Wednesday 16th November, 2022
President Ranil Wickremesinghe has, in his budget speech, sought to kindle hopes of economic recovery. Claiming that the ongoing talks with the IMF, India, China, etc., would lead to positive outcomes, he has offered to build a ‘social market economy’ or an ‘open economic system of social protection’ whatever that means. However, there is no harm in the Head of State trying to infuse the public with some optimism amidst a national feeling of doom and gloom.
President Wickremesinghe has said a social market economy will help achieve a high economic growth of 7 to 8 percent, increase international trade (as a percentage of GDP) by more than 100 percent, ensure an annual growth of US$ 3 billion from new exports between 2023 and 2032, secure foreign direct investment of more than US$ 3 billion in the next 10 years, and create an internationally competitive workforce within the next decade.
Youth unrest and the resultant protests seem to have prompted the government to undertake to adopt what it calls a youth-oriented approach to economic development. President Wickremesinghe, in his budget speech, chose to call the youth ‘the real national wealth’. He is of the view that attention has not been paid to the country’s youth, and their hopes are fading; they are calling for systemic changes.
It is heartening that the President has realised the need to serve the interests of the youth, but it is not clear how his government intends to set about the task. One can only hope that it is not paying lip service to young citizens’ cause.
Among the measures the government has proposed to boost the foreign currency inflow is to create a business-friendly environment. One of the biggest obstacles to foreign investment is corruption. No foreigner can invest here unless he or she is willing to grease countless palms. How does the President propose to tackle this problem? The culprits are in his government!
Budget 2023 has proposed labour law reforms but stopped short of specifying them. The President has only said the country’s labour laws are outdated and fragmented and there is a pressing need for what he calls a new, unified labour law. Will the proposed labour laws deprive workers of their rights in the name of investment promotion?
The government has also proposed land reforms in all but name. The President has said that a programme will be launched to enable investors to utilise land productively to increase both production and exports. This is an area where the government ought to tread cautiously, for the disposal of state land always leads to rackets.
The proposed macro-fiscal framework is aimed at increasing government revenue from 8.3% to 16% of GDP by 2025, achieving a primary surplus of more than 2% of GDP in 2025, reducing public sector debt from about 110% of GDP to less than 100% in the medium term, bringing inflation to a single-digit level in the medium term, ensuring that interest rates will reach a moderate level, restoring macroeconomic confidence and replenishing exchange reserves with foreign finances to ease pressure on the exchange rate, and enabling the medium-term economic growth to return to about 5% by enhancing structural reforms. This is a tall order, and how the government will fare in pursuing these goals remains to be seen.
Budget 2023 is very clear on the government’s plan to restructure some profit-earning state-owned ventures such as Sri Lanka Telecom and Sri Lanka Insurance, and utilise the proceeds therefrom to strengthen foreign exchange reserves and the rupee. So, a fire-sale of state assets will commence soon.
The government’s desperation for forex is evident from its proposal to set up an expert committee to explore the possibility of producing Triloka Wijayapathra (cannabis or ganja) for export. This is bound to cause quite a stir. President Wickremesinghe is no stranger to controversy. If the government cares to solve farmers’ problems such as the existing fertiliser shortage and high cost of production thereby developing the agricultural sector, and goes all out to recover the country’s stolen funds, there will be no need to grow cannabis.
President Wickremesinghe, on Monday, sought to justify the unconscionable tax increases ratified by Parliament weeks earlier. He proposed to set up a Presidential Commission on Taxation ‘to study and make recommendations on the functioning, coordination and changes to be made in the tax structure, the institutions, procedures, etc.’ It is one’s fervent hope that the government is not contemplating any more tax increases!
The Opposition has dismissed Budget 2023 as something worthless, and flayed the government for not providing relief to the public. The budget is not devoid of flaws, but the question is whether the President could have done better, given the country’s economic situation.
Meanwhile, the government says it is confident that it has enough numbers in Parliament to secure the passage of Budget 2023. But efforts are being made in some quarters to shoot it down. The SLPP-UNP combine is taking precautions and all out to engineer some crossovers from the Opposition. A political war over the national budget has to be avoided for the sake of the ailing economy, which cannot take any more shocks. It is imperative that the warring parties get themselves around the table, with compromises being made in the form of committee-stage changes to the budget, so that there will be no showdown at the expense of the ongoing efforts to stabilise the economy.
A double whammy
Saturday 3rd December, 2022
The current economic crisis has eclipsed many other serious issues the country is beset with, and among them is the drug menace. President of the Government Medical Officers’ Forum Dr. Rukshan Bellana has made a revelation, which is sure to send a chill down everyone’s spine; drug addiction is on the rise among hospital workers, he has told the media. The majority of these drug addicts are members of the minor staff, and they are involved in drug peddling as well, he has said. There seems to be no shortage of narcotics at government hospitals, where medicinal drugs are in short supply!
