Friday 4th February, 2022
The government has pulled out all the stops to hold the Independence Day celebrations on a grand scale while the country is sinking deeper into crisis. Today, political leaders will arrive at the Independence Square, in their limousines, puff out their chests and sing the national anthem with gusto. There will be a colourful parade with the military flaunting its assets. A fly-past will be the main attraction of the event. Political rhetoric will burst forth. We see this grand show year in year out.
Sri Lanka could hardly afford today’s big show. What is there to be celebrated, anyway? Funds for the ceremony have come from a depleted Treasury struggling to pay for food imports. The country remains underdeveloped and a huge burden on other nations; it borrows from even its developing world counterparts! Essential commodities are in short supply, and many people are skipping meals.
The celebration of ‘Independence’, however, is a time for reflection. Perhaps, the fate of the Trincomalee oil tank farm exemplifies the predicament of post-Independence Sri Lanka better than anything else. In early 1960s, during an SLFP-led administration, we were able to buy this strategically important asset built and owned by the British, but successive governments failed to maintain it, and today a part of it has been leased to India, which has also acquired a sizeable stake in a joint venture to manage the majority of tanks. A UNP government built the Gal Oya reservoir with local funds, but today not even a sewer could be constructed without foreign aid. Instead of rehabilitating ancient irrigation tanks and canals, and building new ones to feed the hungry and achieve national food security, projects are being launched to convert tank bunds into jogging tracks.
The current foreign currency crunch, which has crippled the economy, has come about as successive governments since 1977 have got the country’s investment priorities wrong. There is a tall tower in Colombo City and it is illuminated from time to time as if to glorify the monumental stupidity of our rulers who in their wisdom borrowed heavily from external sources for its construction, not caring how they were going to pay back the loans. The tower, too, is also likely to go under the hammer before long.
There has been no long-term strategy or a sustained effort to develop the economy and achieve the much-needed fiscal consolidation. Instead, vital assets including those built with borrowed funds are being sold or leased to raise funds for debt repayment. As for the debt crisis, the only solution that all governments could think of is to borrow more, and the self-proclaimed patriots who have been at the levers of power have not cared to make a serious attempt to break this vicious circle. They, too, have feathered their nests while wrapping themselves in the flag. It is popularly believed that if they were made to return to the state coffers a fraction of what they have helped themselves to and stashed away in offshore accounts, the country’s financial woes would disappear in next to no time.
Time was when Sri Lanka exchanged its rubber for rice from China, which is today donating rice to help dull pauperised Sri Lankans’ pangs of hunger. There have been some achievement, but, overall, we have lost our way.
The challenge before us is to retrace our steps, figure out where we took wrong turns, and forge ahead in the right direction as many other nations have already done. Easier said than done, but there seems to be no other way.
Failures as pillars
Wednesday 25th May, 2022
Failures are the pillars of the incumbent government. Most of the newly-reappointed ministers have earned notoriety for incompetence and dishonesty. With them as Cabinet members, does the country need any enemies? The resignation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was expected to pave the way for the formation of a multi-party, interim government. But nothing of the sort has happened, and failed politicians are going places, again. Worse, the most important Cabinet post remains vacant; the Finance Minister has not yet been appointed although the economy is in a tailspin—so much for the government’s sense of priority and urgency! The Cabinet is like a third-rate ‘mega’ soap opera that drags on without the title character.
When one says the members of the new Cabinet are incompetent, one does not mean that there are other MPs—in the government or the Opposition—who are equal to the task of steering the country out of the present crisis under their own steam. The holier-than-thou members on both sides of the aisle have failed, albeit to varying degrees, and contributed to the current mess. The less said about the government MPs, the better, and the only thing the Opposition worthies are adept at is backseat driving; they claim to know the way, but cannot drive when they are provided with an opportunity. If so, why are these politicians being urged to sink their differences and form a national unity government?
