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Midweek Review

An assurance on China-backed Port City project, as Indian assets fought fire on X-Press Pearl

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Prof. Peiris, flanked by Justice Minister Ali Sabry, PC (left) and State Minister Ajith Nivard Cabraal addresses the media at the Information department on May 29 (pic courtesy Education Ministry)

Worst ever ecological disaster a month after ship carrying radioactive uranium entered H’tota harbour

 

By Shamindra Ferdinando

 

Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Chairman Prof. G. L. Peiris, MP, on May 29 reiterated the importance of the Colombo Port City project. National List MP Prof. Peiris, who is also the Education Minister, was responding to major concerns raised by those who moved the Supreme Court against the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill. Prof. Peiris was flanked by National List MPs, Justice Minister Ali Sabri, PC, and State Minister of Money & Capital Market and State Enterprise Reforms Ajith Nivard Cabraal.

The briefing took place at the Information Department, amidst Sri Lanka’s worst ever ecological disaster that threatened the seas around the Colombo Port City and the welfare of thousands who eke out a living off the sea. Indian vessels and tugs, operated by Sri Lanka Shipping Company, and Salvos, fought a raging fire on the container carrier X-Press Pearl.

Controversy surrounds the delay on Sri Lanka’s part to call for Indian help for five days. Indian vessels and aircraft arrived in Sri Lanka on May 25th – five days after Sri Lanka was informed of the fire. The X-Press Pearl fire erupted exactly a month after Sri Lanka expelled a China-bound Antigua-registered vessel that entered the Hambantota port without revealing it carried radioactive uranium.

It would be pertinent to mention that the Information Department received a new head on April 09. Mohan Samaranayake, who previously held the post of Director General, Presidential Media, assumed duties on April 19. Samaranayake succeeded Nalaka Kaluwewa. With Samaranayake’s arrival at the Information Department, the government’s under-used media outlet has sort of enhanced its role.

After assuming new responsibility, veteran journalist and political commentator Samaranayake declared: “Every effort will be made to ensure the expected role of the Department of Government Information by properly publicizing accurate information.”

Samaranayake’s departure paved the way for former Swarnavahini presenter Sudeva Hettiarachchi who had been previously with Hiru, to be the new DG Presidential Media. The Presidential Secretariat also created a new post, namely the Presidential Spokesperson for Sirasa presenter Kingsley Ratnayake, who had done a regular wide-ranging interview with former minister and Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to India Milinda Moragoda. Interestingly, the late Bandula Jayasekera, one-time The Islander, having served as President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s spokesperson, joined Sirasa after the 2015 presidential election.

The country is in such a crisis and in a far worse situation than during the 30-year war, daunting challenges cannot be overcome by media strategies alone.

Let me get back to the May 29 briefing, at the Information Department. Prof. Peiris was quite convincing in his explanation as regards the passage of the Bill on laws governing the China-backed Colombo Port city project. The one-time top law academic addressed, what he called, misconceptions and apprehensions pertaining to the contents and implications of the Bill, approved by Parliament on May 20th.

The ministerial briefing took place in the wake of Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena ratifying the new Act. Shan Wijetunga, Director, Department of Communication, Parliament, issued the following statement on the afternoon of May 27. It was headlined: “Hon. Speaker signs blueprint of the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill”. The following is the text of the Speaker’s brief statement: “Speaker Hon. Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena has put his signature today (27) validating the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill which was passed in Parliament on the 20th May 2021.

The Speaker signed the blueprint of the act at around 11.30 am this morning.

Thereby the Colombo Port City Economic Commission act will be implemented, in full, from today (27).”

The statement made no reference to the Speaker’s decision to launch two inquiries into the failure on the part of Parliament to accurately count the number of votes received, in support of the Bill, at the May 20th vote.

The inquiries were initiated following complaints received from Minister Sabry and SLPP General Secretary Attorney-at-Law Sagara Kariyawasam, PC. The Speaker called for a report from Jayantha de Silva, Secretary, Technology Ministry, pertaining to the failure of the electronic counting system and a comprehensive report in respect of the overall situation from former Secretary General Parliament Dhammika Kitulgoda.

The Communication Department statement also didn’t make any reference to the number of votes received for and against the Bill. However, the first post-war External Affairs Minister Prof. Peiris (2010-2015) didn’t mince his words when he declared at the Information Department that the Bill had received an overwhelming two-thirds majority. Prof. Peiris said that there had been an error in the counting process and the truth was established following an inquiry.

Interestingly, the Speaker’s own Media Division, headed by Indunil Abeywardena, too, hadn’t issued a statement regarding the revelation made by the SLPP Chairman, at the time of the Information Department meeting.

There cannot be any justifiable excuse for the pathetic failure on the part of Parliament to ensure an unquestionable counting process. Can there be any issue whatsoever in the electronic counting process? Parliament actually should be ashamed of its failure – the latest in a long list of let downs over a period of time.

