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Editorial

Confusion worse confounded

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Saturday 23rd October, 2021

Sri Lanka is like a mental hospital under an air raid, with doctors and patients running helter-skelter. Those who came to power, flaunting their medals, epaulettes, brass buttons and accoutrements, and promising to bring order out of chaos are all at sea. They seem to have brought chaos out of order. They signal left and turn right, and make numerous U-turns. The Sports Minister goes overseas to attend events of religious significance; the Trade Minister rushes to the airport to receive consignments of fertiliser while the prices of comestibles and other essentials are skyrocketing; the Agriculture Minister is blaming the Opposition for the current agricultural problems, and the Minister of Power is trying to set up zoos instead of power plants. Everyone at the levers of power seems to have got his wires crossed. Scaremongers are having a field day confounding as they do confusion prevailing in the country; with each passing day, they work people up into a frenzy via social media,

People are running around stocking up on essentials. Fuel pumps have run dry due to panic buying, and refilling stations hoarding stocks in anticipation of price hikes. The government issues official statements denying reports of scarcities, but nobody buys into them.

Farmers are protesting against a crippling fertiliser shortage. The Opposition is squawking in Parliament without revealing how they would handle the fertiliser issue if they were in power. Having caused widespread crop losses, the government now claims its agrochemical ban was based on wrong advice. Government politicians who do not know the periodic table from the dining table are giving chemistry lessons to senior university dons! The use of agrochemicals, no doubt, has to be drastically reduced, and organic farming encouraged, but it must be done gradually to avoid shocks.

The present situation has come about owing to a host of colossal blunders the incumbent dispensation had made on all fronts. Immediately after the last presidential election (2019), the government granted tax relief to the wealthy at the expense of the state coffers, and threw money around by way of cash handouts for the people during the first lockdown so as to muster votes to win the general election. Even those who did not need financial assistance were given it for political reasons. Rackets such as the sugar tax scam caused staggering losses to the state. Corruption remains rampant, and those who were in the political wilderness for five years are now making up for lost time. Money printing, which the current administration considers a panacea, has led to huge price increases, which are not reflected in the official inflation rate as figures are massaged.

The first lockdown imposed last year to curb the spread of the pandemic was unnecessarily extended at a massive economic cost, and the government did not care to enforce the quarantine laws properly in the run-up to the last general election (2020) and afterwards. Infection clusters emerged, necessitating travel restrictions, as a result. Health experts’ call for a lockdown during the traditional New Year season in April went unheeded, and the result was an explosive spread of Covid-19 as well as a sharp rise in fatalities. A stitch in time would have saved nine, and many lives, and helped revive tourism, bringing in the much-needed forex. Finally, there was another protracted lockdown, and the country is now gripped by an unprecedented foreign currency crunch, which has compelled the government to raise dollars at the expense of vital state assets.

Thankfully, the ongoing vaccination drive and the costly lockdown have worked, and the country is open again; tourism is showing signs of recovery, we are told. But public health experts are warning of another wave of infections come December because the public is behaving irresponsibly. Religious places are becoming crowded again, and so are buses; health guidelines are not followed at social gatherings. The situation is expected to take a turn for the worse after schools fully reopen. If what is feared comes to pass—absit omen—there will have to be another lockdown, which must be avoided at any cost.

The government, in its wisdom, is trying to introduce a new Constitution and hold the Provincial Council polls. It must get its priorities right. It has to sort out the fertiliser issue urgently to prevent a drop in the national agricultural output. Health regulations and quarantine laws must be strictly enforced to prevent another wave of Covid-19 while wasteful expenditure is curtailed.



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Editorial

Stench of rotten fish

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Saturday 27th November, 2021

Members of Parliament consider themselves a special class, and jealously guard their privileges. Living off the public, they want first dibs on everything. But most of them do not even care to behave properly inside Parliament, much less debate matters of national importance or carry out other legislative duties and functions in a civilised manner; their conduct is so appalling that teachers are wary of taking schoolchildren to the parliament gallery when the House is in session. In what could be considered the latest incident that has brought the national legislature into disrepute, an SLPP MP—Tissa Kuttiarachchi— has insulted women including SJB MP Rohini Wijeratne, in a recent speech in Parliament. The Opposition has been calling for action against him. He however is not the only one who has affronted women in this shameful manner; there are many others of his ilk.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, former President Maithripala Sirisena, and other leaders of the ruling SLPP must be ashamed of accommodating a bunch of misogynists in their coalition government. Similarly, let the holier-than-thou male MPs of the Opposition be reminded of something MP Rohini Wijeratne told this newspaper in response to a query we made, a few months ago, about the verbal sexual harassment of female lawmakers; she said some sickos in the garb of MPs on both sides of the House insulted women. So, if the male Opposition MPs think they can dupe the public into believing they are true sisters under the skin by wearing ‘orange armbands’ and shouting slogans in support of women, in the House, they are mistaken.

