Sri Lanka heads into the Sinhala and Tamil New Year at a time of difficulty and hardship unprecedented in our contemporary history. Covid 19 has cost us much, as it has cost nearly all countries in the planet. There have been claims that the worst is over and we continue to hope that this is correct. But that is not something that can be said with certainty. However a semblance of normalcy has returned although sections of the community, such as those dependent on tourism, continue to suffer hardship. Nobody can claim that the economy is in good shape with the rupee plunging to a historic low of Rs. 200 to the U.S. dollar. This must reflect both on the import bill and on external debt servicing and repayment. But tea prices remain good and the weather has been fair. While we can take comfort that we have not yet defaulted on our massive debt servicing and repayment obligations, the situation is far from rosy with our ability to raise new loans at interest rates that are not exorbitant declining by the day.
Although the ever-rising cost of living continues to impose hardship on both the poor and the middle class, this has been something that has been always with us for a very long time. Although incomes have grown, prices have grown much faster and we know too well that the value of money is now a fraction of what it was. This has particularly hurt savings and the prevailing low interest rates have dealt a kidney punch to large numbers of retired people dependent on interest income for their livelihood. While grumbling continues, people have learned to cope as best as they can. Despite all the negatives, the rulers continue to project a bold front. But there is no escaping the reality that the government has rapidly lost popularity since the last elections, both presidential and parliamentary.
No ban on New Year travel has been imposed although there are inherent risks, in the covid context, of large numbers of people going home to their villages from crowded urban centers they work in. This has been a long-held tradition and it would be a brave government that would interfere however much prudence dictates otherwise. While most people wear masks while moving around in public places, enforcing social distancing in crowded public transport will be next to impossible. Thus the powers that be have resorted to the easier way of leaving the choice to the good sense of the people rather than enforcing strict rules controlling movement. Although other countries have seen spikes of infection by being lenient on holiday travel, Sri Lanka will hopefully have better luck post avuruddhu.
We run on this page today a contribution from the Pathfinder Foundation of Mr. Milinda Moragoda, our High Commissioner-designate to New Delhi cautioning the government against taking too strong a stance on import substitution – a direction in which it is clearly moving. Given Moragoda’s political orientation, Pathfinder may be seen to be sticking its neck out by advocating a hemin hemin policy. Nobody would reasonably object to government imposing certain import bans to encourage local production as in the recent case of turmeric. There is no debate that we must grow crops that we can rather than import them. But governments must always strike the right balance between the interests of producers and consumers. When Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake pushed a massive food production drive during his 1965-70 government, he used to say at public meetings in agricultural areas that enormous foreign exchange expenditure was being incurred for the import of potatoes that some foreign experts had once-upon-a-time said cannot be economically grown here.
But Welimada farmers disproved them. Thereafter potatoes have been successfully grown even in Jaffna although we have not achieved self-sufficiency. “Why should we pay farmers in potato growing countries for their produce when we can pay that money to our own farmers?,” the prime minister used to ask. “But when we enforce a policy to ensure that our cultivators got the money flowing abroad, our opponents accuse the government of kicking the poor man’s ala hodda.” This was also true of chillies and onions where import substitution policies worked to benefit local farmers although at a cost to consumers. Jaffna farmers garlanding one-time Agriculture Minister Hector Kobbekaduwa with onions and chillies when he ran for president against J.R. Jayewardene was testimony to this policy. But it has not worked as successfully as it might have where local sugar production was concerned. Despite this country being endowed by conditions enabling sugar cane growing, we are nowhere near self-sufficiency although different governments have used tariff barriers to ensure better prices to domestic cane growers. Unfortunately we have a local sugar industry which makes more money out of its potable alcohol byproduct than from its sugar.
We have to be always conscious of the trade balance and cannot forget that Europe and the USA are the biggest markets for our garment industry. The ongoing restrictions on motor vehicle imports has no doubt saved us much foreign exchange but we cannot butter our bread on both sides by adopting one sided trade policies. That there must be give and take is a fact of life and it would be useful for the concerned authorities to take note of the Pathfinder perception that “openness to trade improves the tgrowth, employment and income trajectories of economies.”
Mendicancy, rhetoric and sovereignty
Monday 17th May, 2021
Much is being spoken about Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and independence, these days, owing to the controversial Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill, scheduled to be taken up in Parliament shortly. We are not short of political leaders who never miss an opportunity to wrap themselves in the flag and declare their readiness even to lay down their dear lives for the sake of the country. While this kind display of patriotism is on, the Attorney General’s Department last week inaugurated a training centre and launched an electronic system to trace cases and legal files, as we reported on Saturday. Attorney General Dappula de Livera, PC, has described the project, carried out with US support, as ‘another first in the 136-year history of the AG’s Department’. What have the patriots in both the government and the Opposition been doing all these years? They boast of having made a tremendous contribution to national progress, but the AG’s Department cannot have a training centre and a tracking system set up without foreign help!