An oft-heard complaint in health circles is that minor staff members in the state-run hospitals have become a law unto themselves because they are recruited on the basis of their political connections. Gone are the days when every worker in the state sector was recruited on merit and properly trained, and made to face disciplinary action in case of transgressions. There have been instances where hospital workers even threatened and roughed up their superiors, and politicians intervened to protect the culprits. It is only natural that they use and sell narcotics in hospitals with impunity. The need for these elements to be severely dealt with cannot be overstated.
It is hoped that the Health Ministry will get cracking on ridding the hospital system of narcotics instead of taking action against Dr. Bellana for having exposed drug addiction among health workers. When a doctor released the findings of a survey on malnutrition among children, a few months ago, the health panjandrums took disciplinary action against him!
The narcotic trade seems to have thrived during the past several years. About 80 percent of private bus drivers in Colombo and its suburbs were addicted to drugs, State Minister Dilum Amunugama said, last year. President of the Lanka Private Bus Owners’ Association Gemunu Wijeratne has gone on record as saying that about 50% private bus drivers are addicted to drugs, countrywide, and most of them have graduated from cannabis to ICE (crystal methamphetamine). No wonder they drive like bats out of hell! Drug addiction must be equally high among other heavy vehicle drivers as well. Last year, about 2,490 lives were lost in road accidents, which numbered 2,325, and left 5,263 seriously injured.
A programme to conduct roadside drug testing is to be launched in January, we are told. This is a long-felt need and will help reduce the number of fatal accidents significantly. At present, there is no way drug addicts behind the wheel could be detected although most bus and truck drivers are addicted to narcotics. The police can nab only drunk drivers. State Minister of Transport Lasantha Alagiyawanna has said about 5,000 drug screening devices have been distributed among the police. This is a worthwhile investment.
Worryingly, the drug Mafia has succeeded in spreading its tentacles to schools as well. Education Minister Susil Premajayantha has revealed in Parliament recently that in the current year more than 81 schoolchildren have been sent for drug rehabilitation. The number of students addicted to drugs could be higher, as President of the Ceylon Teachers’ Union Priyantha Fernando has said. The drug menace has not spared even rural schools, according to him. It is against this backdrop that the government’s budget proposal to explore the possibility of cultivating cannabis for export should be viewed.
Who guards the guards? A survey conducted by the police headquarters has revealed that about 37 police personnel are addicted to drugs in the Western Province. The police are expected to conduct similar surveys in other provinces. Needless to say, addicts in uniform are a danger to society and have to be weeded out.
The government has many problems to wrestle with, but it must redouble its efforts to crush the drug Mafia, which is taking advantage of the current political situation, where the police are apparently doing full-time political work, to expand its operations.
Rapists at large
Friday 2nd December, 2022
A diplomat attached to the Sri Lankan Embassy in Muscat has been arrested upon his arrival at the BIA and remanded for his alleged involvement in a human trafficking racket, where women smuggled out of this country were forced into prostitution in Oman. According to some media reports, they were auctioned like slaves and raped. But those who have gang-raped the Sri Lankan economy for years can move through the BIA freely.
Basil Rajapaksa, who is one of the politicians responsible for the collapse of the Sri Lankan economy, returned to the country recently through the VIP section of the BIA. Worse, National Police Commission Chief Chandra Fernando himself was among those present there to welcome him; Fernando was seen touching his forelock before Basil! What’s the world coming to when the heads of the so-called Independent Commissions, which have been established to depoliticise public institutions, behave like fawning sycophants before disgraced politicians?
Anyone who commits sex crimes have to be severely dealt with according to the law, and the diplomat from hell who has allegedly collaborated with human traffickers and even sexually abused some of the victims must be made to face the full force of the law. But the question is why no action has been taken against those who rape the economy and inflict so much suffering on the public.
The perpetrators of economic crimes against the nation are back in action, and some of them, who went into hiding during anti-government protests a few moons ago, are now on the offensive; they have started carrying out attacks on their political rivals. They unleashed violence at Hanguranketha on Sunday. Old habits are said to die hard.
The unfortunate Sri Lankan women who were auctioned as sex slaves in Oman can at least hope to have their day in court here, thanks to an effective media campaign against the human traffickers and their accomplices in the Foreign Service, but the victims of the rape of the economy have to suffer in silence. The government has chosen to gag them, and threatened to unleash the military on them in case they take to the streets to voice their grievances.
Basil could not leave for the US in the aftermath of the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in July, due to protests against him at the BIA; he had to return. But he left the country via the BIA, with his head held high, following the election by the SLPP of Ranil Wickremesinghe as the President, in Parliament. Today, he is given VIP treatment and police escort. This seems to be the only change the current SLPP-UNP administration has brought about!