 

Prof. Peiris responds to Opp concerns

The statement made by Prof. Peiris should be examined against the backdrop of the Opposition’s plea to the Supreme Court to order a Referendum, in addition to a two-thirds parliamentary approval for the Bill. The SLPP avoided the Referendum by agreeing for the amendments proposed by the Opposition whereas the SC declared the adequacy of a simple majority.

Prof. Peiris dealt with several contentious issues, including what he described as the perception of exclusivity. Appreciating China spearheading the mega project meant to ‘creating and adding to Sri Lanka’s territory’, Prof. Peiris declared that doors were open for all countries to invest therein. Prof Peiris emphasized that there is absolutely no basis for the assumptions as regards the new territory being Chinese and investments would be restricted.

Having dealt with the contentious issue over the alleged exclusivity, Prof. Peiris strongly countered accusations that the adoption of the Act would pave the way for creation of a mechanism (Colombo Port City Economic Commission) that would undermine basic democratic structures, therefore a threat to Parliament.

Prof. Peiris also explained how Parliament functioned in its supreme capacity and was responsible for the operation of the Colombo Port City project. The distinguished academic stressed that whatever tax concessions and other privileges afforded to investors would be strictly subjected to the parliamentary approval by way of powers exercised by the Auditor General. Minister Peiris asserted that there couldn’t be any controversy over the China-backed project as it would be subjected to regulatory authorities – the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka, Inland Revenue Department, Attorney General, Customs et al.

Prof. Peiris dealt with accusations that the Colombo Port City would be utilised for money laundering operations. The Education Minister explained how the laws applicable to the new territory didn’t in any way undermine the systems in place to deter money laundering. The US publicly in April alleged that the Colombo Port City would be exploited by ‘nefarious actors’.

Finally, the SLPP Chairman scotched speculation regarding the police and the military not having access to the new territory. Perhaps, most interesting was the examination of the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill with that of the Greater Colombo Economic Commission (GCEC) Law, introduced by President JRJ, and an amendment enacted by the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1992. Referring to Premadasa’s amendment that transformed the GCEC to the Board of Investment (BoI), Prof. Peiris said that the then President deprived the Courts of authority to intervene in BOI matters.

Prof. Peiris ridiculed those who had moved the Supreme Court against the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill, for having backed the GCEC Law and the 1992 amendment. Prof. Peiris said that President JRJ had been in such a hurry for the GCEC Law he got the National State Assembly to approve it before the promulgation of the 1978 Constitution.

Having explained the fundamental change in investments, Prof. Peiris called for what he called a ‘coherent statutory regime’ as part of overall efforts to attract foreign investments. Prof. Peiris quite vigorously emphasized the role played by the previous government in the China-led project.

Prof. Peiris recalled how the then Minister of Internal and Home Affairs and Provincial Councils and Local Government Vajira Abeywardena (Current UNP Chairman) issued a gazette pertaining to the Colombo Port City territory.

At the onset of the briefing, Prof. Peiris declared that apprehensions and misconceptions pertaining to the project could be easily resolved by a fuller discussion than we have seen in the recent days. Such discussions should have taken place in the run-up to the passage of the Bill. The government shouldn’t expect a consensus on the project having bulldozed its way through in Parliament.

 

UNP’s dilemma

Parliament, on July 23, 2019, passed a resolution that paved the way for the amalgamation of the reclaimed land of the Colombo Port City with the area coming under the purview of the Colombo Divisional Secretariat division.

The Resolution under the Administrative Districts Act was presented by Vajira Abeywardena, MP.

According to the Resolution, the land of the Colombo Port City in extent of 446 hectares will be annexed to the Colombo Divisional Secretariat’s Division of the Administrative District of Colombo. As per the plan prepared by the Surveyor General, the Colombo Port and Chaithya Road East will be a connecting point to the boundary of the Colombo Divisional Secretariat’s Division.

The newly reclaimed land’s connection point would be the western boundary of the Colombo Divisional Secretariat’s Division and its east coordinate would be 396913.476 from the northern connection point and 397077.037 from the southern connection point while its north coordinate would be 492847.74 from the northern connection point and 492290.222 from the southern connection point according to the Sri Lanka Grid 1999 reference coordinate system, according to the schedule of the resolution.

Having suspended the Colombo Port City project soon after the 2015 presidential election, the yahapalana government caused irreparable damage to long standing bilateral relations. The then Government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said the China Communications Construction Co Ltd (CCCC) project had been launched without relevant approvals from concerned institutions. The Minister alleged that the agreement had been finalized without following proper procedures and did not meet environmental standards. The yahapalana government, in August, 2016, however, despite earlier bitter criticism of it, paved the way for the resumption of the project after China twisted the then Sri Lankan leadership’s arm. China warned Sri Lanka of dire consequences unless it paid compensation for the losses caused by the abrupt suspension of the project. The CCCC estimated it was losing more than $380,000 a day as a result.

