Saturday 30th October, 2021
A meeting between President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the leaders of the SLPP constituents ended inconclusively on Thursday. Among the participants were Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaska and Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa. Nobody expected any positive outcome of the meeting because the government has crossed the point of no return where its questionable energy deal with New Fortress is concerned. Claiming that some more agreements remained to be signed as regards the Yugadanavi power plant as well as the proposed LNG project, the government leaders have asked SLPP MPs to submit their suggestions for consideration. It has put the cart before the horse/bullock. The government MPs’ views should have been sought before the signing of the controversial agreement. The government has also sought to pull the wool over the eyes of the public; it says that if the LNG deal goes through, it will be able to reduce the price of electricity by 20%! If it thinks the people are suckers, and its claim will help assuage public anger, it is mistaken.
Electricity is likely to be the least of Sri Lankans’ problems if what Minister of Trade Bandula Gunawardena told the SLPP leaders, at Thursday’s meeting, is anything to go by. Making a presentation, he said food prices were rising in the world market and there had been a decrease in global food production due to Covid-19. This is a realistic assessment of the situation, but the pandemic is only one of the causative factors.
The World Bank (WB) has, in a recent brief titled, Food Security and Covid-19, pointed out that the number of countries grappling with increasing levels of acute food insecurity is on the rise, and this situation will reverse years of development gains. It has revealed that even before the pandemic, reductions in incomes, disruptions to supply chains, and chronic and acute hunger were increasing owing to various factors including conflict, socio-economic conditions, natural hazards, the climate emergency, and pests. The impact of Covid-19 has caused severe and widespread increases in global food insecurity, which will continue into 2022 and possibly beyond, the WB says. This is a frightening proposition.
In Sri Lanka, food insecurity will be particularly severe owing to the current fertiliser shortage and attendant problems, which have driven many farmers to let their fields lie fallow, not to restore the fertility of the agricultural lands, but to avoid losses. Traders of the Manning market have said there has been a noticeable reduction in the vegetable supplies over the past several weeks, and it could be due to the fertiliser crisis.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s sovereign rating downgrade by Moody’s could not have come at a worse time. The Central Bank of Sri Lanka has put forth several arguments against the downgrade, and they sound convincing despite their political tenor. But foreign investors go by Moody’s ratings as they take all precautions when they park their money overseas, and this will make the task of attracting investment or obtaining foreign loans even more difficult for Sri Lanka.
Thus, at this rate, the day may not be far off when we find ourselves in a situation where there is no forex to pay for imports; food cannot be imported owing to a global shortage even if funds are available, and the local food production has decreased for want of fertiliser.
The government has undertaken to compensate farmers for crop losses that may be caused by its organic fertiliser experiment, but this course of action will not be a solution to the problem at hand; more money will be printed to pay compensation, increasing inflation, but the domestic food production will remain low. The solution is to increase the local agricultural output substantially so that the country will be able to absorb shocks from a severe global food shortage. It is not advisable for Sri Lanka to rely on food imports because other countries will cut down on their exports if they experience domestic shortages.
One only hopes that the government will wise up to the need for an urgent course correction and do everything in its power to increase the domestic food production lest the country should become dependent on ABCD—ala, bathala, cos and del—yams, sweet potatoes, jackfruit and breadfruit, as was the case in the 1970s.
Beware of virus bomb
Saturday 4th December, 2021
It never rains but it pours, as they say. A Sri Lankan infected with the Omicron variant of coronavirus has been detected. There must be many other infections in the country, and the detection thereof may be only a matter of time. Most nations hastened to impose travel bans on South Africa, etc., in a bid to prevent the spread of the much-dreaded variant, but all their efforts have manifestly gone pear-shaped. The new variant is smarter than it was thought to be; it is believed to have already spread across the globe.
Sri Lankans have now forgotten gas explosions and are talking about the possibility of another explosive spread of the pandemic. They are sure to go on speaking about Omicron instead of doing what needs to be done urgently.
Prof. Neelika Malavige, Head of the Department of Immunology and Molecular Medicine, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, has urged the public to follow the health guidelines strictly instead of worrying about coronavirus variants. That is the only way to prevent infections, she has said. One cannot but agree with the eminent scientist at the forefront of Sri Lanka’s fight against the elusive virus. If the people do as health experts say, then they do not have to fear any variant of coronavirus because the virus cannot spread without human assistance. As a good doctor once said, the virus cannot walk, vault over parapet walls and creep into houses to infect humans. It is the people who take it home.
