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Always breakdown



The gas explosions continue unabated with the promise investigation/inquiry report not out as this is being written. The Chinese ship carrying suspect organic fertilizer has ultimately left Sri Lanka’s territorial waters but the country is facing a massive arbitration claims in Singapore. All this is adding to the massive cost and misery created by the ill-thought and hurriedly implemented ban on the import of chemical fertilizers. Farmers have been promised compensation for crop losses resulting from the non-availability of accustomed fertilizers. But who is going to pay this compensation? Certainly not the decision makers who created the mess. As always the taxpayers, meaning all the people of this country, will have to pick up the tab.

Readers may remember a popular television program titled “Always Breakdown” that was beamed by a private station some years ago. That, sadly, remains the state of the nation to this day. Although the blackout of a week ago was not protracted after the problem was thankfully put right within hours of the outage, the threat of much longer travail remains alive and kicking. The CEB engineers and other segments within and outside the power sector have in no way given up their agitation against the deal between the government and New Fortress Energy (NFE) of the U.S. planning to enter the country’s power sector. It’s legality is now under challenge in the Supreme Court with, ironically, three cabinet ministers among the petitioners.

The unions have already tasted blood. The divestment of the Colombo Port’s East Container Terminal was abandoned after direct trade union action. India’s Adani was compensated with the right to develop the West Terminal. But this too is resented and what the future holds is anybody’s guess. Whether the Sri Lanka Ports Authority which is supposed to complete the partly built East Terminal has the wherewithal to do so is questionable. Debt funding, given the load already carried, seems unthinkable. The teachers have got their demands after months of agitation while enjoying full salaries for no work. How the government is going to meet that obligation, running into billions, has still not been revealed. By printing more money?

Other unions too are on the streets with varied demands that do not seem unreasonable in the context of inflation running at historical highs. A 10,000-rupee demand by government employees is already on the table. The health sector wants a Covid allowance of Rs. 7,500 a month. Government expenditure continues to be hugely ahead of ever-falling revenue and how the gap is going to be bridged remains in the realm of the unknown. Our debt repayment ability deteriorates by the day along with creditworthiness. State sector employees, compelled to remain at home for months for Covid-related reasons, did not suffer pay cuts. This was quite in contrast to most others in the private sector who continue to see monthly deductions on their pay slips. But anybody receiving a salary, whether it’s full, half or whatever fraction, is much better placed than the self-employed and the daily paid suffering immense privation.

Government employees demanding more seem to care less about anything outside their own selfish objectives. Some union bosses have gone public loudly declaiming a recent statement by a political panjandrum that the state sector is bloated. This is self-evident and very well known to the whole country and no denials, however strident, can alter the reality. We’ve had countless investigations into this problem and all kinds of recommendations have been made over the years. But there has never been any serious political will to tackle the ever-growing menace. Quite the contrary, much less than downsizing the public sector the reverse has been the order of the day. Jobs for the boys (and girls) has been the policy of successive administrations whatever their political complexions to get votes and win elections. Dr. N.M. Perera, the late LSSP leader, as finance minister decades ago, tried to cry halt to the non-contributory pensions payments of public servants. He was realistic enough not to interfere with existing benefits but propose a change where new entrants were concerned but was doomed to failure. None of his successors ever made even a feeble attempt to address this problem alongside unsustainable public sector numbers that has now grown to unmanageable proportions.

Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa recently went on record saying there will be no new recruitment into the government service. The Treasury has announced that those who run state-owned enterprises will be held accountable for their proper management and functioning. But does anybody remember what happened to the arrangement between Emirates and SriLankan Airlines to turnaround the national carrier that has bled billions out of the national economy and continues to do so to this day? The rightful refusal of the airline’s foreign CEO to deny a demand to offload paying passengers to accommodate a presidential retinue on board a flight resulted in his sacking and the whole partnership arrangement was summarily ended. And this at a time when the company had been profitable after decades of losses. The debt-funded vanity white elephants costing the people hugely are legion. New problems keep sprouting by the day like mushrooms after the rain. The few cosmetic changes that are being made will not make any difference to the big picture. How long will we be able to blunder along in this inexorable march towards a failed state?

