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Another sucker punch



Saturday 16th October, 2021

Hardly a day passes without huge increases in commodity prices being reported. Prices are rising so rapidly without any discernible increase in economic activity that one wonders whether the country is being tipped into stagflation. The government is behaving like an inebriated lifeguard who watches a drowning man flailing, instead of throwing a lifeline. Powerful businesses are having a field day, jacking up as they do prices according to their whims and fancies. Businessmen determine the prices of their products and services, and announce them at press conferences, making one wonder whether there are any consumer protection laws in this country. There is no one the hapless consumer can turn to. What is this world coming to when a government looks on while the people are being fleeced so savagely?

Consumers have been suffering heavy blows, one after another, during the past so many weeks, and the latest one has come from the local dairy product manufacturers including a state-owned company; they have jacked up the prices of the locally produced milk powder by Rs. 225 and Rs. 200 a kilo. The new prices are Rs. 1,170 and Rs. 1,165 a kilo, according to media reports. These price hikes have left one puzzled.

Three main reasons the milk powder importers have given for increasing the prices of their products are the increases in milk food prices in the international market, the depreciation of the rupee against the US dollar, and the escalation of freight rates. True, there have been some cost increases, but the question is whether they are so high as to warrant such massive increases in the prices of imported milk powder here. The milk powder importers obviously emulated the rice millers who have become a law unto themselves; they, too, created a scarcity and won their demand for unprecedented price hikes. Now, imported milk powder sells at Rs. 1,195 a kilo. People expected the local dairy companies, which heavily market their ‘Sri Lankan-ness’, to act reasonably, only to be disappointed.

How come the prices of locally produced milk powder have risen so sharply? The domestic milk powder manufacturers have claimed their costs have also gone up. Their argument is not convincing. The onus is on the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) to reveal to the public whether the increases in the prices of local milk powder are actually due to increases in production costs, or whether the domestic dairy product manufactures have sought to make the most of the situation; consumers feel that they are being exploited. An explanation is called for.

The general consensus is that the CAA has become so politicised and impotent that it only provides a rubber stamp for unscrupulous big businesses with political connections. Will it try to prove its critics wrong by taking up the cudgels for the public?

Is there a government? This is the question one asks oneself on seeing how helpless the public has become vis-à-vis powerful businesses who exploit them with impunity.

The Presidential Commission of Inquiry that probed the Easter Sunday bombings (2019), in its report, says one of the reasons for the serious security lapses which led to the carnage was that the then government was dysfunctional. True, the yahapalana government became a metaphor for dysfunctionality and ineptitude. The present dispensation, whose leaders promised a strong government to protect the interests of the public, does not look any different in spite of having a two-thirds majority in Parliament; confusion is reigning at the upper echelons of government. Ministers are running around like headless chickens, and the public is at the mercy of profiteers who enjoy unbridled freedom to do as they please.

Let the ruling politicians be told that they are digging their own political grave.

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Thugs and porters



Saturday 18th May, 2024

Lessons that the 2022 mass uprising provided have gone unlearnt if the ruling party politicians’ unruly behaviour is anything to go by. Those who went into hiding fearing aggressive mobs that pursued them have crawled out of the woodwork; they are exuding hubris and flexing their muscles, again. Old habits are said to die hard.

State Minister Prasanna Ranaweera (SLPP) has incurred much public opprobrium for slapping a baggage handler at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA). He is seen in a video, which is doing the rounds on social media, roughing up the worker in full view of others.

He has sought to justify his violence by claiming that he accompanied his wife to the BIA, and the porter concerned refused to accept Rs. 700 for carrying her bags and demanded Rs. 1,000 instead. He has said he lost his temper but did not do anything other than giving the baggage handler a piece of his mind. However, the video clip belies his claim.

So, a thundering slap across his face was what the BIA worker got for demanding Rs. 300 more! This incident reminds us of the 1980 general strike, which a collective of trade unions launched, demanding that state workers be paid Rs. 300 more each per mensem. The then UNP government sacked tens of thousands of strikers, and issued a dire warning that the ‘elephant’ (meaning the UNP) had only swung its trunk.

