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Opinion

Gamble of Provincial Council elections at this time

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By Jehan Perera

There are indications that the government is planning to conduct Provincial Council elections in the early part of next year.  It is reported that the cash-strapped government will be providing parliamentarians, who are in charge of district development, with Rs 100 million each to engage in development activities in their electorates.  In addition, former members of Provincial Councils, and local government authority members will also be entitled to substantial monetary resources to do likewise.  If these large sums of money are made available to politicians to spend prior to the election, they could contribute to the thinking that the government is investing in development for better times, ahead despite the hardships of the present. But the cost of this gamble which will include printing money could be high, so there must be other motivations.

The present situation on the ground is hardly propitious to the conduct of elections.  The economy is in deep trouble with foreign exchange reserves threatening to be negative if scheduled foreign loans are repaid on time unless there is a fresh infusion of foreign loans.   Among the several reasons why foreign exchange is scarce is that the government is keeping the foreign exchange rate artificially low instead of letting market forces determine the price.  This is no different from the price controls that the government attempted to place on rice which led to hoarding and artificial scarcities notwithstanding the declaration of a state of emergency to deal with the hoarders.  If the government relaxes the exchange rate it is likely that the foreign exchange rate, will soar and prices of imports will soar likewise, adding to the inflation in the country.

Some of the present day economic problems are beyond the control of the government to resolve. These would include the loss of economic production due to the months of lockdown that followed the rise in Covid spread.  The contribution of the tourism industry to the economy has been much diminished due to the closure of the country’s airports to prevent infection spread from abroad.  However, some of the economic setbacks have been self-inflicted.  The biggest one is the implementation of the chemical-free agriculture policy on a scale that has no precedent in any other country in the world.  Even the most economically advanced countries, such as Germany, where there is a  high demand for organic food, has only devoted around 10 percent of its agricultural land to chemical-free agriculture. And Switzerland, known as one of the cleanest countries in the world, recently rejected the banning of pesticides at a referendum as voters felt it was impractical.

SINGLEMINDED COMMITMENT

The government has so far shown a singular commitment to going ahead with the decision to have chemical-free agriculture.  There has been some concession to big business interests such as in the case of the tea industry. Some of the necessary chemical inputs for fertiliser are being permitted. However, this is an exception and the general rule that agriculture should take place without chemical inputs continues to prevail.   So far there has not been flexibility shown with the farming community who are coming out publicly in protest as they are seeing their harvests being reduced.  These protests are taking place in all parts of the country and in some areas the small farmers have not been planting crops fearing that the yield will be too small. The government has offered compensation but, given the financial crisis it is in, this is unlikely to materialise in the short term.

 The government’s present policy on organic agriculture appears to be following a military logic that sees the objective clearly and goes for it at all costs. One of the key features of democratic governance is that consultations take place with those whose interests are bound up with issues prior to the implementation of change.  These consultations need to take place at multiple levels over a period of time if the decision being made is likely to have major consequences.  Further it is not sufficient to practice tokenism in consultations.  Often consultations take place but the views generated are not heeded.  Those who consult sometimes appear to be listening but do not really listen nor are they willing to change their preconceived attitudes and plans.  The essence of democratic government is to be responsive to public opinion, and to educate public opinion on new measures that need to be taken in the larger interests of society.

 On the positive side, and to the credit of the government, it is providing space for public protests against its policies.  Speaking in New York at the UN General Assembly, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said he had instructed the police not to use batons and violence to break up peaceful protests.  Restraint has been shown in the case of the three-month long strike by government school teachers who continue to be paid their salaries while doing no work.  There were initial signs of harsh restraint when Covid control laws were used to detain some of the teachers who were leading the protests.  At this time these strong arm methods of control have stopped.  Unfortunately, however, the problems that the organic farming problems and teachers’ strike pose show no signs of being resolved through compromise.

 MULTIPLE MOTIVATIONS

There may be multiple motivations in holding Provincial Council elections at the present time.  These elections are already three years overdue.  The previous government failed to conduct the elections fearing that a bad performance would send a negative message to people who were already moving away from it. They changed the election law to make it more difficult to hold elections again. However, unlike the previous government, the present government leadership is made of sterner stuff when it comes to holding elections and winning them. It appears to be planning new strategies to regain the upper hand.  The 2022 budget which is to be presented to Parliament later this month will offer the government an opportunity to address the immediate concerns of voters at least in the short term. They may also see elections at this juncture as being helpful to ensure political authority and benefits for its second tier of leaders who will be satisfied with them at the moment.

 There is also speculation that the government’s sudden decision to conduct Provincial Council elections is the result of pressure from the Indian government. It is notable that the government’s announcement was made shortly after the visit to Sri Lanka of India’s Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla.  At his meeting with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa he had reiterated India’s position regarding the need to fully implement the 13th Amendment and to hold the Provincial Council elections at the earliest. During his visit the Indian Foreign Secretary had also urged the Tamil political parties not to look to India for a solution to their problems but to discuss the issues that trouble them and resolve them in dialogue with the Sri Lankan government.

