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Budget offers fool’s paradise instead of facing up to Covid-19 realities



by Rajan Philips

The Prime Minister’s budget speech last Tuesday and the President’s address to the nation the next day are both remarkable for their omissions to share with the people the government’s thinking and planning for dealing with the pandemic crisis that Sri Lanka is now going through along with the rest of the world. The budget speech tried to pretend a business as usual present scenario and routinely optimistic future prospects. It said little or nothing about Covid-19 and the government’s plans to deal with it. If anyone thought that the (Covid-19) matter was left to be addressed by the President himself in his talk the next day, that was not to be. The President covered every base (in baseball parlance) in his short political career but barely touched the topic of Covid-19. Why this reluctance to frankly talk about Covid-19?

There is no point in denying or trying to hide the formidable challenges posed by Covid-19 and the difficulties that the government of Sri Lanka and the country as a whole are having in dealing those challenges. No one is expecting the government to come up with a magical national response to the global pandemic. But it is reasonable to have expected that either the President or the Prime Minister would use their national pulpit to apprise the people of the gravity of the situation and the challenges of navigating through it. Nothing of the kind.

Our South Asian neighbours have been more transparent about the coronavirus in their budgets and economic statements. Pakistan and Bangladesh presented their current budgets in June 2020. Neither of them was shy about mentioning Covid-19. In fact, Pakistan called it the “corona budget.” Although criticized by the two opposition parties (PML-N and PPP), the Imran Khan government increased the allocation to the health sector to $156 M (130% increase from 2019), with 90% of it going to hospitals to deal with Covid-19 crisis.

In Bangladesh, the budget confirmed that sufficient funds have been allocated to meet the needs of all ministries to deal with the impact of Covid-19, while increasing the allocation to the health sector. From what was once ‘an economic basket case’, Bangladesh is now among the world’s fastest growing economies with a higher GDP than Pakistan despite having 60 million fewer people (161 M and 221 M). From a high growth rate of 8.2%, Bangladesh is now set to grow at still impressive 5.2% owing to Covid-19.

India finished its budget in February before the pandemic outbreak. But it has since consistently intervened with financial stimuli at both central and state levels. A week before Sri Lanka’s budget, India announced two stimulus packages totaling $60 billion topping up the $266 billion package from May, for a total 12% of GDP. India has also heavily invested in vaccine development for Covid-19 by the government’s biotechnology development. Both Pakistan and Bangladesh have also provided significant stimuli packages to soften Covid-19 fallouts.


Rewired Thinking


From what I have seen there is no mention in the budget of any Covid-19 related support, stimulus, or expenditure. The President in his speech referred to the allowance of Rs. 5,000 paid twice to 5.9 M families (total of Rs. 59,000 M, less than 0.5% GDP), and another $70 M for Corona-related expenditure. But nothing about future Covid-19 expenditures in either speech. Admittedly, Sri Lanka does not have too much money to spend on anything. That is all the reason why the government should use any and every opportunity to level with the people and tell them without holding back anything – where the government and the country are under Covid19, and what the government is planning to do about it. Are not budgets occasions meant for such purpose? And when else if not in a global pandemic situation?

The apparent thinking behind the budget has been revealed by Nivard Cabraal, the long-titled State Minister, in a post-budget seminar. As reported in Daily FT, the Minister has announced that the government “could have said it’s a COVID-19 year and looked at austerity measures, but it is not the right moment to do that;” instead, the government opted to be “bullish about growth and (by) tap(ping) into the rewiring of the global economy caused by COVID-19.” This is the only way, according to the Minister, for Sri Lanka to break out of long struggle with “persistently slow growth.” The report also carries the views expressed by Dr. Dushni Weerakoon (Executive Director, Institute of Policy Studies) at the same seminar, but unfortunately not at the same length offered to Cabraal. Dr. Weerakoon “warned (that) the Government could struggle to balance low interest rates with a high budget deficit as well as aim for high growth while fighting a pandemic.” More so, “if COVID-19 infections rise and the Government has to provide more public support in social spending.” This would make debt sustainability and deficit management problematic.

