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Cabbages and kings



By Tennekone Rusiripala

Among the many topics of interest doing the rounds, some are interesting revelations and others, repetitions and cliches. I chose to deal with a few, regarding recent developments, for the current write up.

Yugadanavi episode, a mid-night scandal

This reminds us of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the Duke feels that his word should prevail as law.

People who come to power with thumping majorities think they are all powerful. Hence the springing of the Yugadanavi agreement and the fiasco following it. There are many facets to the dispute surrounding the Yugadanavi affair. Engineers of the Ceylon

Electricity Board (CEB) are up in arms on the line of Trade Union oppositions attributing National Interest. Certainly, Trade Unions are forerunners in instances of new policy enunciations. Their role in such falls within the scope of ‘unions are partners of social progress’. But in this instance their protest actions against the Yugadanavi devolved into other grievance areas such as the plan for restructuring the CEB administration. For those viewing the matter from outside, it appears that the CEB has to invariably introduce some urgent measures to reorganise its operations.

We may need to write several chapters to explain this state of affairs properly but it would suffice, for the current purpose, to state that the Treasury, state banks and the domestic debt position are all severely affected due to the operational maladies of the CEB over a long period of time. Therefore, the concerns of the CEB Engineers Union regarding the restructuring plan have to be fully explained before they engage in any protest campaigns. Otherwise their objectives and national interests may be subject to misinterpretation. Because there are many experiences of unions vociferously opposing reorganisation plans because of their rights and privileges, which they would like to safeguard at any cost to the nation or otherwise.

Then comes our representatives in parliament. Some oppose anything and everything. Certain others who oppose something to secure their precarious standing to prevent the fall of the Sword of Damocles hanging over their head, because of the situation they are facing for something very bad that could happen to some of them without the favour of the government. The Easter Sunday fracas is still hot!

Then there are others who truly want to defy anything that happens bypassing them. This agreement, according to the news, has been brewed, manipulated and entered into disregarding the existence of many, who are presumed important pillars in the government structure. They have chosen to oppose it knowing very well that it is as risky for them as it is for the government to overlook them. It is also possible that they are a part of a power struggle inside.

There is also a group hell-bent on provoking the elimination of appendages of the government by inciting them to oppose the agreement so that they will be stronger in the government once the victims leave.

The grand finale was the tabling of a copy of the Agreement, hitherto kept behind closed doors, by the JVP leader Anura Kumara in the Parliament during the budget debate.

But what transpired was not as dramatic as expected. Other than to pinpoint one major feature related to the agreement, that there is a non-disclosure clause, he failed to highlight any adverse terms or conditions embodied in the agreement that are harmful to the nation or national interest. This is not the first time that the government entered into agreements with international companies as investors on a 49 to 51 percent sharing basis. There cannot be anything so detrimental in that. But what is important is whether there are any conditions that go against the sovereign rights of the country or the broader public interest. The failure to highlight any of those leaves us with many unanswered questions.

Foreign Exchange crisis and Reserves position

Many critics from the opposition kept on hitting at the fact that the country’s foreign reserves have reached an unprecedented low. But here again they failed or ignored to spell out their alternate options except to reiterate their ex-boss’s view of suggesting to seek solace in the IMF. Mr. Wickremesinghe, as is well known, will have no qualms about the matter because of his inclinations towards the west. But there is no logic in trying that as the remedy of the last resort, when we can effect or attempt to effect some measures, with long term benefits, through possible inward domestic adjustments. If we can use our bilateral arrangements to sort out matters no one can find fault.

But the CBSL has to review the foreign remittances from those employed abroad by offering meaningful incentives to promote official inward remittances. An incentive will be effective and attractive only if it provides concessions out of the normal. There is no logic in pushing them to chase behind Rs. 8 or 10 more when the sharks outside are ever ready to offer about Rs 30 to 40 per USD. Laws and restrictions play a secondary role, as we are aware, orderliness has to be in place before anything else. In the modern world, people have many avenues for conducting transactions. It was a welcome move by the Governor to have explained the current requirement of converting foreign exchange balances in the accounts of local banks, which the commercial banks have been mishandling. The need to convert the balances apply only to export earnings and investment funds. Even in the case of export earnings there is leeway for the exporters to utilise the monies for their raw material for future productions.