It is not only in Parliament that female representatives undergo sexual harassment and other forms of abuse. We have pointed out, several times, quoting female members of local government institutions that their male counterparts do not allow them to speak during council sessions; jeers, catcalls and even sexist remarks greet them whenever they stand up to speak, they complain. The Women Parliamentarians’ Caucus (WPC) should have taken up cudgels for the rights of women in Provincial Councils and local government institutions as well.

It is women’s tears and sweat that fuel the national economy. Women slave away on estates, in garment factories and in West Asia to earn dollars for the country, but they are not even properly represented in Parliament or other political institutions although they account for more than one half of the country’s population. There must be at least 113 female MPs in the current Parliament, but sadly there are only 12 women in the House.

If the male MPs really feel for the Sri Lankan women, they must stop stealing and wasting public funds and make adequate budgetary allocations for women’s welfare, and bring in tough laws to safeguard the rights of female citizens who face harassment almost everywhere, especially at workplaces and in trains and buses. There has been an increase in incidents of domestic violence against women and girls during recent years. If women are not free from harassment in Parliament, how helpless they are elsewhere goes without saying. A fish, as we keep saying in this space, rots from the head down.

Leading the women’s right campaign from the front in Parliament is former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. He has recently lashed out at the government MPs who insult their female counterparts, and demanded that State Minister Dr. Sudharshani Fernandopulle, who chairs the WPC, be vested with powers to deal with woman-haters who make a nuisance of themselves in the House. One could not agree with him more on this score, but will he explain why he once had as his trusted lieutenant a convicted rapist—Gonawala Sunil—who was given a presidential pardon by the late President J. R. Jayewardene and made a Justice of the Peace? President Mahinda Rajapaksa pardoned a female murder convict serving the death sentence for killing a woman in the most barbaric manner. President Maithripala Sirisena gave a presidential pardon to a man sentenced to death for killing a girl in 2005. The TNA politicians had no qualms about supporting Prabhakaran and recognising him as the sole representative of the Tamils while he was abducting girls in the North and the East and turning them into cannon fodder and human bombs. Some of these politicians commemorate the dead LTTE leaders. So, the question is how wise it is to expect present-day male politicians to help protect the rights of women and girls.

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Editorial

Zahran’s cousins?

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Friday 26th November, 2021

One may wonder whether those who run gas companies are the cousins of Zahran, the savage, who organised the Easter Sunday explosions if what has been reported of their products is anything to go by. Zahran and his fellow terrorists blasted three churches and three hotels, killing more than 270 others, in 2019. His fat-cat cousins in the gas business, as it were, are certainly not terrorists on a suicidal mission, but they are likely to cause an explosion in every house and every hotel, where their products are used, we are told. Several explosions caused by cooking gas have been reported from different parts of the country during the past few weeks. The situation is bound to take a turn for the worse unless remedial action is taken urgently, former Executive Director of the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) Thushan Gunawardena has warned.

Gunawardena, a whistle-blower in distress, has gone on record as saying that the butane-propane ratio in the gas sold here has been arbitrarily changed, and the current mix is not suitable for a tropical climate. It has been reported that he consulted international specialists in the field and wrote a letter, based on their advice, to Trade Minister Bandula Gunawardena, a few moons ago, calling for action, but in vain.

Litro Gas Lanka Ltd., has rejected Gunawardena’s allegation, claiming that there has been no change in the butane-propane ratio in the gas it sells. Its production process conforms to internationally accepted standards, it has said.

The public must be really confused. The former CAA Executive Director tells them domestic gas cylinders are potential bombs, and the gas company officials insist that there is no such danger. Will Litro reveal the percentages of butane and propane in its cylinders at present, and what they were a few years ago?

