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Editorial

Another Barmecide feast for masses

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Saturday 6th February, 2021

The government apparently does two things efficiently—printing money and issuing gazettes. Nobody seems to take these gazette notifications seriously, especially those pertaining to commodity prices. Maximum retail prices (MRPs) of various goods have been gazetted several times, over the last several months, but traders flout them with impunity. The Ministry of Trade has once again announced that the prices of 27 commodities will be reduced to grant relief to the public. Citizen Perera is being treated to another Barmecide feast like the beggar in the Arabian Nights.

The government imposes price ceilings to protect the consumer, but traders and middlemen are free to treat them as price floors and keep retail prices above them. These unscrupulous elements treat price floors imposed by the government to protect producers as price ceilings and maintain buying prices below them. Besides, the MRPs marked on bags of rice are deceptive in that they are lower than the actual selling prices. The millers and traders collude to hoodwink the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) and fleece consumers.

If the CAA cares to conduct raids with the help of decoys, the errant millers and traders can be nabbed, but apparently it baulks at doing so because the millers’ Mafia has political connections and lavishes funds on powerful politicians. Every election is followed by a payback time for these fat cats. Perhaps, the CAA officials are wary of taking on the powerful millers because they faced humiliation following a series of much-publicised raids on paddy warehouses in the North Central Province, last year. The owner of Araliya Mills, Dudley Sirisena, a sibling of former President Maithripala Sirisena, confronted the CAA officials, during a raid, and declared that he would not sell rice at the controlled prices and was even ready to face arrest for that. Subsequently, the millers had a meeting with the government leaders, who agreed to effect an upward revision of the MRPs for rice. The millers had the last laugh. When money talks, politicians are all ears, so to speak.

Consumers may be able to console themselves if the high prices of essential commodities translate into benefits for producers, especially the poor farmers. But the goods that cost them an arm and a leg fetch extremely low prices for the producers; and those who exploit both the consumer and the producer alike, through market manipulations, laugh all the way to the bank. Farmers are in penury. They are fleeced by the millers and have no way of extricating themselves from the clutches of loan sharks including micro finance companies. No government has addressed this problem properly.

Similarly, duty concessions the government grants importers of essential goods are not passed on to consumers. Import duty on sugar was abolished to all intents and purposes, a few weeks ago, but there has been no discernible decrease in sugar prices. The controversial duty waiver only benefited an influential crony of the government; it has also caused staggering losses to the state coffers.

Sathosa and the network of co-operative outlets may be able to sell goods at the government-mandated maximum prices albeit at a loss, but their stocks are not sufficient to cater to the entire population. Nor can they influence the market, which is dominated by the private sector. They can only help the government save its face temporarily. The need for developing Sathosa and the co-operative societies cannot be overemphasised.

In making interventions to regulate prices, the government ought to act rationally and determinedly. It must conduct proper market studies and identify the factors that lead to unfair price increases before it moves in to introduce price controls, which must not be politically determined. Once maximum or minimum prices are decided on realistically and fairly, the government must do everything in its power to ensure compliance. Those who refuse to abide by the stipulated prices must be severely dealt with, and the government should have a contingency plan in place to face a possible backlash; traders and millers usually create scarcities by way of retaliation. Mere gazette notifications or platform rhetoric won’t do.



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Editorial

Post-budget state of play

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The second reading of the Budget 2023 was comfortably passed last week with President Ranil Wickremesinghe strongly affirming that he will not permit another aragalaya and will not hesitate to use armed services muscle and, if needed, a State of Emergency to prevent it. Not surprisingly, it was thrown at his face that he would today not be President, and in that capacity, Head of State and Head of Government, but for the aragalaya. This is a fact of life that he cannot, and did not attempt to refute. But he did say that he did not ask for the job which, we are certain, is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It was undoubtedly thrust upon him and he, unlike Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, did not first drop the catch and thereafter conditionally agree to accept the position of prime minister after Mahinda Rajapaksa was forced out of office. He accepted it presumably unconditionally.

Premadasa laid down the condition that a time frame for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to relinquish office must be laid if he were to agree to be prime minister. And that too after Wickremesinghe, whose UNP was decimated to zero elected seats with him losing his own seat at the UNPs Colombo Central fortress. Nobody can quibble that RW holds an unconstitutional office. He was properly and constitutionally elected president by a comfortable majority to serve GR’s balance term after the former president fled the country and tendered his resignation from Singapore while Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was acting as president. RW was elected president by the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP), a section of which party backed Dullas Alahapperuma as the common – barring the NPP/JVP – opposition candidate. Wickremesinghe was the Rajapaksa nominee for president earning for himself the sneering sobriquet of Ranil Rajapaksa. Thus he appears for all purposes the captive president of the SLPP.

