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Budget 2021: Need for ‘National Reading’

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Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, presented the nation’s 75th Budget, for the Year 2021, to Parliament, last week. Now we can witness different interpretations of the budget from economists, the business community, academics and representatives of civil society. Some argue, with their expertise in economics, and some can be seen with their understanding of society. Moreover, it can be seen that certain elements read this budget with their political ideology. Anyway, this is the time that Sri Lanka needs “National Reading” of the Budget.

This Budget is unique for a few reasons. First we need to “read” this by focusing on the current pandemic situation. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasts Sri Lanka’s economy to shrink 4.6% this Year. This can be seen as the same as other countries. In May 2020, the Asian Development Bank announced that COVID‐19 could cost the global economy between $5.8 and $8.8 trillion.

And also, we should not forget the “Easter Sunday attack” which severely affected the economy of the country last year. Refer below for ‘’Reuters reports” on 18 September 2019.

“Sri Lanka’s economy grew at its slowest pace, in more than five years from April to June, government data showed on Wednesday, as the Easter Sunday bomb attacks that killed over 250 people hit the island nation’s fastest-growing tourism sector. Accommodation, food and beverage service activities, which have been rapidly growing due to high tourist influx, fell 9.9% in the June quarter, compared to the same period a year ago.”

So, it is clear that the Sri Lankan economy is experiencing a “double blow” unlike other countries. There is a need for people to understand this situation. This is the time when people need to have a “National Reading” for the budget. Interestingly Dr. W.A Wijewardena, former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of SriLanka, has vividly elaborated this context in his article titled “Budget 2021: Gota’s Third War, but forgive me, it is our war, too”. Accordingly, Wijewardena argued that ‘’Sri Lanka is at war today and it is Gota’s Third War. But it is not his war alone; it is our war too. We all should fight it with vigour, rigor, perseverance, and determination. The whole nation should help Gota by working harder, two or three times harder than before, to take the country out of the present economic malaise. That is the only source of progress. Without that, the Budget 2021 will only be another document with no practical relevance.” Hence there is a need for everyone to understand the real situation of the country.

People in this country need to understand this crisis. We did not expect either the Easter Sunday attack or Covid-19, which have done much damage to people and to the country as a whole. Now the time has come to get together as one nation and work towards the betterment of the country. Hence there is a need for everyone to “read” this Budget 2021, with the interest of the nation.

 

Professor NALIN ABEYSEKERA

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Opinion

Contempt of court and democracy

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Donald Trump has finally left the White House President Joe Biden is acting fast to revoke many of the Trump decisions affecting the US and the world.

The world is watching the new trend in the US, and the claims that Democracy has been restored. There will certainly be many more actions needed to restore or ensure Democracy in the USA  – because it needs much more than universal franchise. In fact, on the subject of universal franchise – Sri Lanka is far ahead of the US-nearly 70 years.  But, let’s be cautious in making any claim that we are a wholly a democratic nation or country…we  certainly need much more to claim that.

Democracy aside, we are now in the midst of a raging debate on the Judiciary. Film star-turned-politician, Ranjan Ramanayake is the stuff  of the debate here, with his four years rigorous imprisonment for the offence of Contempt of Court. Are we still in the colonial stage and thinking on Justice and Contempt? How fair, equitable and honourable, are our law and traditions on Contempt of Court?

We are now having a big issue whether India should be given 49% of the East Container Terminal in the Port of Colombo. There are also increasing and loud disapprovals on the delay in obtaining Covid-19 vaccines from India. Let’s put these aside, and with one of our most popular and thrice re-elected member of Parliament, having to face four years of rigorous imprisonment, see if we have in any way gone beyond the colonial days of subjugation under the British, on the matter of Contempt of Court —  a key factor of Justice. Are we ready to admit that this Hindu majority neighbour is far ahead of us in this key area of Justice? Or, should we just keep in line with the colonial rulers?

Let’s be honest – we have no proper law on Contempt of Court. We have a constitutional provision, which does not lay down the proper legal practice in dealing with this “offence” against the law. There is  no minimum or maximum sentence, no provision for appeal against a Supreme Court, which happens to be the only court where the case is heard. 

Is this the substance of Justice?     

Look at the realities. Ramanayake is accused of having insulted the judiciary and members of the legal profession. He said what he believed. Have they always been clean, above dishonesty and deceit, and what about his democratic right to freedom of speech and comment?  

We are still not too far away from a former Chief Justice, who acted in favour of a political leader in respect of Tsunami relief funds. He even admitted this several years later. Is that the stuff or substance of a non-corrupt judiciary?

Is this the situation in which Ranjan Ramanayake must suffer four years of rigorous imprisonment, and also lose his membership of Parliament, and be unable to contest a parliamentary election for many years to come?