We remember the time Dr. N.M Perera, as the Minister of Finance, introduced the Convertible Rupee Account system. If you bring in 100 net you are entitled to use 25 without any restrictions. This was a good scheme because it provided some relief to genuine foreign exchange earners.

Government Service

In this country any reference to certain areas, however justified or in whatever context, is deemed controversial. The recent reference to Public Sector employees, by the Finance Minister is one such example. There was a big furore following his reference. Some said it is a belittling of the Public Sector employees. This is real balderdash. The Public Sector of this country is badly in need of a complete revamping. Few dare to touch this or even talk about it. I am personally aware that topmost authorities are well aware of this but are scared to initiate any action. Let us follow Newton’s Third Law in this regard; ‘every action has an equal and opposite reaction’. Similarly for any thesis there will be an antithesis.

I once met a President to whom I mentioned that there is a crying need for a national wage policy because of certain serious irregularities in the wages and salaries structures in the country. I mentioned a few places where the wages and salaries were extremely disproportionate with the rest of the State Sector, although they too were SOEs (highly loss making). To my extreme delight and surprise this President complimented my view by mentioning a few other places that he knew to have this aberration. I requested him to initiate some action during his tenure, but to no avail.

Our Public Service is one of the most poorly paid sectors. It is also ipso facto a most poorly performing sector. If the country has to move forward what is required is not to fatten this white elephant any more but to make full use of it, looking after their welfare as well as improving their performance. I for one hail and appreciate the concerns expressed by the Finance Minister about this need and look forward to immediate drastic action in this regard. I trust that the government would seriously address the national wage policy issue and bring some uniformity to the salary structures of all Public Sector bodies, without any distinction as to whether they make profits or not.

Investments and BOI

We noted an ongoing fracas in the BOI, the institution that is created to monitor, promote and develop investments (FDI) in the country. The entire Board of Directors tendered their resignations but we also heard that the resignations were not accepted.

This sends out many adverse signals. For a country like ours, struggling to attract foreign investments, to come out of an economic crisis, the resignation threat of the BOI bosses conveys a negative message to prospective investors. They must be thinking, ‘why the hell should we dump our funds into a country where, leave alone anything else, even the body corporate set up to promote investments is not stable?’

Secondly, the refusal to accept their resignations and requesting them to continue in their posts indicates that from the government’s point of view their performance is OK but from the point of view of the BOI bosses the Government does not reciprocate their service.

We do not know why the government wants them to continue but their performance record is far from satisfactory. The BOI is one place which has miserably failed in the basics to revamp the country’s economy. Their failure became obvious during the pandemic, through lapses in agricultural production, transport systems and distribution mechanisms, non-availability of large scale well organised agricultural products, producers causing havoc, adverse effects on livelihoods, inflationary trends and basically putting in jeopardy the food security of the whole country. There is a wide spectrum and a multifaceted scope which the BOI never addressed, with the future of the country in mind. I have witnessed many times investors being turned away or discouraged due to the want of land for development. Despite repeated requests being made, in this regard, the BOI has failed, to date, to develop a Land Bank, a database of land available for development. Once at a meeting several years ago, when I heard a prospective foreign investor being told that the BOI was unable to fulfil his land requirement, I had to jump in and challenge the sitting authorities,”Give me one week, I will give you thousands of acres of land suitable for development activities within a 50-mile radius from Colombo.”

We have a Land Reform Commission owning tens of thousands of acres of land idling for several decades, the exact locations of which are not clear even to some of the officials. It is an invaluable national treasure. If developed properly, we need not import any agricultural products. The issue is that investors will have to go through a broker who will find land for them. The BOI was deaf and blind to these ground realities. The problem with them is that they are not sensible and practical people, with their feet on the ground. Recruiting many specialists will have hardly any effect. You can never develop this country without addressing the resource base, specially our priceless wealth in land.

Instead of focusing only on highly sophisticated areas, let there be new thinking and approach to study, examine and implement development programmes in keeping with our culture, environment and future human trends.

