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Building a future and forgetting the past

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by Professor Savitri Goonesekere

At the ceremonial opening of out first Parliament on February 4, 1948 the late Mr. SWRD Bandaranaike addressed the nation with theses words. “It is true that no people can live on memories alone. It is equally true that history often provides a source of strength and inspiration to guide them in the future. It is only against the background of the past that the present and the future can be viewed in their correct perspective”

The new political ideology of “thinking out of the box” in governance seems impatient with the idea that history and experience has any value. This may be the “new normal” in a country where history was not taught in our schools for decades. The 20th Amendment that has just been gazetted and will go before Parliament for adoption demonstrates that the newly elected government is embarking on the important task of constitutional reform without reflecting on our experiences of governance under the 1978 Constitution.

Most nations in South Asia have not had to carry out frequent changes to the basic law of their country, the Constitution. It is true that our country has not in general experienced illegal power grabs. Yet electoral politics has also encouraged ad hoc amendments to the Constitution. In debating the cost of recent exercises in constitutional reform, the 20th Amendment, we should reactivate our collective memories on governance over the years. In doing so we should reflect on SWRD Bandaranaike’s statement of 1948 giving due consideration to the kind of governance we deserve and want for our country in the future.

The SLPP campaign for repealing the 19th amendment and adopting a new constitution.

The opposition and the media did not ask them to clarify their rationale for doing so or their vision. Within a month of taking office the 20th Amendment is being brought to Parliament to give supreme powers to the President without the system of checks and balances on distribution of powers between the three agencies of government in a Parliamentary democracy – the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary (courts). It is true that strong leadership in governance is essential for national development. However Parliamentary democracies create institutions and systems to help great leaders govern without forgetting the responsibilities of office and accountability, heeding not just electoral majorities, but all the people.

The 1978 Constitution provided the framework of governance for our country for 42 years. A Constitutional amendment that gives supreme power to an elected popular leader without institutional checks and balances can determine governance in a country long after he has left office.

 

The 19th amendment 2015

The 19th Amendment continues to be demonized by politicians in the government and others as a conspiracy of the previous regime to cunningly increase the powers of the then Prime Minister and undermine the President’s powers in governance. Yet the consensus within and outside Parliament in 2015 was that the dismantling of the Executive Presidency of the 1978 Constitution done in stages pending a new Constitution was a worthwhile objective and in the public interest. It was agreed at that time and up to mid 2019 that the Executive Presidency was a demon that had to be destroyed.

That agenda itself had a long history that we have all forgotten. President Chandrika Kumaratunga, when she took office pledged to dismantle the “bahubootha” 1978 constitution which she said was responsible for decades of bishanaya and dooshanaya (violence and corruption). Prof. GL Pieris and the late Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam were tasked with giving leadership and drafting a new Constitution that would transfer executive power to an elected Prime Minister and a Cabinet responsible to Parliament and the people. When taking Cabinet office in that government Prof. Pieris said “a Parliamentary executive model must be re-introduced. The Peoples Alliance has received an overwhelming mandate … for the abolition of the Executive Presidency.” (Sunday Times September 13, 2020, page 14).

The 2000 Constitution that Prof. Pieris brought to Parliament had strong provisions on the appointment and removal of judges to prevent political interference. It had a stronger bill of fundamental rights and a carefully thought out system of power sharing between the central and Provincial governments. This 2000 Constitution was rejected because there was no consensus on its adoption within Parliament.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa assumed office in 2005 on a mandate to dissolve the Executive Presidency. His Mahinda Chinthanaya policy for national development called for strengthening the Bill of Rights in a new Constitution. The National Action Plan on Human Rights was drafted and adopted. The President also appointed an Expert Committee to assist the All Party Conference (APRC) on constitutional reform and asked them to work towards maximum devolution to resolve the “national question” with power sharing. Yet in 2010 after giving leadership in ending the armed conflict in 2009 President Rajapaksa seized the moment to bring an 18th Amendment to the Constitution that would enable him to become a President for life. He acquired full powers on appointment and removal of holders of high office and Public Commissions without the scrutiny of a Constitutional Council and procedures introduced by the 17th amendment.