Just look at Parliament he was in until last week and the judicial order for imprisonment; he has no other convictions. One member who was elected  after being found guilty of murder is allowed to participate in the House sittings with the consent of the Speaker. Another member who has been five years and more in remand custody is now fully free, after the Attorney General’s Department found evidence against him isufficient as regards the murder of a member of Parliament at a Christmas Day church ceremony in 2005. 

Just look at some of the Indian judgments on Contempt of Court. In the Bikram Birla Case on indecent, insulting comments on the judiciary the judgement was imprisonment for one month and a fine of Rs. 200.

More recently, Indian lawyer Prashant Bhooshan, who made on contemptuous statements via Twitter, was fined just one rupee, and brief imprisonment if the fine was unpaid.

Well-known journalist, author and social activist Arundhathi Roy, on charges of insulting the judiciary was sentenced to jail for one day. Shouldn’t we learn from this Indian trend? Another matter that comes to mind is whether it is proper for the institution (or persons) allegedly hurt by the actions or comments of a citizen, hear and give judgment on one’s own case? 

So, why not have a different judiciary – possibly with retired senior judges or persons with such experience and eminence – to hear cases of Contempt of Court?

Also, why not have proper legislation laying down the exact explanation of contempt and  the minimum and maximum punishments, as well as provisions to keep the guilty out of prisons on the basis of good behaviour? Isn’t this the stuff and substance of democracy.

We certainly don’t need either Joe Biden or the Queen of England to teach this. It is the task of our own lawmakers, including those sentenced by the courts who are now making our laws. 

This is the issue of justice and legality, together with civic rights and common sense that Ranjan Ramanayake has brought before us, as he suffers four years of rigorous imprisonment, that bothers the minds of democratic citizens.

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Opinion

India – Aussie: Good lessons to Sri Lankan cricketers

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By Dr D. CHANDRARATNA

Turnarounds, we know from history, can never be predicted. But Indian lower order debutants did a magnificent turnaround last week that will go straight into history books. There is much to be learnt from the recently concluded dazzling cricket series between Australia and India. What is interesting to note is that some of the new players, who excelled in this Test, have overcome turnarounds in their real lives, too. These are lessons for Sri Lankan cricketers who have not really grasped the significance of playing for one’s country.

The Australian papers carried the stories of the new caps handed before the Gabba Test and how they snared the chances with both hands. Natarajan, is the son of a loom worker who had no money for luxuries, like cricket gear and shoes. For many years, Natarajan, who was asked to remain in Australia only as a net bowler, says he had to think a hundred times before investing in new shoes in his earlier life. His mother wept with joy when she saw him representing India, on TV, on that momentous day in Canberra. Siraj rose to become India’s new ball bowler, despite being born to a poor rickshaw driver. His father died and he couldn’t perform his last rites as he was in Australia on national duty. His rich neighbour, a retired Army man, throughout his local cricketing life, sponsored Washington Sundar, born to poor parents. His name was Washington. Sundar Senior had earlier selected the religious name Sri Nivasan for his first male son, but at the last moment changed his mind and named the baby ‘Washington’ as a tribute to his benefactor. Before his untimely death, he had mentioned that if he had another son he would name him Washington Junior. So much for the debt of gratitude. Navdeep Saini’s father was a government driver and could not afford expensive cricket coaching for his son. So Saini played exhibition matches with the tennis ball at Rs.300 a match to fund his dreams. These stories should inspire future generations of cricket players in our developing country.

A media blog reported that ‘All their failures, all their struggles, all their doubts and all their insecurities – all that was settled once and for all in this Test match’. Also there is something else. They not only sustained tremendous pressure, but also took hard knocks all over their bodies against ‘one of the best Australian attacks ever’. In doing so, they have made us realise that while a five-hour IPL match can create instant celebrities, Test Cricket, which stretches over five days, creates real heroes.

Coming back to those hard knocks and injuries they sustained, it is perplexing as to why the bouncer is not banned from the game yet. It’s no brainer to rid the sport of this menace. It is sickening to see medium built cricketers, especially from Asia, getting hit by the heavily built muscle men bowling at the rib cage and above, to intimidate and possibly kill the sportsmen. What one may ask is the sportsmanship of the world’s best bowler from Australia bouncing to the world’s worst batsman, other than to injure him or even kill him. Hope this will be eradicated from the game, and sooner the better. Penalizing the bowler ‘a posteriori’ is meaningless after the damage is done. All things these days are science driven, and why are the injuries bouncers’ cause an exception. This weapon, invented by the West, should be banned in international cricket. Anything that gives an unfair advantage to one side is, as per the famous aphorism goes, ‘ is not cricket’. Cricket is a competitive sport, no doubt, but we do not treat the opponents as enemies. It is only a game and not a war game.