To make a long story short, the President’s announcement of looking into the prospects of harnessing and developing the higher education system with private sector investments, is a welcome move to address many of our present day as well as future needs. But he will need the services of some who are down-to-earth to successfully implement such a programme. Otherwise the same fate that befell the fertiliser issue will befall the issue of developing the higher education system.

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Why cry for Djokovic?



By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Cassandra, who uses her column liberally to criticise our politicians for giving special treatment to their kith and kin, is shedding tears for Novak Djokovic, who was denied special treatment in Australia! She opines that he should have been segregated and allowed to play in the Australian Open and states in her column, in The Island of 21 January:

“Now, the Aussie Open has lost its glamour and even interest to this ole soul – Cassandra. She hoped Nadal and others would withdraw from the OA. But since it was not their deportation, they go along. Hopefully they will publicly comment in support of their co-sportsman. Nadal already spoke out.”

She may have lost interest in the Australian Open as her favourite was deported but it has not lost its glamour as plenty more talented players are left to display their prowess in Tennis. If at all, the Australian Open has lost its glamour, it is due to the misdeeds of Australia Tennis. More than anything else, what I find ludicrous is her suggestion that Nadal and others should have withdrawn from the tournament in support of Djokovic! Nadal has already spoken out and, as mentioned in my piece which she refers to (Australian antics and Djokovic’s disgrace; The Island, 18 January), was very clear that if Djokovic makes a stand, he should be prepared to face the consequences. Djokovic has not had Covid vaccination and was well aware that it was a requirement for entering Australia.

Going even further, Cassandra faults our editor by stating; “The Editor of this paper commented on it and seemed to stand for ‘the Law holds for all’. He made no mention of the health waiver the world’s Number One tennis wizard received which he traded on to go to Melbourne in the first place.” It is a pity she has completely disregarded the fact that this waiver was on false premises as Djokovic could not substantiate that he had any medical contraindications to vaccination. In fact, another player stated that it is hardly conceivable for players who play competitive tennis to have contraindications for Covid vaccination!

Interestingly, Tennis Australia is evasive about the circumstances leading to the waiver; it has now been revealed that the Federal Government had informed them well in advance that dual vaccination was the criterion for entry. The State Government of Victoria has claimed that Tennis Australia kept them in the dark about this.

The position of the Federal Government has been vindicated by the unanimous verdict of the three-judge Bench of the Federal Court of Australia, which confirmed not only the legality but also the reason for cancelling the visa. In giving reasons for their judgement the judges state:

“The minister’s justifications for revoking the visa were not “irrational or illogical or not based on relevant material,”

Commenting on the minister’s argument that Mr. Djokovic’s position as a role model who chose to remain unvaccinated against Covid-19 could “foster anti-vaccination sentiment”, they found that he has exercised his disctionary powers lawfully and go on to state:

“An iconic world tennis star may influence people of all ages, young or old, but perhaps especially the young and the impressionable, to emulate him. This is not fanciful; it does not need evidence.”

Cassandra’s cry too illustrates how influential sport stars can be! Perhaps, she should reserve her tears for what may happen in the future. Unless rules are changed, Djokovic would not be able to play in the French Open. Protests, even in Serbia, have died down but it is reported that his sponsors are in talks with Djokovic.

There is yet another interesting twist to the story. According to a post “Mail Online” website , titled “Novak Djokovic’s astonishing Covid-19 decision before coming to Australia is finally revealed”(

“Novak Djokovic’s hesitancy to get vaccinated is well known – but it can also now be revealed the tennis superstar reportedly purchased a majority stake in a Danish biotech company looking to develop a treatment against Covid-19 in June last year.”


has reported that the world number one holds an 80 per cent stake in QuantBioRes, who are currently developing a peptide which prevents the virus from infecting human cells. Djokovic, 34, is said to own 40.8 per cent of the company – while his wife Jelena owns 39.2 per cent.”

Djokovic’s vaccine hesitancy may be for totally different reasons!