US assistance at issue will, no doubt, go a long way towards helping the AG’s Department function efficiently, and should, therefore, be appreciated. But the question is whether the US taxpayer should be made to bear the cost of such projects here while the so-called leaders of Sri Lanka are wasting public funds, amassing wealth and living in clover. Their super luxury vehicle fleets alone have cost the state coffers billions of rupees, and the funds for the entire AG’s Department project could easily have been raised if a couple of their V-8s had been auctioned.
On the other hand, there is no such thing as a free lunch, especially when it comes to financial assistance from countries such as the US and China. Not even commercial loans are free from strings if the constricting aid conditions the internal lending agencies impose on this country are any indication. Hence the need for the State with a bunch of self-declared patriots at the levers of power to bear the costs of vital projects at least in crucial sectors such as justice.
The present-day Sri Lankan leaders, wearing their brand of patriotism on the sleeve, find themselves in a huge contradiction. They condemn the US, at every turn, for meddling with Sri Lanka’s internal affairs and telling them how to handle alleged atrocities during the final phase of Eelam war IV in 2009. They are also opposing the ACSA (Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement) and SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) tooth and nail as a Trojan horse from the US, but they have had no qualms about being servilely dependent on US funds for a project, which, Washington says, will ‘strengthen the ability of justice sector professionals to uphold the rule of law in Sri Lanka’.
Are the Sri Lankan leaders genuinely interested in promoting any project aimed at upholding the rule of law? If the rule of law is ever restored, how can they remain above the law and help the lower-rung lawbreakers, including killers and fraudsters in the garb of MPs, give Justitia the slip? Several rogues have already got away with their crimes by virtue of being in power.
Attorney General de Livera has said the aforesaid US-funded project is a notable, salutary achievement that meets a long-felt need for continuous learning and professional development, and will drive his department ‘from strength to strength’. If only that task had been accomplished with Sri Lanka’s own funds.
Computers used in Parliament have been sponsored by China, whose interests the current government is all out to further, through the Port City Bill, which the Opposition has condemned as a total sell-out. (Will Parliament be able to have the polluted Diyawanna lake around it cleaned without foreign assistance?)
In the House, the MPs often bellow anti-Chinese or anti-American rhetoric with gusto and call for safeguarding the country’s sovereignty and independence! One wonders why on earth these shameless worthies who have taken turns to ruin the economy and line their pockets with public funds should have their clothes on when they go ballistic, berating foreign forces that, they say, are bent on jeopardising the interests of this country.
Unmasked by virus
Saturday 15th May, 2021
Coronavirus has both masked and unmasked the world, paradoxical as it may sound. It has frightened all humans into masking up and laid bare the true nature of global powers. The pandemic situation has somewhat improved in the rich countries, at long last, thanks to aggressive vaccination drives, but Covid-19 is surging in other parts of the world for want of vaccines, resources and proper political leadership, among other things.
International human rights organisations have expressed serious concern about the plight of the voiceless amidst the global health emergency. Amnesty International (AI) has called upon all States to remain focused on protecting the human rights of the marginalised and vulnerable groups at high risk, such as daily wage earners, prisoners, refugees and the internally displaced. Even when there are no health crises, the aforesaid sections of society, especially in the developing world, find themselves at a disadvantage; their voices and grievances go unheeded. They face a double whammy when health crises occur. The interventions of international human rights groups to have the rights and interests of the voiceless safeguarded are, therefore, most welcome. But these influential outfits must also address issues such as the inequitable vaccine distribution in the world, and the developed nations’ vaccine nationalism, which has put paid to the World Health Organization’s efforts to carry out an effective inoculation campaign across the world to achieve global herd immunity, the be-all-and end-all of humankind’s desperate fight against the pandemic.
Coronavirus seems to have iconoclastic tendencies, as it were; it has done to the so-called brand Modi what the entire Indian Opposition has failed to, all these years. Having totally mishandled the pandemic situation, PM Narendra Modi is struggling to shore up his image vis-à-vis the upsurge of Covid-19 and the failure on the part of his government to protect citizens, who are dying in large numbers. Coronavirus also brought the then US President Donald Trump, who thought no end of himself, down a peg or two, and has exposed leaders in several other countries, too, for what they really are––pathetic failures.
The developed world, which has taken upon itself the task of protecting human rights across the world and even bombs developing countries back into the Stone Age purportedly for that purpose, stands exposed for its hypocrisy. It has chosen to ignore the piteous appeals from other pandemic-hit nations for assistance and, worse, hoarded vaccines while tens of thousands of people are dying elsewhere. The pandemic situation in India would not have been so bad if the developed countries had responded to its appeal for jabs or vaccine raw materials.
