Tuesday 4th October, 2022
Piteous appeals of the victims of last week’s fire that destroyed more than 80 shanties at Thotalanga are still heard. The government has promised relief and alternative accommodation for the poor families in distress. One can only hope that it will not renege on its pledge. Politicians’ promises are said to be like the piecrust; they are made to be broken.
The media is losing interest in the Thotalanga fire and its victims. The same is true for the ordinary people, who take refuge in escapism, unable to face the harsh politico-economic reality. No wonder the Lotus Tower (LT) continues to draw large crowds. Some poor people are said to be pinching and scraping to pay for elevator rides to the tower top and enjoy the panoramic view of the city and the hinterland, therefrom. One of them, a woman from Kurunegala, has said she dipped into her child’s piggybank savings to visit the LT, and got her money’s worth! Another person who visited the tower was so thrilled that he said it was like a trip to heaven! Many others are also in seventh heaven, having seen Sri Pada from the LT. Everybody seems to have missed hell (read urban squalor) for the holy mountain peak, high-rises and other such attractions visible from the LT’s observation deck.
Ironically, it is while people are queuing up to visit the Lotus heaven, as it were, that the Thotalanga fire has shed light on the seamy side of urban life in Colombo, where opulence and abject poverty exist cheek by jowl. But it does not seem to have aroused the public conscience at least briefly.
The gutted houses at Thotalanga were unauthorised structures, according to government officials. Successive governments have been blamed for the glaring urban bias in resources allocation for development. The JVP even coined a pithy slogan to highlight this fact and mobilise the rural youth, in the late 1980s—kolombata kiri, gamata kekiri (‘milk for Colombo and melon for the village’). But the majority of city dwellers are in the same predicament as their rural counterparts; slum and shanty dwellers are said to account for about one half of Colombo’s population. This shows that the majority of urban people have not benefited from the much-publicised development programmes.
There have been only half-hearted attempts by governments to arrest the rapid spread of urban poverty. We have seen some densification schemes, which however have not been effective enough to help arrest the expansion of slums and shanty areas. The yuppification of some parts of the city, frequented by the rich, has taken precedence over plans to solve the urban housing problem.
Politicians do not seem keen to tackle urban poverty and the attendant problems, for it is easy for them to manipulate the poor and muster votes. Instead of making a serious effort to alleviate poverty, they have learnt to benefit therefrom electorally.
The problem of urban poverty, which manifests itself in the expansion of slum and shanty areas cannot be solved, once and for all, without structural transformations and a high economy growth, which will not be possible here in the foreseeable future.
The provision of liveable space for the populace is possible only when a city expands outward, inward and upward in a sustainable manner, according to urban planners. This means horizontal spread, infill development (building on spaces among existing structures), and vertical layering or densification. These are occurring in the wrong way, where Colombo and other urban centres in this country are concerned.
The horizontal spread has been haphazard, and the sprawl has been mainly due to an increase in unauthorised structures on river and canal banks, wetlands, railway lands, etc. The expansion of shanties within the city has apparently passed for infill development. As for vertical layering, there has been little progress.
It is high time a proper urban development plan was worked out for Colombo with the help of real experts in the field. Otherwise, far worse fires than the recent one are bound to happen.
The holy and the unholy
Monday 5th December, 2022
The holier-than-thou frontbenchers of both sides of Parliament have been displaying their knowledge of Buddhism, of late, by quoting extensively from the Sutta Pitaka, the way drunkards use lamp-posts—for support rather than illumination. A discussion on Dhamma in Parliament is like a conference on animal rights at an abattoir, or a talk on chastity in a bordello. Our honourable representatives who are overflowing with religiosity, and moralising, ought to heed some home truths three prominent Buddhist monks have, over the weekend, told about the sorry state of affairs in the country and the politicians responsible for it.
Ven. Kumbalgamuwe Saranapala Thera of the Mutiyangane Raja Maha Viharaya, Badulla, has treated a group of dissident SLPP MPs to a brief lecture on the country’s predicament and what the people think of politicians. There have been media reports that many poor schoolchildren who skip meals faint at school assemblies. The government has sought to downplay the gravity of the situation and, true to form, torn into the media and international organisations for ‘blowing the issue out of proportion’. Saranapala Thera has highlighted the increase in malnutrition among children, and revealed that about 60 students of his temple’s Sunday Dhamma School faint every week due to hunger. He has told the SLPP dissidents that the people are fed up with politicians.