When President Sirisena was elected in 2015 he assumed office with a pledge to the nation to dismantle the Executive Presidency. He repeated this pledge on the passing of Rev. Maduluwave Sobitha who had led an election campaign to eliminate the executive presidency reinstating the checks and balances on abuse of executive power through institutions such as Parliament and the courts and independent commissions. It was in this environment that the 19th amendment was adopted by consensus and the two-thirds majority without challenge within the Parliament or in the Supreme Court.

A comparison of the 19th and 20th amendments.

A comparison of these two amendments clearly demonstrates that the cores principles of government in the 19th Amendment has been removed by the 20th Amendments in areas of great significance for the governance of the country.

 

The term  of the Office of President and

Eligibility for office

The 19th Amendment repealed provisions in the 18th Amendment, and set a term of office of five years, and a two term limit on the period in which he could serve in this office. These provisions have been retained in the 20th Amendment .However, the President  holding office under  the 20th Amendment will have all the powers of the Executive President  in the 1978 Constitution,   and some more powers. 

When the 19th Amendment introduced limitations on the President’s terms of office, it also REDUCED Presidential powers to accommodate the concept of a transfer of powers from the President to an elected  Prime Minister in Parliament. The changes  in  the Presidential term of office were combined with what Parliament agreed was a first step in LIMITING the executive  powers of the President, to  ensure accountable exercise of these powers.

The 19th amendment prohibited a dual citizen from being elected to office as a Member of Parliament, or as the President. These prohibitions have been repealed by the 20 Amendment and such persons can be Members of Parliament or President. 

There is a perception that this prohibition will prevent dual citizens from holding ANY public office. This is incorrect. The prohibition in the 19th Amendment only applied to the public offices of President and Members of Parliament, recognizing the potential for a serious conflict of interest should such a person be called upon to “carry arms” for another country, or support controversial policies of that country. An ordinary holder of public office may have choice and can resign. However resignation for conflict of interest has  Constitutional implications, if a person is   the President of the country, or a member of its legislative body, Parliament.

Presidential Powers and Accountability to other organs of Government and the People, in the Exercise of these Powers.

Significant changes to the 1978 Constitution were made  by the 19th Amendment in keeping with the overall objective of reducing the powers of the Executive Presidency, in the interests of accountable governance .

 

a) Duties of the President.

 

The 19th Amendment defined powers and also introduced a principle of “duties” that had to be fulfilled by the President. Some of the significant duties were, to:

i) ensure that the Constitution is respected and upheld

ii) promote national integration and reconciliation

iii) create a proper environment for the conduct of free and fair elections, on the advice of the Election Commission

 

The 20th Amendment retains provisions on Presidential powers and REPEALS  the provisions in the 19th Amendment on Presidential duties under the Constitution, and to the People, and the other organs of government.   

 

b) Accountability for Violation of the Fundamental Rights of the People by Presidential Acts and Omissions in Governance

 

 The 19th Amendment removed the blanket immunity of the President that was incorporated in the 1978 Constitution. The  19th Amendment recognized that the President was immune from liability in criminal or civil proceedings for anything done or omitted to be done in his official or private capacity. However, it placed a limitation, by permitting actions for violation of fundamental rights in the Supreme Court. This was to ensure that the exercise of Presidential powers, in his official capacity, could not involve a violation of fundamental rights guaranteed to all by the Constitution, or by the provisions on the use of Official Languages in the Constitution.

The declaration of war and peace was excluded from this limitation. 

The 20th Amendment repeals these limitations on Presidential immunity. It goes back to the principle of complete Presidential immunity from liability for his acts and omissions.  

There is a provision in the 20th Amendment on the right to bring actions against the Attorney General in respect of the President’s acts as a Minister, his /her impeachment, elections and a referendum, but the  scope of this liability is not clearly stated.

 

The Presidents Relationship to Parliament

a)  Responsibility to Parliament in the exercise of Presidential Powers

 

The 19th Amendment gave prominence to the President’s responsibility to Parliament in the exercise of his powers and functions, as a core principle of governance, in the Chapter of the Constitution on the President’s powers and duties. This principle was originally stated in the 1978 Constitution in the Chapter on the President and the Cabinet – the branch of the executive also represented in Parliament. The 20th Amendment brings this principle back to the part of the Constitution that deals with  the Cabinet, denying it the importance given in the 19th Amendment.

