The proposal to sell 49 percent of the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port to a group of investors led by India’s Modi-friendly Adani Group has been the hottest potato to land on our ruling coalition’s lap since its election last year. Massive trade union and other resistance, strongly supported by the Buddhist clergy and other activists, many of whom campaigned for the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP) and its allies at the last election, continues to escalate. This opposition is backed by one of the country’s most popular television channels is enervating the ‘Save ECT’ effort. The fact that Adani is interested in the new farm laws against which unprecedented farmer protests have been mounted in India has added grist to the mill of those hellbent on preventing what they call a sell-off of a valuable national asset.
The ECT is the second deep-water facility in the Port of Colombo which began operations last November. The state-controlled Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) has been running it since inception and the government has unequivocally announced that it will hold the controlling 51 percent of any joint venture. It urges that the lion’s share of the trans-shipment business to India now handled in Colombo will benefit from the Indian involvement. Only the first phase of ECT under which a 450 m berth has been commissioned has been completed until now and an additional 600 m berth must be added in the second phase. Given the government’s current cash-strapped status, foreign investment from India and Japan, also interested in investing in this project, as well as investment from John Keells Holdings, Adani’s local partner, is most welcome.
The previous government in 2019 signed as Memorandum of Cooperation with India and Japan to develop ECT. But in the context of the present brouhaha, both Sajith Premadasa’s Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and its parent UNP, appear inclined to win whatever mileage that is possible from the resistance that has been mounted against foreign investment in ECT. The port unions say that the SLPA has the resources to develop the terminal and no foreign investment is required. They vociferously ask why profits that can be earned by a solely owned national entity should be shared with foreign investors. Different voices from sections of the ruling coalition are heard on the news channels every night and what the eventual decision will be is yet an open question. On Thursday night, former minister and Communist Party leader, DEW Gunasekera, added his voice to the cacophony saying that the government must not forget that Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike lost his life over a port related matter. The reference was to Buddharakkita fishing for government backing for a lucrative shipping line after Bandaranaike sent the British out of Trincomalee and nationalized the country’s ports.
The Abhayarama in Narahenpita was the virtual headquarters of the SLPP in the run-up to the presidential and parliamentary elections. So much so that it was commonly referred to as the “Mahindaramaya.” Its chief priest, Ven. Muruttetuwe Ananda who is President of the Public Service United Nurses Union, has been particularly outspoken on the ECT controversy and has not minced his words opposing foreign investment in it. Yet both the prime minister and president were at his temple recently for the priest’s landmark birthday alms giving. This has been interpreted as fealty to the Sinhala/Buddhist virtue of kelehi guna danna (acknowledging the good that somebody has done you). Many analysts believe that the president is more inclined towards permitting the 51-49 deal while the prime minister, consummate politician he is, is working towards smoothing the wrinkles on the governments support base. They say there’s no aiya-malli problem here that the government’s opponents are wishfully hoping for.
Our regular columnist Kumar David, unrepentant Marxist and electrical engineering professor, has in his contribution today offered an insightful analysis on “the right way” to do ECT which we recommend as good reading (as always) both for style and substance. He has touched on geopolitical implications that are obvious in the context of both India and China looking to maximize their influence in this region which is very much a factor in the equation. China Merchant Port Holdings (CM Port) already has a 99-year lease on the Hambantota Port given them by the previous government on the grounds that there was no other way to repay the massive Chinese loan which enabled its construction. CM Port also operates the existing deep-water terminal in Colombo, Colombo International Container Terminals. The Jaya Container Terminal, the Unity Container Terminal and South Asia Gateway Terminal run in partnership by John Keells Holdings and the global shipping giant Maersk are not able to handle the mega ships. Hence the focus on ECT.
Opponents of foreign investment in this terminal argue that Adani, the biggest operator and builder of Indian ports, will wreck ECT for India’s advantage. But the fact is that India has only one deep water port, Krishnapatnam in Tamil Nadu with a draft of 17.5 meters as opposed to Colombo’s 18 meters. Colombo has the further advantage of tidal movements affecting the depth of its ports only marginally while Indian ports must deal with the complications arising from such movements. This, together with the fact that our ports straddle East-West shipping routes gives us many advantages that will not be damaged by an Indian interest in ECT. But how the papadam will crumble remains to be seen.
Estranged strange bedfellows
Tuesday 2nd March, 2021
The JVP has torn the Easter Sunday Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) report to shreds. Its leaders have picked many holes in the document, and their arguments are tenable. Their position is that the PCoI has served no useful purpose as it has failed to identify the masterminds of the terror strikes. One cannot but agree with them on this score.
JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, MP, has gone a step further; he has demanded to know why Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was the Prime Minister at the time of the Easter Sunday attacks, has been let off the hook. We asked the JVP a similar quetion when the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises), which probed the Treasury bond scams, went out of its way to ensure that Wickremesinghe’s name did not appear in its report. The COPE probe, under the chairmanship of the then JVP MP Sunil Handunnetti, was a farce. The JVP ran with the Opposition and hunted with the UNP, so to speak. Its notables stand accused of having had nocturnal meetings with Wickremesinghe and other UNP leaders (most of whom are currently in the SJB) to decide how to deal with the political enemies of the yahapalana government.