It is mystifying that Mr. Cabraal would suggest that a Covid-19 budget would have involved austerity measures. On the contrary, the debate over Covid-19 economic response is not about austerity measures but about the extent of stimulus measures that governments should be prepared to administer. It is also not quite explicable how the government would tap into the “rewiring of the global economy caused by COVID-19” – whatever Cabraal means by rewiring. The budget offers no specifics about this ‘rewiring’, or how any or all of the budget proposals would be linked to the supposedly rewired global demand opportunities. Looked at it another way, the very non-austere budget is wired to spend in all the wrong areas for all the wrong reasons, at a time when Covid-19 has removed all ambiguities as to whom and where government spending should be targeted.

SJB MP Harsha de Silva, who led off the budget debate for the Opposition could not have hoped for an easier target to attack. As he summed it up the budget would neither kick-start the economy, nor provide relief to the people burdened by economic hardships. Quite rightly, he questioned the allocation of Rs. 330 billion for highways, as if building roads would help suffering businesses and starving people. The allocation, rather mis-allocation, for highways is also an instance of inappropriate assumptions for economic growth in the current pandemic situation.

Funnily enough, the space allocated for mentioning Archaeological and Cultural Heritage Presidential Task Force in the budget speech is sandwiched between Tourism and Foreign Employment. The assumptions of prospects for the future of tourism are not at all funny, however. The $10 billion industry is in serious trouble and cannot be salvaged in any significant way by promoting domestic tourism. The same goes for foreign employment, the cash-cow sector that used to have 1.5 million Sri Lankans employed abroad, mostly Middle East, and bring in $7 billion annually is now in dire straits. There is no discussion of the prospects, let alone projections, for the future of this sector and its broader socio-economic ramifications within Sri Lankan society. If it is the government’s wired thinking that 1.5 million Sri Lankans can be fitted into global rewiring, there is no indication of that thought process in the budget.

Under “Investment in Public Health,” the budget speaks somewhat unclearly “to the new reality would make it unavoidable to be engaged in the day to day activities of the people with the Corona pandemic.” It reports the global total of 55 million Covid-19 cases and 1.35 million deaths, but shies away from being transparent about the situation in Sri Lanka. And somehow an insurance fund will materialize to help Covid-19 victims with contributions from businesses who are also victims of Covid-19. Glaringly missing are any allocations for purposefully expanding the Public Health Services and related infrastructure to deal with the Covid-19 situation. Also missing are the government’s assessment of the current situation and its projections for the future. These gaps are obviously the result of professional disengagement at the political level with the realities of Covid-19.

As if to highlight the level of professional engagement in the government’s Covid-19 response, Health Minister Pavithradevi Wanniarachchi, who is patently out of her depth in coping with Covid-19 response, said in parliament last Wednesday that former Health Services Director General (DGHS) Dr. Anil Jasinghe continues to attend COVID-19 meetings, even though he is now the Secretary to the Ministry of the Environment. Public Health was dealt a big blow when Dr. Jasinghe was kicked upstairs from Health to Environment, and now the Ministry of the Environment is minus its Secretary whenever Dr. Jasinghe is on Covid-19 calls. Why not move Dr. Jasinghe back to Health?




Religious nationalism suffers notable setback in India



People casting their votes in the recent Lok Sabha poll in India

Democratic opinion the world over could take heart from the fact that secularism is alive and well in India; the South Asian region’s most successful democracy. While it is indeed remarkable for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to win a third consecutive term as head of government in India’s recent Lok Sabha election, what is of greater significance is the fact that the polls featured a resounding defeat for religious nationalism.

Consequently, India’s secular credentials remain intact. Secularism, which eschews identity politics of all kinds, including religious nationalism is, after all, a cornerstone of democracy and secularism has been a chief strength of India. The defeat of religious nationalism, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, is a triumph for not only the democratic forces of India but for their counterparts the world over.

It was plain to see that the Bharathiya Janata Party under P.M. Modi was going the extra mile to placate Hindu nationalist opinion in Uttar Pradesh and outside through the construction of an eye-catching Ram temple in the state, for example, but the vote-catching strategy has visible failed as the polls results in the state indicate. For, the number of seats won by the BJP in the state has shrunk dramatically. In fact, the BJP was resoundingly defeated in the very constituency where the temple was constructed.

