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East Container Terminal



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.

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Carnage and boru shows



Thursday 22nd April, 2021

The Opposition MPs attended Parliament, wearing black, yesterday, when the second anniversary of the Easter Sunday terror attacks fell; their ruling party counterparts wore black armbands, instead. Did they do so as a sign of sympathy and condolence, or by way of a political statement? Christians traditionally wear black while in mourning, but when aggressive men who resort to fisticuffs, at the drop of a hat, wear black, they look minatory. How frightening Parliament would have looked if those with a history of throwing projectiles and chilli powder at their political rivals in the House and even threatening the Chair had also been dressed in black?

The members of both sides did not care to behave themselves at least on the day when the country remembered the victims of the Easter Sunday tragedy. They invaded the Well of the House, yesterday, trading obscenities, according to media reports. What a way to remember the dead!

The Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) which probed the Easter Sunday attacks has held the yahapalana government including the President (Maithripala Sirisena) and the Prime Minister (Ranil Wickremesinghe) accountable for the tragedy. Most of the current Opposition MPs were in that administration at the time of the carnage (2019), and, therefore, cannot absolve themselves of the blame for the serious lapses that made the terror strikes possible. The fact that they have left the UNP, which was in power at the time, does not help diminish their culpability.

If the former UNF MPs currently in the Opposition think they can pull the wool over the eyes of the public with the help of gimmicks such as wearing black, they are mistaken. The least they can do to diminish their guilt, if at all, is to tender a public apology for their failure to heed the warnings of attacks and ensure public safety in 2019. Some of the maimed victims have said they have been forgotten, and the former yahapalana MPs are duty bound to take up cudgels for these hapless people they failed to protect.

The government grandees, who made a comeback by flogging the issue of the Easter Sunday terror and promising to punish the perpetrators thereof, also cannot dupe the public by bellowing empty rhetoric and wearing black armbands. They have to fulfil their promise at issue while granting relief to the terror victims. A small girl who suffered injury in the bomb attack on the Zion Church, Batticaloa, on 19 April 2019, is in need of funds to have her eyesight restored. Her family cannot afford the cost of surgery. So, the government MPs ought to reach out and help such victims. Boru shows won’t do.

Most of all, everything possible must be done to ensure that there will be no more terror attacks. There is no guarantee that the country is safe, for the masterminds behind the Easter carnage have not been identified. So long as they are at large, threats will persist and nobody will be safe. The incumbent government is full of politicians who brag that terrorism will not be allowed to raise its ugly head again, on their watch. True, they were instrumental in defeating northern terror, but let them be advised not to be cocky. It is said that terrorists only have to be lucky once, and their targets have to be lucky always.

The general consensus is that the government cannot summon the political moxie to go all out to have the masterminds behind the Easter Sunday attacks traced because it does not want any more problems to contend with on the diplomatic front; it is also accused of having cut secret deals with some politicians with links to extremists to muster a two-thirds majority in Parliament and secure votes at future elections. It will have a hard time trying to prove its critics wrong.

Only a fresh probe into the Easter Sunday tragedy will help find out who handled Zahran and Naufer. If the government fails to reveal the truth, the SLPP will have its MPs occupying the Opposition benches in the next Parliament, fully dressed in black, which, in our book, is the colour of failure and duplicity, where Sri Lankan politicians are concerned.

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April carnage and murky waters



Wednesday 21st April, 2021

A series of near-simultaneous terrorist bombings shocked the country on this day, two years ago. More than 250 persons including children perished in the attacks, which also left hundreds of others injured. It is equally shocking that no one has yet been punished for those heinous crimes and the masterminds behind the attacks have not been identified. The government would have the public believe that an extremist preacher named Naufer masterminded the attacks, but there is no credible evidence to prove its claim. True, Naufer indoctrinated the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) cadres and had some influence over Zahran, who led the suicide bombers, but he, too, is believed to have had a handler.

The Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday attacks, has unearthed some valuable information about the incidents, but much more remains to be done. It has held the then President Maithripala Sirisena and the yahapalana government responsible for the serious security lapses that enabled the NTJ terrorists to strike with ease. It has also recommended legal action against several police and intelligence officers who failed to act on repeated warnings. It should have named the members of the yahapalana Cabinet and recommended that they also be prosecuted.

Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith must have struck a responsive chord with all right-thinking Sri Lankans, on Monday, when he said, some political deals that helped the government secure a two-thirds majority in Parliament for the 20th Amendment may have influenced the outcome of the Easter Sunday carnage probe. ‘He that has an ill name’ is said to be half-hanged; the present-day leaders have earned notoriety for political horse-trading, and it is only natural that they stand accused of having cut secret deals with those with alleged links to the Easter Sunday terrorists.

The government is in a dilemma. Pressure is mounting on it to initiate legal action against Sirisena. The SLFP is likely to pull out of the ruling SLPP coalition if Sirisena is prosecuted; such a breakaway will threaten the stability of the government to a considerable extent and, therefore, the SLPP is not in a position to throw Sirisena to the wolves. How will the government wriggle out of this catch-22 situation?