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Casting pears 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 the MPs borrowed only 330 books 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 said he had burnt midnight oil for weeks for that purpose. 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, we believe, 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. At present 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 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 to read, one may have remembered former MP Ranjan Ramanayake. He may be a washed-up actor-turned politician, who is given to melodrama and lacks 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 to others by sitting the GCE O/L examination again 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 such as Viyathmaga as stepping stones is a case in point. But the people must be armed with knowledge for them to be empowered, and one’s chronological age should not be allowed to stand in the way of one’s education.

Ranjan recently sought permission to study 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.

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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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Prez has spoken



Wednesday 19th January, 2022

Protests were expected at the inauguration of the current session of Parliament yesterday, but the Opposition behaved; it only boycotted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s tea party. The President also struck a conciliatory note in his speech, calling for everyone’s support.

President Rajapaksa never misses an opportunity to make a public display of his long suit—protecting national security. He declared that the key issue facing the people when he became President in 2019 had been threats to national security. People had no fear of terrorism today, he said. Valid as his claim may be, the fact remains that threats to national security posed by the National Thowheed Jamaath, which carried out the Easter Sunday carnage, had been effectively neutralised by Nov. 2019, when the last presidential election was held. It is too early to assess the government’s performance as regards ensuring national security.

Interestingly, the President waxed eloquent on the virtues of the rule of law and transparency, and the need to strengthen democracy. He made specific mention of the steps taken to amend the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The government is apparently giving in to pressure from the western bloc, which has called for the abolition of the PTA, protecting human rights and strengthening democracy.

The President took pride in having set up about 100 new police stations. The country, no doubt, needs more police stations, but the establishment of new police stations and courthouses alone will not help strengthen the rule of law; a prerequisite for accomplishing this difficult task is to abolish the existing culture of impunity and political interference.

Curiously, the section devoted to the government’s foreign policy, in yesterday’s presidential address, was unusually brief. One can only hope that the brevity of this section does not reflect the level of importance the government attaches to the country’s foreign relations!

The President said he would submit the recommendations of the Expert Committee he had appointed to help draft a new Constitution. It is hoped that the government will tread cautiously. Going by the widespread chaos its fertiliser policy has plunged the country into, how bad the situation will be if an attempt is made to force a new Constitution on the people is not difficult to imagine. Perhaps, if the 20th Amendment is abolished and the 19th Amendment reintroduced with some changes, we may be able to make do with the existing Constitution.

The President flaunted the recently unveiled 229-billion-rupee relief package as a progressive step to alleviate people’s economic woes. But the general public will not benefit from relief granted only to public officials, pensioners and Samurdhi beneficiaries. The government has not revealed how funds will be raised for the relief package, and therefore one tends to think that more money will be printed, and inflation will rise further, affecting everyone. The government’s wisdom of offering a 25-rupee increase in the guaranteed price for paddy to raise it to Rs. 75 per kilo by way of relief to protesting farmers stands questioned because private millers are already paying as much as Rs. 95 per kilo of paddy!

The President very modestly made mention of his government’s successful vaccination drive, which he could justifiably be proud of. But the government would have been able to control the pandemic better and mitigate its economic fallout more effectively if it had taken timely action public health experts called for. The protracted lockdown in the latter part of 2021, which made the economy scream as never before, could have been averted if the government had taken under advisement health professionals’ call for travel restrictions in April in view of the traditional New Year, and acted accordingly.

The President has said he is determined to go ahead with his green agriculture programme. He, however, should not be in a hurry; he should cross the river feeling the stones if he is to avoid further trouble. It was a colossal mistake for the government to impose a blanket ban on agrochemicals overnight. It should have taken steps to reduce the use of chemical fertilisers, etc., over a period of time, with the participation of all stakeholders, and then assessed the situation before moving on to the next phase of the project. Unfortunately, it chose to act like a bull in an agrochemical shop.

It was widely thought that given the manner in which the government had bungled on many fronts and been left with egg on its face, the President would be left without anything to say in Parliament yesterday. But he managed to say something sensible in his policy statement, and it in itself could be considered an achievement!

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