Since the reopening of the country following the last lockdown, Sri Lankans have been behaving as if the pandemic were a thing of the past. There are well-attended weddings, and other such events where people do not abide by health regulations, at all. Pubs were reopened even before schools! Buses and trains are overcrowded again; nobody seems to care two hoots about preventive measures other than wearing masks, that too perfunctorily. They seem to believe that double jabbing is the proverbial silver bullet, and the country has already acquired herd immunity. But reality is otherwise, scientists inform us.
The government deserves credit for its successful vaccination programme, but it must not rest on its oars. It must go all out to ensure that the health regulations are strictly enforced. It must not hesitate to reimpose restrictions on gatherings and even travel if the health experts think such measures are necessary to curb the spread of the superfast Omicron variant. The time is now; tomorrow may be too late. It is prudent to opt for restrictions early and avert another lockdown, which will send the economy belly up, and lead to unprecedented socio-economic problems.
It behoves political parties and trade unions to act with restraint, and refrain from holding mass protests, which will make only the virus happy. The government had better stop provoking workers and the Opposition, and put on hold all controversial deals such as the New Fortress agreement, which has led to a power sector ca’canny, which is very likely to develop into a strike unless the government scraps the backdoor power deal at issue. On Thursday, a group of irate CEB engineers gheraoed one of their administrators over disciplinary action taken against a union member allegedly for political reasons.
Yesterday’s countryside power outage can be considered a foretaste of what to come. A large number of institutions have introduced work from home in view of the pandemic, and tens of thousands of workers have become dependent on the national grid to carry out their duties and functions. Many of them had to travel to their workplaces, yesterday, due to the power failure, exposing themselves to the runaway virus.
The number of Covid-19 patients remains very high, and the death toll is also showing signs of increasing. Infections among schoolchildren are on the rise, and these early warnings must be taken seriously if a rise in the pandemic death rate and another lockdown are to be averted.
Ranjan reduced to mere slogan?
Friday 3rd December, 2021
The Opposition has embarked on a campaign to have former SJB MP Ranjan Ramanayake released from prison, we are told. Posters have appeared in some areas, calling him a political prisoner. One may have sympathy for the outspoken former MP although he brought his trouble on himself, but it defies comprehension why he is being called a political prisoner.
Ramanayake cannot be considered a political prisoner by any stretch of the imagination, and those who use this terminological inexactitude are doing a great disservice to the cause of real political prisoners. In this country, politicians or even terrorists or terror backers arrested or sentenced to jail are promptly dubbed political prisoners much to the detriment of the interests of the real prisoners of conscience. On the other hand, a campaign based on an unprovable claim has a foundation of sand.
Politics had nothing to do with what landed Ramanayake in prison. He would not have found himself behind bars if he had cared to exercise control over his restless tongue. However, given the fact that many lawbreakers are moving about freely and carrying out their sordid operations with impunity, one wonders how fair it is to keep Ramanayake in jail. Those who are trying to secure his release may have a better chance of success if they care to be truthful.
Ramanayake did something wrong; he made a derogatory statement in public about judges and it was found to be an affront to the dignity of the judiciary. He should have known better than to make such a sweeping statement and repeat it, thereby presumably causing an erosion of public faith in the judiciary. But the penalty he received—four years of rigorous imprisonment—is unusually severe for the offence of contempt of court.
Convicted criminals of all sorts, ranging from rapists to murderers, have received presidential pardons in this country. Besides, S. B. Dissanayake, who made a derogatory remark about the Supreme Court and was sentenced to RI for two years, benefited from a presidential pardon. Ven. Galabotaaththe Gnanasara Thera serving a jail term for contempt of court also received a presidential pardon. So, the question is why Ramanayake should not be treated likewise. Gnanasara Thera is now in charge of the government’s one-country-one-law project, of all things!
Opposition politicians may go on complaining or protesting until they are blue in the face, but there is absolutely no way they will be able to secure the release of Ramanayake under their own steam. Their efforts are bound to come a cropper, and Ramanayake’s plight will remain a mere political slogan unless they do what needs to be done. Only President Gotabaya Rajapaska is capable of having Ramanayake released from prison. The Opposition should face reality. It is left with no alternative but to request the President to grant a presidential pardon to Ramanayake.
