should have stayed here because he has taken upon himself the task of monitoring the progress of the vaccination drive, and a ministerial visit serves absolutely no purpose where the performance of the national athletes is concerned. Going by the way Minister Rajapaksa was running around, ‘inspecting’ as he did vaccination centres, one thought the national inoculation campaign would collapse without his supervision.
Our players have performed reasonably well in international competition in spite of our Sports Ministers. Politicians and their cronies have only ruined sports over the years, the chronic crisis Sri Lanka Cricket finds itself in, being a case in point. Perhaps, in our opinion, the only instance where a Sports Minister ever helped Sri Lanka secure a medal in an international competition was in 2000, when Susanthika Jayasinghe won a Silver at the Sydney Olympics; the poor lass had to sprint to escape from the randy minister pursuing her!
Kiriella has said some MPs misuse their positions for monetary gains. One could not agree with him more although he has made no revelation. Many are the rogue MPs who have sold their souls to moneybags on the wrong side of the law. Behind every successful underworld figure, there is a crooked politician. If Makandure Madush, who was Sri Lanka’s Napoleon of Crime, had lived to face trial, he would perhaps have revealed who had made his meteoric rise in the netherworld of crime and drugs possible. Dead men tell no tales.
If the State Ministers allegedly enjoying themselves currently in Japan are to be made to disclose the sources of funding at issue, shouldn’t the politicians who have spent billions of rupees on their election campaigns be made to do likewise? Where has all the money come from?
Will the Opposition care to find out how much the SJB and SLPP candidates spent at the last presidential election? How were the funds raised and who donated them? The SJB should reveal information about its presidential election campaign expenditure and dare the SLPP to follow suit. Were there any leftover funds, and if so, what happened to them? Why haven’t the names of the financiers concerned been revealed to the public? Similarly, will all those who contested previous elections declare the amounts they received by way of campaign funds?
All members of the previous Rajapaksa governments had amassed wealth sufficient for generations to come by the Jan. 2015 regime change. The UNP had been in penury due to its long stay in the political wilderness; its headquarters, Sirikotha, could not even pay its electricity and water bills. But within a few months of grabbing power in Parliament, the UNP’s war chest began to overflow with funds, and the Greens outspent their political opponents at the 2015 general election. Perhaps, such a spending spree would not have been possible but for undisclosed foreign funds and the Treasury bond scams, which yielded billions of rupees for the perpetrators and their masters. Only those who were directly involved in the racket, including the then Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran, are facing legal action; the mastermind of the scams and those who benefited therefrom have gone scot-free and are moralizing. Similarly, the incumbent government went out of its way to facilitate the recent sugar tax scam, which is believed to be bigger than the Treasury bond racket, and the person who made a killing is a ruling party financier. No wonder the present-day leaders are not going all out to secure the extradition of Mahendran, and the Opposition is soft-pedalling the sugar tax fraud. The two rackets have cancelled each other out politically to all intents and purposes.
Those who expect the present government to bring back Mahendran to stand trial is only waiting for Godot. Never will the current Opposition worthies bring the perpetrators of the sugar tax racket to justice if they form a government. There is honour among thieves.
Those who expect the MPs to adhere to the so-called Code of Conduct need their heads examined.
Wednesday 28th July, 2021
Those who do not believe in miracles will be hard put to explain why Sri Lanka is still behind India and Indonesia anent the pandemic death toll, given the extremely irresponsible behaviour of its people and rulers. Delta is deadlier and more transmissible than all other coronavirus variants and spreading fast here. But there are street protests, where nobody cares about the Covid-19 protocol.
Hospitals are struggling to cope with the increasing number of Covid-19 patients, most of whom are said to need oxygen support. This is certainly bad news which all those who have lowered their guard should take cognizance of.
The government has met the representatives of protesting teachers’ unions, at last. Their talks have ended inconclusively, but the government agrees in principle that teachers’ demand for better pay is justifiable. There is no gainsaying that the government teachers deserve a better deal, and nobody will object to a pay hike for them although there are many shirkers among them. But the question is whether this is the right time for salary increases in the public sector. The economy is also on oxygen support. True, the blame for this situation should be apportioned to all those who have been in power for the past several decades, but one has to come to terms with the ground reality.
Pay hikes for public servants mean tax increases and the aggravation of the woes of the public struggling to keep the wolf from the door. Indirect taxes (paid by all people) account for about 85 percent of the state tax revenue. This, however, does not mean those who deserve pay hikes should be denied them indefinitely. On the other hand, the government blundered by ordering duty-free luxury vehicles for the MPs and thereby making the public wonder whether its claim of being cash-strapped was true. Sanity prevailed, and the controversial vehicle order was suspended owing to protests. It also made a huge mistake by increasing doctors’ allowances and undertaking to grant the nurses’ demand for a pay hike; this ill-advised action prompted other state employees to resort to trade union action to win similar demands.
Meanwhile, it is heartening that the government has paid off a one-billion-dollar bond debt a couple of days before the deadline. State Minister of Money and Capital Market and State Enterprises Reforms, Ajith Nivard Cabraal’s announcement yesterday that the country had honoured its debt obligation may have disappointed those who expected their prediction of a sovereign default to come true. Some investors believed in that prognosis, panicked and suffered staggering losses. Minister Cabraal rubbed salt into the wound; he tweeted, “The bond investors who panicked due to rating actions and analyst reports and sold off at huge discounts must be regretting’. The situation, however, is far from rosy; there are more debts to be serviced and more forex is needed for that purpose; it is not feasible for the government to go on dipping into its foreign exchange reserves, which will have to be shored up urgently. But the aforesaid payment will help boost investor confidence and avert further credit rating downgrades. A prerequisite for tackling the debt crisis is to overcome the national health crisis and reopen the country fully as soon as possible so that the forex inflow will improve with expected increases in exports and tourist arrivals.
If the pandemic takes a turn for the worse, and the economy collapses, those who are demanding pay hikes and protesting to win that demand, will not get even their salaries; everyone will have to starve. This is what those who are facilitating the transmission of Covid-19 by staging street protests ought to bear in mind. Their processions will make it well-nigh impossible for the country to be reopened fully any time soon. What moral right will the protesting teachers who blatantly violate the quarantine laws and are seen trying to pull down gates have to tell their pupils to behave and follow the health guidelines when schools reopen?
The government must also act responsibly without provoking trade unions. It should have invited the warring unions for talks much earlier instead of having their leaders rounded up and packed off to faraway quarantine centres, and postponed the presentation of the Kotelawala Defence University Bill, which cannot be considered a national priority by any stretch of the imagination.
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