Sri Lanka’s foolish decision to suspend the Chinese project should be examined against the backdrop of the US role in the 2015 change of government. No less a person than the then Secretary of State John Kerry revealed the US made funding available for the political project to topple the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, in addition to backing the regime change in Myanmar and Nigeria.

At one point, China lashed out at the then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake (Karunanayaka, who contested the Colombo district along with UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, lost his bid to re-enter Parliament at the last parliamentary election, in August 2020. Wickremesinghe, too, lost. The once all-powerful UNP won just a National List slot and it too remains vacant still).

The then Chinese Ambassador Yi Xianliang hit back hard at Karunanayake after he called Chinese funding as ‘expensive loans.’ The Chinese demanded to know why Karunanayaka sought more loans if he felt the Chinese were not being fair. The Chinese Ambassador reacted angrily to Karunanayake in Oct/Nov 2016. By then, both Karunanayake and the then government had been embroiled in Treasury bond scams, perpetrated in Feb 2015 and March 2016.

Having defended the flagship Chinese project to the hilt, the status of Prof. Peiris’ role in the overall government strategy cannot be ignored under any circumstances.

SLPP lawmaker Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, in his written submissions submitted to the Supreme Court, in respect of the Colombo Port City Economic Commission, challenged the legitimacy of the Bill. Perhaps, the bone of contention is that the Bill, presented to Parliament by the SLPP, hadn’t been consonant with the bilateral agreement between Sri Lanka and China, finalized in 2014, or the re-negotiated tripartite agreement (Sri Lanka, China and Urban Development Authority) following the change of government in 2015.

Lawmaker Rajapakse questioned the failure on the part of those who had access to those agreements but conveniently refrained from submitting them to the Supreme Court.

In his submissions, MP Rajapakse, who had represented both the UNP and the SLFP in the cabinet, alleged Prof. Peiris, along with Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, Secretary to the President, S.R. Attygalle, Secretary to the Treasury and Secretary to the Cabinet being silent on the previous agreements. The four had intervened in the case in support of the Bill.

Having appeared in the Supreme Court on behalf of Ven. Muruthettuwe Ananda Nayaka thera and Nagashenage Dasun Yasas Sri Nagasena, MP Rajapaksa skipped the vote on the Bill on May 20.

 

A big question mark over the role of Parliament

Prof. Peiris, as well as other government spokespersons, have repeatedly assured the public that the Colombo Port City project would be governed by Parliament. They guaranteed the project would be subjected to proper scrutiny therefore the public should be at ease. However, Parliament, having pathetically failed to fulfill its primary responsibilities namely (i) ensuring financial discipline and (ii) enactment of new laws expected to manage the Port City project. Parliament has, however, over and over again revealed its incompetence as waste, corruption and irregularities continued unabated. It would be a horrendous mistake on the part of the public to believe for a moment the Port City project would be within Sri Lanka’s purview simply on the basis of it being subject to parliamentary supervision.

Such claims should be discussed taking into consideration statements issued by the Communication Department of Parliament pertaining to the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises), COPA (Committee on Public Finance) and COPF (Committee on Public Finance) proceedings. Parliament’s response to the Treasury bond scams, during the previous administration, as well as the massive sugar tax scam, perpetrated by the incumbent SLPP government, bared an unpalatable truth. Examination of COPE, COPA and COPF reports since the last general election revealed massive embezzlement at public sector enterprises as well as other institutions, such as Sri Lanka Cricket and Football Federation of Sri Lanka. In fact, waste, corruption and irregularities seemed almost acceptable to governments, whoever was at the helm, with Parliament struggling to cope up with corruption. Therefore, believing in parliamentary supervision of the Port City project can be quite a blunder.



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Midweek Review

Shades of Beddegama in teeming Hong Kong

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By GEORGE BRAINE

Even after being closely connected to Hong Kong for 26 years, I am still amazed by the contrasts there. Professionals earn the highest salaries in the world while destitute old women scavenge for cardboard boxes. Tycoons live in the world’s most expensive mansions while the poorest live in tiny subdivided flats. Perhaps the most striking contrast is the crowded urban areas of Central, Kowloon, and Mong Kok, and the deserted villages in the rural parts of the New Territories, where I lived.

Hong Kong is barely 500 square miles, and only half of that is inhabited; the rest is given over to hillsides and country parks. They are seven million tightly packed people. Then, how does one explain deserted villages?

