Thursday 16th September, 2021
Lohan Ratwatte is reported to have resigned as the State Minister of Prison Management & Prisoners’ Rehabilitation over two separate incidents where he and a group of persons, described as his friends, forced themselves into two prisons and threatened some inmates and made a nuisance of themselves to the prison officers. He, however, will continue to function as the Sate Minister of Gem, Jewellery related Industries. (A gem of a minister!)
It is a criminal offence to enter prisons forcibly, brandish firearms and threaten inmates. The government must explain why Ratwatte and others who were with him at the time of the incidents, have not been arrested, yet. The SLPP leaders came to power, promising to uphold the rule of law and ensure public security. Now, people are not safe even inside heavily-guarded prisons!
Legal action must also be taken against the officers of the Anuradhapura and Welikada Prisons for their inaction. They should have prevented the State Minister from entering their institutions allegedly under the influence of liquor and running amok. The fact that Ratwatte was the State Minster in charge of prisons at the time was no reason for them to allow him in, and let him run around in a frenzied state. Shame on them! How would the brave prison officers have reacted if an ordinary person had tried to gain unauthorised entry into a state pen? He would have been beaten to a bloody pulp.
A few months ago, the government lost no time in having an irate young driver arrested and hauled up before courts for tooting and encouraging others to do likewise in protest against the closing of a road in Colombo to make room for a foreign dignitary, at night. It also orders the police to arrest protesters for violating quarantine laws. So, there is no way it can justify its failure to have the unruly State Minister and his gang arrested.
Crush Health Mafia!
Some Health Ministry officials who take vital decisions on Covid-19 testing and allied matters are doctors working at private hospitals, and therefore there is a conflict of interest on their part, we are told. So, how can the Health Ministry be expected to make the optimal use of its medical laboratories to test inbound passengers at the BIA?
The government would have us believe that it has embarked on a mission to tame the Rice Mafia. The Consumer Affairs Authority has been conducting raids purportedly to achieve this objective. But the Health Mafia preying on the pandemic-hit people, and causing staggering losses to the state coffers, enjoys the freedom to do as it pleases. President of the College of Medical Laboratory Science (CMLS) Ravi Kumudesh has told this newspaper that some high-ranking Health Ministry officials are benefiting from a racket involving private medical laboratories and quarantine centres, but the government has taken no action against them.
The CMLS has rubbished Deputy Director General of Health Services Dr. Hemantha Herath’s claim that the state sector is not equipped to test all those arriving here from overseas. Its personnel were capable of carrying out that task if given a free hand, the CMLS has said, stressing that the number of Covid-19 tests conducted daily could be increased to 100,000 easily with the existing resources if the Health Ministry is willing to do so. Other countries are encouraging home testing by making available Rapid Antigen Test kits at reasonable prices, but the Sri Lankan government has created a situation where its cronies are thriving on testing, the CMLS alleges.
The CMLS informs us that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered the Health Ministry to purchase 30 rapid PCR machines to ramp up testing, but some officials halved that number arbitrarily. They have overridden a presidential order with impunity! They must be really powerful!
The CMLS ought to lodge a complaint with the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption against the Health Ministry officials who are preventing the state-run medical laboratories from functioning at optimal capacity to line their pockets.
The Health Department has the capacity to conduct as many as 4,500 tests a day on inbound tourists and issue reports within 90 minutes, but some officials have prevented the state-run lab at the BIA from receiving samples, which are sent to private hospitals, the CMLS has said. Strangely, the government has chosen to ignore these very serious allegations, making one wonder whether its members are also benefiting from the testing and quarantine rackets.
If the ruling party politicians and cronies are not involved in the health scams, the government should be able to order a probe into the allegations at issue.
This is something that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should take note of because the blame for the testing and quarantine rackets is laid at his door while the crooked health officials are laughing all the way to the bank together with their corrupt chums.
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.
Waltzing with virus
Friday 15th October, 2021
There was a mixed reaction to the demarcation by the government of an area adjacent to the Presidential Secretariat for public protests, in 2020. Some people welcomed it, claiming that it would help keep protesters off the busy city roads, but others suspected an ulterior motive; they said the government was planning to ban public demonstrations outside the designated area. Whether the government was contemplating such a move is anybody’s guess, but today the so-called ‘Agitation Site’ allocated for protests is perhaps the only place where there are no demonstrations. Hardly a day passes without mass protests being reported from different parts of the country. These agitations could not have come at a worse time.
Thousands of farmers took to the streets yesterday in Minneriya, calling upon the government to make fertiliser available freely. The protesters obviously ran the risk of contracting Covid-19. Burning Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage in effigy, they bitterly complained that they had suffered crop failures due to a fertiliser shortage. The government looks unconcerned about farmers’ woes, and its propagandists are all out to brand the protesters as a bunch of hirelings of the Opposition and agrochemical companies. But so many farmers would not have protested in all parts of the country so aggressively without any genuine grievances although their demonstrations cannot be considered devoid of politics. In a country where not even places of worship are above partisan politics, it is not fair to expect farmers and their associations to be apolitical.