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Dollar Crisis: What aggravated it



by Eng. D. Godage

Total foreign currency reserves of the country were around seven billion dollars at the beginning of 2021 but it decreased to around 1.2 billion dollars towards the year end, even though the Central Bank announced that there was a reserve of three billion dollars. The net foreign assets of the total banking system are said to be a US$ 4.1 billion deficit by 2021 end. Everybody knows the suffering and difficulties the countrymen undergo as a result of the depletion of foreign currency or dollar reserves. Without elaborating on those effects, it is the intention of the writer to examine how foreign reserves depleted so fast.

Politicians, officials, public speakers very often tend to blame every government since independence over the past 70 years for ruining this country, but with regard to foreign debt, it is not applicable. Moreover, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were felt globally but other countries in this region did not suffer as much and face such crises like the ones faced by Sri Lanka, so it is no excuse. It is not essential to elaborate on this fact as it is common knowledge. Consequently, the writer makes an attempt to understand how and when it happened. The focus of this discussion is on infrastructure development, and not other debt instruments.

Debt burden since independence

The Oya project implemented around 1948 using local funds comes to mind. Moreover, from 1950 the major port development scheme of Colombo Harbour created the Colombo Port, one of the most modern ports at the time, by 1956 under the leadership of the Minister of Transport and Works, Sir John Kotelawala in the Dudley Senanayake Cabinet, utilising local funds amounting to 110 million rupees. While work was in progress, the ship ‘Gothic’, carrying Queen Elizabeth II, berthed alongside the newly constructed Customs Quay to christen it the Queen Elizabeth Quay (QEQ). Incidentally, the QEQ was buried in the privately developed SAGT or South Asia Gateway Terminals around year 2000.

The Mahaweli Development Project, a massive irrigation cum hydroelectric scheme originally planned for 30 years but telescoped into about six years, was undertaken by the J.R. Jayewardene government using concessionary loans as well as grants. Funds were provided based on a thorough feasibility study, with eminent engineer late Dr. A.N.S Kulasinghe and his team of engineers working as consultants. Resultant benefits are well known and they did not lead to any debt crisis in the country.

Road and railway infrastructure development has been carried out with locally raised funds. After the 2004 tsunami disaster, the Railway Department staff rehabilitated the destroyed line to recommence operations with the least possible delay. It is said that northern rail line improvements carried out later on loans under Uthuru Wasanthaya had spent two to three times the cost.

Since 1980 the country has seen another major development programme in the port sector. Studies had been conducted at a time of increasing demand for container traffic, confirming the urgent need to expand port facilities. The first phase of expansion, requiring US$ 32 million, was funded in the form of a Yen currency loan. The project progressed systematically aided by further loans, through a transparent bidding process. As a result, the Colombo Port was elevated from the global rank of 127 in 1981 to 21st in 1997. These loans were granted only after proper feasibility studies were carried out and confirmation of loan repayment capability, as affirmed by the lending Japanese Agency. Extensive borrowing for project infrastructure became the norm only after about 2000 and not since independence.

Newer debt accumulation

A Sunday English newspaper on March 9, 2014 and May 1, 2016 reported, with details from the External Resources Department, on 28 projects funded predominantly by China Exim Bank loans amounting to US$ 7,671 million, with five-year grace and 10-year repayment periods; their interest rates are not indicated but is supposed to be over six percent. All these projects are said to have been initiated through unsolicited tenders. The same newspaper published a report under the caption, “Normal tender procedure not possible for mega projects: PBJ”. This is a questionable statement. Further examination of the above list shows seven projects, all in Hambantota, totalling US$ 5,054 million, for airport, port, highway extension, railway extension and local road network. None of them seem capable of generating revenue to repay the massive loans even though they have been in operation for around 10 years by now. These loans alone require about US$1 billion per year as repayment, burdening the country, and using up its dollar reserves. During the previous regime the Hambantota Port was given out on a 99-year lease.

Did the Treasury officials who handled these borrowings not see the danger of the debt burden or debt trap and the country’s inability to repay them without adequate future revenue? One can cite the shifting global financial structure and unforeseen circumstances as the reason. But they should have been taken into consideration in any plan. High costs due to unsolicited proposals without a competitive bidding process are also an issue. As for costs, the Treasury Secretary has said that it is the engineers who determine costs. This is not an acceptable excuse.