Saranapala Thera has struck a responsive chord with the public suffering in silence. There is a resurgence of anti-politics, which has been defined as the rejection of practices and attitudes associated with traditional politics; it causes public disengagement from mainstream politics. When this happens, people tend to resort to extra-parliamentary methods to articulate their grievances and bring about political changes. The Galle Face protest movement could be considered a manifestation of anti-politics, which is jet fuel for anarchic protests. It is only wishful thinking that the government will be able to quell a wave of protests fuelled by anti-politics with the help of the police and the military!
Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thera has said, over the weekend, that all adult Sri Lankans should tender an apology to the youth and children for having bankrupted the country and ruined the latter’s future. One cannot but agree with him on this score. The blame for what has befallen the country should be apportioned to the elected as well as the electors including Buddhist monks, most of whom are supporters of various political parties responsible for abuse of power, attacks on democracy, bribery, corruption and the theft of public funds. A mere apology to young Sri Lankans will not do. It is incumbent upon the irresponsible adults to clean up the mess they have created. They must sink their political differences and unite to make a concerted effort to get rid of the failed leaders clinging on to power like limpets. That will be half the battle in straightening up the economy and ensuring a better future for the youth and children.
Ven. Ulapane Sumangala Thera, who represents an association that fights for schoolteachers’ rights, has torn into the government for trying to divest profit-making state-owned enterprises such as Sri Lanka Telecom and Sri Lanka Insurance. How does the government propose to meet the revenue shortfall the proposed divestiture of such cash cows will bring about? Will it jack up taxes and tariffs further? Sumangala Thera has rightly likened the government to a drug addict, who is desperate for money and therefore sells anything that he can lay his hands on.
This is an apt description of the cash-strapped regime, which is bent on selling state assets to overcome its current pecuniary woes while its leaders are enjoying high life. Drug addicts do not spare even their own parents. The day may not be far off when we can liken the government to a drug dealer; it is planning to take to drug dealing in all but name. Budget 2023 has proposed the appointment of a committee to explore the possibility of cultivating cannabis, of all things, to earn forex.The country will benefit tremendously if the failed political leaders stop sermonising and listen to what religious leaders preach and mend their ways.
The parliamentary president
Rajan Philips who brightens this page with his incisive and perceptive commentary has today called President Ranil Wickremesinghe a “parliamentary president.” RW, particularly during the ongoing budget debate, has indeed demonstrated this description to be most appropriate. He is a frequent presence in the parliamentary chamber, more so than any of his predecessors. As far as the budget debate goes, the fact that he wears the finance minister’s hat as did two other presidents, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa, makes his presence in the House at this time most welcome. Who else but the finance minister should be present in the House during the budget debate? Basil Rajapaksa’s short tenure at the Treasury set a rank bad example in this regard.
Wickremesinghe, of course, like his uncle JR Jayewardene who created the executive presidency and was the first to wear the twin hats of head of government and head of state, is very much a parliamentary animal. Having had a long innings at the legislature including multiple terms as prime minister since 1977 until his ignominious exit from parliament in August 2020, he welcomes the hurly burly of its chamber without standing aloof in his presidential ivory tower. But JRJ as president or any other was never as frequently present in the parliament chamber as nephew Ranil. JRJ didn’t have to, having never presented a budget during his presidency.
Having long served as finance minister under the old Westminster order, Jayewardene saw no need to cling on to that portfolio, being content to hold the defence ministry, probably a necessity, and a few others largely for convenience. While we do not advocate presidents doubling as finance ministers, we do freely agree that it may be or is a necessity this time round given the unprecedented economic catastrophe the Rajapaksas have plunged our country into. RW, after all, wrote and presented this budget and who better than he to pilot it through the House? Thus his willingness to intervene in the debate is a welcome tradition although whether it will continue in the future remains to be seen.
His recent appearances in the legislature clearly demonstrates his enjoyment of being in the thick of things. Parliamentary watchers would not have missed his entry into the chamber to respond instantly to something he heard being said when he was in his office in the parliament building while the House was in session. We suspect he listens to the budget debate in situ as it were. So much to the good. Of course, as mentioned by our columnist Rajan Philips, it would have been appropriate if he had been more forthcoming in areas on which the people are thirsting for information. These include when the IMF bailout can be expected. There has been speculation that the earliest will be March next year though it had been optimistically forecast earlier that it might be by end December.
Wide open questions on the possibility of debt restructuring also remain. Are electricity consumers, both domestic and industrial, due for a double whammy with a further tariff increase in the short term? Although the petrol and gas queues are gone, there are eerie reports that timely coal procurement for the Norochcholai power plant is not assured. And there is scant comfort about the availability of dollars to keep the filling stations pumping even in the short and medium term. There are also compelling questions on how corruption is being dealt with. Given the surrounding context, the president has made a rank bad nomination to the Constitutional Council whether by choice or compulsion we do not know. Questions abound on whether this is the result of the president being a captive of his pohottuwa constituency. Nobody can be happy about that. RW may well feel that these are questions that can be dealt with by the concerned ministers at the ongoing committee stage of the budget debate. But given that he’s both the president and the finance minister, the people would have expected the big man himself to shed more light on these burning questions.
