Monday 19th July, 2021
The incumbent government leaps before thinking, and suffers painful pratfalls. In its wisdom, it had some of those who protested against the Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) Bill, the other day, packed off to faraway quarantine centres. Thereafter, it got cold feet and had them released before the completion of the mandatory quarantine period, thus giving the lie to its own claim that the police had only enforced quarantine laws. Now, it is clear that the government either acted arbitrarily in having the protesters sent for quarantine, or had them released from quarantine centres prematurely for political reasons. Either way, it has done something illegal.
The warring teachers’ unions have not softened their stand despite the release of their leaders. They have not resumed online teaching. Students are like the proverbial grass that suffers when elephants fight. One can only hope that teachers will be considerate towards their pupils, and the government will desist from lighting the blue touch paper with trade unions. One may say with apologies to Gandhiji that the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its children are treated. There have been several heart-rending reports about sickos preying on underage girls, during the past few weeks, and now the government and teachers are settling scores at the expense of schoolchildren.
Children are said to be the future of a nation. No wonder so many young Sri Lankans have reportedly applied for visas to migrate to the Global North. They must be fed up with living here. The day may not be far off when this country is left with only politicians’ progeny, who have all the luck.
The government is behaving like a drunkard who staggers out of his way to kick empty tin cans and thambili shells. It kicks up a shindy almost daily. It also has not got its priorities right. The KDU Bill is not a national priority. Everybody knew that an attempt to take it up would provoke protests amidst the pandemic, but the government chose to go ahead with it. The Delta variant of coronavirus is spreading rapidly, and protests will only facilitate its transmission. The government may have thought it would be able to use the health regulations to prevent protests against the Bill.
One of the main arguments against the KDU Bill is that the defence university will be independent of the University Grants Commission (UGC). President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is reported to have told the Buddhist Advisory Council recently that it will be brought within the purview of the UGC and some of the existing laws amended for that purpose. There is so much of resistance to the KDU Bill not because the defence university will not be under the UGC. Instead, the reason for protests is that the Bill seeks to enable the enrolment of local students for certain courses of study such as medicine on fee-levying basis, and the promotion of fee-paying universities will be inimical to free education. Any attempt to have such KDU degree programmes recognised by the UGC is bound to cause more trouble.
The government says there is a pressing need for setting up private universities in this country because a large number of Sri Lankan students go overseas for higher education and spend colossal amounts of foreign exchange. The opponents of this view insist that the establishment of private universities will be at the expense of free education. The arguments put forth by both sides sound tenable. The fact that successive governments have not done enough to develop the national universities has caused the assertion that free education has been left to wither on the vine to gain some credence. If the government wants to disprove the claim that it is planning to throttle free education, it must allocate more resources for the development of public schools and universities.
Meanwhile, the champions of free education must show their bona fides. If the protesting teachers have rendered so great a service to free education, as claimed by their trade unions, how come students are heavily dependent on shadow education or private tuition? Parents will vouch for the fact that although education at the state-run schools is free, they spend a lot of money on private tuition to prepare their children for the GCE O/L and A/L examinations. Students in other Grades also attend private tuition classes. Never do the best performers at competitive examinations thank their private tutors for their achievements, and this has enabled their schools to take all the credit. There are some good schools which provide a satisfactory education, but they are the exception that proves the rule. If the teachers really feel for free education, they must work in such a way that their students will have no need for private tuition. Will the teachers’ unions take up this challenge?
Both the government and protesters had better realise that they are endangering the lives of the public by locking horns while the Delta variant is spreading fast. Let them be urged to heed public health experts’ warnings and call a truce urgently. This is not the time for Parliament to take up any controversial Bills, or trade unions and political parties to take to the streets. The safety of the public must take precedence over everything else.
Reopening: Need for heightened alert
Friday 24th September, 2021
There has been a significant decrease in the daily Covid-19 cases and death toll, and therefore chances are the government will not extend the current lockdown further. The country cannot be kept closed indefinitely, anyway. Health experts are of the view that it is advisable to stagger the reopening of the country. This is a very sensible suggestion that the government ought to heed. The current wave of infections could have been prevented if the powers that be had listened to expert advice in April, and imposed travel restrictions.
Sri Lankans are known for running around purposelessly, especially when they are not supposed to do so, and infections are bound to rise after the country is reopened, and what has been gained from the costly lockdown will be lost within a few weeks unless stringent measures are adopted to ensure that they follow the health regulations. If the police lack the courage to arrest government politicians who flout the law brazenly, they must at least severely deal with the violators of quarantine laws for the sake of the public.