What really matters is not farmers’ political affiliations but the causes of their resentment and why the government has chosen to ignore the grievances of the farming community.
The government ought to meet farmers’ representatives without further delay, look into their grievances and do everything possible to solve their problems. Measures such as unleashing the ruling party propaganda hounds on protesters, and bellowing rhetoric will not do. It is also plain political suicide for the government to antagonise the farmers, who can make or break governments. Most of the protesting farmers of Minneriya must be the supporters of the present dispensation; the people of Polonnaruwa have voted overwhelmingly for the SLPP at the last two elections.
The fertiliser issue is a very complex one, which has to be tackled separately with the participation of all stakeholders; it cannot be solved overnight. But the government has to do something urgently to prevent mass protests which can worsen the national health emergency. What the country has gained with the help of an expensive, 41-day lockdown will be lost in a few days if super-spreader events such as protests continue at the current rate. Fear is being expressed in health circles that Covid-19 fatalities are likely to soar come December owing to the irresponsible behaviour of the public and the government’s lackadaisical attitude towards pandemic control; it seems to have pinned all its hopes on its vaccination drive, which cannot be considered the proverbial silver bullet.
Where is the Minister of Agriculture? We see only his effigies these days. He said no rice would be imported because there were enough rice stocks in the country; he embarked on a quixotic mission to tame the rice millers only to return bruised and much the worse for wear. Rice is now being imported, and someone will laugh all the way to the bank. The Agriculture Minister also insists there are enough stocks of fertiliser in the country. If so, are the farmers who are protesting against a fertiliser shortage out of their senses? He had better talk to the irate farmers and sort out their problems without provoking them further.
It behoves the government to direct the Agriculture Minister and his officials to meet the representatives of farmers’ organisations and make a serious effort to bring the situation under control. If he is not equal to the task, then either the Prime Minister or the President ought to intervene to solve the farmers’ problems that are driving thousands of people to stage street protests like the one we witnessed yesterday in Minneriya.
Kiribath and mala bath
Thursday 14th October, 2021
Milk rice or kiribath has a positive association for all Sri Lankans, who consider no ceremonial occasion complete without it. However, it also serves as a medium of expression for those who are consumed with negative emotions such as hate and anger, as evident from some events we witness from time to time on the political front. On Tuesday, many Opposition activists were seen eating and giving away kiribath in some parts of the country; they were ‘celebrating’ the recent price hikes, of all things, in a bid to tease their rivals and gain political mileage.
People’s right to engage in peaceful political activities cannot be questioned, but it is doubtful whether the kiribath-eating events struck a responsive chord with the resentful public. What the Opposition backers’ ill-conceived action signifies is that the polity is so divided along party lines that politicians and their followers are even ready to stoop so low as to derive some perverse pleasure, or kaalakanni sathuta, as it is popularly called, from the miseries of fellow citizens; they make a show of their chutzpah, hoping that the collective suffering of the public will help them gain political traction.
The SLPP leaders also derived a great deal of perverse pleasure from people’s suffering while they were in the Opposition although they did not go to the extent of eating kiribath in public.
From 2015 to 2019, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, grinning like the Cheshire Cat, would cynically ask the people who were facing numerous problems including economic and security issues, having voted for the yahapalana government, ‘Dan sepada?’ (This unkind, rhetorical question implies that one has got one’s comeuppance.) He would rub their noses in it until the 2019 regime change.
Now, the boot is on the other foot, and the government has had a person arrested for asking ‘dan sepada’ from the Moratuwa Mayor following the latter’s arrest over an incident at a vaccination centre.
The practice of eating milk rice as an expression of elation at others’ loss or misery, however, is not of recent origin. In May 1993, SLFP politicians and their backers, it bears recall, distributed kiribath and played raban in the aftermath of the assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa. In so doing, they only demonstrated their incivility, and unwittingly endorsed the crime the LTTE had perpetrated. It may be recalled that in 1989, the UNP supporters ‘celebrated’ the extrajudicial execution of JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera, in a similar manner. Many were the people who ate and distributed milk rice on the roadside upon receiving the news of Prabhakaran’s death in 2009.
In a country, which is not blessed with statespersons, it is only natural that political leaders and their henchmen do not scruple to outstep the bounds of decency in furthering their interests. There is hardly anything they do not cash in on. So, Tuesday’s kiribath-eating events did not come as a surprise although they left a bad taste in many a mouth.
The government ought to realise that burning resentment is welling up in the polity, and it has to make a meaningful intervention to ameliorate the people’s suffering.
It is time the people and their so-called leaders wised up to the need to sink their differences and join forces to fight the pandemic instead of trying to settle political scores. Unless a concerted effort is made to prevent the prevailing health emergency from getting out of hand and causing an exponential increase in the death toll, the possibility of which cannot be ruled out, many people will have to partake of mala batha (a simple meal served after funerals) instead of kiribath.
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