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Coming out of the abyss of governance



To say Sri Lanka is in the worst economic crisis, since independence, is not an exaggeration. To begin with, the economy was in the doldrums, in 2014, thanks to the mismanagement of the ‘yahapalana’ government. Then came the Covid, affecting tourism, foreign remittance and the garment industry, the three main foreign exchange earning industries. It has not been possible for these industries to return to pre-Covid state yet, for Covid is still active and there is no sign of it abating.

What is worrying is the nonchalance and lack of concern of some of the ministers and high officials regarding the need for thrift, reduction of waste, and control of corruption. If what is reported by the “watchdog” Committees of the Parliament, COPE, etc., is true, there is very little hope for Sri Lanka; unless everybody concerned gets together and does what has to be done to stop corruption, waste, and financial mismanagement.

We are told Parliamentary sessions cost the taxpayer Rs 100,000/- per minute. One may ask why should the show, that parliamentarians put up, that includes verbal filth and physical violence, which is most degrading as it happens in the highest echelons, be so expensive! Instead, one could watch a Bollywood or Tamil Nadu film, on any TV channel, after lunch. Anyway, should so much money be spent for meetings; cannot the thrift begin at the Parliament, which would set an example for other government ministries and offices to follow? Rent for some ministry offices had been in the range of billions, not millions, in the past, and there may be similar rackets of a lesser type, which, however, need to be controlled if the government would like to be seen as serious in controlling wasteful expenditure of public money.

Similarly, if the government goes for provincial council elections and brings back the PCs, it will be putting another burden on the poor people. Apart from the huge expenditure that these bodies incur, just for their maintenance, the bribes that people have to pay to get their legitimate work done at these joints is unbearable for the people. When you add up the impediment cost, to rapid development, these white elephants entail, the question arises why do we have them? Why cannot the Tamil problem be resolved by other less expensive means?

There seems to be only a very few ministers who work. Others like to live in clover and be oblivious to the woes of the country. MPs are worse. Cannot they at least monitor the work that has been recommended by the President on his visits to the villages, and see to it that they are implemented on time? Cannot they meet the people who come out onto the streets and loudly voice their genuine grievances, which has now become a common sight? Cultivators of paddy, vegetables, turmeric, pepper, etc., have problems that have to be solved if the government is to succeed in its efforts to control imports. These noisy demonstrations are not always politically contrived. People really feel they are helpless and there is no one to look into their problems. These protests could make the government unpopular and could have future repercussions. Governments may fall if people’s grievances are ignored.

Is the government serious about controlling corruption? Is there a fear that if action is taken against errant ministers and others, there could be a rebellion against the leadership and the unity of the government would be further weakened? Is there a tendency in the leadership to turn a blind eye to corrupt practices, due to this reason? This had happened in the past, and was one reason for the government to fall in 2014. These are issues that the leadership of the government will have to address urgently. It must realize that corruption takes a heavy toll on development, and finally would worsen poverty. In this regard, the Mafias in rice, oil, sugar, etc., that seem to operate with impunity, have to be brought under control; and the government’s inability and delay in taking action will result in the government losing its popularity.

There seems to be a lot of corruption in tender procedures. One example is Lanka Mineral Sands Corporation, which has granted a tender to a lower bid and caused a huge loss to the country. Why had the Minister, under whose purview this institution functions, allowed this to happen? Wasn’t he aware of what happened and if not why not? Ministers must have a knowledge of what is going on in their own ministries. They are responsible to the people, and when the country is going through a bad period and every cent matters, this kind of lapses are unacceptable.

Customs is another place where major irregularities take place. It is reported that huge sums of money have been paid to officials who detect malpractice in imports. Rewarding honest officials is one thing, but replacing one type of malpractice with another type would amount to gross corruption. The Customs Department seems to have adopted the idiom “set a thief to catch a thief” in its literary meaning! Is the Minister in charge aware of what is going on under his nose or has he got to wait until COPE detects these rackets?

One of the most inefficient departments seems to be the Inland Revenue Department. It is reported that uncollected income tax arrears run into Rs. 107 billion. How could a government meet its commitments in payment of salaries, run a free health service, provide free education, and spend on maintenance of infrastructure, etc., when its coffers are not being replenished, particularly at a time when its economy is down? What is the Minister responsible for income tax collection doing about this matter? Is he waiting for the President to visit the IRD and sort things out for him?