 

Wong Chuk Yeung

Leonard Woolf’s classic Village in the Jungle, set in colonial Ceylon, narrates the slow decline of a small, isolated village, Beddegama. As the people leave or die out, the jungle gradually covers the crumbling, miserable huts. The last survivor is Punchi Menika. In the final scene, as Punchi Menika lies in her dilapidated hut, a giant wild boar glides in like a mythical devil to gore her. This scene came to mind when, during a hike, I stumbled upon the village of Wong Chuk Yeung. Located about 3 km uphill from the lovely seaside town of Sai Kung, the village lies within a country park, at the end of a narrow, twisting road. On the way up, the road winds through a steep slope on the left and a forest to the right. Uphill, trees press on the road from either side, forming a canopy.

At its first appearance, the village gave the idea of being inhabited, with strands of electricity, street lights, and a functioning water service. The one mailbox overflowed with recently delivered mail, mainly electric and water bills. However, the lichen-covered houses and the trash-strewn, weed-choked alleyways indicated a lack of life. Rice fields and fruit trees long abandoned and overgrown with weeds surrounded the village. Butterflies and dragonflies fluttered. Signs of rooting by wild boars was everywhere, and the fragile barking deer scampered off at my approach. Five-meter long Burmese pythons had been seen nearby. Old graves stood sentinel.

Long ago, the village was occupied by rice and vegetable farmers of the Li clan. They lacked proper roads, schools, electricity, or water service, but this simple life style suited the villagers. Then, imported rice became much cheaper. Rice also became hard to grow because a nearby iron mine caused a drop in the water table. Lacking even public transport, the younger generation preferred the comforts of urban Hong Kong or emigrated to Britain.

The last survivor Since that first encounter, I visited the village, on and off, over a number of years. An elderly man dressed smartly in a jacket and trousers, carrying a rolled-up umbrella, would pass me by on his way to town. I would also see him in town, chatting with people his age or doing a little shopping.

Later, I also noticed a younger man from the village, laboriously pushing his bicycle uphill, laden with plastic shopping bags. He would pause often on the way, squatting on the ground to rest before attempting a further stretch of the steep road. He did not make eye contact or return my greetings.

Then, I stopped seeing the elderly gentleman. He had died. I also learned that his wife used to carry home-made cakes on a shoulder pole for sale in Sai Kung. She had passed away before my time. The younger man, the last survivor of the village, was their son. The family had emigrated to Britain but returned to Hong Kong and to Wong Chuk Yeung for some reason.

As the years went by, the last survivor no longer had his bicycle. Instead, three dogs with matted fur would accompany him all the way to town and back. I would sometimes see him in town, feeding the dogs with scraps of bread, and reading crumpled racing sheets that he may have found in trash cans. At the village, I had noticed a ramshackle house with garbage strewn outside, the dogs loitering at the door barking fiercely at my approach. That’s perhaps where he lived.

Eventually, only one dog was left. For the last survivor, life must have been horrendous. The eerily quiet nights would have been fearsomely lonely, perhaps the ghosts of departed ancestors his only company. Occasionally, a police vehicle would pass me on the way to the village, so they must have been keeping an eye on his safety.

On my way down to Sai Kung town, splendid views of the island-studded bay, a golf course, and of a distant reservoir opened up. Although other hikers appeared on weekends, the road was mainly deserted during weekdays. Domestic helpers walking their employers’ dogs could be seen, but they too become fewer when the heat of summer set in. On some mornings, paragliders would be floating down towards Sai Kung town, adding colour to the clear blue sky.

Driving home from Sai Kung on a blisteringly hot afternoon, I saw the last survivor struggling home and stopped to give him a ride, going out of my way to the village. As my car struggled up the steep climb on first gear, we drove in silence. When he opened the door to get down, I extended my hand and said “George”. He repeated “Georgie” in the Cantonese style that I find so affectionate. Pointing to himself, he said “Li”. He had finally spoken.

Nasty” Developers

The front page banner headline in the South China Morning Post came like a bolt from the blue. Forgotten Wong Chuk Yeung was in the news, with a bang, for illegal deals between developers and villagers domiciled in Britain.

 

Villagers profit in secret land deals

Indigenous residents sign away small housing rights in exchange for HK$500,000 or a new flat at the site, which helps developers avoid rezoning and premiums

Cheung Chi-faiNov 04, 2011

The article mentioned that the village was 350-years old, and once contained 96 houses. Obviously a substantial village, although I had not seen that many ruins; some crumbling structures may have been covered by weeds, or dissolved into the ground. But, every plot had an owner, and the developers were methodically buying up all the plots.

I had been writing-up my visits to the village on a blogsite, along with photos, and former villagers now in Britain had been reading my entries. In the comments section of the blog, the following message appeared:

Hi George, found your blog and found it fascinating. Great pictures. This is my family’s village, it is a lovely village, though very run down I still like to go and visit it whenever I am in HK – with much sadness all the villagers involved have now signed the papers for the land to be sold off to a development company. Not everyone wanted this but the majority won and it is now in process of exchange. I am extremely sad about this as the land has a lot of history. The buildings, the wildlife (the numerous beautiful butterflies!) in the land all needs to be preserved – Hong Kong needs to preserve old ancestral lands such as Wong Chuk Yeung before it’s too late.