The Colombo Port South Harbour was found to be an urgent project, and proved viable after an extensive feasibility study by 2001. After producing detailed designs, cost estimates and all implementation requisites, it was not possible to proceed due to lack of funds. The Hambantota Port project was also given high priority by the same government though two feasibility studies failed to show the viability of the project. For the Colombo Port project, the Treasury Secretary advocated commercial borrowing claiming that the lending agency conditions were unacceptable.

In fact, only one lending agency came forward to offer approximately one third of the fund requirement. The Ports Authority managed to obtain very concessionary loan of US$ 300 million in 2006, to proceed with the project, albeit after a two-year delay. The new harbour was completed successfully within the stipulated time and cost while adhering to a transparent tender process. It is worthwhile to note that the lowest cost, approximately US$ 320 million, was quoted by the Korean contractor who successfully completed it, while the next bid was around US$ 570 million by a Chinese contractor. This project seems to be generating more revenue than budgeted.

In fact, the biggest container ship in the world ‘Ever Ace’, with a carrying capacity of 24,000 TEU, berthed in the Colombo South Harbour in October 2021 as it is the only port in the region that could accommodate a ship of that scale, bringing great honour and promoting the Colombo Port.

Most Chinese funded projects that commenced during the past two decades seem now complete and in operation, spread among power and energy, transportation, airport and aviation, ports, irrigation and water sectors. Debt distribution is US$ 1,553 million in power and energy, US$ 3.99 billion in transportation, US$ 232 million in airport and aviation, US$ 1,336 million in ports and US$ 101 million in irrigation. This includes projects indicated by the aforementioned 2016 news item, and subsequent major projects like the Central Highway are not included.

Expensive ventures like the Norochcholai coal power plant costing US$ 1,346 million have helped to meet the country’s energy demands and there has to be a post project evaluation to ascertain its financial gains and loan repayment capacity. Highway projects undertaken on expensive loans do not seem to generate enough revenue to meet dollar loan repayments. Although some benefits accrue, the post project economic and financial evaluations are not satisfactory. The highest revenue on a peak day on the Southern Highway has been 38 million rupees a day. Considering the average annual turnover minus the operation and maintenance costs it could take 100 years to repay loans. Authorities should perform a post project evaluation for the benefit of future planners.

Lessons to learn

This is history but should not be discarded, for the valuable information and data therein demonstrate the actual scenario and resultant repercussions. Decision makers and economic advisors to the government, especially of the Treasury and any other relevant officials could review them.

The debt burden has aggravated the dollar crisis during the past two decades. The COVID-19 pandemic during the past two years is not an excuse as other countries in the region too have faced the same but are performing better. The negative economic growth in 2020 and the considerable dollar debt burden, with the country’s reserves collapsing have not occurred suddenly. Severe import restrictions have made day to day life of the people inconvenient and led to the collapse of some domestic industries.

The worst is yet to come, as warned by the Secretary to the President, delivering a speech in Colombo, as reported by a Sunday English newspaper on 28 Nov. 2021. He was the Treasury Secretary during the past two decades, when China Exim Bank loans were signed to the tune of billions of dollars mostly for white elephant projects, The massive dollar debt seems the root cause of most problems faced today.

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Territorial mindset, a recipe for disaster!



By Chani Imbulgoda

I recall a documentary on animal life on a TV channel. Describing the behaviour of lions, a caretaker said, “These lions are from the Dehiwala zoo. They are vigilant of other lions entering their territory, if one crosses the boundary they fight to death. They won’t like other lions entering their territory.” The announcer remarked, “Just like humans!”

Exactly, just like us. In the animal kingdom the survival of the fittest is the norm and not crossing others’ territory is a rule of thumb. Since the beginning of human civilisation there have been tales of battles. The Trojan war, Alexander’s, Caesar’s, Napoleon’s wars degraded human values. Saddled with cynicism, hostility and jealousy, we humans, like beasts, are at war with ‘others’ who do not fit into our ideologies or our comfort zones. History is a storehouse of tales of human battles over territories in the guise of civilisation. So-called civilisation itself was won over battles. In the local context, the native ‘Yakkhas’ were massacred by Prince Vijaya to develop ‘Sinhale’. America, Canada, Australia inherit a dark history of looting territories of indigenous people in the name of civilisation. Portugal, Spain, Britain tasted the blood of their ‘colonial slaves’. Centuries later, we have not yet shed our primary animal instincts. We battle tooth and nail to protect our territories, our autonomy, values and interests all in the guise of civilised behaviour.