Zahran and his fellow terrorists were able to carry out the Easter Sunday bomb attacks because the then government did not heed the warnings of impending explosions. A foreign intelligence outfit provided all necessary information about Zahran and even his targets in advance, but nobody gave a tinker’s cuss about it. A warning has been given that there is the danger of more gas cylinder explosions, and it too has gone unheeded.

Going by Gunawardena’s letter to the Trade Minister, perhaps Prabhakaran and Zahran would not have taken the trouble of training their suicide cadres and planning bomb attacks on civilian targets if they had been aware that the butane-propane ratio in cooking gas would be changed; they would have left the task of blasting civilian targets to gas companies.

The present-day leaders never miss an opportunity to glory in having ended the country’s war on terror, during which the parents of a family did not travel together lest their children should be orphaned in case of a bomb blast killing both of them. But, today, mothers must be scared of stepping into their kitchens because of the gas cylinders.

Seeking the views of gas company officials about the safety of their products is like asking for the help of a female clairvoyant to catch a thief who happens to be her own son, as a local saying goes. Let the government be urged to order a thorough probe into former CAA Executive Director Gunawardena’s dire warning and take immediate action to ensure the safety of gas consumers if the gas companies have effected any changes to the composition of cooking gas.

It will be a mistake for the government to have the whistle-blower harassed again instead of acting on his warning. We are not short of independent, civic-minded experts, and it is hoped that they will care to analyze the cooking gas available here and tell the public whether it is safe.

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Editorial

Winners and losers

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Thursday 25th November, 2021

The private sector has been allowed to import agrochemicals with effect from yesterday. Sri Lankan farmers, who are celebrating the success of their protest campaign, should be thankful to their Indian counterparts who brought the mighty Modi government to its knees after a year-long struggle. The Indian farmers’ victory gave a scare to the Sri Lankan government, and boosted the morale of the farming community, here, protesting against the current fertiliser shortage.

The government has been left with egg on its face, once again. There seems to be no end to its humiliating policy reversals. It is doubtful whether anyone takes gazette notifications announcing government decisions seriously. But the government has been able to save a lot of foreign exchange owing to its agrochemical ban; now, farmers will have to pay for synthetic fertiliser.

Faced with a huge foreign exchange crisis, the government could not pay for fertiliser imports, but at the same time, it could not scrap the fertiliser subsidy for fear of the political fallout of such a course of action. It imposed a blanket ban on agrochemicals, and farmers found themselves in such a desperate situation that they said they were even willing to pay for chemical fertilisers and demanded that the ban on agrochemicals be lifted. The government has lifted the ban and farmers will have to buy fertilisers. They will not have the fertilisers of their choice under the government subsidy scheme; they will get only organic fertiliser by way of state assistance. This must be a huge relief for the government in the dollar saving mode.

Meanwhile, the main reason given by the government for banning agrochemicals was that they were harmful to humans and the environment. It said it had acted out of its concern for people’s health and the environment. Having said so and striven to go ahead with its organic fertiliser drive, come hell or high water, how would the government justify its decision to allow ‘harmful’ agrochemicals to be imported again?

Sirisena vs Aluthgamage

Former President Maithripala Sirisena, MP, has raked Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage over the coals for the mess in the agriculture sector. He says the minister must be held accountable for the fertiliser fiasco, which, he says, has taken a heavy toll on agriculture. There is no love lost between them, and they have been taking swipes at each other for the past several weeks. Protesting farmers also burnt many effigies of Aluthgamage. Attacks on the Agriculture Minister may warm the cockles of many a heart, but how fair is it to single him out for criticism?

The organic fertiliser project is President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s brainchild, and Aluthgamage was only implementing it. True, he cannot absolve himself of the responsibility for the mess as the Agriculture Minister, but why don’t the critics of the failed fertiliser experiment criticise the President? The President himself has said on numerous occasions that the organic fertiliser drive is one of his promises to the people and is in keeping with his election manifesto.

Is it that Sirisena and others lack the courage to blame the President, and therefore have turned on a soft target?

Now that Sirisena is out for his scalp, Aluthgamage can call for the full implementation of the recommendations of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday carnage (2019). The PCoI has recommended criminal proceedings against Sirisena for his serious lapses as the President and Defence Minister at the time. Several others named in the PCoI report have been indicted, and among them are ex-IGP Pujith Jayasundera and ex-Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando.

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