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Editorial

Cold logic, hard facts

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Amid the gloom of the country situation we are living in today, there was a beam of light emitted by a statement issued by the Association of Medical Specialists (AMS) published last week. The use of the word “Association” rather than the more familiar “Union” in the name or title of an organization blunts the abrasive edge associated with the latter term. This, of course, is not always the case. The GMOA, for example, is also an association – the Government Medical Officers Association to give its full title. But in the public mind it is, in fact, a union and one that has in too many instances in the past and present acted no differently from blue collar unions in holding the general public to ransom to obtain its demands. Not so (or should we say so much so) the AMS, although it too has in its history acted in a manner similar to the GMOA, whose members are not all medical specialists, to win various facilities and concessions for its members who too are government employees.

The statement we referred to at the beginning of this comment relates to the AMS’s warning to the government that ad hoc salary increases recently promised to nurses and paramedical services would literally open a can of worms triggering similar demands from across the entire public services spectrum. It is public knowledge that salary anomalies are ubiquitous in the various segments of the monolithic public sector. Its size, Mr. KHJ Wijeyadasa, a former Secretary to the President, says in an article published in this issue of our newspaper totals a massive one and a half million employees. To borrow his words, “Sri Lanka’s tottering economy has to sustain a massive government service of over 1.5 million employees, half a million (government) pensioners and two million Samurdhi beneficiaries.”

He has said that this means that 20 percent of the country’s population is paid by the State. Given that the average family size in this country is four, it can be calculated that as many as eight million people – about a third of our population – subsist on State funding, Wijeyadasa says. Given today’s cost of living, we would add that the former senior public servant chose the right word in using “subsist” rather than “live.” There is no escaping the reality of his conclusion that two issues, affordability and sustainability, are very much a part of the existing situation and the picture is no less than “suicidal.” What we, and we believe most sensible people understand is that a spate of pay increases across the government sector at this point of time will be totally unmanageable however much money we print. That is why we find the AMS statement refreshing. They, like Oliver Twist, are not asking for more for themselves but warning of an approaching whirlwind.

Evening television news bulletins over that past week and more projected the misery caused to poor people by the crippling of government hospital services due to various strikes. The AMS said in its statement that they, as public servants, have been least affected by the pandemic and its resultant economic impact. “Our salaries were paid in full, whether we worked from home or did not work. Even transport was arranged at the expense of the State for some. Even essentials were made available for us, delivered to workplace as an extra convenience. These are some of the privileges we have enjoyed as public servants during this period,” the statement said. “In contrast to us, the private sector employees were not so lucky. There were pay cuts, redundancies were declared and bonuses were trimmed, all cost cutting maneuvers.”

Saying all this in a public statement is refreshing candor seldom encountered in this so-called Democratic Socialist Republic of ours. The medical specialists also drew attention to the plight of those they called “freelance” workers, small businesses and most of all, the daily paid workers saying, “Therefore, we strongly believe that being the least affected segment of the society, we public servants should be more mindful of our duty over rights,” the statement said. “Having analyzed the current situation, and the cascade of events crippling the entire nation, we feel that an urgent interim solution should be sought to prevent a lot more trade unions joining the bandwagon.”

Medical specialists in this country are no doubt a very high earning segment of society. Their fees are high adding substantially to astronomically high cost of private health care. They are also beneficiaries of tax breaks on professional incomes. Many of them drive high-end cars with fleets of BMWs, Mercedes Benzes and expensive SUVs, mostly purchased on duty free permits, seen parked at private hospitals as they engage in their consultation practice in the evenings. The lesser fry, particularly in the health care sector can well throw these facts at their faces saying it is easy for those living in luxury and suffering no hardship whatever to say what the AMS has said. But their own unions must seize opportunities that arise to seize benefits for their members as they have done. That, however, does not detract from the logic of the facts as stated by the AMS. The situation is careening out of control and there is no love lost between the people and the political class that must take the hard decisions. Basil Rajapaksa’s entry into the scene is not going to result in the kind of magic that his supporters say is on the way.



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Editorial

Reopening: Need for heightened alert

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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.

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Editorial

‘Manike mage hithe’; Amaradeva amathakado?

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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?

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Editorial

Of that den of thieves

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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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