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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

A strange case of distrust?

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Thursday 4th March, 2021

The Presidential Secretariat has reportedly told Attorney General (AG) Dappula de Livera, that 22 volumes of the final report submitted by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that probed the Easter Sunday terror attacks cannot be released as they contain sensitive information pertaining to national security. So, the AG has been left with no alternative but to divine what is in these 22 volumes which he cannot do without.

The argument that the state prosecutor should be denied access to some volumes of the report at issue for reasons of national security, in our book, does not hold water. In fact, we consider it an affront to the dignity of the AG. Is it that the State cannot repose trust in its own AG as regards national security?

The AG knows how to handle sensitive information, doesn’t he? On the other hand, there was no such thing as national security, so to speak, during the period covered by the presidential commission probe, and that was the reason why the NTJ terrorists were able to snuff out so many lives with ease. After all, that was what the SLPP kept telling us when it was in the Opposition. Luckily, the LTTE did not try to make a comeback during the yahapalana government. There were no regular National Security Council (NSC) meetings, and those who were responsible for safeguarding national security were all at sea so much so that they did not take seriously warnings of impending terror attacks which could have been prevented. Even some outsiders were privy to what transpired at the NSC meetings, which they were allowed to attend because they were close to the then President Maithripala Sirisena! The state intelligence outfits were in total disarray with their key officers facing a political witch-hunt. The CID was doing full-time political work to all intents and purposes, and the Terrorism Investigation Division was accused of conspiring to kill the President! So, how come any information about what happened during that period is considered too sensitive to be divulged even to the AG?

What the AG is required to do anent the cases he files is not akin to keyhole surgery; he has to see the whole picture before filing action. He should be able to ascertain whether the facts, on the basis of which legal action is to be instituted against those named in the report, can be backed by irrefutable evidence if the cases he is going to file are to have a solid foundation. He and his legal team need to study all volumes of the commission report if they are to know where they stand.

The AG has to build strong cases to prove that the accused are guilty. Unless all information contained in the PCoI report is studied properly, the cases to be filed may not stand up to judicial scrutiny. The defence may be able to drive a coach and horses through them. One can only hope that no surreptitious attempt is being made to open an escape route for the high-profile government members who are likely to be hauled up before courts for their serious lapses that made the Easter Sunday carnage possible.

The AG, we repeat, should be given unhindered access to the PCoI report so that he will be able to proceed with prosecutions properly.

The government finds itself in a dilemma. Unless it takes action against the former leaders and their bureaucratic lackeys for their failure to prevent the terror attacks, it is likely to face a considerable electoral setback, come the next election, but at the same time, it is not in a position to go the whole hog to ensure that the culprits are brought to justice; it runs the risk of suffering a split in the event of former President Sirisena being prosecuted for security failures that led to the Easter Sunday tragedy, on his watch. The SLFP has already indicated that it might pull out of the SLPP coalition in such an eventuality. But nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of justice. An oft-quoted legal maxim is ‘Fiat Justitia, ruat caelum’, or ‘Let justice be done though the heavens fall’. As regards, the Easter Sunday attacks, one may say, ‘Let justice be done though governments fall.”

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Editorial

Govt. learning from UNHRC

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Wednesday 3rd March, 2021

There is obviously no love lost between the incumbent Sri Lankan government and the UNHRC, but the former seems to have taken a leaf out of the latter’s book. It has adopted the practice of using reports to scare and tame its political opponents.

In what looks a counterattack on the political front, the Rajapaksa government has decided to release the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) that probed allegations of corruption and irregularities under the yahapalana government from 14 Jan. 2015 to 31 Dec. 2018. The then President Maithripala Sirisena appointed this commission to settle political scores with the UNP. He sought to take moral high ground and show his political enemies, especially the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in a bad light. The final report of the Easter Sunday PCoI, which Sirisena appointed to deflect criticism and pin the blame for failing to prevent the carnage on others, has boomeranged. The SJB is using it against not only Sirisena but also the present government, of which he is a member. The government seems to think the release of the PCoI report on corruption under the yahapalana government will help it silence the SJB, whose grandees were Cabinet ministers in the previous administration accused of being involved in various corrupt deals. One may recall that allegations of corruption were also levelled against several SLFP notables in the yahapalana Cabinet, and they are now in the present administration. Will the SLPP open up another can of worms by releasing the PCoI report at issue?

Most of the Opposition politicians who pretend to be paragons of virtue have a lot to answer for as regards frauds and corruption under the previous dispensation if the testimonies of high-profile witnesses who appeared before the PCoI on corruption are anything to go by. These politicians are now in overdrive, bashing the government for its failure to reveal the masterminds of the Easter Sunday attacks. It will be interesting to see their reaction to the government decision to release the PCoI report on corruption. Will they dare the SLPP to do so expeditiously and call for a parliamentary debate thereon? They should be able to do so if they are as confident as they claim to be that they were above board while they were in power.