The change can be interpreted as limiting the President’s responsibility to Parliament. It is significant in a context where the 20th Amendment gives total presidential powers in regard to appointments to “High Posts,” defined by the Constitution, and the Public Commissions defined in the 20th Amendment. The Constitutional Council that was given oversight responsibility by the 19th Amendment had a significant majority of Parliamentarians on the Council. The Constitutional Council has been abolished by the 20th Amendment, and the Parliamentary Council that replaces it has the Speaker, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, and two Parliamentarians nominated by the latter, who are appointed by the President, and who can also  be removed  by the President at his discretion!

The Parliamentary Council under the 20th Amendment is under the control of the President, and  there is only a token  role for Parliamentarians, including the Speaker the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. They have no contribution to make in their official capacity as members of the Parliamentary Council.

 

                  b) Dissolution of Parliament

 Presidential powers on the Dissolution of Parliament, and the provisions on presentation of urgent Bills, also erode the role and responsibility of Parliament, and the capacity for oversight and scrutiny of legislation.

The 20th Amendment empowers the President to dissolve Parliament  one year after a General Election. This places the country in a situation where a costly General Election can be held in a very short time , and with no assurance that this decision will be made in the public rather than the rulers’  interests.

c) Other changes of concern relate to the Presidents capacity to refer legislation that has been rejected by Parliament for a referendum.

This provision in the 1978 Constitution was repealed by the 19th Amendment and has been brought back by  the 20th Amendment. A new provision on legislation states that “any amendment to a proposed Bill in Parliament must not deviate from the merits and principles of such Bill.” This sweeping provision can restrict debate and modifications of legislation in Parliament, and will encourage greater passivity and disinterest in serious discussions.

 

The President, Prime Minister and Cabinet,

as the Executive in Governance

The agreed  objective of the  19th Amendment was  to reduce the executive power of the President and transfer some of these powers to a Prime Minister and Cabinet from Parliament. Consequently, the provisions in the 1978 Constitution were changed significantly. The 20th Amendment has repealed all these provisions and gone back to the concept of supreme executive powers given to the President.

The President has complete discretion in determining the number of Ministries and the topics allocated to Ministries and State Ministries. “Jumbo Cabinets” can hold office without regard to national resources, at the discretion of the President. More importantly, the office of Prime Minister,   Cabinet Minister and State Minister, will be held at the “will and pleasure” of the President, with the full power of appointment, removal, and selection of Ministries left entirely to the discretion of the President. He can also assign any subject to himself, and take away Ministries allocated to any Minister, without even consulting the Prime Minister, exercising these powers in any manner that pleases him. 

There are no checks and balances at all on the exercise of Presidential powers in relation to the Prime Minister and Cabinet, under the 20th Amendment. Can this not encourage complete servility to the President, within Cabinet?    

The changes ignore the fact that the Prime Minister and Members of Parliament have been elected by vote to Parliament with separate responsibilities to voters. Having permitted voters to exercise choice, the 20th Amendment disempowers them completely, and makes them accountable to a single individual – the President. The Prime Minister has been reduced to an ” peon (office orderly),” as one holder of the office described himself, when he held the position under the 1978 Constitution. Yet ironically the provision that the ‘Cabinet has the direction and control of government and that they are answerable and responsible  to Parliament” has been  retained in the 20th Amendment.

 

(to be continued in The Island tomorrow)

(The writer, a highly accomplished academic in law, is a former Vice Chancellor of the University of Colombo)

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Features

ROYAL COLLEGE CADET PLATOON 1980

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An extract from the book

“G R A T I T U D E”

By Admiral Ravindra C Wijegunaratne

(Retired from Sri Lanka Navy) Former Chief of Defence Staff

The School Cadet Organization of Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) was established in 1881 by Mr. John B Cull, the Principal of Royal College, Colombo 7. The idea of introducing Cadetting to Royal was to train the students on drill to make them disciplined and responsible. Mr. Cull believed that well trained and disciplined youth at school will later become more responsible citizens with leadership skills and eventually will be better prepared for success in life.