The workers who lost their jobs demanded justice, which was never served. Similarly, the BIA worker who asked for Rs. 300 more and became a victim of a member of the SLPP-UNP government has been denied justice. He has not been able to have the police act against State Minister Ranaweera, according to media reports. Maybe the police are scared of confronting Ranaweera for fear of being assaulted or coming under a chilli powder attack.

A few weeks ago, the police swung into action, after watching a social media video where a fast food vendor is seen scolding a foreigner in Colombo, and arrested the culprit in double quick time. They did not wait for a complaint to be made. But that kind of high-octane performance was sadly lacking on the part of the police over Tuesday’s incident. Will they explain why they did not arrest Ranaweera?

That said, it needs to be added that the BIA porters, save a few, are a law unto themselves. They fleece passengers with impunity. They have the audacity to demand payment in foreign currency. Passengers have no one to turn to and therefore suffer in silence.

The BIA will have to be given a radical shake-up if Sri Lanka is to improve its image and promote tourism. However, nobody should be allowed to go about slapping and kicking baggage handlers. What is needed is disciplinary and/or legal action against them.

State Minister Ranaweera must be made to face the full force of the law for assaulting the BIA worker. He has a violent disposition as evident from his involvement in fisticuffs in Parliament, especially during the 52-day government in 2018. He was one of the pro-Rajapaksa MPs who wreaked havoc on the House, and even threatened Speaker Karu Jayasuriya with bodily harm, and attacked the police inside the chamber.

Similarly, action should be taken against the porters who are a nuisance to passengers at the BIA and disgrace to the entire country.

The ruling party politicians seem to think they are out of danger and can do as they please. But let them be warned that public resentment is welling up, and they might have to head for the hills again unless they learn from the 2022 political upheavals and mend their ways.

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Multiple whammies for democracy



Friday 17th May, 2024

A government move to set up ad hoc community level advisory committees to handle election-oriented development work, etc., has run into stiff resistance. Its plan to appoint former SLPP and UNP local councillors to the outfits to be established has gone awry due to a legal snag.

There is hardly anything that a sinking regime does not do to retain its hold on power and avoid disastrous electoral defeats. The incumbent SLPP-UNP dispensation may have thought that it had been able to safeguard its interests by postponing the Local Government (LG) polls, which it did not want to face for fear of suffering a crippling electoral setback, but now it now finds itself in a bind.

Political parties are dependent on their local councillors to mobilise grassroots support for them. Most LG members elected in 2018 were from the SLPP and the UNP, and they cannot take part in election campaigns at present as they are still candidates although the LG polls have been put off. This is not a situation the government bargained for.

Hence its efforts to cancel the nominations for the LG polls in limbo and clear the way for the participation of their former local councillors in political work and their appointment to the so-called advisory committees in the works. Its trial balloon in the form of a ministerial statement that it is contemplating the cancellation of the LG nominations has provoked a howl of protests and given rise to a legal issue.

Nominations for an election cannot be cancelled simply at the stroke of a pen although the government seems convinced otherwise. President Ranil Wickremesinghe cut the Gordian knot when it became legally difficult for the government to postpone the LG polls; the government claimed that it could not allocate funds for an election at the height of an economic crisis because it had to prioritise the task of making essential goods and services available to the public over everything else. The SLPP and the UNP seem to think they can surmount the legal hurdle pertaining to the LG polls nominations in a similar manner.

Former Chairman of the Election Commission Mahinda Deshapriya has recently told the media that the LG nominations at issue can be cancelled only by Parliament, and a bill seeking their cancellation can be challenged before the Supreme Court. The government can muster a parliamentary majority for such a bill, but that will be politically counterproductive. The Opposition has pointed out that one billion rupees spent on the nomination process will go down the gurgler in such an eventuality. Thus, it will not be a walk in the park for the government to cancel the LG nominations.