Sri Lanka, since Independence, has not been able to solve its economic woes and come out of poverty due to three main reasons; enormous waste, rampant corruption and gross mismanagement. A columnist of this journal has said “delays, failures and shortcomings seem to be deliberate and well-calculated” in reference to the affairs of the government and its departments. Delays, failures and shortcomings are contrived to facilitate corruption. In addition to facilitating corruption; delays, failures and shortcomings directly affect people’s lives, slow down the economy, and discourage investment. No wonder the countries in the region, including the Maldives, are overtaking Sri Lanka in economic performance.

Sri Lankan citizens seem to be gradually waking up to the fact that they are being shortchanged by their politicians. Voters are quickly realizing that they may have made a mistake, and are ready to take up positions in defiance. They had got rid of whole political parties that ruined this country beyond repair, and they could do that again, in the future. It is in this context that the talented Rajapaksa leadership, on whom people had placed so much hope and faith, and on whom depend the safeguarding of national interests, must take stock of the situation and use all their ability and acumen to take the country out of the abyss it has fallen into, before they lose their popularity and charisma. S. AMARATUNGA

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What went wrong?



By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

I am stuck in the UK, badly missing trips back home, but I have been closely following the developments in Sri Lanka, especially with regard to the Covid-19 epidemic and the engulfing political drama. It was no great effort either, as plenty of time was available, being almost totally housebound, dreading to go out as the virus was killing thousands and thousands in the UK. What was remarkable, initially, was how badly the UK controlled the pandemic and how well Sri Lanka did. Total number of deaths in Sri Lanka remained very low for months whilst the Brits were dying in large numbers. It is the other way around, now; deaths due to Covid-19 in Sri Lanka are exceeding that of the UK now. What went wrong?

Whilst Sri Lanka is grappling with a resurgence, caused by the excesses indulged during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year festivities, the British government recently announced significant relaxation of pandemic preventive measure. It expects the country to be ‘near-normal’ by mid-June, if the present trends continue. One may argue that normalcy cannot be guaranteed until the virus is controlled, globally, as well stated in the editorial “All hat and no cattle” (The Island, 10th May). The editor argued that “the only way out is to follow the motto—unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno (‘one for all, all for one’).”

Although both are island nations, admittedly, the UK and Sri Lanka are poles apart, on many counts, most significant being the availability of resources. The UK is rich enough to buffer the resultant economic downturn, whereas Sri Lanka was struggling, economically, even before the epidemic. Therefore, attempts by the Sri Lankan government, to keep the economy afloat, are mandated by sheer necessity, although the Opposition accuses it of endangering lives. The big question is how to strike the right balance. At the time of Independence, our economy was in better shape than that of the Brits, but where are we, now? That, however, is another story.

At the start of the pandemic, the UK was slow to close its borders. Again, it was a tough call because Heathrow is one of the busiest airports in the world. The UK paid heavily, in terms of lives lost, because of this. UK politicians took the advice of expert committees, and whether the initial failures were due to wrong advice by scientists or not, we will not know until the findings of the committee, to be appointed by the British government, is available. However, the UK government took serious notice of the advice by scientists, regarding the need for mass vaccination, and placed orders for vaccines, even before trials for their effectiveness were concluded. That strategy paid off. Already, two-thirds of the adult population in the UK has received one dose and one-third of has received the second dose, as well. It was interesting to follow the progress: as the vaccination drive proceeded, the number of cases, the numbers in intensive care, and the number of deaths, progressively plummeted.