As coronavirus throws up new challenges in the form of more transmissible variants that defy vaccine barriers, efforts being made to contain it must be redoubled. Why double-masking and the two-metre rule have not been made mandatory here is the question. The quarantine laws need to be amended to introduce stricter measures to tackle the runaway virus, which is likely to make a comeback sooner than expected, necessitating another lockdown in a few months.
When workplaces reopen, most people will travel in buses and trains, and it is practically impossible to prevent these vehicles from being overcrowded. When enough buses and trains are not available, commuters are left with no alternative but to shoehorn themselves into every conceivable space in overcrowded vehicles lest they should be stranded. So, the private bus operators, the SLTB and the railway authorities will mind the health guidelines for a few days after the reopening of the country; everybody will take them for granted thereafter until the death toll from the pandemic rises again. This, we have seen before, and it is sure to happen again, defeating the ongoing pandemic control efforts.
When the lockdown is lifted, more people will travel to work in their own vehicles for want of a better alternative, and the country’s fuel consumption will increase significantly. Is the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) ready to meet an increase in the demand for fuel? Before the country was closed, it had petroleum stocks sufficient for only a few weeks, and the lockdown must have come as a blessing for the CPC, but the problem remains.
Most of the companies that promote remote work have sent out memos asking their employees to be present in their offices in case of power cuts. Their fear of power outages is not unfounded because we have experienced them umpteen times during the past few decades. A large number of people are working from home, at present, and if they have to travel to their workplaces again, they will run the risk of contracting Covid-19, and buses and trains will be more crowded. It is beneficial to the national economy to promote remote work, which helps reduce fuel consumption and congestion. One only hopes the government will take steps to ensure that power cuts will not be imposed. Ideally, back-up power options such as domestic solar power systems and small, fuel-efficient generators should be made available at affordable prices to those engaged in remote work.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka ought to learn from other countries such as Singapore how to ease lockdowns and keep the case fatality rates low. They have opted for cautious reopening with phased periods of heightened alert to avoid unpleasant surprises which coronavirus is notorious for offering.
‘Manike mage hithe’; Amaradeva amathakado?
Thursday 23rd September, 2021
The unprecedented success of two young Sri Lankan artistes, Yohani and Satheeshan, following the release of their song, Manike mage hithe, which has become a viral trend on social media, has led to Sri Lankan politicians to jump on the bandwagon. SJB MP Nalin Bandara has proposed that Parliament honour the singing duo. The best way the national legislature could honour the young artistes is to serve the interests of the Sri Lankan youth, thousands of whom are waiting to migrate at the earliest opportunity owing to the mess the country has got into over the decades under successive governments.
Yohani and Satheeshan have not only had Bollywood megastars like Big B hop on to the trend but also entered the 12-billion-dollar global streaming market, and therefore deserve national recognition and unstinted state assistance to venture farther afield. Yohani has been invited to hold two concerts in India. She and Satheeshan have demonstrated to the Sri Lankan youth that they could conquer the world without leaving the country of their birth. They have also shown how to tap the enormous potential of the World Wide Web through creativity and perseverance, and awakened popular interest in creative economy.
It is not only in the field of music that young Sri Lankans can excel. In this technologically-driven world, opportunities abound in many spheres across geographical boundaries. Many young Sri Lankans are already working for internationally reputed tech companies from here. Much more needs to be done.
Innovation is the way forward for any nation. The need to introduce radical changes to the existing education system here to prepare the young Sri Lankans to compete and grab opportunities in a highly competitive global environment cannot be overemphasised. One may recall that during a Gama Samaga Pilisandarak meeting in a far-flung area, when a female student requested President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to provide her school with a new computer as the old one had conked out, the latter, while undertaking to grant her request, asked whether the students had dismantled the faulty machine to see what had gone wrong. The answer was in the negative. The significance of the President’s question unfortunately was lost on education policymakers, and the media. Children must be trained to disassemble and reassemble basic machines––of course, under the supervision of teachers et al––as in other countries, besides being encouraged to identify the problems in their immediate environment and propose technological solutions thereto wherever possible.
Young, talented artistes, we repeat, should be honoured and assisted in pushing the envelope of their chosen fields, but the maestros who have made their achievements possible by preserving the Sri Lankan identity therein, must not be forgotten. There are many senior artistes struggling to keep the wolf from the door; the Covid-19 pandemic has aggravated their woes. They must also be looked after. Many are the young artistes who are in penury today because there are no musical shows owing to lockdowns, etc. They, too, need assistance from the state as well as the public.