The best contribution the members of Parliament could make to crisis management is to behave. That way they could help restore political and social order, which is a prerequisite for economic recovery. As long as they are at one another’s jugular, political stability will elude this country, making it impossible to put the economy back on an even keel. The International Monetary Fund, upon which the country is dependent for a bailout package, has expressed serious concern about socio-political upheavals here.
If the political parties co-operate in Parliament for the sake of the people, who are undergoing immense suffering, there will be political stability in the country at large. On 09 May, and the following day, we saw what they were really capable of. Supporters of both the government and the Opposition were involved in the spate of violence that rocked the country. Hence the need for their leaders to cooperate in Parliament, without fanning flames of violence. It is imperative that the government refrain from engineering crossovers from the Opposition, and make a serious effort to secure the support of its political opponents.
It’s fuel pricing formula, stupid!
The present-day rulers used to rake Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera over the coals whenever fuel prices were increased under the yahapalana government. The then Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa even cycled to Parliament when petrol and diesel prices slightly increased. Today, fuel prices have gone into the stratosphere.
The SLPP grandees who made a song and dance about Mangala’s fuel pricing formula tell us that they have adopted the same method to determine fuel prices. They should apologise to Mangala posthumously.
The government says the public will gain from the fuel pricing formula in case of the appreciation of the rupee. It is going to be a long wait!
The Cabinet will revise fuel prices on a monthly basis, according to media reports. One shudders to think what will happen in case of monthly price revisions. Fuel prices will continue to soar, and driving/riding might be a luxury only the super rich can enjoy. The ‘babies’ of the ruling family might be able to turn Colombo into an F1 street circuit without any resistance from the public.
Government boost for GotaGoHome – Phase II
Tuesday 24th May, 2022
The first phase of the campaign for ousting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is over. It has only caused the resignation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the appointment of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as his successor. The President continues to hold office. All the problems that drove the public to stage street protests remain unsolved; in fact, they have worsened, but there has been a let-up in the protest campaign. One sees only unorganised, sporadic protests in some parts of the country.
The Galle Face protest, which started off as an apolitical struggle to dislodge the government and engineer a systemic change, has lost steam, but the forces that propelled it remain active. It was obvious from the very beginning that the core of the Galle Face aragalaya was political, and the fact that the JVP, and the Frontline Socialist Party have been behind the protest is now public knowledge. If ex-UNP MP Prof. Ashu Marasinghe’s admission, in a brief interview with this newspaper, that he had been involved in the Galle Face protest from the beginning is anything to go by, then the UNP, too, has had a hand in it. Does this explain why those who went all out to see the back of PM Rajapaksa float like bees and sting like butterflies, as it were, when they take on PM Wickremesinghe, who has been the main beneficiary of the aragalaya?
On 09 May, an SLPP goon attack on a group of anti-government protesters triggered an explosive release of the pressure build-up in the polity. The spate of violence that ensued ran its course, leaving little pressure for the anti-government forces to tap. The protest campaign against the President is now without much political traction, as a result; it needs a turbo boost, which will come only from another massive pressure build-up, for its Phase II to get underway. Pressure of such a magnitude could result from power cuts, the scarcity of essentials, etc.
All essential commodities are in short supply, but their shortage is not as severe as that of fossil fuels. Rains have lessened the country’s dependence on thermal power generation, albeit temporarily, and power outages are not as bad as they used to be. Cooking gas is also being made available, and it will lower the demand for kerosene. The food shortage is still not so severe as to trigger mass protests.
Pressure needed for the launch of the GotaGoHome protest – Phase II will result from the non-availability of diesel and petrol. The number of vehicles waiting in queues for petrol and diesel is increasing although the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, and Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera insist that there are enough fuel stocks. Filling stations remain closed, most of the time, and not even the ones required to function round the clock are open at night, and, therefore, motorists and motorcyclists have to wait in queues overnight, undergoing tremendous suffering. People struggling to obtain fuel are so resentful that their tempers flare at the drop of a hat and fights break out frequently. The government has, in its wisdom, chosen to close the petrol stations where incidents of violence occur. Thus, it further aggravates the fuel problem and makes the people even more incensed. Public anger can be tapped to fuel the Phase II of the protest campaign against the President. The day may not be far off when people take to the streets in their millions, calling for the resignation of the President, again.