In the same vein, it is time to put a stop to the racial and vulgar sledging mostly by the western cricketers, as was experienced by Ravi Ashwin in the recent series. We need not put up with excuses such as that ‘we need to grow up’, ‘do not be sissies’, etc. The time to grow up ‘to be vulgar’ is not necessary culturally, and/or morally anymore. We must have the guts to educate the world body that the time to abide by lessons of the Empire days is long gone past. If the umpires cannot stop the taunts, the players have a right to walk off the field than sacrifice their wicket. I cannot understand why the cricketing authorities, particularly the Asians, do not stand up to the antics of White Europeans in the playing field. No fieldsman has the right to torment any cricketer, no matter the complexion, to gain an unfair advantage. This is the 21st century and we should not be bowled over by our former colonial friends anymore. Once again such behaviour is also ‘not cricket’.

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Opinion

Is government in self-destructive mode?

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The government seems to have forgotten the two main factors that propelled it to power. One factor was the threat to the national interest that developed due to the evil deeds of the previous government in their disastrous tenure, and the other is the deleterious effect the ruined economy had on the poor people. Governments which never forget what helped them come to power and face electoral debacles.

Of the two political parties that had governed this country, the SLFP is more nationalistic and the UNP is more neo-liberal and pro-West. The latter governed this country from 2015 to 2019, and adopted policies that made the country almost a vassal of the West, and also ruined the economy by robbing the Central Bank. Nobody wants to invest in a country where the government robs its own central bank. Further, that government colluded with the separatists and Western powers to hound the war- winning armed forces. Those misdeeds on the one hand caused an upsurge of nationalism among the middle class and the professionals, and severe hardship among the poor. These two groups that account for more than two thirds of the population could easily be rallied against the government, as never before.

The electoral system that was in operation was not expected to allow anything more than a thin majority, but given the people’s frustration now SLPP won with a huge majority. The economy and nationalism are the two main factors that decide elections in Sri Lanka. Here it is the economy of the poor people, the large majority, that matters. This is evident from the fact that during the period 2010 to 2015 all economic parameters like the GDP, debt ratio, inflation, etc were favourable but the SLFP government lost the election, because their development effort, notwithstanding all indices, did not help the poor people. It seems those big projects that resulted in good economic indices like a high GDP, did not alleviate the hardship of the poor.

This government has the opportunity to base its economic policies on nationalism, to help those who improve the lives of the less affluent. More than 60% of people who voted for this government are poor rural people. The government should have focused on these people.

More than 70% of people live in the villages and are sustained by an agricultural economy. Yet, the government in its recent budget has allocated less than 6% to the development of agriculture. Although it has stopped the import of some goods that could be produced locally, and this has helped the local farmers to some extent, much more should have been done for the development of agriculture.

Not enough is done to initiate the local manufacture of seeds, fertilizer, aggro-chemicals, storage and machinery. At least 20% of the budget should have been allocated for the agriculture, plantations and fisheries sectors. These are the major areas of the economy that need to be developed to improve the living conditions of the rural population. It will also lessen our dependence on foreign imports.

Further, if more money is invested in this sector, it may be possible even to give employment to those workers who are returning from abroad due to Covid, and also reduce the number of people leaving the country for semi-slavery, which is a disgrace to the country, not to mention its adverse social impact.

This is the time for this government to lay the groundwork for the development of the rural economy, health, education, household income, housing, sanitation, availability of potable water etc. It has not allocated sufficient funds for the education of poor people. Economy cannot be improved without developing education. Rural schools lack basic facilities like toilets, pipe- borne water, electricity, buildings. We have seen on TV children and teachers holding umbrellas during classes as roofs are leaking. By developing the national economy the government can “kill two birds with one stone”. Economy of the poor could be improved without compromising the national interest. A national economy would make optimum use of natural and human resources. Experts need not be imported for simple development work and also for solving connected problems. For instance, entomologists need not be brought from abroad to deal with the problem created by the Sena caterpillar. Governments may not have to sell or lease valuable national assets like the harbours, airports, industries sector, if those are better managed. This government pledged in its election campaign to protect the national assets. But now it seems to have forgotten that promise. 6.9 million people who voted for it are disappointed. This is another reason why the government is losing its popularity. No foreign power should be allowed to force the government to sell the country’s national assets. In the context of today’s global geopolitics, Sri Lanka is in a position to resist such pressure.

Further, surely, we cannot be lacking in technical and managerial expertise to run state enterprises. If we are short of money, it is better to wait till we improve our economy and are in a position to find the money. Someday things will improve and we will be able to operate them profitably. If we sell even 49% that is almost half, and we may never get it back. Another area that the government has failed is the environment protection sphere. Unscrupulous racketeers are allowed to do much damage to forests, wetlands, lagoons and other valuable ecosystems which are detected only after the damage is done. Are the officials responsible for looking after these national assets blind, or are their palms well-oiled or are politicians behind these activities. These activities are anti-national and are viewed as such by the people. Unless the government remembers that 6.9 million voted for it, most of them the rural poor, and realizes quickly that the lives of rural people have to be developed based on national economic policies, which make optimum use of natural and human resources available in the country, look after national assets and protect the environment, it will be in trouble come the next election.

N.A.de S. AMARATUNGA

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