History says that about 320 Ceylon school cadets at the ages of 16 to 20 years had volunteered to fight alongside the Allied Forces in the Great War from 1914 to 1918. Royal, St Thomes, Trinity and Kingswood sent their cadets to war. The contingent was consist of Royalists – 88, Thomians – 86, Trinitians – 74 and Kingswoodians – 72.

Even though very limited records on Royal College Cadets available on participation in Great War, first Ceylonese Cadet to paid supreme sacrifice was young Royalist W E Speldewinde who was drowned when troop ship “Villa Dela Ciotat” was torpedoed by Germans and sank in Mediterranean Sea.

First Ceylonese cadet to win a military decoration for bravery and valour was Captain O J Robertson, who was awarded with Military Cross. Other Royalist recipients of Military Cross in World War I were Second Lt H E Speldewinde de Boer, Lt C W Nicholas and Second Lt J Robertson.

Almost 30 per cent of them had paid the supreme sacrifice for the British Crown and many had been severely wounded in action. In 1917, a District Judge in Badulla, Mr. Herman Loos had presented a Challenge trophy to be awarded to the best school cadet platoon in the Island. This was the beginning of the Herman Loos trophy competition for Cadetting in Sri Lanka, and it was first won by the Kingswood College, Kandy.

When we joined the Royal College Cadetting in the late 1970s, the Cadetting legacy of Royal College was reaching its 100th anniversary. I was a member of the 1980 Royal College Cadet platoon. Our Sergeant was Naeem Mahamoor. Lance Sergeant of our Platoon was Arosha Jayawickrama who was an outstanding cadet and the best Commander of junior Cadetting. Supun Hennayaka, C K Rajapaksa and I were the three senior Corporals. Later in our lives, Naeem went on to Airline Management and held high positions in Saudi Arabia and Dubai. Arosha migrated to the USA soon after leaving the College. Supun became a well-known specialist medical Doctor in the country. CK and I joined the Armed Forces.

We were very fortunate that Lieutenant (NCC) H M Dharmaratne, came to Royal College in 1979 on a transfer from the Ananda Shastralaya, Kotte. He was a young and energetic Cadet Master who had brought several cadetting achievements to Ananda Shastralaya. Royal College finally had a very good Cadet Master. We began planning for our “Operation Herman Loos” at our Cadet room known as the ‘Armoury.’ Our ultimate goal was to win the prestigious Herman Loos trophy for the Best Cadet Platoon in Sri Lanka. We had our plan carefully reviewed and crafted by our Sergeant and Master in Charge. We knew that both the Commandant’s Test (which tested the First Aid knowledge and the Field craft & Map-reading test) offered 300 marks. All the other competitions namely ‘Hut Inspections’, ‘Squad Drill’, ‘Physical Training (PT)’, ‘Athletics’, and ‘Drama’ offered either 100 or 50 marks each. We also knew with past experiences that most of the other schools concentrate and spend much time in practicing and training of the Squad Drill and PT.

Instead of focusing a lot on training for the squad drill and PT, we spent more time in learning first aid, fieldcraft theories, and map reading. I, being a President’s Scout at the time was tasked with teaching first aid to the platoon.

Captain (then) Parakrama Pannipitiya, a distinguished old Royalist (who later rose to the rank of Major General) from Sri Lanka Army’s Sinha Regiment agreed to teach us field craft and map-reading during evenings and weekends. He was working at the Army Headquarters at the time. With these arrangements, we knew our knowledge on first aid, and field craft & map reading subjects would be much superior to other cadet platoons.

We boarded the train from Colombo Fort Railway station to travel to the Army camp at Boosa for our annual cadet camp and Herman Loos competition. Under the able leadership of our Sergeant Naeem Mahamoor, we were determined and confident that we could change cadetting at Royal that year. In the 99-year history of Herman Loos trophy, Royal College had won it just twice. That was in 1963 under Sergeant Weerakumar, and later in 1970 under Sergeant MR Moosa.