Far be it from us to tell the President who should be given presidential pardons, but we believe Ramanayake deserves one, and he should tender an apology to the judiciary. It is being claimed in some quarters that Ramanayake will emerge a hero if he serves the full jail term and therefore he should not seek a presidential pardon.
It is up to Ramanayaka to ask for a pardon or serve the remainder of his sentence; he will be mistaken if he thinks his prison stay will make him a hero.
Opposition and Sudden Savant syndrome
Thursday 2nd December, 2021
Why is it that only the Opposition politicians have brainwaves? Exceptional abilities are said to emerge in some ordinary people after brain injury or disease. We reported a few years ago that an American youth who dropped out of college as he was extremely weak in mathematics had become a brilliant mathematician all of a sudden after being hit in the head by a flying bottle in a pub. (Commenting on the incident, we warned the Sri Lankan youth that suffering head injuries in pub brawls was not the way to improve their mathematical skills!) Numerous such incidents have been reported from several parts of the world. This phenomenon has come to be called the Sudden Savant Syndrome. Where Sri Lankan politicians are concerned, epiphany-like moments occur in them only after traumatic electoral shocks. This is why some politicians act sensibly and come out with brilliant ideas when they are in the Opposition. Sri Lankans therefore say, “Mole thiyanakota bale ne bale thiyanakota mole ne, or when politicians have brains, they have no power, and vice versa.”
Chief Opposition Whip and SJB MP Lakshman Kiriella told Parliament yesterday that the MPs should be allowed to pursue legal or higher studies, given their legislative experience. This is a sensible idea. In the 1970s, there was such a scheme; the MPs could enter the Law College, as Kiriella has pointed out, and some of the present-day political leaders including Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa benefited from it. Why it was scrapped is the question. It should be reintroduced for the benefit of the lawmakers.
A person who gains experience as a member of Parliament should be able to gain university or Law College admission, the Chief Opposition Whip said. However, not all MPs could be considered qualified, for many of them do not use the time allocated for them in Parliament productively; some MPs do not make any contribution to parliamentary debates. They only bellow rhetoric and insult others when they are given opportunities to speak. The MPs who make an effort to improve their performance and knowledge should be allowed to pursue legal or higher education while others who exchange blows and trade raw filth in the House should be denied nominations to contest future elections.
Educational opportunities should be made available to everyone, and courses of study designed for this purpose as in other countries. Those who miss opportunities to achieve their educational goals for various reasons when they are young should be able to realise their dreams later in life if they so desire. Education is a right, and must be treated as such.
In 2019, the then MP Ranjan Ramanayake sat the GCE O/L examination at the age of 56 as he wanted to obtain a better grade for the English language. We praised him editorially for his keenness to study, and urged other MPs to emulate him because this is the right attitude that everyone must adopt. Ramanayake said he wanted to study law, but unfortunately, he is now languishing behind bars because he, in his wisdom, caused an affront to the dignity of the judiciary. He should have studied law earlier.
People should be encouraged not to let their age, chronological or biological, stand in the way of their education. Varatha Shanmuganathan, 87, who migrated to Canada from Sri Lanka, and earned a master’s degree, last month, has shown the way. If a grandma can do so, why can’t others?
Meanwhile, education alone does not make a good lawmaker. Basically, people’s representatives must be intelligent men and women of integrity with a passion for public service. Kiriella has said the MPs are intelligent because they accomplish the extremely difficult task of getting elected. Yes, there are some intelligent lawmakers, but others are blessed with cunning, which should not be confused with intelligence. Most politicians have achieved success through unscrupulous means, and it is doubtful whether they will mend their ways even if they receive postgraduate degrees. What power politics reflect in this country is the law of the jungle, and political dregs with the wherewithal and right connections go places at the expense of educated, intelligent, decent men and women. The emergence of dynastic politics has worsened the situation. Political leaders and their children have all the luck, and others have to settle for crumbs from their tables.
However, it should be stressed that the President, the Prime Minister, the Speaker and the Leader of the Opposition should give serious thought to devising a scheme to help not only the MPs but also all other elected representatives desirous of receiving a decent education achieve their dream.
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