Wednesday 21st June, 2023
The ‘Rice Mafia’ has emerged so powerful over the years that it is now running a parallel government of sorts. Wealthy rice millers resort to market manipulations, determine paddy and rice prices and exploit farmers and consumers alike, with impunity. This country is not short of political leaders who talk tough and order crackdowns on protesting workers and students at the drop of a hat, but they unashamedly tug at their forelocks before the powerful rice millers, who have huge slush funds and are known to look after politicians and bankroll election campaigns. Now, the country has come to be troubled by another cartel—the ‘Bread Mafia’, which, too, defies the writ of the state, and exploits the public.
Bread always falls on the buttered side for Sri Lankans. All bakery owners, save a few decent ones, continue to fleece the public by selling bread underweight at unconscionably high prices. A loaf of bread weighing less than 350g sells at prices ranging from Rs. 160 to Rs. 180. It is only in some supermarkets that bread of the right weight (450g) is available, albeit at Rs. 150 a loaf. The Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) does precious little to nab and prosecute the errant bakers. Instead, it is busy conducting raids in search of overpriced eggs.
Bakery owners have decided to reduce bread prices by Rs. 10 at long last. Their association says they have done so in response to a request from Trade Minister Nalin Fernando. One wonders whether Minister Fernando has, on the pretext of helping the public, done the unscrupulous bakers a big favour by asking them to reduce the prices of their products by only Rs. 10. He should have had the cost of producing a loaf of bread estimated properly before asking for a price reduction. There is reason to believe that the prices of all bakery products can be further reduced. In fact, some bakers have been considerate enough to sell bread at Rs. 110 a loaf and slash the prices of other products such as buns; they have said, in interviews with local television channels, that they still earn profits. If so, why can’t other bakers be made to do likewise?
The kind-hearted bakers who have reduced the prices of their products of their own volition for the sake of fellow citizens, many of who are below the breadline, deserve praise.
The retail price of a kilo of wheat flour at Sathosa is Rs. 195, and its wholesale price must be much lower. The prices of sugar, gas, diesel, etc., have also dropped. Besides, the government is utilising public funds to import eggs for bakers at Rs. 35 each. It therefore defies comprehension why bakery owners are allowed to determine bread prices according to their whims and fancies and make huge profits at the expense of consumers.
The Trade Minister vows to get tough with the businesses that fleece the public, but he does not match his words with deeds. When he confronts the greedy bakers, he floats like a bee and stings like a butterfly, so to speak.
There is a correlation between high food prices and social unrest. One may recall that soaring bread prices ignited public anger ahead of the French Revolution. Sri Lankans have voted governments out of power over rice/bread prices. One of the main election promises of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, in 1994, when she became Prime Minister and President in quick succession, was to bring down the price of a loaf of bread to Rs. 3.50 from Rs. 5.00! Last year, irate masses took to the streets, demanding the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa because essentials, especially food items, were in short supply and their prices were extremely high. Hence the incumbent government, which has undertaken to maintain political stability and sort out the economy, had better do everything in its power to ensure that nobody jacks up food prices, thereby creating conditions for another popular uprising. The Central Bank insists that the headline inflation has declined sharply over the past several months, but this drop is not reflected in food prices, which are kept artificially high.
A government that is not capable of protecting the interests of the public against a bunch of bakers is not worth its salt.
Grave diplomatic issue
Thursday 21st September, 2023
The recent killing of a prominent Sikh activist named Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in Canada, has triggered a diplomatic row between Ottawa and New Delhi. Canada lost no time in ordering an Indian diplomat out of the country, accusing India of having had a hand in the assassination. Denying Canada’s allegation, New Delhi reacted with a tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsion.
The so-called great powers have carried out numerous assassinations on foreign soil over the past several decades, with the US and Russia leading the pack. So, it is only natural that the spy outfits of powerful nations become the prime suspects when the people who are hostile to them happen to be murdered in other countries.
The diplomatic fallout of Nijjar’s assassination shows how concerned powerful nations such as Canada and India are about what they consider threats to their sovereignty. In a hard-hitting statement on the expulsion of its diplomat, the Indian External Affairs Ministry said Canada’s allegations sought to ‘shift focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have been provided with shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity’. Referring to Ottawa’s allegation against India, Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly said, “If proven true, this would be a great violation of our sovereignty and of the most basic rule of how countries deal with each other.” (Emphasis added.)
Curiously, going by the Canadian Foreign Minister’s statement, the basis of Ottawa’s angry reaction is a mere allegation that has not been proved yet. Shouldn’t Canada have investigated the allegation against India thoroughly and made an informed conclusion instead of plunging head first into lighting the diplomatic blue touchpaper, as it were?