AI has called upon the international community to fulfil its human rights obligations as regards cooperation and assistance by providing ‘lifesaving medical tools and removing legal uncertainties and barriers that may impede the production and supply of vaccines as the disease continues to ravage the region’. Its concerns and appeals on behalf of the poor nations should be appreciated, but mere words will not do.
The human rights outfits that bludgeon the developing countries at the drop of a hat out to mete out the same treatment to the rich nations that hoard vaccines and, thereby, endanger the lives of people elsewhere. UNICEF has urged the UK to share a part of its vaccine stockpiles with other nations. The US has pledged to part with 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca jab, but its much-advertised promise is far from fulfilled. One main reason why the world is short of vaccine doses is that the rich countries maintain huge stocks thereof. The US does not use the AstraZeneca vaccine, but maintains massive stocks of the jab while other countries such as its Quad partner, India, are crying out for help. Let it be repeated that thousands of lives in India could have been saved if the US had lifted the ban on the export of vaccine raw materials and released the spare vaccine stocks in response to New Delhi’s appeal several weeks ago.
The task before the international human rights organisations such as AI is to crank up pressure on the developed world to respect the most sacred of all human rights—the right to life—by parting with a fraction of its vaccine stockpiles, not as charity but at affordable prices.
Syrup in mouth and egg on face
Friday 14th May, 2021
The incumbent government always finds itself up the creek, so to speak, by trying to delay the inevitable and defend the indefensible. The explosive spread of Covid-19, which has led to the current lockdowns, came about as the ruling politicians played politics with the pandemic prevention measures and baulked at imposing travel restrictions in April. Pressure is now mounting on the government from doctors to impose a quarantine curfew as the pandemic situation is taking a turn for the worse with the death toll increasing rapidly.
As if the current health problems were not enough, some SLPP politicians are trying to justify their campaign to promote the Dhammika peniya as a cure for Covid-19; their efforts have left the government with egg on its face. An expert committee has determined that the shaman’s herbal concoction has no therapeutic value, but State Minister of Indigenous Medicine Promotion, Rural and Ayurvedic Hospitals Development and Community Health, Sisira Jayakody, says he is convinced otherwise!
Most government politicians consider themselves more knowledgeable than doctors. Minister Jayakody cut a very pathetic figure, trying to defend the Dhammika peniya, in a television interview, yesterday. Claiming that the expert committee, which rejected the syrup as useless, had not selected samples thereof properly, he insisted that two physicians at a government hospital had vouched for the efficacy of the concoction and recommended it. He did not name them.
Minister Jayakody took the wily shaman and his peniya to Parliament, of all places, and presented it to Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena himself; Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarchchi took a swig of it at a media briefing, thereby endorsing it to all intents and purposes. Thousands of people from different parts of the country converged on a village, where the shaman sold the syrup at Rs. 10,000 a bottle and made a killing! Those who jostled and shoved to secure the syrup must have contracted Covid-19 and caused the formation of peni clusters across the country. This aspect of the shaman’s syrup has gone unnoticed.
Now that Minister Jayakody has publicly stated that two government doctors conducted clinical trials, as regards the Dhammika peniya, at a state-run hospital and recommended it, it is incumbent upon the Health Ministry to initiate an investigation. These doctors have committed a serious offence by testing the shaman’s syrup on patients, endorsing it and misleading the government and the public.
Let Jayakody be made to name the doctors involved in the fraud. The government must explain why no action has been taken to prevent the shaman from continuing to the public into buying his syrup; he is still selling the concoction. Is it that the government has refrained from taking any action against the shaman because some of its politicians are benefiting from his largesse?
The health authorities are trying their best to prevent people from gathering in large numbers and to make them maintain physical distancing, but large crowds can be seen at vaccination centres, where no physical distancing is maintained. There are complaints of inordinate delays and politicians and their supporters jumping the queue, but nobody in authority seems to care.
A mass vaccination drive is no easy task, given the financial and logistical constraints. The frontline health workers conducting the national vaccination programme are overworked, and some lapses on their part are inevitable. But such problems are aggravated when all the people to be vaccinated in a Grama Niladari division are made to rush to their vaccination centre together and wait.
Why should hundreds of people be asked to gather at vaccination centres and stand in winding queues for many hours, exposed to the scorching sun, rain and, above all, the runaway virus, to receive the jab? People to be inoculated in a particular area can be divided into groups and time slots allocated to them so that all of them do not have to rush and wait for long hours.
The vaccination process should be streamlined for the benefit of the public as well as the health workers who are going beyond the call of duty to save lives. Politicians are another problem; they must be prevented from visiting the vaccination centres and becoming a public nuisance.
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