Another villager in Britain, fiercely proud of his heritage, commented that he “will do everything it takes for Wong Chuk Yeung to stay in the Li family name”. He, and the last survivor, Mr. Li, may be what stood between the village and “development” that would erase all traces of a bygone-era.

 

Last days

I stopped visiting the village, but would see Mr. Li in Sai Kung town, sitting at McDonalds, engrossed in a newspaper that appears to have been salvaged from the garbage. He held the paper very close to his face, which probably meant he was nearsighted. That may have also accounted for his shyness and avoidance of people, because he couldn’t see well.

Over the years, his favourite place in town had been the Hong Kong Jockey Club betting centre. Even in the last days I saw him, he would be squatting on the pavement near the betting centre, carefully reading the racing sheet. He had shirtless, shoeless, the bicycle and the dogs long gone. He was become much scrawnier and unkempt over the years. Even when I said “Hello Mr. Li”, he would not look up or return my greeting.

I left Sai Kung in 2015. Recently, I saw that the following message had been left on my blogsite:

I’m sorry to announce that the lone survivor died at the beginning of this year (2015) and within weeks the developers moved in and put up 10 foot high corrugated hoardings fencing off the land from the public access road. This is a major eyesore and even worse is the bulldozing of the trees and wildlife areas (lush green grasslands that covered former paddy fields that were farmed by the villagers in the 50s and 60s).

I wonder about Mr. Li’s last days. Were they as wretched as Punchi Menika’s in Beddegama? Did he die alone, and discovered days later, or did someone find him before it was too late?

As for Wong Chuk Yeung, I have no wish to return. I prefer to remember it from all those years ago.

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Midweek Review

The trust deficit

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Nelum Kuluna: “It’s the folly of such investments that has created the debt problem.”

 

by Usvatte-aratchi

 

‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’

George Orwell

 

When this government was elected to office, there was wild jubilation, almost countrywide. People danced in the streets. But totally unexpectedly that ecstasy lasted a short time. This was no more strongly revealed than when the Cardinal, the leader of the Roman Catholic community in the country, publicly prayed to God that as he and his community could not get justice from secular authority. May God mete out justice to those who destroyed the lives of many members of his community! It was a pitiful cry of desperation (crie de coeur) that touched many people, no matter their religious faith or lack thereof. There were several well-known members of the Bhikkhu Sangha, who spoke most unhappily about the government for betraying the undertakings that had been given to them, when the now government sought election to office. The betrayal was bitter to a large sections of the population when the saubhagyaya (plentifulness), so prominently promised by the winning political party in 2019, turned out to be simply its opposite in 2021. The impending economic austerity, after the yahapalanaya government, glared in the face of all thoughtful people in 2019 but the winning party impressed upon the electorate that the party had worked out strategies and policies that would bring in prosperity which the opponents failed to achieve. The public were not shown the strategies and policies. When something is too good to believe, it is either not genuine or not true. It was sheer stupidity on the part of the electorate to believe that the key to El Dorado was in the hands of one individual or even the few who were on the path of wisdom (viyath maga); perhaps, inevitable given the alternative. It took three serious unexpected disasters to persuade two ministers of the government to explain in Parliament the dire economic situation in the country and their lack of policies to meet those perilous challenges. The first was the invasion of the SARS-CoV-2 infection that came along with tourists. After a promising start, the government floundered helplessly in 2021, failing to use effectively a fine public health structure that had many victories to its credit, including control of malaria, elimination of polio, typhoid and DPT. In mid-2021, the death rate among those infected rose above 1 percent, double that which prevailed in May 2021 and yet better than in most parts of the world. The government could not make use of the work of government servants who had information on the location and the age of people who lived there (Electoral lists in the offices of grama niladhari). The disaster that the Ministry of Shipping cluelessly invited into our seas destroyed not merely the eco system but with it the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, not necessarily only along the coast. The claim by a government minister that deaths on a large scale of sea creatures, both large and small, soon after the shipping disaster, was a regular feature in the stormy season (varakan) was shockingly disingenuous. The government handled both these disasters so incompetently that the electorate lost whatever trust they had about the government’s capacity to govern the country. The ill-timed policy to eliminate the use of synthetic chemicals in agriculture (which itself is not a bad idea in an ideal world) raised the ire of the mass of peasants and farmers and threatened the supply of food in the country and the continued production of tea and rubber. The persistent assertion by the Minister of Agriculture that there was plentiful fertiliser, herbicides and pesticides flew in the face of demonstrations by thousands of cultivators all around the country. Are these protestors true hirelings of fertiliser importers? The threat to import organic fertiliser is fraught with untold dangers, because that fertilizer carries organisms that could be dangerous to human, animal and plant health, here. More directly, that policy openly contradicted the pledges given in the manifesto of the party that fertiliser would be given to peasants free and freely.