Whether India had a hand in the assassination at issue, one may not know, but what it has said about Canada stands scrutiny; Canada harbours foreign terrorists of all sorts, and, worse, it allows terror fronts to influence its policies simply because they are capable of delivering block votes and campaign funds to the Canadian political parties and politicians, who are no better than their Sri Lankan counterparts notorious for looking after the interests of lawbreakers in return for votes and campaign funds. This, Canada is doing while claiming to be promoting democracy and human rights globally. Can a country that allows terrorist groups and their fronts to use its soil and institutions to raise funds and drum up international support for violent conflicts in other countries expect the world to buy into its claim of being a champion of democracy?
Meanwhile, the US has called for an investigation into the assassination of the Sikh activist in Canada, according to foreign media reports, but one should not be so naïve as to think that Washington is driven by a genuine desire to get at the truth and ensure that justice is served. While making much-publicised calls for investigations for the consumption of the world, Washington is likely to intervene to reconcile Canada and India, for they are its strategic allies, and it does not want them to be at loggerheads.
The US is no respecter of human lives when it comes to safeguarding its interests. How it handled the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi is a case in point. The US intelligence agencies concluded that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman had approved the killing of Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, in 2018, but Washington did not target Salman with sanctions, financial or otherwise.
India has realised that it is really hurtful to have other countries harbouring terrorist groups who pose a threat to its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Ironically, it once did to Sri Lanka exactly what it has accused Canada of doing at present; it sheltered Sri Lankan terrorists.
If only the great powers heeded the Golden Rule, and did unto others as they would have others do unto them.
House of hypocrites
Wednesday 20th September, 2023
Opposition politicians are making the most of Channel 4’s recent claim that the Easter Sunday attacks were part of a political conspiracy, and the Rajapaksa family and its loyalists in the state intelligence agencies were behind it. They are flogging the issue really hard in a bid to gain political mileage, which they are badly in need of, on the pretext of trying to have justice served for the victims of the carnage.
The past few days have seen the Opposition top guns going ballistic in Parliament, condemning the government and demanding an international investigation into the Easter Sunday terror attacks. Curiously, while calling for a fresh probe, they are demanding that criminal proceedings be instituted against certain individuals on the basis of the recommendations made by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which investigated the Easter Sunday bombings. They find themselves in a contradiction. If they consider the PCoI findings credible enough to be the basis for criminal proceedings or any other form of punitive action against the persons they are hauling over the coals, why should they ask for a fresh probe, international or otherwise?
The Opposition yesterday renewed its call for legal action against Senior DIG Nilantha Jayawardena, who was the Head of the State Intelligence Service at the time of the Easter Sunday attacks. Speaking in Parliament, Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella vehemently protested against a government decision to hold a meeting where Jayawardena was scheduled to brief the MPs on the ongoing investigations into the Easter Sunday attacks. He called for an explanation, condemning the government for having promoted Jayawardena.
The government should have implemented all PCoI recommendations, especially the one that former President Maithripala Sirisena and those who held key positions in the state intelligence agencies at the time of the 2019 terror attacks be prosecuted. But it found itself in a dilemma because Sirisena had closed ranks with the SLPP. It must be regretting its decision not to have him prosecuted because he has welcomed Channel 4’s allegations against the Rajapaksas and called for an investigation thereinto. He seems to consider them credible evidence, which will help prove his innocence! He is trying to wriggle out of trouble at the expense of the Rajapaksas!
The Opposition is right in condemning the government for having promoted the police officers whom the PCoI has asked the Attorney General to prosecute for their failure to prevent the Easter Sunday attacks. But it should not be selective in calling for action against those the PCoI has held accountable. Let the Opposition bigwigs be urged to read at least the pages 470 and 471 of the PCoI’s final report, wherein it is clearly stated that the entire Yahapalana government was accountable for the tragedy. The PCoI has said: “Since 2015 the Government did not give priority to national security … failed to properly appreciate the magnitude of the threat faced by the country due to IS and Islamic extremism and other forms of extremism. This was aggravated by the breakdown in trust between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe …. The dysfunctional Government was a major contributory factor for the events that took place on 21st April 2019. The Government including President Sirisena and Prime Minister [Wickremesinghe] is accountable for the tragedy. (Emphasis added.)
Thus, as we argued in a previous comment, it is clear that all those who were in the Yahapalana Cabinet in 2019 are also accountable for the tragedy, and have no moral right to condemn others. They are currently in the UNP and the SJB.