Constructive criticism of religious nationalism should not be considered an indictment of the religions concerned. Hinduism is one of the world’s most profound religions and it would sustain itself and thrive regardless of whether vote-hungry political parties champion its cause or otherwise. However, the deployment of any religion in the acquiring and aggrandizement of power by political forces calls for criticism since it amounts to a gross abuse of religion. Religious nationalism is an example of such abuse and warrants decrying in democratic states.

Unfortunately, religious nationalism is rampant in South Asia and it is most alive and well in Sri Lanka. And to the degree to which religious nationalism thrives in Sri Lanka, to the same extent could Sri Lanka be considered as deviating from the cardinal principles and values of democratic governance. It is obligatory on the part of those posing as Sri Lanka’s national leaders to reject religious nationalism and take the country along the path of secularism, which essentially denotes the separation of politics and religion. Thus far, Sri Lanka’s political class has fought shy of taking up this challenge and by doing so they have exposed the country as a ‘facade democracy’.

Religion per se, though, is not to be rejected, for, all great religions preach personal and societal goodness and progress. However, when religious identities are abused by political actors and forces for the acquiring and consolidation of power, religious nationalism comes to the fore and the latter is more destructive than constructive in its impact on societies. It is for these reasons that it is best to constitutionally separate religion from politics. Accordingly, secularism emerges as essential for the practise of democracy, correctly conceived.

The recent Indian Lok Sabha poll was also notable for the role economic factors played in the determining of its final results. Once again, Uttar Pradesh was instructive. It is reported that the high cost of living and unemployment, for instance, were working to the detriment of the ruling BJP. That is, ‘Bread’ or economic forces were proving decisive in voter preferences. In other words, economics was driving politics. Appeals to religion were proving futile.

Besides, it was reported that the opposition alliance hit on the shrewd strategy of projecting a bleaker future for depressed communities if the BJP ‘juggernaut’ was allowed to bulldoze its way onward without being checked. For, in the event of it being allowed to do so, the concessions and benefits of positive discrimination, for instance, being enjoyed by the weak would be rolled back in favour of the majority community. Thus, was the popular vote swung in the direction of the opposition alliance.

Accordingly, the position could be taken that economic forces are the principal shaping influences of polities. Likewise, if social stability is to be arrived at redistributive justice needs to be ushered in by governments to the extent possible. Religious nationalism and other species of identity politics could help populist political parties in particular to come to power but what would ensure any government’s staying power is re-distributive justice; that is, the even distribution of ‘Bread’ and land. In the absence of the latter factors, even populism’s influence would be short lived.

The recent Indian Lok Sabha elections could be said to have underscored India’s standing as a principal democracy. Democracy in India should be seen as having emerged stronger than ever as a result of the poll because if there were apprehensions in any quarter that BJP rule would go unchallenged indefinitely those fears have been proved to be baseless.

‘One party rule’ of any kind is most injurious to democracy and democratic forces in India and outside now have the assurance that India would continue to be a commodious and accommodative democracy that could keep democratic institutions and values ticking soundly.

Besides the above considerations, by assuring the region that it would continue with its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, India has underscored her ‘Swing State’ status. That is, she would take on a leadership role in South Asia and endeavor to be an inspirational guide in the region, particularly in respect of democratic development.

As for Sri Lanka, she has no choice but to be on the best of terms with India. Going forward, Sri Lanka would need to take deeply into consideration India’s foreign policy sensitivities. If there is to be an ‘all weather friend’ for Sri Lanka it has to be India because besides being Sri Lanka’s closest neighour it is India that has come to Sri Lanka’s assistance most swiftly in the region in the latter’s hour of need. History also establishes that there are least conflicts and points of friction among democracies.

However, identity politics are bound to continually cast their long shadow over South Asia. For smaller states this would prove a vexatious problem. It is to the extent to which democratic development is seen by countries of the South as the best means of defusing intra-state conflicts born of identity politics that the threat of identity politics could be defused and managed best.

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AKD’s Speech on Rule of Law: Merits and Demerits?



Anura Kumara

by Dr Laksiri Fernando

Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s (AKD) speech as the Leader of the National People’s Power (NPP) at the National Convention organised by the Retired Police Officers Collective on 9 June 2024 is quite promising in terms of establishing or reestablishing rule of law in the country. They have been talking about a ‘system change’ now for some time, and various independent critics and observers were asking the details of this promise, without merely depending on the slogan.