Sadly, nobody has taken up for discussion in Parliament the fate that has befallen the Amaradeva Asapuva project, which was launched with great fanfare some years ago, at Battaramulla. The place, named after the late Pundit W. D. Amaradeva, who made this country proud, and was in a league of his own, is now overgrown with weeds, according to media reports. Ironically, it is just a stone’s throw from Parliament, where a call has been made for honouring Yohani and Satheeshan for Manike mage hithe. Has Amaradeva been forgotten––Amaradeva amathakado?
Amaradeva loved young artistes and promoted them as he knew they were the future of Sri Lankan music and needed encouragement. He even duetted with them. What a fabulous blend of voices we have in Hanthane Sihine, which the maestro sings with brilliant, young vocalist, Umariya. A newspaper report says the urn containing the great man’s ashes is still waiting to be deposited at the Asapuva to be built. Will Parliament take up this issue and have the memorial project expedited before basking in the reflected glory of young artistes?
Of that den of thieves
Wednesday 22nd September, 2021
A CCTV footage of a sarong-clad shoplifter removing a bundle of electrical cables from a shelf, concealing it in his crotch area and walking away calmly was telecast yesterday. There are many other thieves like him, and shopkeepers are having a hard time trying to ward them off. They have got stealing goods in this manner down to a fine art, but their skills pale into insignificance in comparison to what our politicians are capable of. If a damning statement made by a high-ranking public official on the latest scandal at Sathosa is any indication, then politicians and their henchmen are capable of carrying 40-foot containers, hidden in their crotch areas, and delivering them to private traders. Another minister has adopted the same method to deliver a power plant to a US company! Nothing is too big for the kapati-suit fraternity—not even container terminals with huge gantry cranes thereon. This may be why Sri Lanka calls itself the Wonder of Asia.
Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) Executive Director Thushan Gunawardena has announced his resignation, citing as reasons threats to his life for blocking some questionable deals. He has also mentioned the Sathosa garlic scam. We learn that a consignment of 56,000 kilos of garlic in two freight containers was purchased by Sathosa at less than Rs. 110 a kilo from the Colombo port and sold to a private supplier at Rs. 135 a kilo. The racketeers were planning to repurchase the stock of garlic at Rs. 445 a kilo and sell it to consumers at Rs. 550 a kilo! Thankfully, a CAA raid put paid to their sinister move.
Gunawardena has said Sathosa has been taking goods from the Colombo port, selling them to private suppliers and repurchasing them at higher prices, at the expense of the state coffers and consumers, for a long time. He says he believes that no public official can carry out mega rackets without political backing. One cannot but agree with him.
Gunawardena has alleged that two ministers are out for his scalp because he has refused to be party to some questionable transactions, and is therefore considered an obstacle. We are not in a position to verify his claim, but it is a very serious charge that must not go uninvestigated.
The incumbent government has within its ranks most of the rogues whose corrupt deals and abuse of power led to the collapse of the previous Rajapaksa administration, but the people voted for the SLPP in spite of them because they reposed trust in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who, they thought, would make a difference. The President has to live up to people’s expectations and restore public confidence in his government. As for the Sathosa garlic scam, no less a person than the outgoing CAA Executive Director is a witness, and, therefore, it will not be difficult to bring the culprits to justice.
State Minister of Co-operative Services, Marketing Development and Consumer Protection Lasantha Alagiyawanna has sought to deny Gunawardena’s claim, and challenged the latter to a public debate. His side of the story should be heard, but a debate is not the way to set about it. The issue is far too serious to be sorted out in that manner.
A thorough probe is called for into the garlic racket and the ongoing attempts to find a scapegoat. Minister of Trade Bandula Gunawardena must also be made to explain why the consignment of garlic was allowed to be sold to a private company. Sathosa has become a den of thieves, who far outnumber the rats in its warehouses. Corrupt deals are the main reason why this vital state institution, which can be utilised to make effective market interventions to tame traders’ Mafia that exploits the public, is incurring huge losses.
Let President Rajapaksa be urged to order a special probe into the garlic racket urgently and have the culprits prosecuted. All suspects in the garb of officials must be interdicted, and the two ministers concerned asked to step down so that an independent investigation could be conducted. One only hopes the garlic racket will not go the same way as the sugar tax scam, which also caused huge losses to the state coffers.
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