So, the defenders of the Easter Sunday PCoI report may ask the JVP what moral right it has to demand that the identities of the masterminds of the 2019 bomb attacks be revealed. Those who peddle this argument should realise that the present-day JVP is vastly different from its former self, as it were. It conducts itself very democratically, and its election campaigns are exemplary. It has parliamentary representation, and its leader is a member of the very Parliament, which it once bombed. Battles for manape, or preferential votes, are absent among JVP candidates. So, the JVP’s ugly past should not be held against it. But the outfit, which always takes moral high ground and looks down upon others, needs to be asked how it could reconcile its concern for human rights and democracy with the practice of commemorating its late leaders who destroyed thousands of lives and properties worth billions of rupees and brutally suppressed political dissent; among their victims were leaders of political parties and trade unions, students, teachers, Buddhist monks and civilians who dared exercise their franchise. Shouldn’t it publicly disown its leaders who were a bunch of bloodthirsty terrorists if it is to convince the public that its current democratic agenda is not a façade?
Why has the JVP taken to bashing Ranil? It is in the current predicament with only three seats in Parliament, where it had six members previously, because it got too close to the ‘capitalist’ UNP, which eliminated its key leaders in the late 1980s. It was also represented in the so-called National Executive Council, which determined the agenda of the UNP-led yahapalana government, initially. In 2018, it threw a lifeline to the UNP-led government, which the SLPP and the then President Maithripala Sirisena sought to oust in the most despicable manner. It declared that it had done so to save democracy, but nobody bought into that claim. It is now trying to have the public believe that it has had nothing to do with the UNP.
Interestingly, the JVP’s honeymoon with the SLFP in 2004, when it contested a general election as part of the United People’s Freedom Alliance, enabled it to have 39 of its candidates elected; it also donated two National List slots to the SLFP. Its leaders even beat their SLFP counterparts in Colombo, Gampaha and Kurunegala in manape battles. But its clandestine affair with the UNP proved both politically and electorally disastrous! So, it is now bashing Ranil as hard as it can in the hope that it will be able to be seen to be anti-UNP. Whether it will succeed in its endeavour remains to be seen. People are the best judges.
Politicisation of tragedies
Monday 1st March, 2021
The Opposition has got hold of something to beat the government with. The final report issued by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) on the Easter Sunday carnage has come in handy for it. The SLPP made a lot of political capital out of the security failures that led to the terror strikes under the yahapalana government, and came to power, promising to expose and punish all those who were responsible for the carnage. Now, the boot is on the other foot.
The SJB, which consists of former yahapalana politicians, says that when it forms a government, it will conduct a thorough probe into the Easter Sunday blasts, seek international assistance, if necessary, to identify the masterminds of the attacks, and have them hanged. Leader of the Opposition and the SJB, Sajith Premadasa, made this pledge in public over the weekend.
PCoIs hardly serve any useful purpose. They only serve the ruling politicians’ interests. They are mountains in labour; they make a lot of noise, keep the public in suspense for months on end, and finally deliver tiny mice in the form of reports. Most important questions invariably go unanswered. This, we have seen umpteen times during the last four decades or so.
One may recall that the PCoI that probed the Treasury bond scams became a form of public entertainment with some notables being grilled and vital information elicited from them. But in the end, its report came as a huge disappointment. The commission baulked at naming the mastermind/s of the scams and even sought to obfuscate the issue by going out of its way to drag in extraneous matters in a bid to cushion the political impact of its report on the then UNP-led government. Going by the high-profile witnesses the Easter Sunday PCoI summoned before it and their testimonies, the public expected to know the identities of the masterminds of the terror strikes only to be disappointed.
The SLPP was party to the process of politicising the Easter Sunday tragedy, which mainly contributed to the 2019 regime change. Partisan politics has spared hardly anything in this country. It has even torn families asunder. Therefore, one may argue that the SJB should not be faulted for trying to use the Easter Sunday PCoI report, which is full of holes, to gain political mileage it desperately needs. But one should not be so naïve as to expect the SJB to have the Easter Sunday attacks investigated thoroughly even if it succeeds in forming a government, for some politicians within its ranks stand accused of having aided and abetted the NTJ terrorists who carried out the carnage. It will, therefore, be wary of opening a can of worms.
No government can get to the bottom of the Easter Sunday carnage and identify its masterminds unless it has the courage to stand up to certain external powers suspected of having had a hand in the attacks. Intrepidity, which is a prerequisite for conducting a thorough probe to find out the foreign hand/s behind the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks, is not a trait most SJB leaders possess; they tug at their forelocks before the leaders of powerful nations. Besides, how can anyone be hanged judicially in this country? The resumption of judicial executions is not within the realm of possibility. A few years ago, the then President Maithripala Sirisena sought to have several drug lords on death row hanged to prevent them from carrying out their narcotic rackets via mobile phones with the help of some corrupt prison guards, but his plan went pear-shaped due to international pressure.