As expected, we won the Commandant’s test with a very high margin. Sri Lanka Army examiners were surprised by our performance and were very happy with our excellent knowledge. We also won the Hut Inspection and became second in place in the PT test. Those accomplishments helped us win the coveted Herman Loos trophy for the best Cadet Platoon in the country. Royal College won it after ten years and for the third time in 99 years.

The rest was history. Royal won the Herman Loos trophy again in 1981 under Sergeant Pradeep Edirisinghe (that was the centenary year of Cadetting at Royal), and again in 1982 under Sergeant H D Jayasinghe. Present Navy Commander Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenna was Member of College 1981 and 1982 Herman Loos Trophy winning platoons. Later he rose to the rank of regimental quartermaster Sergeant – (RQMS) of 3rd Battalion of NCC.

Mr. Dharmaratne was the Royal College Cadet Platoon Master in charge for all three years. Later he was promoted to the rank of Captain in the National Cadet Corps (NCC). Thank you, Sir, for your guidance and advice as the Master in Charge of Royal College Cadetting for a very long time.

When we look back and see what we achieved 40 years ago with a clear plan and well-executed strategy, and have a sense of pride and accomplishment. What Mr. Cull, the Principal of Royal College wanted to achieve by introducing Cadetting to Royal in 1881 has materialized.

“Long live Cadetting at Royal College!”

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Budget 2021 likely to worsen macroeconomic instability amidst COVID-19 pandemic

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By Prof. Sirimevan Colombage

The Budget Speech 2021 was presented at a time when the country is being severely hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. GDP growth is projected to be down to negative 2 percent this year. Despite this economic setback, the government envisages to maintain an inclusive GDP growth rate of 6 percent per annum over the medium-term while containing inflation to around 5 percent, according to its macroeconomic programme, ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’.

 

Less emphasis on COVID-19

Given such optimistic targets, it is somewhat puzzling that the Budget Speech does not pay much attention to Covid-19 pandemic which has paralyzed virtually all economic activities by now. Reflecting mixed-up priorities, the Budget has given undue resource allocations at this difficult juncture to some arbitrarily selected projects such as urban townships, sports, road construction and walking paths, which have no direct relevance to revive the pandemic-hit economy, though they may have their own merits during normal times.

A coherent economic recovery strategy, apart from the fiscal and monetary stimulus already granted, is the need of the hour to revive the economy from the fallout. The pandemic has severe consequences on the Sri Lankan economy, which had already encountered multiple economic setbacks including low economic growth, fiscal disarrays, balance of payments deficits and foreign debt burden even prior to the health crisis. The pandemic has adversely affected the export sector, domestic production, inward remittances and distribution network. Poor households who are mostly working in the informal sector with irregular income sources have become extremely vulnerable in the present crisis situation.

 

Escalating fiscal imbalance

The budget deficit is projected to rise by 24 percent from Rs. 1,266 bn. (7.9 percent of GDP) in 2020 to Rs. 1,565 bn. (8.9 percent of GDP) in 2021, reflecting a severe deterioration of the fiscal position (Figure 1). It is expected that the total revenue would rise by 28 percent in 2021 as against 26 percent increase in total expenditure. Such exorbitant revenue growth cannot be expected for a single year even during normal times. The projected increase in revenue is said to be based on the assumption of 5 percent growth in GDP in 2021. This assumption seems to be over-optimistic considering the negative impact of COVID-19 in years to come, and the country’s limited growth potential experienced even before the outbreak of the pandemic. Slower GDP growth in 2021 means low level of government revenue, and consequent expansion of the budget deficit much higher than what is expected. Thus, the budget deficit is likely to be 10 percent of GDP or more in 2021.

 

Monetary implications of fiscal imbalance

With the rise in the budget deficit, the government is compelled to rely increasingly on the banking system to finance the deficit. Net bank credit to the government rose by 46 percent from Rs. 2,732 bn. in September 2019 to Rs.3.980 bn. in September 2020. The Central Bank has accommodated government finance requirements by directly purchasing Treasury Bills at primary auctions. The Central Bank’s net credit to the government rose by 50.8 percent from Rs. 383.2 bn. in September 2019 to Rs. 577.7 bn. in September 2020.