I was fortunate to listen to this speech online and live, through Horawa News, and one weakness or wrong that I immediately observed was its leading phrase ‘Malimawa shows its police power.’ I have no idea about who runs the Horawa but that was not what AKD was quite obviously advocating. “Power’ is not a good word to use in democracy, worst still is the ‘police power.’

State of the State

After an introduction, AKD ventured to explain the ‘state of the State,’ particularly during the last two three years, characterising it as a failed state with inability to pay back loans, to supply necessary medicine to hospitals, and failing to give children a proper education, and when they grow up, proper employment. He strongly characterised the State as in the grips of crooks and criminals (dushithayan saha aparadakaruwan), and the whole society being affected by this situation. He said, “this must be changed, and this to be changed like in all other changes. Sri Lanka should be a State based on rule of law.” Thereafter his speech focused, in detail, on the questions of rule of law. There were several principles that he enunciated.

First, equality before the law. All citizens in the country should be equal before the law. All citizens in the country should be able to go before the law against any discrimination by the implementation of law. He asked, “are we all equal before the law? No. Rich people have one law, and people who have political power have another law. At present, the Department of Police, the Attorney General’s Department and even the Judiciary have become a laughing stock. Let me ask you a question that I have asked once before. “

“Who knew best that Diana Gamage didn’t have citizenship? First, Diana. She knew that she came to the country on a tourist visa and even that visa had expired. Knowing all that, she came to Parliament. Knowing that, she also acted as a state minister. How did she do that? She knew that because of her political power that the law would not apply to her. An ordinary person even will not ride a bicycle without a license. Where is our law?”

“The second person who knew well was Ranil. But he protected her. This type of country cannot go forward. We need a state system which is entirely based on rule of law. I will give you an assurance. I personally or our movement do not have any financial fraudsters or criminals to protect. No underworld, no drug dealers, no rapists, no financial fraudsters, and no criminals to protect. If the existing powers given to the police to curtail these crimes are not enough, under our government, we will create circumstances to strengthen the police.”

Political Interference

AKD outlined some of the crimes and murders which were investigated, and the perpetrators were properly punished within the system. Those included the murder of the Manager of Noori Estate, Hokandara family killing, Killing of Sarath Ambepitiya, etc.

On the other hand, he emphasised the cases like Lasantha Wickrematunge, Eknaligoda murder, assault of journalists like Keith Noyar, Poddalla Jayantha and others that dragged on without a conclusion. Why? His correct answer was political interference. He praised the police but emphasised political interferences that hamper their tasks.

One of the aspects that he neglected was the ethnic bias in criminal investigations and other police matters. Will this be addressed by the NPP? That is my question. For example, I have known J. S. Tissanayagam as a student at Peradeniya who later became a prominent Tamil Journalist. He was abducted, beaten up and charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. There are so many similar cases that were neglected by AKD, and I hope he will rectify his neglect in the coming future. I also failed to identify any Tamil participation in the crowd.

AKD was correct in emphasising that the police have a major role in maintaining stability in society. “If there were no police, no one would be able to pass the Borella junction peacefully” he said. He emphasised correctly, that these premises were established after a long struggle in building up rule of law in society internationally. “These were not there in tribal societies,’ he pointed out. “The leader of the tribe (Rehe nayakeya) did all together,” he said. ‘It was through struggles that separation of powers was established between Parliament to legislate, elected Presidents to execute, and the Judiciary to rule on justice,’ he continued.

“What we can see today is a tendency to go back to tribal society. We need a civilised society. Especially the department of police, criminal investigation and the attorney genera’s department should work independently, efficiently and correctly. It is our task under an NPP government to create these civilised conditions. Today the police department is in a mess due to political interferences.” He gave examples.

“Do we have a proper procedure in recruiting and promoting police officers? No. I know that there are some officers who are constables at recruitment, and also when they retire. We will establish a proper procedure in recruitment and promotions. At present, when change of governments occur, the police officers are punished or promoted. The main task of the police officers is people’s security. However, what they are supposed to do today is patrician (prabhu) security.” He mentioned that he has been an MP since the year 2000 and never sought any police security. He emotionally mentioned the difficulties that police security undergoes with so many difficulties.

Vision for Future?