The SJB MPs, who held Cabinet posts in the Yahapalana government ought to explain why they did not press for criminal action against the police and military officers concerned or an international investigation into the carnage, while they were in power. Equally culpable are those who backed the crumbling Yahapalana government, which neglected national security and did nothing to neutralise threats to the country; they include the JVP and TNA politicians.
Tuesday 19th September, 2023
It is customary to avoid speaking ill of the dead and instead focus on their positive qualities and accomplishments. That may be the reason why those who recently spoke or wrote about the late President J. R. Jayewardene (JRJ), on the occasion if his 117th birth anniversary, paid him glowing tributes and overlooked the dark side of his rule. Prominent among them were President Ranil Wickremesinghe and former Speaker Karu Jaysuriya. The former reportedly went to the extent of claiming that if Sri Lanka had sustained the socio-economic reforms initiated by his uncle, JRJ, it would have been a developed nation today.
We thought all governments since 1977 had followed JRJ’s economic policies. The UNP and the SLFP/the SLPP see eye to eye on economic liberalisation; they are the purveyors of crony capitalism in this country.
The JRJ presidency no doubt served as a catalytic force for economic, political and social change, but it was far from messianic or benevolent. In 1977, JRJ did the right thing, the wrong way on the economic front, paradoxical as it may sound. Dirigisme has become an anachronism in the modern world; it can exist only in a hermit kingdom like North Korea. The Sri Lankan economy had to be opened up in the late 1970s in keeping with emerging global politico-economic realities, but that task should have been carried out cautiously. Instead, JRJ flung the economy open.
JRJ was known for what may be called free market fundamentalism, which led to the ruination of some vital local industries and public enterprises. If only JRJ had cared to cross the river by feeling the stones, as the Chinese say, and heeded the oxymoronic adage, festina lente (‘make haste slowly’). Some economic commentators have traced the origin of Sri Lanka’s debt crisis to the JRJ rule, which led to a sharp increase in external borrowings.
On the political front, JRJ did not scruple to subjugate all democratic institutions to self-interest, and they have not recovered yet. The Constitution he introduced is replete with serious flaws, which have stood the unscrupulous in good stead. He was no respecter of the doctrine of the separation of powers and had the legislature under his thumb and did his damnedest to suppress the judiciary, albeit without much success. He once had the houses of the Supreme Court judges who refused to kowtow to him stoned, and openly shielded the police personnel who blatantly violated the fundamental rights of his political opponents at his behest. Political violence took a turn for the worse on his watch. He started the practice of giving presidential pardons to criminals. Ironically, all those who opposed his dictatorial actions and subsequently had themselves elevated to the executive presidency, which they promised to abolish, have been emulating him.
Curiously, Jayasuriya, who, as the Speaker, intrepidly defended the legislature vis-à-vis President Maithripala Sirisena’s deplorable efforts to wrest control of it, in 2018, and is championing democracy, has spoken highly of JRJ, who reduced Parliament to a mere appendage of the Executive and had barbaric violence unleashed against the Opposition, trade unions, etc.
The SLFP-led United Front government made a mockery of its commitment to democracy, in 1975, by abusing its two-thirds majority to extend the life of Parliament by two years. JRJ went a step ahead and replaced a general election with a heavily rigged referendum. His nephew has overtaken him posthumously! Today, it is the President who decides whether to hold elections!
Blunders that JRJ made were legion. He turned the country’s foreign policy on its head, sought to punch above his weight, and antagonised India in the process. His government also did precious little to stop the anti-Tamil pogrom in 1983; its goons were accused of organising and carrying out savage attacks on Tamil civilians. If JRJ had acted prudently and democratically, respecting the rule of law, perhaps, the country would not have had to fight a protracted terrorist war. He also blundered by falsely blaming the JVP for ethnic violence and proscribing it in 1983. He did so because the JVP had legally challenged the outcome of the referendum, which he used to retain his five-sixths majority in Parliament. The JVP went underground and took up arms again, plunging the country into a bloodbath in the late 1980s. Ironically, the JVP opted for a honeymoon with the UNP about three decades later and propped up the crumbling Yahapalana government; it has proved that politics is all about expediency and not principles.
The JRJ administration was not without some positives. The country is reaping the benefits of the development projects that the JRJ government launched despite criticism thereof in some quarters. It brought about an economic revival, which unfortunately the UNP itself failed to sustain due to corruption, mismanagement and cronyism.
When political leaders are commemorated, their policies and actions should be dispassionately appraised for the benefit of younger generations.
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