In liberal democracies, governance is a matter of trust between the government and the governed. Governments are elected by the people periodically on the basis of manifestoes issued by political parties in which the parties lay out the policies that they would implement, if elected to office. Some unexpected emergencies inevitably arise and the policies they adopt to meet those emergencies must be governed by approaches to policy announced in their manifesto. The governed expect that government has spoken honestly in their manifestoes and would implement them in the people’s interest and not for the pecuniary gains of those that govern. When parties seeking office (not power, as we commonly say) systematically lie to seek election and the voters are either not sharp enough to see through the falsehoods or are swayed by other propaganda, (e.g. finding a small ethnic or religious group in the country whose electoral strength is petty, against whom a political party can whip up a frenzy) governments have a problem retaining the trust of the governed. ‘These leaders might invoke a lost imperial grandeur …. (Rajarata, in our case). They adopt sophisticated propaganda techniques (which may include events of spectacular destruction) in which to demolish adversaries and bolster their own egos… This charisma is leveraged to project an aura of virility that is supposed to protect a helpless citizenry against lawlessness and an endangered nation against the invasive impurities of alien and internal enemies.’ (Ariel Dorfman, 2021.) When lying came to light, the governed lost trust in government.

A fortnight ago, two Ministers who spoke in Parliament to defend the decision of the government to raise the prices of petroleum products (which itself is reasonable) laid out clearly, for the first time, the economic plight of the nation and the impecuniosity of the government. One was the redoubtable Bandula Gunawardana; the other, the lawyer Gammanpila. Later the new Minister of finance, whilst taking office, spoke about the ‘grave situation (bararum thatvaya)’ of the economy and the finances. We wish him well, in a difficult job. Why did it take 21 months for the government to take the people into confidence and explain the dire situation of the economy and the finances when they took over from the yahapalanaya government? There was, then, the added advantage of an escape goat ready for slaughter, a second time.

 

The government was so keen on standing by their propaganda that the president, soon after taking office, abolished the PAYE scheme, drastically reduced both direct and indirect taxes and renewed his promise to give new employment to hundreds of thousands of university graduates, which promise he fulfilled later under pressure. (The public were told, very late, that tax revenue had fallen sharply in 2020.) Independent observers were taken aback by these decisions which may have been so enthusiastically adopted only by a government, with an economy with strong sinews and a Treasury with bottomless reserves. The public awaited a miracle. They should not have, because the horn of plenty is only a fairy tale for toddlers not economics for adults. In government, one should have ‘soft hearts and hard heads’ and not the other way around, which seems to be partly the problem with the new government.

Now that some members of the government have given expression to the true nature of the economic situation and the financial imbroglio of the government, what about the way out of these predicaments? There was widespread antipathy to the idea of seeking assistance from IMF on account of the eventual necessity to agree to conditions they would lay down to come to the assistance of the economy. The IMF lays down those conditions because it wants to ensure that the objectives it sets out to achieve, require countries to follow those policies. The IMF conditions that the government disapproved of included austerity measures to ensure that the economy has a surplus with which to service debt. (It is the obverse of more resources than we produced when we borrowed from abroad.) There is no escape from seeking such drop in the domestic use of domestical output to pay back debts incurred. In addition, there was an equally widespread objection to seeking assistance from abroad and much enthusiasm for working out our own solutions. These strategies and policies now on display feature the following. There is widespread austerity in the country, fulfilling the first condition that could have been demanded by the IMF. The supply of goods of all kinds has fallen. That scarcity has resulted from many measures that government implemented. The direct reduction of imports is the most visible. Any shopper in a supermarket can observe empty shelves. Fertiliser and agrochemicals are scarce. The Covid epidemic, the shipping disaster and the scarcity of fertiliser and agrochemicals will reduce incomes cutting down total demand and demand for imports. The other means of enforcing austerity is to raise prices to make goods and services beyond the budget of most people. Fortuitously, the fall in employment has reduced levels of income and cut down living conditions. Printing money large scale brought about the rise in prices. Whether the government wished it or not, austerity which IMF would have recommended is here with us. No matter which party formed the government, this austerity was inevitable, not because we borrowed but because we invested foolishly. The public are in austerity. What is absent is a programme to reschedule debt repayment.