“Under our government, people’s security is the primary task of the police, and not politician or patrician security. During the last 24 years as an MP, I have never called the police for any assistance. But this is not the case with other MPs. However, I have to say that to eliminate criminals and fraudsters, we will give the police the necessary leadership and encouragement. Today, the MPs consider the police as their servants. I have heard some saying ‘my OIC’ (mage OIC). This is not our attitude. We will preserve the dignity of police officers. They are well trained and educated. They should not be the tools of politicians. Their task is to punish criminality, present and past. There are people who believe their past offenses will be forgotten. But we will not forget.” AKD related a story.

“During the election campaign in 1994, Chandrika Kumaratunga accused the UNP stealing people’s money and property under their government. Vijayapala Mendis has obtained 75 acres of coconut land for two rupees per acre, altogether for Rs. 150. She promised that these crooks would be brought to the Galle Face Green and would be ‘skinned’. People rejoiced and clapped. However, within 7 years, the same Vijayapala Mendis became a Minister in Chandrika’s Cabinet. There are so many examples like that. Perhaps she had forgotten and even the people had forgotten. Ranil Wickremasinghe who accused [Gotabaya Rajapaksa] as the ‘Mastermind of the Easter Sunday attack’ also became the President based on the same Gotabaya mandate.”

There were several other points connected with the above that AKD ventured into taking about 20 more minutes. All are worth reflecting on and even in my case I have not heard them before from politicians. One of his newest arguments was to consider the rule of law, law and order, and equality before the law as the necessary basis of economic development. However, given the necessary word limitations for this article those may be discussed in a future occasion.

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Raffealla Fernando Face of Sri Lanka for Prerna Gupta



It’s not only her name that is famous but her face, too, and I’m referring, of course, to Raffealla Fernando – Founder and CEO at Raffealla Fernando Photography, and Fashion Designer and Stylist at Raffealla – who excels in what she does and shines bright wherever she goes.

Raffealla was in India recently and, I’m told, her face did bright up the fashion scene over there. And, guess what! Raffealla is now the face of Sri Lanka for Prerna Gupta as she expands her unique fashion label to take in Sri Lanka, as well.

Prerna Gupta couture is an award-winning Indian fashion house, from Nagpur, and she creates beautiful sustainable outfits and textiles made out of milk, aloe vera and orange peel, and what Raffealla is wearing in the photographs, on this page, are clothes made out of orange peel, aloe vera and milk.

Prerna Gupta has launched and showcased at reputed fashion shows where celebrities like Vicky Kaushal, Rani Mukherjee, Raj Kumar Arao, Evelyn Sharma, Sana Khan, Kailash Kher, Shankar Mahadevan and Bhapi Leheri have visited and adorned her label.

Says Raffealla: “I feel truly honoured and privileged to be working with a brand like this.”

Sri Lanka’s celebrity was also featured in the leading Bangladesh fashion magazine ‘Fashion People’.

“I’m super hyped because it’s the first time FELLA got featured in an international magazine.”

And FELLA is the brand name for Raffealla’s fashion designs.

Talking about her recent trip to India, she said one of the interesting and colourful fashion projects she did in Mumbai (photography and conceptualization) was connected with Kutch – a district of Gujarat state.

Raffealla went on to say that costumes of Kutch are exquisitely stylized and intricately embroidered.

Dazzling with vibrant colours, flooded with striking mirror work and stunning jewellery, it’s one of the most alluring custumes in India, she said.

“The mirror work and embroidery work forms an integral part of Kutch. Although handicrafts, irrespective of the community or ethnic group to which they belong, remain the same, the workmanship differs.

“In fact, the various communities can be identified by the pattern of handicrafts and dress, or costumes, they are in. For instance, the Garacia Jat women wear only red or black chunis, while Rabari women wear black open blouses, or cholis, with odhnis to cover their heads.

“In the rural areas, the women wear Chaniya choli the whole year, Chaniya choli’s are of many designs and fashion. A typical Kutch costume is incomplete without ‘Abha’ or ‘Kanjari’. ‘Abha’ is the name of the typical choli worn by women folk and ‘Kanjari’ is a long blouse, beautifully embroidered and with mirror work.

“Most men in Kutch wear loose trousers, a long-sleeved under-jacket, and a short coat, a plain or silk-bordered cloth. Normally men prefer white clothes except the Muslims who prefer coloured clothes.”

Raffealla is now ready, and excited, to do it for Prerna Gupta.

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