The monetary easing policy adopted by the Central Bank to relieve the households and businesses adversely affected by Covid-19 too accelerated the annual money growth from 7.4 percent in September 2019 to 19.2 percent in September 2020 (Figure 2). The monetary easing measures included sequential reductions of the policy interest rates and Statutory Reserve Ratio (SRR), which led to inject substantial liquidity into the market, and to reduce borrowing costs significantly. Concessional credit schemes were also introduced to facilitate the activities of Small and Medium-scale Enterprises (SMEs), alongside debt moratoria granted for businesses and individuals distressed by the pandemic.

Nevertheless, the annual growth of commercial bank credit to the private sector has remained stagnant around 5 percent reflecting the slow pick up of economic activities. In contrast, net commercial bank credit to the government rose by 44.9 percent in the 12-month period ending September 2020. In this background, the excessive money supply growth is bound to create demand pressures augmenting inflation and imports in the coming months.

 

Inflation-targeting monetary policy missing

Surprisingly, the Budget Speech does not make any reference to monetary policy which is vital in achieving macroeconomic stability, and sustaining economic growth. The Central Bank made concerted efforts about two years ago to launch the inflation-targeting monetary policy framework with the expectation of close coordination with fiscal authorities while regaining its independence. I categorically warned in these columns that such efforts would be suicidal for the Central Bank, unless the fiscal sector is aligned with such process committing to low budget deficits.

It is evident by now that inflation-targeting monetary policy is a remote possibility, as such policy is completely neglected not only by the fiscal authorities in the latest Budget Speech, but also by its architect, the Central Bank. Inflation-targeting monetary policy framework is not focused in the Central Bank’s publication, ‘Recent Economic Developments – Highlights of 2020 and Prospects for 2021’.

Understandably, it is not feasible to implement such rule-based policy amidst the current economic crisis, but the Central Bank should have displayed its long-term commitment to run the inflation-targeting monetary policy framework, which was declared with much grandeur not so long ago. That would strengthen the Central Bank’s independence, which is vital to operate monetary policy without undue political interference.

Demand pressures mounting

The easy monetary policy implemented by the Central Bank under the Presidential directive following the pandemic is unlikely to boost production activities significantly as expected, given the inherent weaknesses of enterprises, uncertain macroeconomic environment and imperative health-related precautionary measures imposed by the government including curfews, lockdowns and travel restrictions.

The global economic downturn resulting from the pandemic has dampening effects on the export sector. Further, business decisions in the private sector are mostly based on comparisons of the expected rate of return on investment vis-à-vis opportunity cost of investment. Interest rates represent the opportunity cost while expectations are influenced by many factors including macroeconomic economic environment, technological changes, exchange rate volatility, capacity utilization, export competitiveness, aggregate demand, fiscal stability, inflation, political stability, business confidence, and cost of production.

The present low interest rate environment encourages consumption, as savings yield low returns. Thus, low interest rates have negative effects on domestic savings. This is reflected in the downfall of domestic savings rate from 24.8 percent of GDP in the first half of 2019 to 20.8 percent in the corresponding period of 2020. Meanwhile, private consumption rose from 66.7 percent of GDP in the first half on 2019 to 70.5 percent in the same period of 2020. Given the low returns on savings, the surplus-fund holders tend to move to alternative assets such as commodities, real estate and risky financial instruments. Such fund diversions lead to distort investment decisions, and to create asset bubbles harming financial stability.

The rising consumption demand has spill-over effects on domestic production and imports exerting pressures on inflation and balance of payments deficits. Inflation, in addition to cheap credit, makes imports attractive and exports unprofitable, causing further deterioration of the trade balance. Unless the exchange rate is allowed to depreciate freely to achieve external equilibrium, import restrictions become imperative to avoid deterioration of the trade deficit. This type of inward-looking foreign trade policy seems to be the government’s policy choice at present, as can be evident from several import controls imposed in recent times. Although such measures are inevitable amidst the pandemic, it must be noted that they have adverse consequences on competitiveness, productivity and export-led growth in the long run. Hence, it is important to phase out import restrictions and to allow free trade.