Meanwhile, some government politicians have questioned the eligibility of Mujibur Rahman, who handed in his nomination for Colombo mayoral candidate, to be a member of Parliament. He resigned from Parliament to run for Colombo Mayor and submitted his nomination, but the LG polls were postponed. Government politicians are of the view that there is no legal provision for the resignation of candidates after the submission of nominations, and therefore Rahman’s appointment to Parliament via the National List can be challenged legally. It will be interesting to see whether this argument is valid.

Sri Lanka is facing an unprecedented situation, which is the antithesis of democracy. An unelected President is controlling all three tiers of government—something that even elected Presidents failed to do. President Wickremesinghe has Parliament under his thumb; the Provincial Councils and the Local Government authorities stand dissolved and are therefore under the Governors appointed by the President.

It is against this backdrop that the government’s efforts to establish a parallel local administration in the form of community level advisory committees should be viewed. If the government succeeds in its endeavour with its former local councillors serving in the outfits to be set up to compass its ends, democracy will suffer another whammy.

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Vroom mania



Thursday 16th May, 2024

The Parliament of Sri Lanka can hardly have a sitting without its members resorting to slanging matches and even coming to blows. They seldom see eye to eye on anything of national importance. But they readily sink their differences and work as one to further their own interests and safeguard their privileges. The government has reportedly decided to grant the MPs duty-free vehicle permits (DFVPs) while the people are struggling to meet their basic needs.

Never do the self-righteous MPs miss an opportunity to harangue public officials on the need to manage state funds frugally in view of the current economic crisis. A few weeks ago, they tore into the Central Bank employees over a triennial pay hike, which, they said, was unconscionably high. Their rhetoric and diatribe may have resonated with the irate public. Speaking in Parliament the other day, President Ranil Wickremesinghe said in no uncertain terms that the public sector workers must not expect pay increases this year as the government was without sufficient funds. The Local Government elections have been postponed on the grounds that funds cannot be allocated for them. Curiously, never do such pecuniary woes of the government stand in the way of the MPs enhancing their perks and leading the high life.

The MPs consider themselves ‘more equal’ than others and therefore they are likely to find ways and means of circumventing the rules and regulations that prevent the import of vehicles for private use. The superrich are known to have deep pockets when it comes to brand-new super luxury vehicles, which they cannot import at present. They will pay many times the market prices of such vehicles, and the MPs will be able to make a killing if they are allowed to import duty-free vehicles.

A group of civil society activists held a protest opposite the Presidential Secretariat, yesterday, against the government’s decision to issue DFVPs to the MPs. The police disrupted their agitation, and they had to go whence they had come after handing over a petition to a presidential aide. Their voice, we believe, is representative of all Sri Lankans who are struggling to keep the wolf from the door. Most people cannot even afford bus fares, which have been jacked up, but the MPs are given DFVPs and other perks.

A camel, in one of Aesop’s fables, empties its bowels while walking in a stream, and seeing its dung racing past it, it wonders how come what should be behind it is going ahead of it. Sri Lankans must be thinking likewise when they see the politicians they elect zing past them in luxury vehicles.

Sri Lanka, which has resorted to a debt default, must stop pampering the MPs who are leading whiskey lifestyles on the country’s toddy income. Their perks, which cost the taxpayer an arm and a leg, will make their counterparts in the developed world green with envy. The members of the present parliament cannot absolve themselves of responsibility for the current economic crisis, which did not come about overnight; the signs of it had been felt for a long time, and Parliament should have used its powers to ensure that remedial measures were adopted. So, its members are without any moral right to receive DFVPs.

The law that provides for the sale of DFVPs immediately after their issuance must be abolished; previously, it was illegal to transfer DFVPs before five years from the dates of their issuance. The Mahinda Rajapaksa government legalised that unlawful practice. The status quo ante must be restored.

Politicians had better stop testing the people’s patience, which is wearing thin.

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