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Editorial

Don’t ignore biomass

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In the context of the prevailing cooking gas shortage which has assumed crisis proportions, the government caved in on Thursday permitting Laugfs Gas a substantial price increase while pledging that Litro will continue selling at the old price. This is not going to be possible for very long. Obviously consumers will opt for the cheaper alternative and the pressure on Litro, widely apparent with Laugfs out of stocks, will continue in the short term. As it is Litro is totally unable to cope with the demand with only a fraction of it met. As for Laugfs, “No Gas” labels have sprouted countrywide like mushrooms after the rain and television news bulletins are full of pictures of lines of blue cylinder-carrying consumers waiting for unavailable gas supplies. Laugfs has said that it hope to bring in stocks within a week, while the company’s chairman, Mr. W.J.H. Wegapitiya, has estimated that it will take about a month to bridge the supply gap.

But the chapter will not close even then. With cheaper supplies not get-table, consumers will be compelled to buy the more expensive alternative even reluctantly. But most Laugfs customers will not have Litro cylinders to get refilled. That problem exists even now. Obviously it is only a matter of time – really a matter of short time – before Litro too will be permitted to increase its prices. It, along with Laugfs, has for quite some time being pushing for a price increase. If the government compels a state-controlled company to sell at a loss, eventually the people as a whole must pay the price. It is impossible for any commercial venture to continue selling below procurement prices. However much Trade Minister Bandula Gunawardene keeps saying that businesses that have had good times must live with bad times, that’s not something that’s possible for long.

Although ours is a country notorious for the short memories of its people, many readers will remember there was a price difference in fuel between the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and LIOC (Lanka Indian Oil Corporation) not so long ago. The difference was only a few rupees and LIOC obviously lost business to CPC. But the Indian company which is quoted on the Colombo Stock Exchange and has thousands of local shareholders did not care overmuch though their dealers did as it hurt their pockets. That was because the less diesel – particularly – LIOC sold, the better for the company because of the gap between procurement prices and the prices at which they were permitted to sell. Even now motorists may notice that the cheapest 92 octane petrol is not freely available at many filling stations because of what clearly appears to be an effort to push premium products.

It is in the gas shortage context that we draw attention to an article we run in today’s issue of our newspaper. Readers in urban centers will know that the once ubiquitous firewood carts seen on the streets are today almost as rare as the rickshaws of yore. This is because most urban dwellers cook by gas and the once popular dara lipa (firewood hearth) is now no more even in the least affluent homes in the towns. But this is not the case in rural areas where firewood continues to be used as a cooking fuel. The writer of the article under reference, Engineer R,M. Amarasekera, complains bitterly about the lack of attention to biomass in our energy scene which seems to only encompass solar, wind and hydro in the renewable sector and coal and fossil fuel in the non-renewable segment. This engineer who’s a retired as director of the Sustainable Energy Authority (SEA) and has extensive experience in biomass sees this as the “dark side” of the country’s energy sector.

Unlike those living in rural areas, urban dwellers cannot gather firewood and must depend mostly on gas. Today even the once popular kerosene stoves are a thing of the past and there is no talk whatever of the once encouraged energy saving clay stoves. According to Amarasekera, the biomass energy demand in the country ran at 46.2% followed by petroleum (41%) and electricity (12.3%). These are the figures published by the SEA’s ‘Energy Balance’ documentation of 2018, he says. According to these figures, biomass (64.9%) is the main source of energy in households and industry (74.7%). “This highlights its importance as the lifeblood of the rural sector comprising 81% of the total population,” he says adding that it is evident that the burden of meeting rural energy needs have been met by the rural people themselves led by women, and not by the government.

As with other energy sources, biomass has its own problems. Plantations firing tea factory boilers with firewood have woodlots but this is nowhere enough. Smoke inhalation is a problem though Amarasekera says that women who do the cooking in nearly all homes have a life expectancy of over 80 years. Other means of generating energy also have such problems. Solar panels that were expensive to begin with have since become more affordable. Thermal sources (coal, fossil fuel etc.) have enormous environmental consequences. Amarasekera attributes the negative image of biomass to be associated with factors like deforestation, climate change, under-development, poverty and negative health effects. That is correct. But his argument that this image steers policy makers against replacing other fuels with biomass, rather than improving its sustainability, rings a bell. This is certainly worth thinking about.



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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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Editorial

Govt. as drunk as a skunk?

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Tuesday 21st September, 2021

Drinking is one of the many things Sri Lankans do not know how to do properly. They do not drink tea with sugar; instead, they drink sugar with tea, as it were, and religiously keep their blood sugar levels extremely high much to the benefit of Big Pharma. They are supposed to drink a lot of clean water daily, but they take in only a little of it, and ask for kidney problems. They prefer sugary drinks saturated with kidney-busting dyes and high levels of sugar to healthy, tasty thambili or kurumba.

Sri Lankan males are the worst; they chugalug firewater as if they had a death wish, and most of them do so at the expense of their families. ‘Moderation’ is certainly not in their vocabulary. A person cannot be denied his right to drink himself to death, but something needs to be done when drunkards become a threat to others’ health by spreading deadly diseases.

When the government, in its wisdom, allowed liquor outlets to reopen, ‘Alpha males’ amongst us thronged around them, without giving a tinker’s cuss about the highly contagious Delta variant of coronavirus. Having jostled and shoved madly, they must have returned home, taking with them not only alcohol but also the deadly coronavirus, which is looking for lives to snuff out; they have endangered the lives of their family members. Thus, in a single day, the country must have lost most of what it had gained through the past few weeks with the help of an expensive lockdown. The cumulative impact of the ‘bar clusters’ in the making on the country’s pandemic control efforts will be seen in a few weeks. Infections are sure to increase by leaps and bounds. Are the government leaders so drunk as to make such stupid decisions? They blundered in April by refusing to close the country during the traditional New Year period, thereby facilitating the formation of a massive cluster of infections and the subsequent emergence of the Delta variant. Five months on, they have given a turbo boost to the pandemic again by reopening liquor stores haphazardly. The elusive virus must be fist-pumping with glee.

The country is technically closed, but practically open. There is a lockdown, and at the same time there is no lockdown, paradoxical as it may sound. However, thankfully, the infection rate and the death toll have been decreasing significantly during the past several days. The government, out of sheer desperation for money, may have thought it would be able to rake in billions of rupees by way of taxes if the liquor outlets were allowed to reopen. But it should at least have ordered the police to keep a watchful eye on the desperate males gathering near liquor stores and ensure that they followed the Covid-19 protocol. The police were conspicuous by their absence. Were they also bending their elbows? (A picture of a traffic cop carrying a carton with VSOA—Very Special Old Arrack—written thereon is doing the rounds on social media!)

Several essential commodities are in short supply. There are complaints of shortages of milk powder and cooking gas. The government, which has chosen to ignore them, is keen to ensure an uninterrupted supply of alcohol! It is too shy to admit that it is desperate to collect taxes at the expense of people’s health; it claims that the demand for illicit brews is on the increase because the authorised liquor outlets have remained closed. If a rise in moonshine sales is the problem, the government must order the police to raid the illicit breweries, including those belonging to its supporters who manufacture a toxic brew euphemistically called ‘artificial toddy’.

Liquor stores will have to be reopened like other businesses, but that must not be done on a priority basis even before the pandemic situation is brought under control. Precautions must be taken to prevent overcrowding when they reopen after the lockdown is officially lifted. Let the buyers of liquor be made to queue up like other consumers who patiently wait for their turns near places such as the Sathosa outlets.

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