If there are any vaccine doubters, they need to look at what happened in the UK. I am personally aware of many ‘so-called educated’ vaccine-doubters. The responses in a WhatsApp group, started by a friend of mine, are very illuminating. There is a nutritionist who argues against vaccination, suggesting that boosting immunity, by nutrition, is the way forward. Professor Emeritus Saman Gunatilake has addressed this issue, academically, in his illuminating piece “Boosting immune system to fight Covid-19: Is it possible?” (The Island, 7 May). There is a media lawyer who supports the nutritionist and sends contrasting messages. Three hours, after forwarding a message which states that CDC data shows the survival rate, for under 69, is over 99%, he forwards another message stating that a site by the University of Washington predicts Sri Lanka will soon have 200 deaths daily. Both ‘experts’ take part in TV discussions and are very likely to be passing on wrong messages, as they are continually forwarding anti-vaccine messages, the latest being that vaccination has made the epidemic worse. Wonder why they callously disregard the success of the UK. Covid-19 has given rise to a plethora of experts who give widely differing opinions about many things, including the UK variant, but the UK is successfully controlling the epidemic, with vaccination, which is estimated to have saved at least 10,000 lives so far.

It is a pity these vaccine-doubters overlook the fact that some diseases are eradicated, thanks to vaccines. The most successful vaccine ever is the smallpox vaccine, which enabled the eradication of the dreaded disease that existed for millennia, killing more than 300 million, in the 20th century, and around 500 million, during the last 100 years of its existence, including six monarchs. Initially, before Edward Jenner introduced vaccination, with the cowpox virus, in 1796, direct inoculations, with smallpox virus, were used, which had a mortality rate of 3% but this was acceptable as the mortality rate of smallpox was around 30%-40%.

Some exaggerate the risks of vaccination. There is no drug, without side-effects, and vaccines are no exception. Concern about the Oxford AZ vaccine causing Superficial Cerebral Vein Thrombosis was made use of by the German Chancellor to promote the Pfizer vaccine, which was developed by a German bio-tech company. Medicine and Healthcare Regulatory Agency of the UK made a detailed study and recommended, when possible, those under 40 should be offered an alternative vaccine but emphasized the safety of AZ vaccine. To put in perspective, the birth control pill poses a greater risk of causing venous thrombosis; so does Covid-19 itself.

What went wrong, in Sri Lanka, is putting sentiment over science. The government failed to establish an expert committee, which could have been done easily as we are not short of real experts in the relevant fields. The decisions made by that committee could have been translated to practice by the committee, headed by the Army Commander. Another failing was the lack of proper communication. In the UK, the Prime Minister, or one of the senior ministers, together with senior scientists, hold regular press conferences.

Instead, what did we do? Our Health Minister polluted rivers with pots, devised by a faith-healer, and then drank a syrup, made by a charlatan. She wasted the valuable time of Professors of Medicine, as well as resources, to investigate a piece of garbage that was found to be useless, whilst the kapuwa minded money, at the expense of the gullible. Now, a member of my profession also has joined the band-wagon of deception. A non-specialist doctor has joined hands with his brother to sell a concoction of herbs etc.! Why hasn’t the Minister taken action against this errant medic?

We have a State Minister, a Professor of Pharmacology, who sees the benefits of Ayurveda for political reasons! The mother country of Ayurveda, meanwhile, is reeling with Covid-19. If Ayurveda is effective, surely that cannot happen!

All this happens while we have a State Minister, a specialist in communicable diseases, who speaks sense but is largely ignored!

The Minister of Transport reverses the decisions of Medical officers of Health and then blames the poor government servants, stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, for carrying out his orders. The virus is having a hearty laugh and now infecting his voters!

We thought the President would act decisively once he regained full executive powers from the 20th Amendment, but he seems less powerful than before! The need of the hour is not to protect errant politicians, or unproven systems of treatment, but directing all efforts at getting adequate stocks of vaccines to overcome the epidemic.

It is high time the President considered sacking the incompetent and idiotic ministers. Otherwise, he might as well forget about a second term!

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The Organic Ideal – Killing Two Birds with One Stone!




The government has very boldly embarked on a long-delayed project of transforming our agricultural habits of heavy dependence on harmful chemical fertiliser to the old method of organic fertilisation. The chemical fertiliser lobby is as strong, if not stronger than the pharmaceutical one. The life story of Dr Senake Bibile speaks for itself! As for the fertiliser lobby, some decades ago, a high-up in a media institution confided in me how he was compelled to jettison his media campaign against chemical fertiliser, about which he was very forcefully using his pen through immense pressure brought about by the strong lobby.