The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe symbiosis reminds us of the sea anemone and the hermit crab. The Rajapaksas’ lot and that of their cronies and the UNP grandees have manifestly improved while the people are undergoing untold hardships. People are in for another shock; electricity tariffs are to be jacked up again next year. Corruption is rampant, and public funds continue to be plundered. The health sector trade unions have blown the lid off a racket involving oxygen concentrators!
There has been a let-up of sorts in public protests, and this seems to have lulled the government politicians into a false sense of security, and emboldened them to make up for lost time, but let them be warned that they are courting danger. What they are experiencing is like the eerie calm and drawback that precede the landfall of a killer tsunami. They are behaving like those who, blinded by greed, and oblivious to danger, tried to grab newly-exposed land when the sea rolled back minutes before the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, and perished.
Given the massive build-up of public anger in the polity, the protests that led to the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa will look mere ripples in a puddle in comparison to the next popular uprising, which is bound to happen sooner than expected. There is absolutely no defence against a real People Power revolution. Tinpot Hitlers are not equal to the task of stopping it; even the mighty Chinese Communist Party is struggling to contain a wave of public protests.
When House oozes with religiosity
Thursday 1st December, 2022
We have been wondering, during the past few days, whether the ongoing parliamentary debate is on Budget 2023 or Buddhism. President Ranil Wickremesinghe, JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa have been arguing over some Suttas, or different interpretations thereof. Yesterday, Premadasa treated the House to a brief lecture again on some Suttas in response to what the President had said the previous day.
Never a dull moment in the House when President Wickremesinghe is present. He has a remarkable predilection for thrusting and parrying with his rivals. An avid reader, he is au courant with Buddhism, and causes a stir now and then by making snide remarks about political monks. It was something uncomplimentary he said about some junior monks and their conduct that prompted Opposition Leader Premadasa to leap to the defence of the Maha Sangha and quote extensively from several Suttas in support of his arguments. One may not countenance the President’s choice of words at issue, but the conduct of some Buddhist monks is deplorable to say the least, and they are a disgrace to the Sangha. It is incumbent upon the Maha Nayake Theras to rein them in.
Some MPs have strayed into such lengthy digressions, parading their knowledge of Buddhism, that yesterday Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene happened to urge them to stop preaching Dhamma and concentrate on the purpose of the debate and the day’s business.
Politicians are known for smug moralising and fervent religiosity, and on listening to their arguments over Dhamma in the House we were reminded of a line Antonio utters in The Merchant of Venice: “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” They are doing to the Dhamma what they do to the Constitution; they are interpreting it in such a way as to justify their actions and gain political mileage.
Curiously, while some laymen were arguing about the Dhamma in the House in a bid to score political points, MP monk, Rathana Thera, made no intervention. It is not clear from media reports on parliamentary proceedings whether he was present in the House while others were bandying words about Buddhism. He waxes eloquent on other subjects ranging from agriculture to foreign affairs, and even advises the Presidents on matters related to agrochemicals, but has chosen to remain silent on the ‘debate’ on the Dhamma, which is his province! We expected him to intervene when the budget debate took a religious turn, so to speak. Even Education Minister Susil Premjayantha stuck his oar in, yesterday. Is it that Rathana Thera considers it infra dig to make a contribution to a debate among laypersons on Buddhism?
It is Vanijja Sutta that Opposition MPs and the President should have discussed during the budget debate, if at all, more than anything else because the Buddha has basically said therein what types of business should be avoided.
The Constitution accords Buddhism the foremost place, but the State of Sri Lanka has, under successive governments led by Buddhist leaders, been doing exactly the opposite of what the Buddha has preached in Vanijja Sutta; he has asked people to abstain from engaging in business in weapons, business in living beings, business in flesh, business in intoxicants and business in poison’. Sri Lanka promotes slavery in all but name; it encourages its women to slave away in West Asia to earn forex; it is dependent on taxes collected from manufacturers of liquor and cancer sticks, and it has undertaken to develop fisheries and animal husbandry. The Chandrika Kumaratunga government sought to set up a factory to manufacture arms here, but its plan went awry. Budget 2023 has proposed to explore the possibility of growing cannabis, of all things, for export! The Sri Lankan state is not involved in the poison business as such, but allows the sale of food items and other commodities contaminated with harmful substances including carcinogens.
Can the rulers of Sri Lanka reconcile the constitutional provision that grants Buddhism the foremost place with the blatant violation by the State of the core tenets of Buddhism?
Now that our honourable representatives have amply demonstrated their knowledge of Buddhism, let them be urged to practise what they preach so that Parliament will be a better place. For this purpose, they do not have to study the Suttas or discourses; they only have to observe the Five Precepts and abstain from, at least, lying, killing and stealing.
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