If the government thinks it can mitigate the fallout of the flawed PCoI report on the Easter Sunday carnage by using the PCoI report on corruption to silence the political Opposition, then it is mistaken because not all its critics are its political rivals. Some SJB and UNP politicians attacking the SLPP may chicken out lest they should be prosecuted for corruption, etc., on the basis of the PCoI report, but there is no way the government can allay the fears of the public and counter protests by the Catholics who bore the brunt of the Easter Sunday terror. The Catholic Church has declared a Black Sunday protest (07 March), and its agitation campaign is likely to continue. Its consternation is understandable. Nobody is safe until the masterminds of the carnage are identified and dealt with, for they can carry out more attacks.

There was absolutely no need for a presidential probe to identify those whose lapses had led to the Easter Sunday tragedy. Their identities were already known and legal action could have been taken against them, but such a course of action will not help ensure that there will be no terror attacks. The need for a presidential probe arose as nobody knew who had actually masterminded the carnage and they had to be identified and neutralised.

The yahapalana leaders and their lackeys in the military and the police are no longer a problem because they are not in charge of national security. But the masterminds of the terror strikes are still at large. There’s the rub. The government ought to fulfil its election pledge to probe the carnage thoroughly, identify the masterminds thereof instead of trying to silence its critics politically.

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Editorial

Estranged strange bedfellows

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Tuesday 2nd March, 2021

The JVP has torn the Easter Sunday Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) report to shreds. Its leaders have picked many holes in the document, and their arguments are tenable. Their position is that the PCoI has served no useful purpose as it has failed to identify the masterminds of the terror strikes. One cannot but agree with them on this score.

JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, MP, has gone a step further; he has demanded to know why Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was the Prime Minister at the time of the Easter Sunday attacks, has been let off the hook. We asked the JVP a similar quetion when the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises), which probed the Treasury bond scams, went out of its way to ensure that Wickremesinghe’s name did not appear in its report. The COPE probe, under the chairmanship of the then JVP MP Sunil Handunnetti, was a farce. The JVP ran with the Opposition and hunted with the UNP, so to speak. Its notables stand accused of having had nocturnal meetings with Wickremesinghe and other UNP leaders (most of whom are currently in the SJB) to decide how to deal with the political enemies of the yahapalana government.

So, the defenders of the Easter Sunday PCoI report may ask the JVP what moral right it has to demand that the identities of the masterminds of the 2019 bomb attacks be revealed. Those who peddle this argument should realise that the present-day JVP is vastly different from its former self, as it were. It conducts itself very democratically, and its election campaigns are exemplary. It has parliamentary representation, and its leader is a member of the very Parliament, which it once bombed. Battles for manape, or preferential votes, are absent among JVP candidates. So, the JVP’s ugly past should not be held against it. But the outfit, which always takes moral high ground and looks down upon others, needs to be asked how it could reconcile its concern for human rights and democracy with the practice of commemorating its late leaders who destroyed thousands of lives and properties worth billions of rupees and brutally suppressed political dissent; among their victims were leaders of political parties and trade unions, students, teachers, Buddhist monks and civilians who dared exercise their franchise. Shouldn’t it publicly disown its leaders who were a bunch of bloodthirsty terrorists if it is to convince the public that its current democratic agenda is not a façade?

Why has the JVP taken to bashing Ranil? It is in the current predicament with only three seats in Parliament, where it had six members previously, because it got too close to the ‘capitalist’ UNP, which eliminated its key leaders in the late 1980s. It was also represented in the so-called National Executive Council, which determined the agenda of the UNP-led yahapalana government, initially. In 2018, it threw a lifeline to the UNP-led government, which the SLPP and the then President Maithripala Sirisena sought to oust in the most despicable manner. It declared that it had done so to save democracy, but nobody bought into that claim. It is now trying to have the public believe that it has had nothing to do with the UNP.

Interestingly, the JVP’s honeymoon with the SLFP in 2004, when it contested a general election as part of the United People’s Freedom Alliance, enabled it to have 39 of its candidates elected; it also donated two National List slots to the SLFP. Its leaders even beat their SLFP counterparts in Colombo, Gampaha and Kurunegala in manape battles. But its clandestine affair with the UNP proved both politically and electorally disastrous! So, it is now bashing Ranil as hard as it can in the hope that it will be able to be seen to be anti-UNP. Whether it will succeed in its endeavour remains to be seen. People are the best judges.

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