Quite apart from the international connections, please permit the writer to relate a personal experience he had with a media institution, where a certain article he wrote, very much irked a then local high-profile businessman, almost ruling the roost at the time, where this powerful personality had come down hard on the Head of the media institution, threatening to withdraw his advertising budget of sizeable proportion! To the eternal credit of the Editor, he did not join his Boss who had decided to call on the irate customer (Head of a mighty Group then, mind you) who thought he had a right to intervene and control its media policy.

Being privy to the immense power, these lobbies wield, and how they will use it to sabotage any effort which would undermine their business interests, notwithstanding public and human interests, it would be utterly puerile, and even foolish, to confront them in any meaningful way, if political interests are to take precedence. Their money power and influence are capable of winning over, not only sections of the population, but also politicians. Governments can be toppled in the process.

The defeated forces have now received some oxygen, and we see even the high and mighty, who were sent reeling home at the polls, attempting to make their presence felt. There is everything which points to financing by the fertiliser lobby, against the organic fertiliser issue. It is left for the government to be wise about such and other possibilities, when steering on the drive towards its laudable goal. The government failed to rope in the hoarders of rice, despite its rhetoric, and now they are faced with a similar situation in the fertiliser shortage. The remedies the government suggests seem to be worse than the disease. People are sick and tired of seeing any government playing politics, and attempting to find solutions which would please the electorate or business interests, rather than what is needed, and good for the country. To hell with the next election and commission agents; people will rally round results eventually. It has the battle against the LTTE as a feather in the cap. 

Two birds with one stone 

While on the subject of organic fertiliser, the writer wishes to draw the attention of the authorities to the vast acreage of waterways, rivers and canals, covered and infested with water-based plants, like “Japan Jabara’ (water hyacinth) and other odd plants., causing, inter alia, a huge health hazard. This clogging has almost diminished, or made extinct, the fish concentrations, and adversely affected a popular inland fisheries network and breeding of new varieties. This can be a source of nutrition to a vast number of people in villages, and contribute towards employment, too. The water plants thus removed could be tested for their various properties, which could contribute in no small measure to the preparation of organic fertiliser, using it as a cost-effective input to the preparation of organic fertiliser. If I remember right, some research is already available in this regard. It is reported that some outfits have already been lined up to prepare organic fertilizer. These companies, or outfits, can do the clearing and preparation at their own cost, which could be far cheaper than importing organic fertiliser, or importing certain ingredients to manufacture the final product. Some of it could possibly be diverted to the Energy sector. Side by side, farmers can be mobilised to prepare their own needs, or part of them.

How about it, Mr President and Mr Minister of Agriculture and Agrarian Services?

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More on ‘Hi Machan’



I wish to add my two cents to the above-mentioned article, well versed by MA Kaleel of Kalmunai in The Island of 10/5/21. I really don’t know whether he was in a university, either here or abroad, since some of the descriptions are mainly confined to the University vocabulary.

I wish to deal with some events from my University (Peradeniya) days where the word Machan had some relationship. The first episode was when a fellow student’s late father came to visit him at the Wijewardena Hall. The bathrooms, in the hall, at that time, were similar to a barber’s shop, where the door was used to hang the towel, until the bathing was finished. One day, a student was bathing in one of the cubicles, having hung the towel on the door. Someone shouted ‘Machan, your father has come to see you’. In his haste to meet him, he has forgotten the towel which was anyway not there, probably hidden by some of his Machans. This was a regular feature in the boys’ halls of residence. When he entered the room, in his birthday suit, his father was seated chatting with his roommate (who I think was a co-conspirator) . His father could only say Putha and he never repeated that act.

Dealing with the use of the word is confined only to males. I beg to disagree, since I have heard such conversations with my own ears, particularly if one lives close to a Hall of residence. (As to what a male student was doing in a female hall of residence is another story!)

When one studies in a University, with several disciplines, the word machan is very handy. When I returned to Sri Lanka, having completed my postgraduate studies, I had to obtain special permission to clear our baggage (including that of my wife). The clerk indicated that I would have to pay a hefty demurrage. Then I saw a gentleman, peeping through a glass door, and, lo and behold, he was the Commissioner of Customs, another machan Peradeniya. Everything was cleared in a few minutes. There are several such incidents where our sojourn at Peradeniya helped us in various ways. All these gentlemen were machans in the campus and I hear that the tradition is still maintained, but at a lower scale.



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