Legal action can be instituted, on the basis of the PCoI findings and recommendations, against those whose dereliction of duty and criminal negligence helped the NTJ terrorists destroy so many lives, but the country will not be safe unless the real masterminds behind the attacks are traced and dealt with. The PCoI has not dug deep enough in this regard as can be seen from the perfunctory manner in which it has treated the alleged foreign involvement in the Easter Sunday terror attacks. The bulky PCoI report has only eight pages on this vital issue, and the views of key witnesses who suspect a foreign hand have been rejected as mere ipse dixits. These witnesses, according to the PCoI report, are Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, former President Maithripala Sirisena, former Minister Rauff Hakeem, former Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, former Governor Asath Salley, Mujeebur Rahuman, MP, former Director SIS SDIG Nilantha Jayawardene, former Commandant of the STF SDIG M. R. Latiff, former Chief of Defence Staff Admiral (retd.) Ravindra Wijegunaratne, Senior DIG/CID, Ravi Senevirathne (retired) and former CID Director SSP Shani Abeysekera. So, if a fresh probe gets underway to identify the terror masterminds, the aforesaid witnesses will be able to furnish more information.

The Easter Sunday carnage should be investigated from all angles. The PCoI report says Zahran’s original plan was to attack the Kandy Perahera, but it was advanced due to the detection of explosives in Wanathawilluwa, international factors such as the IS losing ground in Syria and Iraq, and Zahran’s fear that he might be apprehended. It needs to be found out whether there was an attempt to use the NTJ terror to trigger a backlash against the Muslim community and drive the Muslims, especially those in the strategically important Eastern Province, into the hands of the separatists, or other such elements bent on destabilising the country.



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The Grim Reaper in overdrive



Tuesday 20th April, 2021

April is the cruellest month, one may say with apologies to T. S. Eliot, on seeing the increase in fatal road accidents during the festive season in this country. During the last five days alone, 52 lives have been lost in road mishaps, and about 670 persons have suffered injuries, according to the police. In fact, the number of deaths due to road accidents averages eight a day, and road fatalities receive media attention only when there happens to be an uptick therein. Not even coronavirus carries off that many—for now, at least.

With an average of 38,000 crashes that cause about 3,000 deaths and 8,000 serious injuries annually, Sri Lanka has the worst road fatality rate among its immediate neighbours in South Asia, a World Bank study has revealed, as we pointed out in a recent comment.

Why this unfortunate situation has come about is known to the authorities tasked with ensuring road safety. The traffic police have identified 25 causes of road accidents, prominent among them being reckless driving, negligence, indiscipline, drivers’ lack of knowledge of road rules and regulations, fatigue, human error, driving under the influence of liquor and drugs, pedestrians’ disregard for road rules and safety measures, poor conditions of vehicles and road infrastructural defects. Other causative factors, identified by independent experts, are an exponential increase in the number of vehicles, irregularities in the process of issuing driving/riding licences and lapses on the part of the traffic police themselves.

Given the sheer number of causes of road mishaps, a multi-pronged strategy and a long-term, holistic approach are needed to tackle them. But it may be possible to contain the problem to a considerable extent if steps are taken urgently to deal with reckless driving, indiscipline, driving under the influence of liquor and drugs, and road infrastructural defects. Last month’s tragic bus accident in Passara shook the country, it killed 14 passengers. The driver of the ill-fated vehicle was responsible for the mishap, but it could have been prevented if the Road Development Authority had cared to remove a boulder that had rolled onto the road, blocking part of it, or at least put up speed breakers and warning signs near the bottleneck. Such issues can be sorted out immediately.

Police deserve praise for taking tough action against drunk drivers. Drunk driving is easy to detect. In most cases, there is no need for even breathalyzer tests. But the problem with narcotic addiction among drivers is that there are no outward signs of impairment. Medical experts inform us that drugs such as cannabis, methylamphetamine and ‘ecstasy’ greatly impair drivers’ ability to control speed and judge distance and hinder coordination. The need for facilities to conduct roadside drug testing to detect narcotic addicts behind the wheel has gone unheeded although many drivers, especially truckers and busmen are hooked on drugs. Bus owners’ associations have been calling for action against drug addicts in the garb of bus crews, but in vain.

Meanwhile, random checks in urban areas to nab drunk drivers have stood suburban liquor bars in good stead because most people patronise these watering holes due to lack of police presence around them. This is something the traffic police should pay attention to. If they step up checks in suburban areas as well, they may be able to net many more drunk drivers, who pose a danger to all road users.

Road accidents are as much of a scourge as the current pandemic; they kill about 1.39 million people around the world annually, according to the World Health Organisation. One is at a loss to understand why there has been no sustained global effort similar to the campaign against COVID-19, to obviate the causes of killer road accidents; this is doubly so for this country where road fatalities outnumber the pandemic-related deaths. It is unfortunate that road traffic deaths get reduced to mere statistics and then forgotten.

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