Policy concerns

Given Sri Lanka’s long track record of low economic growth and macroeconomic imbalances, it is a major policy challenge to mitigate the economic fallout from COVID-19. Budget 2021 does not contain any coherent policy strategy to overcome the crisis. The budget deficit in 2021 is likely to be much higher than what is given in the official projections due to inevitable revenue shortfalls and expenditure overruns amidst the pandemic. In financing the widening budget deficit, increased reliance on bank borrowings results in liquidity injections, and consequent pressures on the money supply, inflation and balance of payments. The import restrictions imposed recently to arrest the balance of payments deficit might give wrong signals to the market depressing outward-oriented growth. Meanwhile, recourse to foreign borrowings escalates the already heavy external debt burden.

The response of the private sector to monetary easing seems rather weak due to structural factors while cheap credit has tended to encourage extravagant consumption, speculative asset holdings and risky financial dealings. The neglect of inflation-targeting monetary policy launched by the Central Bank about two years ago is a matter of concern from the viewpoint of optimal monetary-fiscal policy mix. A systematic growth strategy, backed by a realistic macroeconomic framework, is essential to recover the economy.

(The author is Emeritus Professor in Economics at the Open University of Sri Lanka)

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Good news about vaccine

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Cassandra, like so many others of her ilk, has locked herself down and voluntarily shut herself in the confines of her home. Being of mature age, she does not fret at self-imposed stay-at-home-ness and actually finds plenty to do to occupy the alone-hours. Such persons also know they are abiding faithfully by medical guidelines. Most sally forth on walks, masked and all, and keep in contact with friends and relatives via electronic wonders and that old faithful – the telephone. It needs effort to stave off fears and bouts of sinking spirits, and at night a further boost is needed. But being essentially optimistic, such persons give praise to the Task Force that is battling COVID-19 night and day. Also greatly appreciated are many helpers who are available to shop and run errands for them. Those who had no time to chant pirit or be prayerful do so now, with benefit, for it sure ensures a nightmare free night’s sleep.

We refrain from political talk as we have heard it is dangerous. Hence too Cass’s disinfected Friday articles. We spoke free and criticized where criticism was due during the yahapalanaya regime. The then Prime Minister, Ranil W, took criticism, even barbs and insults in his stride so we felt free to write about government and matters thereof. But no longer.

Return of the respected and trusted voice, though no longer heard

One radiant shaft of sunlight however, shone through recently. Newspapers announced Dr Anil Jasinha was back in the COVID-19 Presidential Task Force, at meetings at least, though sadly not visible on TV. We do miss him as when he spoke to the public we listened with full confidence in him, and were inspired. This is not meant to insult or demean others who took his place, and advise us on TV, all dedicated medical men, but personality and that earnest sincerity that came through when Dr J spoke was missing. It is not only what is said, but how it is said and received that make for effective communication. We were very suspicious of the ‘kick up’ he was given to move from the Health Ministry to Environment. Welcome back, respected Dr Jasinha and we hope we will see you again making announcements over TV. You called a spade a spade and that we appreciate. We are sick of being fed euphemistic news; good tidings all round and reams about the good our government is doing for the ordinary men and women of this fair isle. Spoons of salt are inbibed! Enough of treating us like fools! That really is how many politicians treat us, while in most cases, the boot is on the other foot.

We who have family overseas have resigned ourselves to leaving this life without seeing them. Terribly tragic but true and realistic. We are thus doubly interested in the manufacture of vaccines – for their sakes more than ours; those vaccines that have been tested and proved effective. Not those released before full testing is completed. Skyping a person in the US, I commented the Pfizer vaccine would cost much. He said the government over there has promised free distribution. Sure that’s a promise of Biden and not the barnacle clinging onto his residence in the White House and swinging more and more his golf club. He should swing himself out; that way of exit of orangutans seems suitable.

 

The Oxford vaccine

I had intended writing about half Sri Lankan, half Indian Dr. Maheshi Ramasamy who, having started her education in Sri Lanka, completed her medical degrees in the United Kingdom, and is now world-renowned as a member of the pioneering team of the most widely accepted vaccine against the global outbreak of Covid-19: the Oxford University vaccine. However, we have read about her great contribution in local newspapers this last Sunday, so I mean to quote from an article in the UK Guardian sent me, about the leaders of that team.