Sadly the news broke only on Friday that former presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena had spent hundreds of millions of tax rupees maintaining staggering numbers of personal staff. The information, previously withheld by the presidential secretariat, was made public thanks to an order of the Right to Information Commission. The Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) had asked the questions and appealed the non-disclosure. The Daily Mirror reported on Friday that the two former presidents had together guzzled Rs. 1.48 billion on this account – Sirisena beating his predecessor with an expenditure of Rs. 850 million on his staff against MR’s Rs. 630 million. Whether these two former presidents will explain themselves either on the budget debate platform or elsewhere remains to be seen. We are sorry that this news did not break in time for the discussions on the president’s vote in the House. That would have been an opportunity for a searching probe and perhaps responses from those named and shamed.
James Carville, a strategist in President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign against incumbent George H. W. Bush coined the catchphrase “It’s the economy, stupid” which resounded through Clinton’s successful campaign. Here in Sri Lanka right now what matters most is the economy and not enough focus on that has been seen thus far in the budget debate. Hopefully there will be a course correction in the remaining days.
A double whammy
Saturday 3rd December, 2022
The current economic crisis has eclipsed many other serious issues the country is beset with, and among them is the drug menace. President of the Government Medical Officers’ Forum Dr. Rukshan Bellana has made a revelation, which is sure to send a chill down everyone’s spine; drug addiction is on the rise among hospital workers, he has told the media. The majority of these drug addicts are members of the minor staff, and they are involved in drug peddling as well, he has said. There seems to be no shortage of narcotics at government hospitals, where medicinal drugs are in short supply!
An oft-heard complaint in health circles is that minor staff members in the state-run hospitals have become a law unto themselves because they are recruited on the basis of their political connections. Gone are the days when every worker in the state sector was recruited on merit and properly trained, and made to face disciplinary action in case of transgressions. There have been instances where hospital workers even threatened and roughed up their superiors, and politicians intervened to protect the culprits. It is only natural that they use and sell narcotics in hospitals with impunity. The need for these elements to be severely dealt with cannot be overstated.
It is hoped that the Health Ministry will get cracking on ridding the hospital system of narcotics instead of taking action against Dr. Bellana for having exposed drug addiction among health workers. When a doctor released the findings of a survey on malnutrition among children, a few months ago, the health panjandrums took disciplinary action against him!
The narcotic trade seems to have thrived during the past several years. About 80 percent of private bus drivers in Colombo and its suburbs were addicted to drugs, State Minister Dilum Amunugama said, last year. President of the Lanka Private Bus Owners’ Association Gemunu Wijeratne has gone on record as saying that about 50% private bus drivers are addicted to drugs, countrywide, and most of them have graduated from cannabis to ICE (crystal methamphetamine). No wonder they drive like bats out of hell! Drug addiction must be equally high among other heavy vehicle drivers as well. Last year, about 2,490 lives were lost in road accidents, which numbered 2,325, and left 5,263 seriously injured.
A programme to conduct roadside drug testing is to be launched in January, we are told. This is a long-felt need and will help reduce the number of fatal accidents significantly. At present, there is no way drug addicts behind the wheel could be detected although most bus and truck drivers are addicted to narcotics. The police can nab only drunk drivers. State Minister of Transport Lasantha Alagiyawanna has said about 5,000 drug screening devices have been distributed among the police. This is a worthwhile investment.
Worryingly, the drug Mafia has succeeded in spreading its tentacles to schools as well. Education Minister Susil Premajayantha has revealed in Parliament recently that in the current year more than 81 schoolchildren have been sent for drug rehabilitation. The number of students addicted to drugs could be higher, as President of the Ceylon Teachers’ Union Priyantha Fernando has said. The drug menace has not spared even rural schools, according to him. It is against this backdrop that the government’s budget proposal to explore the possibility of cultivating cannabis for export should be viewed.
Who guards the guards? A survey conducted by the police headquarters has revealed that about 37 police personnel are addicted to drugs in the Western Province. The police are expected to conduct similar surveys in other provinces. Needless to say, addicts in uniform are a danger to society and have to be weeded out.
The government has many problems to wrestle with, but it must redouble its efforts to crush the drug Mafia, which is taking advantage of the current political situation, where the police are apparently doing full-time political work, to expand its operations.
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