Individuals, corporations and governments all borrow and prosper out of debt. The secret is in the uses made of the loan proceedings. Large scale borrowing was resorted to in the years 2010-2015. We had been impoverished by a long drawn out civil war. Borrowing was welcomed by society because there were large scale projects, employment in construction ran high and the rate of economic growth was elevated. By 2015, the rate of growth had come down and the government was voted out of office. Among other reasons, the poor performance of the economy was of major importance. With large investments in the early years which helped raise the growth of the economy, the failure of the investments to raise output (summarily, high incremental capital/output ratios – ICOR) dampened the rate of growth. The failure of investments to earn a return on it was all too clear to see: Hambantota Port still does not make an adequate return; the International Conference Hall lies idle; Mattala airport receives an occasional flight; Nelum Pokuna has a more attractive garden than audiences shouting acclaim for plays on its fine stage; and the Nelum Kuluna stands solitary guard over the Colombo Port City. It is the folly of these investments that created the debt problem, not borrowing itself. Yahapalanaya government failed to realise that unless they explained to the public the dire situation in the country and imposed austerity to pay back the loans, that they would hand over to the successor government a debt burden impossible to bear. That is exactly what has happened. Saubhagya government that succeeded the Yahapalanaya government completely failed to read the economy correctly or imagined that they could hoodwink the public to believe that they had strategies and policies to meet these exigencies. The public evidently took in the latter, hook, line and sinker. That the same strategist who promoted the infrastructure programmes in 2010-2015 was appointed today to manage the economy and that his first project was an infrastructure project is cause for deep concern.

We need to put in place a programme to restructure debt service payments so that the government can manage to avoid a catastrophic further fall in living standards of the people. To agree to reschedule debt repayment, creditors need an organization, in which they have faith, that it will enforce an agreed upon reschedule. Most of the time that organization has been the IMF. Interest rates in international capital markets have begun to rise with widespread fears of incipient inflation in developed countries. The prices of materials like aluminum, copper and rare minerals have been rising for several months. The tendency for interest rates to rise is further strengthened by the initiative of central banks to disgorge their bursting portfolios of financial assets. The cheap credit regime may have come to an end. A reschedule itself may be now more expensive than earlier.

If the government does not wish to use the IMF, they will have to find a substitute. There are no other solutions.

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Midweek Review

From ‘multi-ethnicity’ to multiculturalism

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by Susantha Hewa

Being able to speak only one language (monolingualism) is becoming the exception rather than the rule. More and more Sri Lankans whose home language is either Sinhala or Tamil are learning English as their second language (L2). Not many Sinhala speakers or Tamil speakers select each other’s language, namely, Tamil or Sinhala as their L2 for a few obvious reasons.

With due respect to both Sinhala and Tamil, neither of them has the social recognition that English commands in this country. Secondly, being perhaps the widest read and spoken global language, English has a utility value far exceeding that of Sinhala or Tamil, for all those who engage in higher studies, research, preparing for private sector employment, administrative work, translation, journalism and diplomatic service, among others. Many graduates realise at job interviews that a good command of English can often eclipse academic excellence, which has resulted in English becoming a major ingredient in all recipes for gainful ‘employability.’ In short, proficiency in English can be a big bonus for anybody aspiring to move ahead in any chosen path. That monolingualism among Sinhala or Tamil speakers is now appearing to be an anomaly and a deprivation needs little persuasion. However, opinions differ on how early a child should start learning English as his L2 to reap all its benefits. Is early exposure to an L2 harmful? Will it make him culturally rootless?

Let’s take an example from the Sri Lankan context. It’s not news that if a child’s parents spoke two languages, say, Sinhala and Tamil, the child would learn to speak both almost equally fluently provided that they were spoken often enough at home. So quite reasonably, she will have two mother tongues – Sinhala and Tamil, and thus be a bilingual if she were to continue speaking both languages into her adulthood. Alternatively, if only one language was spoken to the exclusion of the other at home she would be monolingual, which could be described as an instance of a lost opportunity given the time and difficulty involved in learning the other language at a later stage. What’s more, the former who acquires both languages simultaneously will have an edge over the latter in more ways than being fluent in two languages.

For instance, she would develop a better empathy with the speakers of either language and an increased awareness of their respective cultures, language being the most pervasive and fluid transmitter of the shared values of a community. Surely, it would be a better option than being excluded from one ethos depending on which of the two languages is to be her home language. Further, the exposure to two cultures would be an excellent opportunity for her to take a balanced view of both and grow up to be more unbiased about each. Such a child is unlikely to be overemotional about one culture and will find herself at home with either community as a grownup. Thirdly, as linguists point out, a bilingual is better adapted than a monolingual to learn a new language. Thus, early bilinguals in general will be more versatile than monolinguals in socialising, language learning and more open-minded about and less susceptible to synthetic divisions based on imagined/self-imposed identities. In other words, multilingualism may significantly bring down the volatility inherent in the so-called “multi-ethnic” societies.