We rarely welcome outsiders into our territories. In the 40s and 50s, women were kept out of men’s territory. Late British Prime Minister aka Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, had to struggle many years to break through another of man’s territories, the Parliament. In the movie ‘Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley’, she sobs to her husband that contrary to what she previously believed, despite hard work she cannot win on merit and that dedication and passion are irrelevant. One-time Prime Minister, Edward Heath condemns Thatcher’s outspoken nature to force her out of politics. Heath says that the Parliament is akin to an orchestra made up of many musicians and Thatcher is a French horn more loud than appropriate, that threatens the orchestra’s harmony.

This is how men and also women of the same flock air their resentment towards outsiders, in their own words ‘intruders’ who are colourful and loud in action. Insult, indifference, suspicion, suppression, oppression are not uncommon experiences of pioneers in anything in history or at present. I once heard a senior Professor advising a young colleague attempting to change the system for the better, “Lady, look, do not swim upstream, people would not like it.” Yes, despite good intentions any novel act breaks the harmony…That is why the Buddha had many foes. That is why the notorious thief Barabbas was chosen by the crowd over Jesus.

I tried to uproot a tiny cinnamon sapling that grew through my interlock pavement blocks, failing which I crushed it. It made me realise that this is what happens, no matter how valuable you are. If you crop up in a place where you would not be accepted, every effort is made to root out, failing which, crush you, to ensure that you would not resurface. I suppose many of us had faced similar circumstances at work places, in politics or within social circles. Why does this happen, because of ego, envy, distrust or insecurity? Or because someone deemed a threat by another individual, a leader or a group enters their territory?

A pack of wolves has a leader; the protection of lions’ territory is the responsibility of the leader; the leader is the first to announce danger. No outsider can cross the boundary. We see certain lions, wolves and foxes as alphas. The mentality ‘I am the boss, I know everything’ blinds them. They live on ego, with a superiority complex, under the assumption that no one can challenge their power. If the newcomer is meek and sucks up to the leader, he or she survives and can slowly squirm their way into the pack.

I have heard parents complain about how difficult it is to enrol their kids into various sports clubs in schools. I have worked in private as well as public sector organisations, local and overseas. I have experienced antagonistic behaviour in these organisations. Driven by their insecurity, superior or inferior complexes, they would go to any lengths to harass the outsider and go to any extreme to protect his or her territory. They are myopic to the point of rejecting ideas foreign to them no matter how good they are, as they see ‘danger’ in ideas alien to them. Some group ideologies are thicker than blood. Certain professional groups rarely welcome females. They believe that women cannot meet challenges as men do and can be fiercely territorial. Many qualified and capable individuals are ostracised from organisations or industries or expelled from positions because of this territorial mindset.

A person with a territorial mindset is often overcome by thoughts of safeguarding or enhancing his or her power, control, influence and self-proclaimed status. These are primitive emotions. Taking ownership and defending what people believe belongs to them is a positive trait. But it is this mentality that subjects newcomers to agony when they grow too smart for their own good. They are stifled when the power of those with a territorial mindset is threatened. Many novel ideas and skills go to waste while some newcomers or ‘misfits’ are forced to leave their workplaces, others would continue the fight or be forced to conform.

We talk of harmony, reconciliation, tolerance and unity in diversity. Why cannot we synergize each other’s differences? A French horn would add glamour and at least amuse the audience. A garden consisting of a variety of flowers is more awe-inspiring than a garden of roses alone. Poet Khalil Gibran said that when a river enters the sea, the river is no more, it is diluted in salt water and one cannot trace the river in the sea, but the river grows larger and so does the sea. When we come out of our confining shells we are exposed to greater opportunities as well as benefits for both the newcomer and those already in that society.

(The writer holds a senior position in a state university and has an MBA from the Postgraduate Institute of Management [PIM], Sri Lanka and is currently reading for her PhD in Quality Assurance in the Higher Education Sector at PIM. She can be reached at

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