The SJB will use its promise to probe the Easter Sunday carnage as a slogan to garner votes as the SLPP did to win elections. The tragedy will get politicised further, and it is highly doubtful whether the real masterminds of the terror strikes will ever be known.
Covid vaccination reflections
We are running several stories in today’s issue of this newspaper on a matter that is of great moment not only to this country but the whole wide world. Yes, you guessed right. These reports are about the vaccination roll-out against the Covid virus which which is now ongoing and is a matter of highest national priority. What clearly emerges is that there is no unity among particularly the various medical experts, both in the health bureaucracy and health professionals outside it, on whether we are setting about this war against the virus in the correct way. That is clearly evident in the differing statements issued one after another by various concerned parties.
Take the statement issued by Infectious Diseases Forum of Sri Lanka, comprising many eminent doctors, who have warned that if the elderly are not vaccinated, the entire purpose of the of the vaccination program would have been in vain. The Forum has accused those responsible of “maldistribution” of vaccine and described an alleged decision of the Health Ministry – whether correctly or not we do not know – not to vaccinate people between the ages of 30 and 59 years as “meaningless.” Nobody, as far as we know, has made an authoritative statement on the age cohort who will be or will not be vaccinated. What we do know that older people and those with non-infectious diseases like diabetes are considered more vulnerable and deserve priority.
On the other hand, there is what Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle, the State Minister of of Primary Health Care, Epidemics and Covid Disease Control, had told reporters last week. She alleged that top officials of the Health Ministry had taken snap decisions on the vaccination roll-out in complete disregard of Ministry-sanctioned recommendations made by a technical committee. Such rash decisions were the reason for what she calls the “sudden appearance of vaccination centers.” She has added that these officials even override directives of the President given via the task force appointed to oversee the vaccination drive. A report we publish today quotes the state minister saying “When decisions have already been made (regarding the roll-out timetable) these officials suddenly call at night and say start the program right away. We can’t do it this way.”
Are all these accusations and allegations correct? It is high time that somebody in authority cleared the air. This business of who rates priority age-wise is not clear although we believe that the vaccine will be administered to all age groups in high risk areas identified and mapped as ‘red spots.’ Most of these are in the densely populated areas of the Western Province and commonsense would tell us that as many of those possible, regardless of age, living in riskyh areas should be vaccinated. We all know that the already procured doses of vaccine falls far short of what is needed to cover our total population of 22 million plus. Thus the thrust of the current effort is to first cover the Western Province and this is what seems to be attempted at present.
Fortunately there have been no reports of vaccine stocks running out on a large scale. True, vaccine ran out in some centers with long lines of people awaiting their turns but this has not been widespread. Colombo’s Mayor Rosy Senanayake has denied a widely distributed social media post that she had submitted a list of names for preferential vaccination at a center at the Colombo Public Library. Her media secretary had said that the mayor had visited that center following these reports and instructed that those using her name be denied vaccination. We cannot comment on the rights and wrongs of these allegations for the simple reason that we do not know. But the professionally tabulated list doing the rounds had several well known names, many of them affluent.
We all know that influence peddling is a fine art that is widely indulged in this country. Nobody did or could complain about front-line health workers, armed forces and police personnel etc. being accorded priority. But senior health official have confirmed that there had been attempts to pressure officials. There have been people armed with numbers who had gone to various vaccination points expecting favours. But those of them we spoke to said that they had to wait hours on line though they were not forthcoming about the origin on the numbers they carried. All that suggests that not everything has been happening above board; but that’s something that we are well used to in this so-called independent, sovereign, democratic, socialist republic of ours.
However that be, there is one area that urgently requires clarification and that relates to age-priority. Different things have been said at different times. The College of Community Physicians had noted that the vaccine prioritization of of the Ministry of Health had deviated from the original plan. Targeting the 30 – 60 age group “had been implemented in a few selected communities and this is a clear deviation from the scientifically agreed prioritization statement in the National Vaccine Deployment Plan.” There has been an explanation that the decision to vaccinate those between 30 and 59 was due to high transmission rate within this age group.
What is necessary is to clear the air on this matter. Obviously communications on this drive is far from satisfactory. People must know what’s what and that part of the act must be urgently put right. General Shavendra Silva who heads the National Operations Center on Covid has said that over 175,000 frontline workers and over 100,000 in high risk areas in the Western Province have been already inoculated. There’s a lot more distance to cover in this province alone, but doing that would mean significantly reducing the national risk. A regular contributor has in an article in this newspaper made a very complimentary reference to his personal experience at Dehiwela. That’s a clear demonstration of the fact that regardless of our penchant of criticizing most things Lankan, there is much that we can do and we have the people to do it.
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