As we have said before in this space, he will remain dependent on the pohottuwa until he is constitutionally enabled to dissolve parliament after February next year. But he formally went on record last week declaring that he will not dissolve parliament until the economy is stabilized. When that will happen is to all intents and purposes is anybody’s guess. Wickremesinghe, who our popular columnist Rajan Philips who returns to this page after a short absence today says was probably the first finance minister after Ronnie de Mel to write his own budget speech, did not even hint when the IMF bail out can be expected. Various straws are being floated in the wind but the earliest possible date seems to be March next year. Although the cost of living has hit unbearable heights with a sizable proportion of the population being compelled to forego one daily meal, the budget offered no tangible respite beyond repetition of long-held promises of social security cushions to the most vulnerable.

The last several days has seen the return to the country of former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa back from the U.S. whose citizenship he’s clinging on to unlike brother Gotabaya who gave it up to run for president. Basil was not long ago prevented, at the height of the aragalaya, from leaving the country but returned last week to a well publicized welcome at the VVIP lounge of the Bandaranaike International Airport. It has been widely perceived that BR pulls the strings that manipulate the SLPP. That view was enhanced by those who crowded the lounge to sycophantically receive him. They included the controversial presence of the chairman and a member of the National Police Commission (NPC). Former IGP Chandra Fernando who heads the NPC ineffectively pleaded his impartiality following the exposure of his airport presence with Basil’s cheer squad. Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene said a new NPC was being shortly appointed, implying that the rotten eggs in the existing body were soon being replaced.

With the Rajapaksas are returning to the national picture, the state-controlled Daily News on Friday front paged a photo of President Wickremesinghe with Mahinda and Shiranthi Rajapaksa at a DA Rajapaksa commemorative event in Colombo. There was a public celebration of MR’s 77th birthday both at the Abhayarama temple in Narahenpita, once the SLPP political headquarters, and at Tangalle where a jayapiritha reportedly attended by 1,000 monks had been organized. One uncontradicted report which we cannot confirm said that hefty contributions running from Rs. 50,000 to 100,000 each was collected from ministers, state ministers and corporation heads to fund this event. In a budget speech MR admitted making mistakes but did not specify what they were. Questions on whether these include the chemical fertilizer and pesticide bans, vanity projects bearing his name as well as Colombo’s Lotus Tower massively displaying the pohottuwa’s election symbol remain hanging in the air.

Perhaps President Wickremesinghe awaited the conclusion of the 2023 budget to expand his cabinet. There have been reports that he’s under pressure to do so and some observers have read ministerial ambitions among those who supported the budget. The voting figures clearly indicate the presence of Rajapaksa political muscle but whether this will presage, for instance, the return of Namal Rajapaksa to the cabinet only time will tell. The president’s focus would and obviously must be more on economic than political issues. While the critical situation that prevailed earlier this year with miles long petrol and gas queues are no longer present, the cost of living remains skyhigh. The budget offered no hope that this would change. Whether the ‘no dissolution before economic stability is restored’ declaration applies to any election whatever remains to be seen. That question will be answered by whether or not local authority elections will be held as scheduled by March 2023. That various machinations are afoot to delay these polls is very well known.

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Editorial

A question of legitimacy

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Saturday 26th November, 2022

Dissident SLPP MP and former Minister Prof. Channa Jayasumana has said something noteworthy during the ongoing budget debate. He has argued that President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who succeeded President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, does not have a popular mandate to govern the country and therefore should not make crucial policy decisions on national security, etc. He has offered to present a private member’s motion to enable the President to hold a snap presidential election and seek a mandate from the people.

The government stands accused of trying every trick in the book to postpone the local government polls, and never will it take a bigger electoral gamble. But the argument that the current administration lacks legitimacy holds water in that it is doing exactly the opposite of what the SLPP undertook to do in its election manifestos presented to the public before the 2019 presidential election and the 2020 parliamentary polls.

The people voted the UNP out of power in 2020 because they did not approve of the way it handled national security and the economy, and elected the SLPP to make a difference. They handed over the reins of government to Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa as they desired a clean break with the previous government.

Former President/Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, MP, taking part in the budget debate, on Wednesday (24), said: “When we took over in 2019 the Yahapalana government had drawn huge loans. We have done all we can to help the country. We had to face the Easter Sunday attacks and the COVID-19 pandemic. We are still trying to overcome their adverse impacts.”

Now, the uphill tasks of managing the economy and protecting national security have been entrusted to the UNP, which worsened the country’s debt crisis, according to Mahinda, and was rejected by the public twice. The country has undergone a reversion to the Yahapalana rule in all but name without public approval. The SLPP leaders have not only betrayed public trust but also made a mockery of the will of the people.

Moreover, one of the key pledges that enabled the SLPP to obtain a popular mandate to govern the country was that it would never privatise state assets. President Wickremesinghe admitted in Parliament, the other day, that former Prime Minister Rajapaksa was opposed to the divestiture of state ventures. The current administration has reneged on this pledge against the wishes of not only the people who voted for the SLPP but also the leader of that party himself!