“At the heart of Oxford’s effort to produce a Covid vaccine are half a dozen scientists who between them brought decades of experience to the challenge of designing, developing, manufacturing and trialling a safe vaccine at breakneck speed.

“Prof Sarah Gilbert, the Kettering-born (in Northamptonshire, England) project leader, arrived at Oxford in 1994 to work with Prof Adrian Hill, a senior member of the team, on the malaria parasite, plasmodium. She soon fell into work on experimental vaccines, starting with one that roused white blood cells to fight malaria, followed by a ‘universal’ flu vaccine. As a researcher at Oxford, she gained a no-nonsense reputation, which some attribute in part to her raising triplets, though her husband gave up work to parent them.

“Hill, an Irish vaccinologist described by the Lancet as having ‘silent steeliness’, was first into clinical trials with an Ebola vaccine based on the chimp virus during the 2014 outbreak in West Africa. He and Gilbert patented the technology and in 2016 co-founded Vaccitech, an Oxford spin-off, to capitalise on the research.

“Oxford’s coronavirus work is built on research pioneered by Hill and Gilbert on vaccines based on a virus that causes common colds in chimpanzees. The adenovirus could be rendered harmless and then modified to smuggle genetic material into human cells. The trick was to make that material the gene for a protein on the surface of a nasty virus, one the immune system could lock on to.” The operative word here is ‘raced’ since these admirable pioneers have produced a vaccine and tested it to 70% effectiveness, to undergo one other test ensuring 90%, within a year, while the development of vaccines and full testing usually takes over at least two years. Work on the Oxford vaccine started as early as February this year. So even we oldies of Free Sri Lanka have hopes of being vaccinated as the Oxford vaccine is so much cheaper and can be transported easily. Praise be and grateful thanks to pioneers who sure would have worked against the clock.

Interesting to know about these pioneers. Adrian Vivian Sinton Hill, Irish vaccinologist, aged 62, studied in Trinity College Dublin and then at Oxford, He is director of the Jenner Institute, Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Oxford, Consultant Physician and Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. More interestingly: married to Dr Sunetra Gupta.

And thus, thanks to these selfless pioneers, even we Third Worlders may have a vaccine against Covid 19 fairly soon. WHO will assist of course, as Bill Gates is doing in African States.

 

Slowly giving way but as yet mulish

Yes, that is the defeated Prez of the US, still ensconced in the White House while whiling his time on golf links and sacking VIPs of his government and insulting his successor. Trump has directed that the hand-over of the presidency be facilitated but keeps reiterating that he has not been defeated and will not concede defeat. Absolutely unbelievably, masses are still behind him, flag waving and vociferous with a few Republicans on his side, while many have agreed it is time he goes. I suppose he depended on the ‘Bad Boys’ or whoever who banded themselves just prior to the 2016 presidential election. They seem to have had their fangs shortened,

We are far removed from the US but it was heartening to watch as Biden named his team, most having served under President Obama, with a number of women included. Quite a few are second generation immigrants with one having a step father killed during the Hotocuast. One contrast between his team and Trumps, the latter disintegrating, is that all Biden’s team are slim and trim while Trump had many fat cats behind him. Appearances are also very important.

Mum’s the word with sealed lips on matters Sri Lankan, if they are political! One comment, however, has to be made. We saw on TV Arjuna Ranatunge and some other UNPers wanting Ranil W as the sole nominated UNP member in Parliament. Well and good, since Ranil W is an experienced, highly knowledgeable, cleverly debating, able Parliamentarian. What Cass wishes to comment on is how ole John Amaratunge presented himself to the TV camera on Monday 23, claiming he should be the nominated MP. He is an octogenarian – just made it being born in 1940 – but seems advanced in his three score and ten plus plus. He must be having a vitamin he takes for eternal springy (imagined/induced) vitality and verve! Never say die seems to be his motto after being once accused of sitting on the fence – UNPer given gift trip to the Vatican by the then SLFP government, accompanying Prez Mahinda R, no less!

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