 In this context, the decision of the government to go ahead with Provincial Councial elections is the silver lining to the grey clouds that overhang the country.  It is an indication that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is being consistent with the pledges he made in New York at the UN General Assembly.  The holding of Provincial Council elections, even in the present disadvantageous political situation that the government is in gives a positive message that the President is not neglecting his promises to the international community with regard to the reconciliation process. Addressing the root causes of the war and bringing reconciliation between the communities needs to be the number one priority of any government.  The provincial council system as presently constituted is in need of improvement, both in terms of the distribution of powers and resources, but it is the way forward if the ethnic and religious minorities are to feel they are a part of governance structures of the country, and hence co-architects of a shared future in which there is national reconciliation.



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Opinion

Send them back to school!

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We are not talking about our children going back to school but about the request made by the Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella to allow parliamentarians to enrol in the Sri Lankan Law College, or any other university, to further their studies. How about the basic qualification to enter university? Talking about the basic qualification we remember there was a talk some time ago about some members who have not got through even their GCE (O)Level, a bare minimum qualification, required even for a peon in a recognised organisation or in government services. We request the Chief Opposition Whip to request, on behalf of these members, to allow them to go back to school, no matter how old they are.

We remember one SAARC member country brought in a regulation saying that all those who come forward to contest a seat in the parliament should possess a university degree and at the submission of nomination the officials detected that nearly 20% of the certificates were fake. Anyway, we are proud that such things are extremely rare in our country.

Finally, I urge Kiriella to include schools, too, for MPs, who need the basic qualifications for university admission.

S. H. MOULANA

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Opinion

Compensate victims of gas explosions

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There is no shortage of hot topics for the media these days, the latest being the unusual occurrence of gas related accidents. Any ordinary person would understand that the present series of accidents are certainly due to the release of newly arrived consignment of gas cylinders whose composition ratio of propane and butane has been altered to maximise profits.

The responsible institutions and authorities as well as some ambidextrous politicians are defending the culprits who deny any change in the gas composition. The special committee appointed by the President to investigate into the matter, seem biased. The other day the public saw (through the TV news footages) that these so-called experts were trying to bully the innocent victims of these accidents, accusing them of the use of worn out hoses and regulators as the main reason for the incidents. Why the hell can’t they figure out the fact that these accidents are all due to the use of the newly bought wrongly filled cylinders. A committee of this nature is useless if its aim is to serve the vested interests. Instead of blaming the victims, one compulsory question they should ask is if the cylinder is newly bought or an old one. It is sad that this Kekille committee of experts is also trying to put the blame on the innocent consumer and defend the businessman.

All that the government should do at this critical hour is to introduce a mechanism to collect the data of the victims of these explosions and pay due compensation to them forthwith at the expense of the concerned gas company. The ministry in charge should also issue an urgent order to the company to recall the return of all these defective gas cylinders distributed to all districts and take immediate action for refilling them with the correct prescription of the chemical composition and issue with a new label giving all required instructions. In the meantime, the Consumer Protection Authority must ensure that accessories like the hoses and regulators, conforming to the SLS standards, are available in the market at least from now on for the safety of the consumers.

M. B. Navarathne

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Opinion

Banks make a killing at depositors’ expense

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The motive of the government decision to lower the interest rates of deposits was predominantly to engross the banks to lend at lower interest rates for entrepreneurs to boost the economy of the country which is in dire straits. However, would this proposal prove productive?

Owing to this absurd stunt senior citizens and pensioners have been left high and dry high and dry, resulting in unprecedented agony and anguish. Many victims have highlighted their grievances on behalf of the distraught senior citizens and pensioners. This much spoken of government’s harsh decision to lower interest rates has made the lives of senior citizen’s and pensioners miserable with the escalating high cost of living, skyrocketing cost of medical expenses, etc. It is pertinent to mention that monthly interest rates on fixed deposits, which they mostly rely upon, have been reduced to alarmingly low 4% and 5 % which has added to the woes already the senior citizens face.

All senior citizens who are not receiving or entitled for a pension, depend solely on monthly fixed deposit interest as the regular source of income for their living. As a result of lowering interest rates of deposits, their plans have all been shattered causing them to be wondering how to make ends meet.At this dire juncture, the intervention of the President is needed to revoke this unreasonable decision of lowering the interest rates of deposits.

The only redress the senior folk benefits is by the Central Bank’s special scheme of 15% interest for senior citizens. However, in this too the senior citizens have been slapped and battered with a Rs 1.5 million ceiling.

In comparison to the reduction of interest rates of deposits, if one takes into account the number of loans granted to entrepreneurs at lower interest rates the answer would be very negligible, particularly as the bank’s do not take risks to lend to entrepreneurs whom they believe to have projects not viable. The banks of course, would show enhanced profits at the end of the year as they have paid the depositors lower interest rates which reflects as plus mark for their balance sheets. This is a blessing in disguise for the management of banks at the receiving end of impoverished pensioners and senior citizens.

In the above contest the intervention of the President Gotabaya Rajapakse is most needed to bring about redress to ‘distressed” senior citizens and pensioners

Sunil Thenabadu

Brisbane, Australia

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