Strangely, no one in the government seems to care to sort out the fuel problem although enough diesel and petrol stocks are said to be available. Hoarding is not the only reason for this situation. Hoarders are having a field day because the fuel distribution network is extremely inefficient. If all filling stations are made to remain open round the clock, at least for a few days, with their supplies being replenished regularly, there will be no need for the people to wait for long hours. If man power is a problem, the Civil Defence Force personnel could be deployed to help dispense fuel.
If the people can be convinced that there is a system in place, and they do not have to spend sleepless nights in their vehicles to obtain fuel, they will not riot, and there will be no panic buying. Is it that a section of the government is advancing a hidden agenda by aggravating the fuel problem?
Fuelling flame of public anger
Monday 23rd May, 2022
Long lines of vehicles are still seen near filling stations in all parts of the country although the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) insists that there is no fuel scarcity. Most people have to wait for long hours to obtain petrol worth about Rs. 6,000 each. They are left with hardly any time for work. Government politicians and state officials keep giving assurances, but the people do not seem to take them seriously.Fuel rationing has not yielded the desired result due to hoarding, which intensifies the supply chain stress. Hoarders must be severely dealt with; mere warnings will not do. The government should seek public assistance to nab hoarders, and those who provide information that leads to arrests should be rewarded.Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera, addressing the media, on Saturday, revealed something that must have sent a chill down the spine of every law-abiding Sri Lankan. He said he had been reliably informed of two recent incidents, where the JVP and the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) interfered with the fuel distribution in the Gampaha and Matara districts, respectively. He said a JVP politician, leading a mob, had stopped the unloading of diesel at a filling station in Weligama, ordering that no diesel be sold unless petrol was available. The students’ outfit had asked a filling station at Kiribathgoda to issue fuel only to the persons it named, the Minister said.
Minister Wijesekera’s claim makes one wonder whether an organised group is all out to disrupt fuel distribution in a bid to stoke public anger to advance a sinister agenda. Let the police and intelligence services be urged to sit up and take notice. The JVP and the IUSF owe an explanation.Minister Wijesekera has warned that the filling stations where workers are roughed up will stop issuing fuel forthwith. There have been many violent incidents where angry customers set upon filling station workers, and action must be taken to prevent violence, and ensure the safety of workers.
Similarly, Minister Wijesekera has to take action against the gas stations where fuel is not dispensed efficiently. Most of them have only one pump attendant each to cater to hundreds, if not thousands, of vehicles. They have no sense of urgency, and seem to derive some perverse pleasure from the suffering of the people waiting in long queues. They must be ordered to minimise delays without provoking the public.
Stale toddy in new pot
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa does not seem keen to steer the country out of the current crisis. Most of the newly-appointed ministers are square pegs in round holes with very serious allegations against them. You cannot win steeplechases with donkeys, can you?
When Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned, it was thought that the President was serious about making a course correction. But he has not been able to extricate himself from the clutches of his family, which continues to promote its interests at the expense of the country. He is at the mercy of the SLPP, which is controlled by his sibling, Basil.The government has succeeded in dividing the SJB and the SLPP dissident group by making some of their members accept Cabinet positions. But wheeling and dealing, and crossovers cannot make a blundering government stable, much less help hoist the country out of the current economic mire. What is needed is a truly multi-party government, and certainly not another SLPP administration with some greedy defectors from the Opposition, in its Cabinet. Unless the President cares to heed public opinion, and put together a team capable of infusing the people with some hope and ameliorating their woes by reviving the economy, he will have to brace himself for the landfall of the second wave of the tsunami of public anger, which will be far more destructive than the first one, which led to the ouster of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaska.
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