Our longstanding tradition of being moulded by a single culture with only one home language may urge us to cast doubts about the soundness of being multilingual/multicultural from childhood, prompting us to consider it a denial of the right to have firm roots in a single culture. However, those who entertain this view may perhaps be ardent believers of “uniqueness” and “sanctity” of each culture- those who rely on “purity of stock” to be the mainstay of best human behaviour. Just take the above example of the bilingual child. If her Tamil speaking father or Sinhala speaking mother was adamant that only his or her language would be spoken at home wouldn’t it lead to a serious crisis? Can anyone determine with any justification whether mother or father’s decision should carry the day? On what grounds can anyone say that one linguistic/cultural environment is better than or superior to the other? If the parents had saner heads they would let the language mix be a blessing in disguise instead of making it a recipe for disaster. Surely, it would apply with equal validity on the broad canvas of society.

Come to think of it, it is usually our cultural seclusion that makes us feel rootless when we are placed in an unfamiliar social milieu as a grown up, which is more likely than not in the modern world where many cannot afford to stick to one job or place for long. Young children who migrate find it easier to adapt to the new setting than their parents do. As we have seen, children living in multicultural settings don’t seem to suffer any “rootlessness” whatsoever; on the contrary, they are often more confident and skilled in socializing. A bicultural is unlikely to be feeling any more estranged than an amphibian in water. It is often the insularity resulting from our cultural segregation in childhood that seems to prompt us to demonize cultural intermixing as a dangerous dilution, or worse, an out and out contamination of “inherited” values.

As such, linguistic “isolation” in childhood may contribute in no small measure to the emergence and hardening of divisive feelings continually attributed to “ethnicity” – a label which has always proved to be more harmful than useful. If bilingualism or, better still, multilingualism can dilute this unserviceable sense of segregation, why thwart it? Can we think of any instance where humans have run in to a crisis for not knowing who belonged to what “ethnicity?”

However, being a bilingual from the cradle is too good to be true. In most families, children have to be content with one home language, often, Tamil or Sinhala. Thus, to compensate for this customary language seclusion in early childhood, the L2 has to be made available to children as early as possible. As linguists claim, changes in brain plasticity make delayed L2 learning more taxing- the older you get the more laborious it becomes. In the L2 learning continuum, the earlier you start, the closer you are to the natural L1 acquisition process, which gradually shifts from its “acquisition mode” to a more artificial “learning mode” as you age, and the latter is far less effective than the former notwithstanding the extra time and effort it requires. Furthermore, while early acquisition of an L2 tends to be more comprehensive and enriching, late learning is often narrowly focused and inhibited. Many adult learners, for example, a good number of undergraduates grudgingly learn it to fulfill a necessary condition to get their degree certificate and “be employable.”

A child’s growing inhibition towards learning a second language with the passing of years is nowhere more manifest than in universities where students wanting in English language skills are conspicuous in their absence in kaduwa classes. Thus, undoubtedly, the most prudent, scientific and result-oriented approach to teaching English, or any L2 for that matter, is to focus on primary and secondary level students without delaying it until their language learning mechanisms have risen to their, so to speak, “level of incompetence.”

Surely, university entrants aren’t at their best age to contend with English because they are in an age category in which their L2 assimilation mechanism is shifting gear from acquisition to learning. The most affected by this change are those whose medium of instruction happens to be English. Their lack of proficiency in English, which is the result of inadequate exposure to it during their primary and secondary education, makes them pay a heavy price now, at least in three ways. Firstly, it makes them cut kaduwa classes to avoid looking “foolish” in the presence of their more privileged colleagues. It also drastically reduces their grasp of academic lectures, which directly affects their performance at exams, especially, in the first semester. What is most unfair is that in a system in which the first semester grades of the academic subjects determine their eligibility for field selection, those who get lower grades due to their lack of English language skills but with no deficiency in cognitive skills, are often denied of getting into their desired field. This is just one undesirable outcome of prolonged monolingualism, which can be easily avoided by placing more emphasis on early bilingualism.

Therefore, the most prudent, profitable and scientific approach to teaching English as an L2 is to focus on the young students in primary and secondary grades which will ease the pressure exerted on undergraduates who are compelled to mug up English for passing exams and be “employable.” A good command of the English language can help create a level playing for all new entrants. Only a few of them enter university to study English as a subject and all those who learn other subjects – particularly, those who study in the English medium must not be penalized for being deficient in it. After all they belong to the brightest bulbs of our youth. That English is given an excessive importance in higher studies amounts to making those who lack kaduwa pay for the “sins” of a flawed L2 teaching system, which is made absurdly top-heavy to compensate for the lack of sufficient attention given to English in early years.

With so much evidence in support of early bilingualism, ‘better late than never’ policy would only be a good joke when it comes to teaching English as an L2 in our country. In a broader sense, making English accessible to all young students may help reduce the ills of an unproductive and costly “multi-ethnic” system, which should have long been upgraded to a truly multilingual and multicultural system sans “ethnic” fault lines. Bilinguals will outdo monolinguals even if we are forced to learn another language- let it be any language from China to Peru.

 

 

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