As for national security, the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday terror attacks, held the entire Yahapalana government accountable. The final report of the PCoI says, “The government including President Sirisena and Prime Minister [Ranil Wickremesinghe] is accountable for the tragedy” (p. 471). National security is now under the purview of Wickremesinghe!

What has led to sea changes in the current administration’s policies was a wave of public protests, which came to be known as Aragalaya. The manner in which the President and the Prime Minister were ousted was far from constitutional. Even incumbent President Wickremesinghe, who benefited from Aragalaya, has refused to accept it as something legitimate. Hence his recent vow in Parliament to prevent a recurrence of Aragalaya and even deploy the military and declare a state of Emergency to abort it. He would not have threatened to do so if he had not been convinced that Aragalaya lacked legitimacy. Thus, a radical departure from the SLPP’s policies endorsed by the people in a constitutionally-prescribed manner at two elections in 2019 and 2020 requires approval by the public either at a general/presidential election or a referendum. Why the Opposition has baulked at flogging this issue is the question.

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Editorial

Body swapping?

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Friday 25th November, 2022

Television is very educational, Groucho Marx has famously said, adding that every time somebody turns it on, he goes into another room and reads a book. Parliamentary sessions are also educational in that sense; whenever they are telecast, one’s gorge rises and one swiftly switches off the tube and reads a book. But the telecast of President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s speech in the House on Wednesday (23) was different; it reminded us of a nineteenth century book, of all things—Vice Versa by F Anstey (pseudonym used by Thomas Anstey Guthrie). It is about body swapping—two persons exchanging minds and living in each other’s bodies—which is a common trope in sci-fi books and flicks. Politics and shape-shifting go together, but what has body swapping got to do with politicians?

On listening to President Wickremesinghe, who was going ballistic in the House, one wondered if he and his immediate predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had swapped bodies, for the former sounded just like the latter. Most of all, Wickremesinghe called himself Hitler, albeit tongue in cheek. It was Gotabaya who was expected to be a dictator like Hitler after being elected President. Basil Rajapaksa himself likened his elder brother, Gotabaya, to ‘Terminator’ before the last presidential election, and some prominent Buddhist monks said the country needed a leader like Hitler, and Gotabaya fitted the bill.

The UNP and other Opposition parties also described Gotabaya as Sri Lanka’s Hitler and warned that he would rule the country with an iron fist, if elected, but curiously he did what was expected of Ranil, who was considered a weak leader. Ranil is now doing what Gotabaya was expected to do!

Gotabaya, a former frontline combat officer, played a crucial role in defeating the LTTE, and stood accused of deploying the army to crush a protest against a factory which caused groundwater pollution at Rathupaswala, in 2013, but he meekly allowed anti-government protesters to march on the President’s House, and fled the country, a few moons ago. Ranil, who was wary of opening his mouth even for a dental examination while the LTTE was around, has made short work of the anti-government protesters who ousted Gotabaya, and warned that he will crush all protests aimed at engineering a regime change. How come such transformations are possible? Isn’t it natural that one wonders whether something similar to what one sees in Richard Morgan’s cyberpunk Altered Carbon series with a dystopian futuristic setting where consciousness is digitised and transferred between persons, has happened in this country with Gotabaya and Ranil swapping bodies?

Meanwhile, President Wickremesinghe’s declaration in Parliament that he will not allow any protests to be held at all unless the organisers thereof obtain permission from the police for such events is proof that the government is ready to go to any extent to retain its hold on power. He might as well slap a blanket ban on protests, for there is no way anyone could obtain permission from the police for an anti-government demonstration. The police offer their services as bouncers to the powers that be. The current administration is the outcome of a political marriage of convenience between the UNP, which has a history of crushing democratic dissent, and the SLPP led by the Rajapaksa family, which has got attacking democracy down to a fine art. It goes without saying that democracy is in grave danger.

One may recall that during the Premadasa government, a group of journalists covering a DUNF event were attacked by UNP thugs in full view of the police, and when the victims went to the Fort police station to lodge a complaint, the OIC stood his full height blocking the main entrance and declared that the place was closed for the day! When the media asked a servile police spokesman, during the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, why dozens of pro-government thugs armed with clubs had been allowed to operate alongside the police riot squad at an Opposition protest, in Colombo, he had the chutzpah to claim that they had been carrying ‘sticks’ to ward off stray dogs. So much for the impartiality of the police, from whom the President wants the Opposition to seek permission for its protests!

Most of all, Chairman of the National Police Commission (NPC) Chandra Fernando is under fire for his presence at a ceremony the SLPP held recently at the BIA to receive Basil Rajapaksa. He has said he happened to be at the airport when Rajapaksa returned from the US, and met the latter. But the controversy over what he did has cast doubt on the NPC’s credibility and impartiality. A fish is said to rot from the head down.One can only pray for the safety of Sri Lankan democracy or what remains thereof.

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